Lt Mamta Mehta/ Photo by Probashi, clicked in 2012
Editors Note: It is not every day that you meet a freedom fighter. It is rare to meet someone who took up arms ready to fight till death to oust an imperial rule. And rarer still is to meet someone who is so humble as to take no credit for her extraordinary exploits and explain it away as call of duty for the motherland. Meet Lt Mamata B Mehta of the Rani Jhansi Regiment of Indian National Army lead by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. It was a stroke of luck for us at Probashi that we could contact Lt Mehta. We wished to do a feature on freedom fighters from the Netaji’s INA and we contacted various freedom fighters’ associations and drew a blank. Captain SS Yadav’s name from INA was mentioned but we were told he is ill and it would not be possible to interview him. We had hit a dead end. We got our big break when as a last ditch effort we contacted the Freedom Fighters’ Cell, Ministry of Home, Govt of India and as luck would have it we were provided the coordinates of Lt Mehta. We were a bit at awe when we telephoned her residence. The confident voice of Lt Mehta replied at the other end. We introduced ourselves, and to our surprise in chaste Bangla she asked “Bangla Jano” (do you know Bengali). On us replying in the affirmative, the conversation continued in Bangla. We were overwhelmed and overawed to talk to a woman who had taken up the gun under Netaji’s command to challenge the British fighting machine. We requested if we could meet and interview her. She suggested that we may instead do a feature on Netaji. Her logic was simple - she and all those associated with INA were product of Netaji’s vision, individually they were nothing. We requested that through her we would like to know Netaji better, and to this suggestion she agreed to be interviewed. It was indeed an honour for us and a life time opportunity to meet this brave .elegant and humble lady. Now 86 years of age - her sharp memory, confident demeanour and a sense of humour floored us. Truly on meeting her, the gain was completely ours.(The interview was conducted by Sudipto Sengupta and Amit Mukherji in 2012 for Probashi print magazine)
You joined the Rani Jhansi Regiment when you were barely 16 years of age. Please tell us about your childhood and the circumstances which shaped up you’re joining the INA.
Netaji inspecting the turnout of the Rani Jhansi troops. In 1943, Subhash Bose under the Azad Hind Fauz set up a unique regiment comprising entirely of Indian women and named it Rani Jhansi Regiment. This was probably the only exclusive women combat regiment in the world after the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death (raised during World War I). These women were not nurses or doctors, but were soldiers trained to fight the British army with guns as a regular army regiment. This regiment and its brave members remain largely forgotten in the annals of Indian Independence movement.
I joined INA when I was two month short of turning sixteen. Since sixteen was the minimum age for joining, I lied, adding two months to my age at my own discretion. I was desperate to be a part of Netaji’s dream. I am a Bengali. hail My paternal side hail from Mymensingh in present Bangladesh. My maternal side had migrated to Burma several generations ago and were engaged both in service and businesses there. My maternal side were members of the Brahmo Samaj,academics and proficiency in fine arts like music and dance was given high preference for both the boys and the girls in the family. My father was posted to Rangoon, where during a function at the Brahmoghar, he was impressed with the singing of my mother Neelima Sen (maiden name) and proposed marriage. After marriage my parents settled in a house just across the road from my maternal grandfather’s house at Inasein District, Yangon. I was the eldest of my six siblings and all of us would spend most of our time at my maternal grandfather’s house. The liberal atmosphere in that house rubbed on us and gave a sense of independence and nationalisticspirit. My maternal aunt Protima Sen was the first in the family to join the Netaji’s Rani Jhansi Regiment in Burma in response to Netaji’s call. She was given responsibility by Netaji to recruit more girls from Burma into the INA. My father was also to later leave the British Government job and joined the INA as its official photographer. Though my mother died when I was only ten, I inherited the legacy of music for which I will be eternally grateful to her. I did my schooling at Bengali Academy,Yangon, which I had to leave when I joined the INA. In a nutshell the liberal and nationalistic atmosphere in my maternal grandfather’s house where we were brought up had a profound impact on me, and was instrumental in me joining the INA.
How did joining the INA happen?
I told you, my maternal aunt (maashi) had joined the Rani Jhansi Regiment in response to the call of Netaji. The whole family had supported her decision. She was held in high regard and somewhere in my sub conscious I wanted to emulate Protima Mashi. She was in charge of recruitment of girls to the Rani Jhansi regiment. I clamoured with Protima Mashi to allow me to join the INA, my family was supportive. I was always a tomboy, which probably made it easy for Protima Mashi to recommend me.
You said your family fully supported your joining the INA at a young age of sixteen. Those were different times, gender roles were rather strict, and there were far too many restrictions for women in those days than now.
Yes that is true. I was very good at singing and dancing, and when Uday Shankar troupe visited Rangoon, I was offered a position in his troupe. I would have visited the world, but my family did not allow. You may find it surprising that the same family allowed their daughter into a more potentially dangerous vocation in the INA. The only reason was Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. He had given all the expatriate Indian community in Malaya, Singapore and Burma a worthy cause to fight. His personal charisma was astounding and one would implicitly trust him and believe that fighting and winning against the British imperial fighting machine was possible. And mind you,
for my generation living outside India, India was just a concept heard from our parents and relatives. That we were Indians and had a duty to fight for her cause was spurred by Netaji. Families responded by sending their sons and daughters to the INA, as if paying their debts to their motherland. He inspired, a generation to live for the country and if required to die for it. Those were phenomenal times, difficult to imagine for those who have been born in a free country.
Your family was relatively more progressive having adopted the Brahmo Samaj ideals, but the bulk of Rani Jhansi Regiment was made up by girls who came from working class backgrounds. A sizeable were from the worker families in rubber plantations from Malaya. Why did they join?
I believe in one universal principal - each human being wants to do something worthwhile. However many of us either do not get the opportunity or do not have the right guidance when such an opportunity comes knocking. Netaji filled that role. Here for the first time someone believed Indian woman can fight in armed combat if given a chance. Women felt that they have should not let Netaji down, and stand by his belief. It is the mothers who in most instances were instrumental in sending their daughters to INA. There were many instances when mothers used to bring their daughters to the Rani Jhansi recruitment office, and when told that their daughter were ineligible mostly due to being underage, the mothers would offer themselves for recruitment. Some of them would insist that even if they are not found good enough for wielding the gun or military training they can cook and clean and do other chores- do their bit for Indian Independence howsoever small may that be. Don’t you think it is something phenomenal? Families sent their daughters because they trustedNetaji, and were ready to place their daughters under his custody. Netaji remained for us a father figure, whom we trusted blindly and were ready to walk into fire if he so ordered.
So here was this girl barely sixteen just inducted into the prestigious Rani Jhansi Regiment of the INA. How was the first day at the INA?
My hair was cut short, given two sets of uniform and I had to take an oath of allegiance to the INA. Of course they would not hand us a gun on the first day. In the coming days our training started, which was quite tough
So how did this girl brought up in a privileged household cope with the rigours of military training?
We were given a wide range of training, with an eye that we one day would be fighting a real battle. We underwent military and combat training with drills, route marches as well as weapons training in Sten gun, Bren gun, Machine gun, hand grenades, and bayonet charges. We were also trained in operating anti aircraft guns. Our standard issue guns had large recoil which our shoulders had to sustain when we fired. Bayonet charge onto a sand bag was energy sapping, and so were the route marches through jungle terrain on limited rations. And we were always reminded that this training was for a battle where life and death would depend on how well we trained. The margin for error in the battlefield is nil. How and from where the strength came I do not know. Maybe when your action has a purpose, which is larger than your own self, God does his bit to help you. And you know when things used to get really tough, we would say to ourselves, we cannot let Netaji down, we cannot let INA down, we cannot let India down!
Did you ever get to meet Netaji?
Oh! yes twice. Each of the meetings was a lesson on the greatness of Netaji and the depth of his character. First it was in 1943, if I remember correctly. Some of the girls including me were to put up a cultural show called the India Show at Jubilee hall, Rangoon. We used to regularly practice. Since I could sing well; I was Radha in a dance drama on Radha Krishna. Netaji would drop in once a while to see us rehearse. He was a perfectionist and if INA was putting up a cultural show, it better be good. While normal rehearsals were in the barracks, the dress rehearsal was to be at Jubilee hall. On our way back from Jubilee Hall, our horse carriage was to traverse the University Avenue on which the Bungalow of Netaji was located. Curiosity gets the better of the cat as they say, that is what exactly happened to us. On our way back, we a bunch of seven trainees in uniform urged the horse cart driver to go faster, our destination being the University Avenue Bungalow of Netaji. We wanted to have a look from outside. Egged on by us, the horse cart (Tom Tom) was rolling fast. Suddenly the bungalow loomed large, and 7 girls in chorus cried out STOP! The poor driver, unnerved pulled the reins suddenly and in the process disturbed some law of physics. The carriage toppled and we along with the horseman were sprawled on the street. Only the horse somehow held his feet. We brushed ourselves, got up and were embarrassed at the commotion we had created. The guards from Netaji’s bungalow rushed out. Netaji saw the whole scene and sent instructions for us to be ushered in. Like seven school girls whose prank has been caught by the principal, we entered the house and were lined up in a room with a long table with plates laid out. Obviously an important meeting was to take place. And up the stairs was standing Netaji, his face with the usual grim studied look. All seven of us froze in salute. He beckoned us to come up. And then something happened which stunned us, he looked at me and said “Babla (my nickname) did you get hurt” and “Karuna there is a nick on your arm”. Here was this man, who was about to wage a war with the world’s largest colonial power, rattling off names of some inconsequential trainees in his army. Netaji had noted our names during his visit to our rehearsals. Eye for detail was a keynote of his leadership style. On his enquiry we sheepishly told him the reason of our mishap. He with awave of his hand asked us to go ahead and have a look of the house. With trembling feet we peeked into his living quarter which was a simple room, with a camp cot, some books and one almirah. The bolder amongst us, opened the almirah and inside were Netaji’s three military uniforms, in the corner of the room lay two army boots. That was all worldly possessions of Netaji that we could find. Our exploration over, Netaji asked us to wash our hands and join him and his guests for lunch. After washing our hands, we did not have the temerity to use Netaji’s towel hanging near the washbasin. This was out of reverence for him, our handkerchiefs sufficed. There were a number of important looking people on the lunch table, which also accommodated seven nervous girls. Soon another crisis was staring at us. The girl sitting next to me whispered that she had never in her life used a fork and knife to eat. I could only reassure her that there is always a first time. All of us were nervous sitting amongst such important people. Suddenly a finger bowl arrived; Netaji had noticed the discomfiture of the girl and ordered for the finger bowl. And then to further reassure her, he himself also ate with his hands. This was leadership at its best I thought- the Chief of an Army standing by a trainee soldier. Lunch over we were dismissed and the discussion on the table continued on probably important military and political strategy. Back at our barracks our camp commanders Mrs Chandran and adjutant Protima Sen were worried on us getting late. On arrival we recollected our story, it spread like wild fire and the whole night was spent telling and retelling our meeting with Netaji. As I recall these vivid snippets, I wonder Netaji could have easily dismissed us without giving us an audience. That he acknowledged us, remembered our names, empathised with us in his own silent manner- it was a privilege for us. Tell me who will not be ready to die for such a leader.
Do tell us about your second encounter with Netaji.
One night I was the guard commander of the night guards at our camp. On routine patrol, I suddenly heard the shrill voice of the guard manning the main gates calling out “Halt”. I rushed, and opened the slip gate to check, and there stood Netaji with 4-5 commanders of the INA. As per our training manual, I asked Netaji for his access password, without which admission into the camp was to be denied. Netaji made an apologetic face and replied that he did not know the password. As per our manual, I was to restrain such a visitor from forcible entry and await my superior officers to take charge. That is exactly what I did-I cocked my rifle and pointed the bayonet fitted muzzle at Netaji’s chest. My legs were shaking, but I did not allow my nervousness to show. Netaji remained calm and his companions were too nonplussed to react. It was quite a sight, one of the junior most in the INA stood her ground with a gun pointed at Netaji, the Commander in Chief of the largest Indian Army. One of the guards sprinted to the camp commander’s barrack and came back with the password and the message that Netaji is expected. I cannot tell you what relief it was for me to put down the gun. A nagging fear of the repercussions bothered me. Had I exceeded my brief, will I get fired. Netaji called for me and said he was proud that I had imbibed the training well and followed the manual completely. He congratulated our trainers too. Does not reverence for such a man come automatically?
When did you get your commission in the INA?
It was few months before the INA was to be dissolved, I became a lieutenant in the INA. When the Rani Jhansi Regiment got disbanded we all were gifted a sari and were escorted back by INA commanders to our homes. A receipt of safe delivery of their daughter was obtained from our parents. This receipt note was to be delivered to Netaji. Netaji himself escorted the Malayan contingent to Thailand, and then to Malaysia. He could have taken a car, but he preferred to walk,as a commander who is with his soldiers in thick and thin.
Once you were back home after the Jhansi regiment was disbanded, was it back to normal life?
Not really, we were relentlessly questioned about Netaji’s whereabouts and INA records by the British intelligence. All my personal photographs and diaries were confiscated. To every question that I was asked, I only spoke of Netaji’s ideology, frustrating the British interrogators.
We are to understand that another great man influenced your life, do tell us about it.
This I do not generally talk about, but yes Mahatma Gandhi gave me very good advice at one point in my life and thankfully I heeded his counsel. The story so goes- My husband BC Mehta more popularly known as Baghubhai, had proposed marriage to me after our regiment had got disbanded. To this suggestion of BC , I had refused since I wanted to study further. BC was the grandson of illustrious Dr.PJ Mehta, and was a liaison officer in the INA reporting directly to Netaji. His two sisters were fellow soldiers in the Rani Jhansi regiment and they would write about me in their letters home. I was quite good in dance and singing and this was lucidly explained in the letters by the Mehta sisters, sometime adding flattering adjectives from their side. BC had read the letters and he also
happened to see me during the INA days. As I mentioned earlier BC was the grandson of Dr, PJ Mehta, who had been a lifelong friend of Ghandhiji. Dr PJ Mehta, a medical doctor had been one of the first acquaintances of the Mahatma when he had gone to England to study law in his younger days. That friendship had endured. Dr PJ Mehta had shifted to Rangoon and had done exceedingly well in business, mostly in diamond trade and shipping with a personal fleet of 3 ships. The Mehta family had donated Manu Bhawan in Bombay to the national cause where now the Gandhi Museum stands. PJ was the first man who had recognised Gandhi as a national leader and had convinced him to come to India from South Africa, having taken guarantee for defraying all his living expenses. Naturally the Mehta family was very close to Gandhiji. After the Rani Jhansi Regiment was disbanded and the dust had settled down, I came over to Calcutta towards the end of 1946. It so happened that the Indian National Congress was organising a convention in Calcutta and some Rani Jhansi soldiers were invited (including me). At that time Gandhiji was in Calcutta on his way to Noakhali. Mehta family put in a word with the Mahatma that BC wanted to marry a girl who was in the INA, the girl however was not relenting - could the Mahatma help? Mahatma sent in a word that he wanted to talk to me. There I was in front of him- I could feel the charisma and the aura of this great man. He asked me in a gentle tone– “Are you against marriage?” to which I said “No”,. The next question was “do you have someone whom you would like to marry?” to which I responded in the negative. Then he asked then why was I not ready for marriage to which I replied that I wanted to study further. Mahatma then came to the point, “Baghubhai wants to marry you, I know the family well, Baghubhai is a nice young man, and I stand guarantee that your education will continue should you consider marriage”. Mahatma was gentle there was not even a tinge of any pressure, but he had such a personality that you cannot say no to him easily. I said yes, and I am thankful that I did so. BC was such a nice husband. And Mahatma was god sent in a way. It was sometime later that the marriage was solemnised. I was 22 and BC 26. Yes I have been lucky that two of the greatest men India has produced in recent times touched my life and that too so early and so completely. I can only say it was God’s blessing.
So after marriage you stayed in Rangoon.
Yes my husband owned the largest car repair garage in Rangoon. Monetarily I must say we were well off. I had a brilliant set of friends, including mother of Aung San Suu Kyi. I have seen Suu Kyi as a little girl. However in 1963, a wave of nationalisation happened in Burma; all our businesses were taken over by the government. Overnight we were in dire straits. And during that time BC died, and I was left with two sons to take care. I migrated to India and reached Calcutta and lived with my two boys at the house of my maternal uncle at Ballygunj locality. On the eve of my departure from Rangoon my last dinner in the city, which I so much loved, was hosted by Aun San Suu Kyi’s mother.
Those days must have been difficult.
Yes, those days were difficult. I had a basic college degree, and no skills for the job market. My maternal uncle suggested that I learn typing and shorthand. And I did so and learnt fast, not because I was smart, but because I had this need to start to earn for me and my children. My first job was with the engineering firm Guest Keen Williams at their head office in Shakespeare Sarani. I was the front office manager or more commonly the receptionist.
Were you not bitter at the turn of fate?
Well as they say along with the sunshine, it’s got to rain sometimes. Things could have gone worse. I had seen the best, and there were no regrets. Military training teaches you to fight the odds. Loss of economic status is not big, loss of principles,courage and zeal is what poverty is all about. At Guest Keen Williams many people used to drop in for jobs and since I was at the reception, I was the first person they would meet. Most of the times we had no vacancies, but I would take the CVs and then would place phone calls to nearby offices enquiring of job opportunities. Guest Keen name would open doors for me and also for prospective candidates. I was running a not for profit placement cell. I could get many young men good jobs. I felt good doing this.
How did Delhi happen?
Well I worked for some years in Kolkata. In 1967, the Guest Keen office shifted to Howrah. It was difficult for me to commute from my house in Dhakuria. My sister in Delhi helped me secure a job in Sudan Embassy in Delhi. I shifted to Delhi and subsequently worked in a number of embassies and then shifted to Oberoi Hotels in an administrative job. During my stint with Oberois, I would stand at my office window from where I would get a panoramic view of Delhi Public School, Mathura Road located right across Oberoi Hotel. I liked watching the children play in the playground. One day I walked across the road and enquired for a job, and soon I was working in the administrative section of DPS. I worked there for fifteen years and retired from there.
What an extraordinary journey. Any message you want us to carry for our readers.
I am 86, my generation has done its bit, I would not say we been perfect, but we did deliver a free nation. Somewhere as a nation, we have failed to consolidate this freedom and have not delivered to our potential. But still I am positive about the future, because while we did fail in many sectors, we did succeed in a few also. It’s now turn of your generation to be role models for the coming generations. Nowadays I teach(volunteer) a bunch of kids. In their smile I see hope, in their inquisitiveness I see path breaking inventions, in their song I hear the anthem of life and in their energy I see Olympic champions. It is easy to live for you own self, for a change think what you are giving back to the country and to the society. This was also the greatest ideal of Netaji- the ability to look beyond personal gain.