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Saraswathi Rajamani – The youngest Indian woman spy – Celebrating seventy-five years of Independence – 3

Namaste! Here is the third story in the series of ‘Azaadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ – Celebrating seventy-five years of Independence.

This bit of history which I came across very recently, left me with a great feeling of sadness – sadness, as the brave-heart in question had been very much alive till four years ago, but lived in ignominy and destitution for most part of her life, as many other heroes and heroines of the Indian Independence movement have. This is something we can never forgive ourselves for.

The lady of the story is the first and youngest woman spy of India – Saraswathi Rajamani.

Born in 1927 at Rangoon, Rajamani, as she was named at birth, was the daughter of a very rich businessman who belonged to Tiruchirappalli. Her father Ramanathan, had like many others migrated to Rangoon in Burma. At the time when India was struggling for independence, Burma, the present- day Myanmar was hustling and bustling with lot of business opportunities. This prompted many Indians to go to Rangoon (now Yangon) and operate from there.

Rajamani’s father was one such businessman who migrated and settled in Rangoon. He was in the mining business and owned gold and tungsten mines and so one can imagine what a rich family Rajamani’s was.

Burma used to be a part of “Akhand Bharat” in ancient days till it became a British Colony in 1824. Therefore, the Burmese had a lot of goodwill for Indians and that was also one of the reasons for Indians settling there. Rajamani’s family, though at Rangoon, held Bharat Mata dear to their hearts and Rajamani’s father often used to donate large sums of money for the cause of the freedom movement.

The whole family were devoted to Gandhiji’s ideals.

When Rajamani was ten years old, Gandhiji visited Rangoon and visited Rajamani’s family (since her father used to contribute large sums for the cause of Independence). The whole family were welcoming Gandhiji in the porch of their house but little Rajamani was missing.

Gandhiji also joined them to search for her and as he walked into the huge garden at the back of their mansion, he saw the little girl hold a toy gun in her hand, practising to aim at a target. When he asked why she was practising shooting, she said, without battling an eyelid “To shoot the British of course!”

A shocked Gandhiji stopped the child and advised her against being violent. He told her that violence was not the way to gain independence.

Though Rajamani temporarily put the gun behind her, she asked herself, “How does one deal with a robber if one’s house is looted? British are looting my country and so I will treat them just as one treats the robbers in one’s house”. And as Gandhiji went back into the house, she resumed her shooting practice. For her, clearly, non-violence was not the way to independence.

When Rajamani was a year or two older, she started keeping track of the Independence movement by reading the newspapers regularly and listening to the news on the radio. Not many owned a radio or could afford newspapers, and these were the perks she enjoyed being born in a rich, liberal family. And slowly, Rajamani came to know about Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. His ideology of fighting back, with arms and giving the British a taste of their own medicine resonated very much with her ideas. His fiery speeches aroused the patriotic fervor in her.

She started collecting all photos of Netaji which appeared in the newspapers along with articles on him. She made notes whenever she heard his speeches on the radio. She yearned to be a part of Netaji’s movement.

Soon Netaji made a visit to Rangoon in January 1944 appealing to the Indian community living there for the cause of Indian National Army (INA) for which he needed volunteers and money. There was a camp set up where people could go and donate money. Many people including Rajamani’s father gave huge donations.

However, the person collecting the funds had the greatest shock of his life when a young Rajamani gave him a velvet bag containing gold, diamond and jade bangles and necklaces and earrings which could easily be worth lakhs in those days. The fund collector took down her name and address.

Rajamani attended school that day and, in the evening, when she went home, she had a pleasant shock. Her father was conversing with none other than Netaji over a cup of tea. Netaji, who had been apprised of Rajamani’s donation of jewels, had come to return it to her father as he thought she had given it away naively, without his permission.

The moment her father mentioned this to Rajamani, she became furious and pushed the bag towards Netaji and said, “These are my jewels and I do not need to ask my father’s permission to give these and I will not accept what has been given away once”.  Rajamani’s father was also smiling as if to acknowledge what she was saying.

Netaji tried his level best to convince her, especially since her father had also given lot of money in donation and finally Rajamani put forth one condition. “If you should let me join the INA, I will take these back”

Netaji smiled. “Yes, I will let you,” said he. “Lakshmi (meaning wealth) comes and goes but when Saraswathi (wisdom) comes to a person she stays put with them. That Saraswathi is with you and has bestowed you with so much wisdom. So, I will call you Saraswathi Rajamani”. And from then, the name Saraswathi stuck to her.

Saraswathi initially joined the INA as a nurse. The second world war was raging and the British (part of Allies) had taken a stance against Japanese (part of Axis powers) and were destroying Japanese properties and men everywhere. Saraswathi was given training and was fully into nursing wounded soldiers. But she was not satisfied. She wanted to be on the field and enjoy the thrill of risking her life every single moment.

One day, as she was staring out of the window, she saw something unusual. Some civilians were going over secretly to a British soldier and information was being exchanged for money.

Saraswathi felt weird about these clandestine exchanges. It occurred to her that something was not right surely. She went straight to Netaji who was at the base camp five kilometers away in Rangoon and reported what she saw. Netaji got the matter investigated and found that it was indeed true, and the British were being informed of the Japanese movements enabling them to attack the Japanese.

Now Netaji, realising her shrewdness and acumen, wanted Saraswathi and four of her friends to become spies for the INA. The girls who were barely sixteen were excited, though their parents were not, since this was an extremely dangerous job.

The girls were inducted into the Rani Jhansi Regiment headed by Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan (Sehgal) and were given rigorous military training including, running, climbing and other physical exercises. They were also trained in using different kinds of guns. They were sent to Maymyo, about 700 kms from Rangoon.

Their hair was trimmed to a boy-cut. Dressed up like boys and in disguise, they posed as helpers or errand boys and were sent to the houses of the British officers and the military camps. Rajamani named herself ‘Mani’ on this mission.

They went about doing jobs of cleaning their houses and the gardens, polishing shoes, removing garbage, laundry and such odd jobs. However, their eyes and ears were always alert as to what was being spoken or discussed by the officers. Whenever they intercepted valuable information, they passed it on through the informants to Netaji. They had to be extremely careful in their mission to not get caught. They had also been coached that in the event of being caught, the individual who was caught should shoot and the others should escape in the confusion.

We can well imagine the minds of the anxious parents of the girls who would not have been even aware where the girls were!!

One day however, unfortunately, Saraswathi’s friend Durga got caught by the British. She was thrown into the jail. Saraswathi came to know of it but contrary to the instruction to escape, she was determined to set her friend free. She went into the prison in a Burmese attire with the straw cap and all, along with a Burmese servant pretending to clean the prison. As the jailor went to chat with another jailor carelessly leaving the key behind, Saraswathi mixed a bit of opium in his drinking water and opened the door of the prison and both of them escaped. They started running and this was discovered after some lag (due to the opium water). The jailors gave them a hot chase.

The girls ran and ran as fast as they could, panting for breath and at one point one jailor shot at them. Saraswathi fell down with the bullet in her right leg. But they could not afford to be caught. With great difficulty Saraswathi pulled herself up and ran. Fortunately, there was a densely wooded area nearby and Durga climbed a tree and lugged Saraswathi up on a safe branch. The military training, they had undergone, helped them a lot.

The gun-shot wound was bleeding, and the girls were thirsty and hungry, but the men were soon below the trees looking for them. They searched for a long time and then left. They came for the girls on the following two days also and all this while both the girls were huddled up on the tree braving hunger, thirst and cold. Saraswathi’s leg was totally numb, and she felt that her leg was gone forever.

The third day, the jailors gave up and both the girls climbed down carefully and an injured and drained-out Saraswathi, with the help of Durga, made their way to the main road and caught a van to Rangoon. After an eight to ten-hour arduous journey, they reached the INA camp and met Netaji. Saraswathi was given immediate treatment but the delay in treatment left a limp in her right leg for her entire life which she treated as a symbol of honour.

Netaji was very extremely pleased and delighted with her bravery and awarded Saraswathi the rank of Lieutenant in the Rani Jhansi regiment. He also gave her an appreciation letter where he addressed her as the ‘first Indian woman spy’. The Japanese emperor also presented Saraswathi a medal and a cash award in recognition of her bravery.

The World War II came to an end in 1945 after the disastrous nuclear bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Netaji disbanded the INA and the volunteers went back to their families.

Netaji himself is said to have been killed in an air crash some days later.

Saraswathi and her family donated all of their property and came back to India in 1957. But Saraswathi did not get her freedom-fighter pension. She moved to Chennai and after persistent efforts started getting pension from 1971 almost twenty-five years after independence. From being one of the richest Indians at one time, the family had become paupers and life was tough. No recognition, penury, no family and not even a house to call her own. Such was Saraswathi’s condition.

In 2005, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Ms. J. Jayalalithaa, came to know of her through a news article. She immediately granted a small apartment in Royapettah along with an aid of Rupees five lakhs which Saraswathi accepted albeit with reluctance as she was only used to giving things and never had sought anything. Her financial condition was so pathetic that she had to accept the help.

It is said that she used to collect scraps of cloth from nearby tailors and stitch them into garments and donate to orphanages. Also during the Tsunami of 2004, she donated her pension, to the Chief Minister’s relief fund. She also donated her INA memorabilia to Netaji’s museum in Kolkata in 2008.

Saraswathi lived in the apartment surrounded only by the photos of Netaji on every wall. Though battered by age and ill-health, people who have interviewed Saraswathi say that the mention of Netaji’s name fired her up and she spoke voraciously in spite of having had three heart attacks. Saraswathi died in January 2018 of a massive heart attack.

Her story has been made into a short film in the series ‘Adrishya – True stories of Indian spies’

And I am indeed proud to narrate her story on this platform.

Dheeran Chinnamalai – Celebrating seventy- five years of Independence -1

Bharat, is celebrating its seventy fifth year of Independence this year– Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav.

On this occasion it is my pleasure to narrate the stories of Indian brave-hearts, freedom fighters and precious gems among the general public who have given their whole life for a specific cause and inspired millions of people.

As my contribution to Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, I plan to narrate a story every month for one year beginning this August, on one such inspirational character.

Pleased to begin the series with the story of Dheeran Chinnamalai – a warrior from Kongunadu, who was one of the first to rebel against the British, much before the revolt of 1857.

Prior to independence, present day Tamil Nadu comprised of various regions like Kongunadu, Thondainadu, Pandiyanadu, Cholanadu and so on. The area covering Nilgiris, Coimbatore, Erode and some part of Dharmapuri was called Kongunadu.

Dheeran Chinnamalai was born in this Kongunadu in Melapalayam near Erode in in April 1756 CE to Rathinaswamy Gounder and Periyatha. He was the second of the six siblings. He was named Teerthagiri Sakkarai Manradiyar. His elder brother and the youngest brother took up farming and managing the family’s large tracts of land. His sister was married at the appropriate age.

Teerthagiri, however was much interested in learning martial arts, horse riding, archery and warfare. With his other two brothers following suit, they took upon them the task of protecting their territory consisting of many villages from dacoits, robbers and infiltrators and solving disputes through Panchayats. They also trained the local youth in the villages in horse riding and wielding the sword and archery. Since they protected a territory known as ‘Palayam’ in Tamil, they were called ‘Palayakkarars’. Other notable Palayakkarars were Veerapandiya Kattabomman and Marudhu brothers of whom Teerthagiri was a contemporary.

(The Marudhu brothers were associated with yet another brave queen Rani Velu Nachiyar whose story I have already written in my blog. You can click here to read it)

Coming back to our story, the area of Kongunadu, was under the reign of Hyder Ali of Mysore. Once Teerthagiri and his brothers came to know that Mohammed Ali, a Diwan (minister) from Mysore was collecting taxes using unfair methods, from the people of their villages. This infuriated Teerthagiri.

He and his brothers confronted the minister at a place between two mountains Sivan Malai and Senni Malai. The minister was shocked at being accosted thus. The men then pounced on the minister and snatched the money bag from him.

“We will give back the money to the villagers!” said Teerthagiri. “If your king asks for the money, tell him that a ‘Chinna Malai’ (small mountain) between Senni Malai and Sivan Malai took away the money.” He laughed aloud at the thought of referring to himself as ‘Chinna Malai’.

The angry minister retorted, “Don’t play with the king His Highness Hyder Ali Saab! You will soon face the consequences!”

“King? What king?” chuckled Teerthagiri. “Go and tell him that we people from Kongunadu can rule ourselves quite well. We don’t need a king from Mysore to rule over us!”

The startled minister had to beat a hasty retreat. Teerthagiri distributed the money back to those from whom it was collected. The villagers were overjoyed and started to address Teerthagiri as ‘Chinnamalai’ and the name stuck. Because of his heroic deeds he was addressed as ‘Dheeran Chinnamalai’.

Hyder Ali’s minister returned to Mysore seething with anger and humiliation. He arranged for a battalion of soldiers to be sent to attack Chinnamalai.  Chinnamalai and his men met them and defeated them at the banks of the Noyyal river. This was despite the fact that Chinnamalai had very less men with him.

This was the first time Chinnamalai was actually fighting an armed contingent, and in a way, his first battle. Now, he realized that he would have to fight with a bigger contingent of Hyder Ali any time. In preparation for the same, Chinnamalai and his brothers recruited lot of young men and started training them in warfare methods, archery etc. He had the full support of the villagers and his elder brother and his wife gladly played host to the crowds which thronged to their place on account of these activities.

Chinnamalai was nothing short of a king except that he was not specifically crowned as one. However, there was no retort from Hyder Ali for the defeat by Chinnamalai. Hyder was busy fighting the British and other enemies of his. The heroic deed of Chinnamalai though, was now known everywhere including in the Mysore state.

In 1782 CE, Hyder Ali died and he was succeeded by his son Tipu Sultan. Tipu was totally against the British and had frequent clashes with them. Tipu had heard about the bravery of Chinnamalai and sent messengers to request Chinnamalai to join his side in fighting against the British. The British had humiliated Tipu in the third Anglo Mysore war to a very great extent that Tipu was making big plans to avenge his humiliation.

Though Chinnamalai had reservations in joining Tipu Sultan, for the greater good of liberating our land from the clutches of the British, he agreed and went along with his army, his brothers and their trusted lieutenants Karuppan and Velappan. This army was called the Kongu regiment and Dheeran Chinnamalai was the chief. This regiment was of great support to Tipu Sultan. Tipu Sultan was taking the help of the French and the French were supporting Tipu and also trained his warriors. This training benefited the Kongu regiment.

However, in the Fourth Anglo Mysore war in 1799 CE, Tipu Sultan was killed. British also captured Chinnamalai’s lieutenant, Velappan. Velappan promised the British that he would work for them as their agent.

Chinnamalai and his men returned to Kongu and in a place called Oda Nilai, Chinnamalai built a fort and resumed his training activities knowing fully well that there would be wars with the British in future and he had to be prepared. He started manufacturing arms also. The British came to know of this and could not digest the fact that an individual was doing all this activity independently.

This was the period of the Second Polygar war between the Palayakkarars and the British. ‘Polygar’ was a crude pronunciation of the word ‘Palayakkarar’ by the British.  After Veerapandiya Kattabomman (who was also a Palayakkarar) was hanged to death on Oct 16,1799 by the British, his brother Oomathurai, the Marudhu Brothers, Pazhassi Raja of Malabar had together formed a grand alliance covertly and there was a joint uprising against the British. Arms were being manufactured in secret factories including in Oda Nilai. The Palayakkarars and their men were also receiving clandestine training from the French.

The British barracks at Coimbatore were being attacked. But the British could not travel there easily and had to pass through thick jungles under cover, because of the presence of Dheeran Chinnamalai and his army in the Kongu region. He was a thorn in their flesh. And he was not even a crowned king! They could simply not digest his audacity.

They sent word to him to sign a pact with them and promised him favours. But Chinnamalai would not budge to give up freedom for anything in return. So now, the British sent a contingent of soldiers in 1801 CE under Colonel Maxwell to attack Chinnamalai. Chinnamalai had advance information and defeated them on the same banks of Noyyal as he had done with the soldiers of Mysore earlier.

The British sent soldiers once again in 1802 CE and yet again they miserably failed. They waited and waited and again in 1804 CE, they sent General George Harris who had actively taken part in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore war. This time they had information that Chinnamalai with all his people would be visiting a local temple at Arachalur for the festivities. The plan was that George Harris would go and occupy the fort when no one was there and then attack when Chinnamalai and his people came back from the temple.

When General Harris came, the fort appeared unoccupied. But suddenly, Chinnamalai rode from the inside of the fort in lightning speed, and threw hand grenades at the surprised Harris and his men. There was utter chaos as the horses ran hither-thither neighing aloud, throwing their riders off their backs. Harris had to retreat hurriedly.

The adamant British, however, would not give up. And this time they sent a huge army with cannons also to attack the fort.

Yet again, General Harris got a shock as he found the fort completely empty. It seemed abandoned. He went inside and as he was looking around, he found a pair of sandals. Interestingly one sandal was split open with a chit sticking out. As the curious Harris picked it up, it contained a message and to his shock, he found that it was a message from Velappan (whom the British had captured in the Mysore war) informing Chinnamalai of the plan of Harris.

Velappan had actually been informing Chinnamalai every time by sending pairs of new sandals in which chits were hidden. That was how Chinnamalai was always prepared when attacked.

Harris was furious and shot Velappan dead. In his anger, with the cannons he had, he completely destroyed the fort, razing it to the ground. The act of inadvertently leaving the sandal at the fort had cost Chinnamalai the life of his friend Velappan.

Chinnamalai, now with his brothers went into hiding in the forest in an area known as Karumalai. Their lieutenant Karuppan, was stationed at Melapalayam to keep them informed of what the British were up to. Chinnamalai and his brothers went about in disguise into the nearby villages during the day and went into hiding in the forest, at night.

In the village they met a person Nallappan who seemed to be very hospitable. Nallappan was a cook by profession and he volunteered to provide dinner for the brothers every day at his place. The offer was accepted by Chinnamalai and his brothers and they regularly dined there at night.

Nallappan was actually a snake in the grass and was greedy for wealth and was exactly the type of person British would use for carrying out their malicious intentions. Nallappan, lured by the British, allowed them to dig a trench from afar right up to the inside of his house. And one night when Chinnamalai and his brothers were having dinner in a relaxed mood, the British soldiers came inside through the trench.

Chinnamalai and his brothers, totally caught unawares, were outnumbered. Quickly understanding the role of Nallappan in this drama, Chinnamalai strangulated him to death then and there. The British arrested him along with his brothers and took them to a prison at Sankagiri near Salem. Karuppan who was hiding at Melapalayam also surrendered. The British talked to Chinnamalai asking him to accept their supremacy and pay taxes to them in which case he would be set free and pardoned. Chinnamalai flatly refused the offer. So arrangements were made to hang the four of them from a tamarind tree which was on top of the Sankagiri fort. This was in 1805 CE.

On the day of hanging Chinnamalai and his brothers told the executioners to move away. They then took the ropes themselves and thrust their necks into the nooses and jumped from the fort, hanging themselves in the process.

Four brave-hearts were wiped out from Bharat, the land which they considered more precious than their own mothers. Brave-hearts, who lived as per the saying, “Janani Janmabhumishcha Swargadapi Gariyasi” meaning mother and motherland are dearer than even heaven.

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