Laxmi Panda-Soldier Of Untold Miseries
Countless ordinary Indians have made sacrifices for the country’s freedom. Our Independence was won due to the gruelling efforts of this silent army that trudged difficult paths and endured hardships, without a thought for praise or reward. As our glorious nation celebrates its 64th Independence anniversary, very few of these foot soldiers are still alive. Nearly all of that generation have died out. The living are old, ailing, distressed, lonely, and very, very disillusioned.
One such is the story of Laxmi Indira Panda, who died on October 6, 2008, facing a life afflicted with myriad miseries. She was among the countless Indians who fought for the country’s freedom. Laxmi Panda was one of the youngest members of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA), and the only Oriya woman to have enlisted in it. Laxmi Panda’s parents were labourers make working for the railways by the Japanese in Burma. They were killed in a British air raid, and the young girl and her even younger brother were orphaned. The siblings were mute witnesses of the death of their parents. The determination to avenge their death made them go to the nearby
INA camp where they begged for enrolment in the rank and file. The frail Laxmi was hardly thirteen years old, but her determination melted the hearts of the INA leaders. She was taken in the Rani Jhansi Regiment under Captain Lakshmi Sehgal. The young Laxmi soon proved her mettle and won the hearts of her superiors.
Netaji personally gave her a new name “Indira” to avoid confusion over her name her with the far more famous Lakshmi (Captain Lakshmi Sehgal ). Netaji told her that in the INA she would be henceforth known as Indira, and this name struck.
Six months of intensive arms training in Burma shaped her into readiness for the onward march to the battlefield on the India-Burma border. Laxmi had vivid memories of the war time incidents of travelling by railway flat cars, the trenches and dugouts, the bombing sorties and the Japanese compatriots who fought alongside her. She was also sent on spying missions across enemy lines as she was well versant with the Burmese language.
Netaji had instructed her regiment to break into groups of 150 to move out of Rangoon when the INA was retreating. Laxmi was in the second group that was led by Janaki Thevar and had a rough retreat—their train was bombed and the women had to walk to Bangkok. It took 26 days of night marches braving bombs and machineguns firing at them.
After the Japanese surrender, the young Laxmi, who was in Singapore, sailed back to India in a tramp steamer. At Chittagong harbour, the British secret police arrested all the INA soldiers, and Laxmi threw all her papers, medals and her INA uniform overboard. She too was arrested, but seeing her frail health and young age, the let her go.
Laxmi went back to Burma, but she found that she was an alien there. Finding no one of her kin there, the young girl made her way back to Orissa, the home of her parents, a place that she had never seen, but only heard of. Most of the journey from Burma was on foot, however she remembers coming to Berhampur and with the help of a few INA veterans got accommodation and work. She married another INA soldier Khageswar Panda in 1951. Her husband got a job as a driver in Hirakud, and the next few years were spent happily. Her troubles began after her husband died in 1976. Left all alone with an alcoholic son, she had to work as a domestic servant, a day labourer and a store attendant, for a pittance to eke out a living.
She petitioned the government to be accorded the status of a freedom fighter, but her appeal was lost in the bureaucratic wrangles and red tapism. She was finally accorded a pittance of Rs 200 per month which was over the years enhanced to Rs 1000. However, the freedom fighter status was denied to her by the central government despite several INA veterans, including Captain Lakshmi Sehgal corroborating her role in the INA. The fact that she has never been to jail was a lacunae. The British Secret Service agents, who let the frail young girl go free from Chittagong harbour, did her a grave injustice. Had she been arrested, she would have been given a pension of at least Rs 15000 per month, enough to meet her medical needs and keeping her alcoholic son’s extended family maintained.
Her cause was taken up by Anil Dhir, a researcher who was working on the role of the INA in the Indian freedom struggle. While studying the papers at the Netaji Research Bureau in Kolkata, he came across the name of Laxmi Panda in many instances. Anil made enquiries and found out that she was an Oriya lady whose deeds in the INA had been unacknowledged. Anil returned to Bhubaneswar, and tried to seek her out. He travelled to many places in Orissa where the last remnants of Netaji’s army were still alive. However, he could not find her. He then made enquiries from the Freedom Fighter Pension Section at the state secretariat and found that her pension was being credited in a bank
account at Jeypore in Koraput.
Anil went to Jeypore and found out that the lady used to come to draw her pension in the first week of every month, but in spite of waiting for days, he could not trace her. After a lot of enquiries he finally traced her she was living in a small hut in a slum along with her son and his family. The oneroom brokendown shanty was home for a family of ten. She had been languishing in this slum for years, stricken with poverty and ill health, but even this little comfort had been snatched away from her. Her alcoholic son had thrown her out, and this proud icon now had to spend her days and nights at different places, thanks to a few kindhearted benevolent persons.
Moved by her plight, Anil wanted to extend whatever financial help he could in his capacity, but the proud and valiant lady refused to take anything. She wanted her dues from the nation, not from any individual. After nearly half a dozen trips to Jeypore, Anil befriended the old woman. She opened up to him and told him all about her experiences in the INA. Anil wrote to the Chief Minister of Orissa and met the Collector and other government officials but to no avail. The old lady just did not have any papers to prove her role in the INA. Anil brought her to Bhubaneswar, and accompanied her to knock on the doors of the powers that be, but could not make any headway. It was a disillusioned and broken Laxmi Panda who went back to Jeypore.
This little frail fighter did not have much fight left in her. She planned her last battle, deciding to wrap herself in the national flag and immolate herself in front of the Collectorate at Jeypore. She had informed the Superintendent of Police about her plans, and when Anil came to know of it, he rushed to Jeypore and convinced her to give up such thoughts. He brought her along and kept her with him in his home at Bhubaneswar.
Anil took it upon himself that he would anyhow get Laxmi Panda her dues. He delved deep into the history of the INA and a sixmonth quest which took him all over the country convinced him that Laxmi was one unsung freedom fighter whose role in freedom struggle should be acknowledged. He travelled to places as far away as Port Blair, Chennai, Aizwal, Amritsar and Kanpur and met the few surviving INA women fighters. He studied the papers and records at the Netaji Research Bureau in Kolkatta, the INA Museum at the Red Fort at Delhi, the INA Association and the National Archives. He collected all the information he could on the Rani Jhansi Regiment and was surprised when he even came across Laxmi Panda’s photographs of the war years. He got written testimonies from INA members, including one from Laxmi Sehgal, who clearly remembered Laxmi Panda as the youngest member of her regiment.
In June 2008, Anil prepared a bulky dossier which he submitted to the Chief Minister’s office in Bhubaneswar. But once again it was a dead end. The frustrated Anil then sought the help of the media, who carried Laxmi’s story far and wide. Anil sent two copies of the dossier, one each to the President and the Prime Minister of India.
He wrote to the President and that the nation owed Laxmi Panda her due. To the Prime Minister, Anil wrote: “Chalo Delhi” was the clarion call given by Netaji to his fighters. The dream of unfurling the tricolour at the ramparts of the Red Fort was what had driven his army to fight in the inhospitable jungle conditions of Burma. Laxmi Panda wanted to go to Delhi to honour the allegiance and promise that she had made to Netaji. Please fulfil her dream, Independence Day is next month, you shall be unfurling the national colours at the Red Fort, why not have Laxmi Panda there too?
The President of India responded within a week, so did the Prime Minister. Anil accompanied her to Delhi, where the President of India gave her a personal hearing. Laxmi Panda told the President her story of a lifelong struggle. The ADC to the President told Anil that he would have a five-minute audience with the President, but so touched was the First Lady that the meeting went on for an hour. A visibly-moved Pratibha Devisingh Patil asked Laxmi what she wanted. “Give me my dues” Laxmi Panda replied, confer the Rashtriya Swatantra Sainik Samman to me’. She declined the financial assistance that the President offered; it was not for money that she had made this long journey. The President of India promised Laxmi Panda that she would look into her matter and commended Anil for his efforts.
On the 15th of August 2008, Laxmi Panda was at the ramparts of the Red Fort, as a personal guest of the Prime Minister and she stood up and saluted the tricolour as it fluttered on the Red Fort. Her “Chalo Delhi” came a good 63 years late, but she did make it her last stand.
Laxmi returned to Bhubaneswar, a much happier person. The media broke her story in Delhi and she was engulfed by attention from many quarters. She decided to stay with her foster son Anil, whose family had now adopted this old lady. She found the warmth love and affection that was denied to her all her life and did not want anything more. She even asked Anil to return the money that was pouring in from distant places.
Anil took her back to Jeypore for one last time. The citizens of Jeypore wanted her in their midst, especially after her recognition and she did not want to disappoint them. Anil left her with the promise that he would come to take her back after a week, but communal tension broke out in early September. Orissa was wrecked by communal riots after the murder of Swami Laknanmananda in Kandhamal. Laxmi was staying with a Christian family in Jeypore, and tried her best to make people see sense. On the 20th of September she suffered a stroke. Anil brought to Cuttack but her condition deteriorated. Anil knew that this was her last battle. A desperate Anil wrote to the President’s office reminding her of the promise and telling her that the old lady was dying and it would soon be too late.
On the 26th of September, 2008, the President of India conferred the honour of Rashtriya Swatantra Sainik Samman on Laxmi Panda, as she lay in coma at the SCB Medical College in Cuttack. The state government finally woke up and made arrangements to send her to the AIIMS in Delhi. But, Laxmi Panda died on the morning of the 6th October. Her body was brought back to Bhubaneswar and she was accorded full state honours.
For Anil, meeting Laxmi Panda, talking with her for many hours, sharing her experiences, holding her hand during her sickness, seeing the smile that was bought about by the small pleasures in her life—all these have affected and touched him deeply. In a sense, it has changed him to a great extent. Laxmi Panda spent hours reliving her experiences, which Anil has carefully kept a record of. He intends to write a book on her, but then has second thoughts, as most of which was told by Laxmi Panda has not been told before. The dark side of the jungle war, the Japanese treachery, the difficulties faced by the young women of the INA, Anil says that his exposes would make the halos around quite a few of our revered leaders vanish.
Post Laxmi Panda, Anil feels about those hollow and empty lives that most of us lead, chasing dreams which we know are only a chimera, a mirage that is seen but never reached. The race for achieving personal success, measured only in the financial package, has dehumanised us to an extent where fellow feelings, brotherhood, empathy and sympathy have all but disappeared. It is only when you delve into the world of another human being to extent where you can feel his pain, anguish, despair and sorrow, that you realises how lucky or fortunate you are.
By Murali Manohar Sharma