Saraswathi Rajamani: India’s Teenage Spy
When Mahatma Gandhi was visiting one of the richest Indian families in Rangoon in 1937, the family assembled in the home to meet the Mahatma. He was visiting Burma (now Myanmar) to inspire the people of that country to fight for self-determination and free themselves from British rule.
It was a lengthy introduction, and as each member of the family greeted Gandhi, they noticed that 10-year-old Rajamani was missing. A quick search revealed that the child was in the garden, playing with a toy gun. She was attempting to polish her shooting skills! When Gandhi gently quizzed Rajamani about why she wanted to be a shooter, she shot back, “We shoot and kill looters, don’t we? The British are looting us and I am going to shoot at least one Englishman when I grow up.”
For the fiery Rajamani, it was a sign of things to come.
Burma had been a British colony since 1824 and there were many Indian families from British-India living there. Many of them were wealthy, earning a fortune from the economic opportunities that the country presented.
Rajamani’s family, which hailed from Trichy (present-day Tiruchirappalli) in Tamil Nadu, had moved to Rangoon to escape persecution by the British in India. Her father, a miner, was an ardent supporter of the Indian freedom struggle and donated generously to the cause. His daughter had clearly imbibed the spirit of patriotism from him and carried the mantle with great pride.
If Rajamani had her first tryst with a prominent Indian nationalist leader in 1937, that is Mahatma Gandhi; her second was in 1944, when she met Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. The Independence moment was gathering momentum in India and Bose was in Burma to raise funds for his army of revolutionaries, the Indian National Army (INA).
Bose, and his mission to take up arms against the British, made a deep impression on Rajamani, who would take notes while listening to his speeches on the radio. What tilted the scales for the budding revolutionary was Bose’s famous slogan, “Give me blood and I shall give you freedom”.
Bose arrived in Rangoon on 17th January 1944 to collect funds and recruit volunteers for his INA. Rajamani was only 16 years old then and she wanted to donate all her gold and diamond jewellery to the INA cause two months after Bose’s arrival. But Bose was not willing to accept the donation as she was “too innocent” to take such a drastic step. He visited her home to return her valuables but Rajamani was adamant. Even though her father had made a substantial donation to the INA, she refused to take back her jewellery, saying it was her decision to make. Bose and the young Rajamani argued back and forth, and she obviously impressed the revolutionary leader with her determination and wisdom.
A ‘settlement’ was finally reached, where Rajamani agreed to take back her proposed contribution in return for a promise that she could become a part of the INA. Bose kept his word and appointed Rajamani as a nurse in an INA Dispensary in Rangoon, after getting basic medical training. He also named her ‘Saraswathi’, saying that Lakshmi (Goddess of Wealth) comes and goes but Saraswathi (wisdom) is constant. After that, she was known as ‘Saraswathi Rajamani’.
During her initial days in the INA, Rajamani nursed wounded soldiers but she wanted to do more. One day, she was taken aback to see some civilians meeting British soldiers and exchanging information for money. She relayed this to Bose, who was at the base camp 5 km from Rangoon city.
– Impressed with her acumen and efficiency, Bose recruited Rajamani into the INA’s Rani of Jhansi Regiment, where she received combat and military training along with other female volunteers who were led by Captain Lakshmi Sehgal.
During her training phase, Rajamani befriended another female volunteer named ‘Durga’, who went on to become her partner in an espionage mission that had all the elements of a spy thriller.
As the Azad Hind Fauj was approaching the North-Eastern areas of Imphal & Kohima, the Rani of Jhansi Regiment was sent to Maymyo in Northern Burma, 680 km from Rangoon. Along with other young women, Rajamani and Durga were on a top-secret espionage mission to spy on British soldiers. Both cut their hair and posed as ‘errand boys’ in British military camps and officers’ homes. They were thus able to intercept all kinds of information, including details of troop movement. They forwarded the information they gleaned to their comrades, who then passed it on to Bose.
While doing laundry, polishing shoes and performing routine house-cleaning chores, Rajamani and Durga got their hands on important files and even some weapons. The spies in the network had been given special instructions in the event of capture –the individual who had been nabbed would shoot and create a diversion and the rest would escape.
Rajamani and her colleagues discharged their duties as spies for almost a year and actively contributed to the INA’s progress in its mission. But, one day, while on her way to gather and passing information, Durga was caught, and jailed in a high-security prison. Instead of trying to save her own life, Rajamani decided to try to save her friend. Without wasting any time, the next day, she dressed up as a local Burmese dancing girl and entertained the British authorities in the prison, inside the military camp where Durga had been jailed. There, with the help of her local colleagues, she drugged the drinks with opium, making the soldiers guarding the jail dizzy and thus rescuing Durga.
When the British soldiers stationed outside the prison saw them escape, they shot at the two women. Rajamani took a bullet in her right leg. Since she couldn’t run, she climbed a tree, where she and her colleagues stayed for two days as the British searched for them in vain. When the search was called off, after two days, Rajamani and Durga climbed down and took a local bus to Rangoon. After an eight-hour journey, they reached the INA’s base camp.
The incident left Rajamani with a permanent limp, which she wore like a badge of honour for the rest of her life. She also received a letter from Bose, who praised her bravery. In the letter, he referred to her as the “first Indian woman spy”.
After the Hiroshima & Nagasaki bomb attacks by the Allied forces (August 6-9, 1945), Japan surrendered, thus, putting an end to World War II. The Japanese troops fighting in the East Asian area withdrew and many soldiers and volunteers of the INA, either surrendered, or were captured and some luckily escaped and mingled with the civilian population for escaping from being identified. That same year, a plane carrying Bose allegedly crashed in Taihoku (Taiwan) on 18th March 1945 – his death has been the subject of much debate since. Two years later, India became independent. A decade later, Rajamani and her family returned to India in 1957 and settled in Trichy.
Life was hard from here on as Rajamani, now still only 30 years old, had to struggle to receive a pension from the Indian government. This forced her to move to Chennai, and she subsisted on the money she had received from the sale of her family property in Burma.
It was only in 1971, almost 25 years after Independence, that Rajamani and other former INA members started receiving a pension. But life continued to be difficult and Rajamani, all alone and forgotten, lived a near-destitute life. She lived in a run-down, one-room apartment till 2005, when the Tamil Nadu government allotted her a house along with financial aid, in Royapettah, Chennai.
Despite her dire circumstances, Rajamani continued to cherish the ideals she had lived by while serving in the INA. To a soldier like her, service always came first. So, after the tsunami struck the coast of Tamil Nadu in December 2004, the former revolutionary donated her meager monthly pension to the Tsunami Relief Fund in 2006. In 2008, she donated her uniform and insignia as memorabilia to the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Museum in Cuttack, Odisha.
The fiery revolutionary, who served her country unconditionally, died on 13th January 2018, at the age of 90. Let’s take a moment to salute her courage and her contribution to India’s freedom struggle.