Lt Rama Mehta: Joined Netaji’s INA at 17, Tourist Guide Post Independence; An Interview
Lt Rama Mehta Khandwala! She is a freedom fighter. She was the Second Lieutenant, Platoon Commander, and also Guard of Honor in Azad Hind Fauz (INA). She had joined the INA at the age of 17 as an ordinary sepoy in 1943. She also worked as a nurse, treating and taking care of battle-wounded soldiers of Azad Hind Fauz. After Independence, she was offered a post in Congress by Sardar Vallabbhai Patel, which she refused. She chose to be a tourist guide. She worked for 50 plus years in this capacity. She is India’s oldest tourist guide. She was honored with the ‘Best Tourist Guide’ Award in 2017 conferred by President Ramnath Kovind at the National Tourism Awards. She is also a speaker; delivered a TEDx talk in 2019. Lt Rama Mehta Khandwala has been serving the nation since the age of 17. She is 94 and she is still serving Bharat Mata.
Netaji Bose’s motivating speech ‘Tum mujhe khoon do me tumhe azadi dunga’ inspired many Indians settled abroad to join the fight for the freedom of India. And it was after listening to Netaji’s speech in Rangoon that Rama Mehta immediately joined the Azad Hind Fauz.
Netaji Bose had escaped from India in 1940, at the age of 43. After three years he reached Japan and organized the INA. From here he toured around the neighboring countries including Thailand, Burma, Singapore and more regions seeking help from Indians settled there and motivating them to join the INA and fight for the freedom of India. Netaji Bose managed to raise a huge army of 75,000 soldiers (according to few accounts it is 60,000 soldiers). Many Indians donated in cash and kind. He established the Provisional Government of Free India, i.e. Azad Hind Govt. in Singapore on 21 October 1943. Its army was the Azad Hind Fauj. He allied with the Axis powers and his cause was funded by Imperial Japan monetarily, militarily and politically. It was recognized by 11 countries including Russia.
After this alliance with Japan, the Azad Hind Fauz won several battles to victory in the Northeast. They hoisted the National Flag in the Andamans and Manipur. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose appointed Poswuyi Swuro DB as the 1st Administrator of the Azad Hind Govt. at Ruzazho village in Nagaland in 1944. Bose stayed at Ruzazho village for 9 days in 1944.
After Japan surrendered on 15th August 1945, Azad Hind Fauz’s support of Japan ended. By then 26,000 Azad Hind Fauz soldiers died in action for the freedom of India. Japan saw no other option than to surrender, as nuclear bombing of Nagashaki and Hiroshima by US on 6th and 9th August had already paralyzed the island country and not surrendering would have led to further bombings which could have had a devastating effect. With Japan’s withdrawal, its support to the Azad Hind Fauz ended. Many INA soldiers were taken as prisoners of war. And the INA operations stopped. Later after the British tried INA soldiers in Red Fort (famous as INA trials), Indian soldiers in the Army, Navy revolted in large numbers, which ultimately forced the British to leave India. There are several documentary evidences that prove INA trials that triggered another 1857 type revolt led to India’s freedom. Clement Attlee, who was the British Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951 had said Gandhi’s role in Indian freedom struggle was minimal.
Here is an excerpt of an interview of Lt Rama Mehta Khandwala taken by Manoshi Sinha (author, speaker, independent journalist, and independent researcher on Indian History and Archaeology) for myindiamyglory.com.
Manoshi Sinha: Please tell us about your journey in Azad Hind Fauz.
Lt Rama Mehta Khandwala: I was born in Rangoon, Burma on December 1st 1926. I was a student in school then when World War II happened. Subhash Chandra Bose had arrived in this part of Asia and organized the Indian National Army (INA) – the Azad Hind Fauz, garnering supporters from Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and more countries, starting with Japan. He also established the Rani Jhansi Regiment for women soldiers. Dr. Lakshmi Sehgal was the head of the women’s wing.
Around 1000 women joined the Rani Jhansi Regiment in Rangoon then. I and my sister Neelam Mehta joined too. It was 1943. I was then 17 years old. My mother Major Leelavati Mehta joined as a Recruiting Officer. She was also entrusted to seek and collect donations for the Azad Hind Fauz. We were seven siblings; three of our elder sisters were then already married. One of our brothers was involved in errands to and from India for the Azad Hind Fauz. My sister-in-law Lt. Rama Mehta was also a soldier in Azad Hind Fauz.
We underwent training for around 8 months. We learnt the use of sten guns, machine guns, rifles and other war weapons. We attended lectures on warfare and involved in mock practices. I also underwent training of a nurse for treating wounded soldiers of Azad Hind Fauz in the frontline. I had worked for a brief period in Myanmar in the hospital in the frontline. We were given uniform and good food. All of us had the same food. In the mornings, we often used to have boiled chana.
Those who cleared the training well and performed well were promoted. I joined as an ordinary sepoy. Owing to my skills and performance I was promoted to second lieutenant, platoon commander, and also Guard of Honor.
As Guards of Honor, we were present in most of the meetings and gatherings where Netaji delivered talks. ‘Give me blood and I will give you freedom’ – this famous statement of Netaji inspired and motivated many Indians settled in Asia to join the fight for freedom of India. Another slogan by Netaji Bose – ‘Chalo Dilli’ further motivated us all to fight against the British and march towards Delhi.
We had the full military and also financial support of Japan in our fight for independence. After Japan lost in the war, it withdrew support of INA. We had to stop our operations. Netaji sent us all to Rangoon from the camps. It was 1945.
Manoshi Sinha: Your inspiration behind joining the Azad Hind Fauz at such a young age.
Lt Rama Mehta Khandwala: I wanted to do something for my country. I wanted to participate in the fight for the freedom of our motherland. Patriotism and love for India runs in our family veins. My family members have been freedom fighters. My grandfather donated huge amount of money to Mahatma Gandhi for India’s freedom. He was Gandhi’s very good friend.
Most of the leaders like Gandhi, Nehru visited our home when they came to Rangoon. The atmosphere in Rangoon was already charged up with many Indians settled there ready to join the fight for India’s independence. And then Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose came. And many of us joined the Azad Hind Fauz.
Manoshi Sinha: Your mother Major Leelavati Mehta collected donations for the Azad Hind Fauz. Did she face any challenge in collecting funds or donations in kind?
Lt Rama Mehta Khandwala: Indians settled in Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Burma, Thailand and more countries of Asia not only donated in cash and kind but also many joined the Azad Hind Fauz as soldiers. They were all ready to sacrifice their lives to free India. My mother was based in Rangoon and she travelled across these countries to collect the donations and to encourage people to join as soldiers.
Organizing a huge army of 75000 soldiers is no easy task. But Netaji Bose did it. And my mother also played an active role in increasing the strength of Azad Hind Fauz.
Manoshi Sinha: How did the idea about forming the Rani Jhansi Regiment crop up in Netaji’s mind?
Lt Rama Mehta Khandwala: Netaji Bose opined that women should not be left behind. They should also come forward and play an active role in fighting for India’s freedom. He believed in ‘Nari Shakti’, in women power and women empowerment. Yes women can also dare and do – Netaji had said. That’s how the Rani Jhansi Regiment came into existence.
All women recruited in this wing were aggressively trained following Netaji’s guidance. And Netaji was very strict in terms of the safety and security of women soldiers. He ensured that we always remained safe and regularly inquired about our health and well being. We were not allowed to move out at certain hours. We followed a disciplined life in the camps. Netaji took good care of us. Once in a week he used to visit our camps and we all used to sing the national song together.
Netaji also advised and suggested that in battle the women wing would be commissioned at the frontline only when the need arose. First the men would be fighting at the frontline. But we served in the frontline hospitals treating and taking care of the battle-wounded Azad Hind Fauz soldiers. Such was the spirit and josh in the wounded soldiers that they would request us to hurry up so that they would return fast to the battlefield and continue fighting. I still remember how one Azad Hind Fauz soldier lost a leg in battle and he was all ready to go back fast to the frontline to resume fighting. That was how sons of Bharat Mata were ready to sacrifice their lives for Her freedom.
At times, the hospitals used to be filled up with many wounded soldiers and we did not even have time to have food. And due to unfavorable ambiance conditions, many of our wounded soldiers died of malaria. Also the badly wounded soldiers attained martyrdom in the hospitals.
Manoshi Sinha: Your description of and views on Netaji Bose.
Lt Rama Mehta Khandwala: Netaji was a dynamic leader. I have never in my life seen someone so patriotic and so much in love for the motherland. He was so full of ‘josh’. He used to tell us all, “You are here to fight for our country’s freedom. You are here ready to sacrifice your lives for the cause. Together we can do it.”
Netaji treated everyone equally. He used to wake up early. He loved singing. He hummed Bengali tunes most of the time. He is dynamic, but also a human being like us all. I heard him sing several times. In Hindi he used to sing ‘Kadam kadam barhaye jaa’ individually and also with us.
Netaji was married when he was steering the Azad Hind Fauz. It was a love marriage with his secretary Emilie Schenkl in Germany. But while organizing and fighting for the country’s freedom, he did not utter anything about her. I came across few of his love letters addressed to his beloved. Most of the content of these letters were more about familiarizing Emilie Schenkl about Hinduism and Hindu culture. I have written about this in my book Jai Hind. The letters are published in this book.
They have a daughter Anita Bose, who is now married. She often visits India with her children. Emilie Schenkl never visited India. She wanted to visit India with Netaji. And her wish remained unfulfilled.
Manoshi Sinha: Please tell us a few words about your personal interaction with Netaji Bose.
Lt Rama Mehta Khandwala: I interacted with Netaji Bose many times. All of the women soldiers of Rani Jhansi Regiment did all types of duties on a rotation basis in the camps. This included cooking, cleaning, guarding, etc. The camp where I was stationed was spread across seven acres. Once I was allotted the job of a sentry of guarding the 7-acre camp. I strolled around at night within the camp premise with my rifle. Suddenly I slipped in a hole in the dark and I was badly injured in the leg. I was hospitalized for few days. During those days, in our camp hospital, there was no penicillin or antibiotics. It was only dressing of wounds and applying medicine.
Netaji Bose came to meet me in the hospital. I cried at the very sight of him. He said to me “Now the war for the freedom of India has not started yet. You will be there in the frontline fighting. If you start crying like this how will you fight? Be bold and be brave. Do not cry. Just think about attaining our country’s freedom.” These words motivated me and filled me with so much josh that I forgot my pain. And I felt the more determined to be ready to fight for the freedom of my country.
As Guards of Honor, I and my fellow soldiers used to stand for over three hours at a stretch when Netaji Bose delivered talks in meetings and gatherings. Once the meeting was over Netaji Bose used to come and ask us, “Everything alright? Have you had tea and snacks? Are you facing any problems?” He cared for all of us a lot.
The very remembrance of Netaji Bose brings tears to my eyes always and also keeps me motivated. I will never ever forget my Azad Hind Fauz days.
Manoshi Sinha: Netaji Bose spoke in which language?
Lt Rama Mehta Khandwala: Netaji spoke mostly in Hindi. He also spoke in English. He encouraged non-Hindi speaking Indians of the Azad Hind Fauz to learn Hindi. He taught Hindi to most of the Indian soldiers of Azad Hind Fauz from Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, Singapore and other regions of Asia. Training happened in Hindi too.
Manoshi Sinha: I have read and also heard that after Independence the Azad Hind Fauz soldiers were not inducted into the Indian Army at the orders of Nehru. Is it true?
Lt Rama Mehta Khandwala: Yes. Politics have spoiled everything. Nehru did not like Subhash Chandra Bose and Azad Hind Fauz. Had Sardar Patel been the Prime Minister instead of Nehru, India would have been a better nation today. Mahatma Gandhi liked Nehru, so he facilitated Nehru’s prime ministership sidelining Sardar Patel though the majority wanted Patel to hold the post.
Nehru did nothing for the surviving Azad Hind Fauz soldiers. Later, Shahnawaz Khan joined politics and became Railway Minister. He was from the Azad Hind Fauz. It was under his initiative that few of the INA soldiers started getting pension.
Manoshi Sinha: Did we gain freedom by Ahimsa of Mohandas Gandhi?
Lt Rama Mehta Khandwala: This is what I have been telling that it was because of the sacrifice of so many freedom fighters that we got freedom. Netaji Bose and the Azad Hind Fauz soldiers played an instrumental role in attaining freedom. It is politics that has let the wrong narrative spread.
Netaji Bose did so much for the freedom of the country but he did not get the recognition and honor he deserved. At the national level, Netaji is hardly celebrated except in small meetings and gatherings in few places across the country by Netaji fans like us. I would like to appeal that the song of Azad Hind Fauz – ‘Kadam kadam barhaye jaa’ should also be included as a national song.
Manoshi Sinha: Please tell us about your journey as a tourist guide after Independence.
Lt Rama Mehta Khandwala: After independence Sardar Patel met me in Mumbai. He wanted to know from me in detail about Netaji Bose, the INA, and the Rani Jhansi Regiment. We talked for over two hours. Sardar Patel offered me a post, asking me to join the Congress. I refused the offer. Because I never liked politics.
I chose to become a tourist guide. I worked as a tour guide for 50 years. I have also trained tourist guides. I always tell them, “Always put the country first. Never do anything against the country. Never put the country’s name at stake. You should always do things that would bring name to our country. And for this you need to work hard and do everything what is right. We should always feel proud of our country.”
As a tourist guide, I also used to narrate the historicity of the sites. At times I used to narrate about Netaji and Azad Hind Fauz. I guide more of tourists from Japan. And most tourists from Japan prefer me to be their tourist guide. I have a good name in the Japanese circle. I have received a number of letters of appreciation. As a tour guide, I was considered an asset.
I am now aged 94. I have worked till the age of 92. I deliver talks on Netaji and Azad Hind Fauz at places where I am invited. I can also deliver talk or give training on weapons used during our days and compare the same with that of the present used in the Indian Army.
Manoshi Sinha: Your views on Indian History portrayed in our history textbooks.
Lt Rama Mehta Khandwala: It is all a result of politics that we don’t get to read about true history in our history textbooks. Even Narendra Modi had praised and recognized the role played by Netaji Bose and the Azad Hind Fauz. But this is not there in the textbooks.
Today the situation is very bad. What will children who watch cartoon channels and spend time on mobile phones learn about History? Situation should change for the better.
Manoshi Sinha: Your views about Netaji Bose’s death mystery.
Lt Rama Mehta Khandwala: Netaji Bose died in a plane crash. This is the truth. There has been investigations that prove this. Col Habibur Rehman was with him when the plane crash happened. Rehman survived the crash. Few Japanese officers, who were in the plane, succumbed to injuries. Netaji Bose was seated in the front and the place where he sat caught fire. He survived for some time.
I had a one-to-one meeting with Col Habibur Rehman in Kolkata on the occasion of Netaji’s birth anniversary many years later. He narrated to me the complete incident of the plane crash. He said he tried a lot to save Netaji Bose and rushed him to a hospital in Taiwan. The doctors there subjected him to various life-saving treatments but in vain. He succumbed to the burn injuries. He was then taken to Japan where he was cremated. The ashes were then kept preserved in a temple.
I have visited that temple in Japan and paid my homage to the noble soul. Prayers are offered to the ashes regularly. Every year his birth anniversary is celebrated there. The Japanese hold meeting around August annually; I participated in one of these meetings held in front of the temple. Dr Lakshmi Sehgal and more INA veterans also attended the meeting.
But a controversy has erupted around Netaji’s death. There have been counter narratives too, which has created confusion. Now whom to believe and which narrative to believe! Even the PM of our country is not taking any initiative towards this. If DNA of the ashes is tested, a revolution might break out because the truth will come out. And there is a big question mark on whether the truth will be revealed or not or what the truth is.
We had discussed the issue about the controversy around Netaji’s death at the meeting in Japan. Only counted few generals who were part of the INA survive now. At the meeting they said the death mystery should be solved and the ashes be taken to India during their lifetime. They also said that as long as they were alive they would continue to take care of the ashes, but what after that? The newer generation is hardly interested in it. They suggested that a memorial of Netaji be built in Kolkata and the ashes be preserved there. They even said they were ready to bear the costs of building the memorial and bearing the transportation costs of shifting the ashes to the site. Sadly no one dares to bring the ashes to India. Can’t say what will happen next.
Manoshi Sinha: Your message to readers.
Lt Rama Mehta Khandwala: Please also think and do something for the country. We all do everything for the self, for the family. We should also dedicate ourselves for the country too. I feel so sad that not many citizens think for the nation. Only a counted few people cannot bring glory to a nation. It has to be a collective effort.
Many political leaders have looted the country and created vast wealth for themselves. There are counted few leaders who are honest, transparent, and work for the benefit of nation. We have attained freedom since long, but real work for the country has only started now.
Please do not get swayed by ‘divide and rule’ policy adopted by political leaders. When we were in the Azad Hind Fauz, Netaji taught us one thing thus – ‘Bharat is our country and we are Bharatiyas. Address or introduce yourself as a Bharatiya, not as Gujarati, Bengali, Punjabi, etc.’
And it is also an appeal for control of anger, as anger does more harm than good.
Manoshi Sinha: Any appeal to the government?
Lt Rama Mehta Khandwala: The pension amount we receive is very meager. It is not sufficient to meet the cost of our medicines and meet other basic necessities of life at this old age. I would like to request the government to increase our pension amount. We are only a counted few freedom fighters surviving today and I hope the government can do this for us all.
Image courtesy: Shubham Sharma (great grandson of Maj KP Sharma, who led a mass revolt against British in Jabalpur following INA trials in Red Fort; Subham’s forefathers were in Azad Hind Fauz. His Tatuji was Col Dhillon who was tried in Red Fort, famous as INA Trials). This interview is facilitated by Subham Sharma.