Subhas Chandra Bose and Women's Empowerment

The period of colonial era paved the way towards homogenisation of thoughts in political, social and cultural ethos of the then contemporary India. At the same time Indian leaders and reformers were not blind to the fact that the enthusiasm of nationality could not be kindled in sordid surroundings. The degrading perceptions of the colonial masters wounded their sentiments and forced the native social apparatus to define its philosophical outlook towards women emancipation. Inviting women to emerge out of seclusion and play their part in society and politics was a major move towards women emancipation but roles assigned to women by prominent leaders like Gandhi was strictly marked within the parameters of the traditional society.

Among the nationalist leaders of India, Subhas Chandra Bose had a clear vision regarding women's rights and their status as citizens of free India. Though not a socio-religious reformer he was a political thinker on his own right and had a deep insight into the social problems prevalent in colonial India. Bose was one of the few of his times who advocated women's movements in their fullest dimensions. Many in the then conservative India raised eyebrows when he advocated an all India political organisation for women, women in army, women as nation builders and finally a separate women's department in free India. An analysis has to be made to understand Bose ideologies, his role in supporting and encouraging women empowerment in India and the relevance of his ideas in the present day context. He was the product of a resurgent India and the intellectual modelling of this era affected attitudes and behaviours of the society and led to the development of an Indian identity; the context against which the contemporary Indian society is constituted and hence a study on Bose ideas is important.

Subhas was born in a period when resurgent nationalism was in the air of Bengal. It attracted great deal of attention because of the radical and militant outlook regarding women and the cry of Bande Mataram soon got linked with idolised womanhood as well. Being an ardent follower of Swami Vivekananda, Subhas could not be uninfluenced by the master's clarion call: "if you do not raise women who are the living embodiment of the divine mother, do not think that you have any other way to rise." (1) To Vivekananda, worship of the Goddess, reverence to the motherland and commitment to female education became the triple vows of modern man (2). Unlike leaders like Gandhi who considered women as "incarnation of ahimsa" and advised them to do "what you can" (3) Bose had high expectations of women and idolised them as Durga and not as Sita or Savitri.

Politics and Indian Women

Women's empowerment movement during the freedom struggle had limited goals and activities like reform of society, education, etc. It was undoubtedly Gandhi who aimed at bringing nationalist politics to into the Indian household without breaking the domestic circle, but he attached greater importance to women's constructive role from inside. Bose, however, was more radical when he assigned them different roles as political activists, social reformers, welfare workers and nation builders. He advocated that women's movements should be part of the Congress in order to enlarge its anti-imperialistic platform. In his Presidential address at the Maharashtra Provincial Conference on 3 May 1928, he declared: "The status of women should be raised and women should be trained to take a larger and more intelligent interest in public affairs…it is impossible for one half of the nation to win freedom without the active sympathy and support of the other half." (4)

Bengal had demonstrated the immense potential of women as political activists during the Non- Cooperation movement. It was C.R. Das, the political Guru of Subhas, who made this experiment by asking his wife and sister to be the first women to join the movement and thereby render moral strength to the movement and inspired large numbers to join the movement. Bose encouraged the formation of the first political organisation for women; the Mahila Rastriya Sangha was formed in 1928. (5) Latika Ghosh was appointed as its Secretary. (6) The Mahila Rastriya Sangha recruited members and set up a network of Shakti Mandirs. It was intended to develop as a national women's organisation connected with the Congress. It followed a radical ideology and placed the social, economic and political emancipation of women as its goal. (7) They organised the All India Women's Social Conference along with along with the regular session of the Congress in 1928, which was presided over by the Junior Maharani of Travancore. The conference passed resolutions condemning dowry system and legitimising divorce. It also advocated equal education for all irrespective of caste, sex or religion. (8)

While pleading for an all India political organisation for women Bose pointed out: "I venture to think that there is room for a countrywide political organisation for women. It should be the primary object of such an organisation to carry on political propaganda among women and to help the work of social, intellectual and moral upliftment of women." (9) Such political organisation has been the characteristic feature of several advanced countries especially England. There were non-political organisations among women which had the power to influence governmental decisions. Bose recommended that instead of being non-political, they should assume political outlook, widen their membership to the remotest regions and attain the strength of a national party. It should be run solely by women and by generating awareness among women directly influence the legislators. (10)

Bose, in one of his interviews to the Irish press, suggested the lines in which Indian women's movements could proceed. He pointed out that in India there are three lines of women activity. Firstly, there is a movement for giving Indian women literary, artistic and practical training. A second group concentrates on women's rights and a third group has assumed a political nature and is associated with the Congress. Bose suggested that if these three movements are united and shed of their non-political character, they could bring about radical changes in the lives of Indian women. (11) He also advocated that such a political organisation should have an all India basis, contest elections and send their representatives to a central party i.e., the party that rules. (12)

During his tenure as President of the Congress, both at Haripura (1938) and Tripuri (1939), Bose consistently voiced his concern for the sufferings of women and advocated rights for them. He recommended that this principle should be incorporated in the program of the Indian National Congress. When Bose set up the Planning Commission as Congress President in 1938, he insisted that there should be a separate planning commission for women. This Commission was chaired by Rani Lakshmi Bai Rajawade and was to deal with the role of women in planned economy in future India. (13) His ideology was quite clear. He wanted women themselves to design their future. He advocated that women should be allowed to study and understand their problems, and suggest remedies which would be congenial for women and not forced on them by a gender-biased society. The report of the planning commission for women recognised economic inequality as one of the cardinal issues of women's subjectivity; absence of fundamental rights for property, lack of mobility and caste barriers regarding occupations reinforce gender discrimination. It advocated equal opportunities in education for both men and women which could be attained only by co-education.

Bose as President of the Congress undertook several measures for active female participation in nationalist politics. At Haripura there was a contingent of volunteers under the captaincy of Mridula Sarabhai. He made sure that there was a visible presence of women in the AICC and constituted a women's department – women were to become the vanguards of freedom struggle. They actively took part in propaganda of party ideologies especially the constructive programmes such as Khadi, female education, etc. They campaigned for the party in remote rural areas. The women's department also functioned as an information and enquiry bureau to supply information regarding international women's movements. (14)

Women as Social Activists and Nation Builders

Subhas was one of those political thinkers of India who advocated not only rights for women but also assigned duties for them which they had to undertake to rebuild the nation. Bose was a foresighted leader and had his own plans for future India. In order to empower women and strengthen their role as citizens of free India, the first step was to educate them on modern lines. He was conscious of the difficulties of mass compulsory education among women. He believed that this could be successfully completed by creating teams of mobile women teachers for educating women, especially in the rural areas. The State should finance this scheme, train the teachers and send them to remote areas to undertake social and welfare activities among women. Teaching should also aim at making women economically empowered by giving equal priority to vocational training. Women should also be made conscious of their social and legal rights and their duties as citizens. He wished to develop it in socialist lines and freedom and equality to every woman without distinction based on religion, caste, creed, region and economic status.

Bose ideas on women and free India can be gleaned from the work of the Provincial Government of Free India in South East Asia. He constituted a separate Women's Department in South East Asia with Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan (Sehgal) as its chief. She was appointed as the minister of women's affairs in Bose's Cabinet in addition to her post as chief of the Rani Jhansi Regiment. The Women's Department had a separate wing which dealt with training women as social activists. Members of the wing visited neighbouring plantations and slums in South-East Asia and showed the way to better health, nutrition and sanitation. They taught rural women the rudiments of child care and gave elementary instructions. A Health and Welfare Department was also constituted as part of the Women's Department, which had a team of doctors, nurses and welfare workers appointed by the Azad Hind Government. (15) In the Azad Hind Government, Bose also appointed a separate planning commission for women who took up the task to conduct research in areas on nation building where women could specially contribute. (16)

Through the Rani of Jhansi Regiment Bose challenged the conventional norms of the time. The concept of women in arms was a revolutionary and radical idea. The concept of a revolutionary women's regiment was there in his mind right from 1928 when he constituted a separate Women Volunteer Corps along with men in the Calcutta Session of the Indian National Congress in 1928 and uniformed women marching along with men was a unique experience. (17) Much more revolutionary was the Jhansi Regiment - a wing of the Indian National Army constituted in 1943 in Singapore. The Regiment had strength of 600 women out of which 200 were from Rangoon. (18) From the very beginning the Rani Jhansi Regiment played the dual role of fighting and nursing. The training of the Jhansi Regiment, according to British intelligence reports, was conducted with all seriousness with machine guns, range practice, tactical exercises and bayonet training, etc. (19) Bose recast Indian women's life and gave her a place of veneration in the eyes of the world which had only know Indian women from the negative portals of the British, as an enslaved weak sex slumbering under patriarchal dominance for ages.

Empowerment of women can be brought about to its fullest extend only with Governmental support. In his speech at the Independence League of India, London in 1933, Bose pointed out the areas which require immediate attention. These included freeing women from the veil of purdah, providing compulsory primary education (including spiritual, moral and physical training) and immediate legislation to procure equal rights and privileges to men and women in all spheres of life. (20)

Relevance of Bose's Ideas

Bose's ideas on women and their empowerment can be gleaned in several of his writings and speeches. Most of them deal with his contemporary society. Major concern of all political leaders of the time was freedom of the country from British imperialism. It was but natural that most of them including Bose, concentrated on utilising women, as a united force for against colonialism. Still certain ideas that Bose placed before us has relevance in the contemporary Indian society and polity.

    1. Empowerment of women should be taken up as a state policy. Incentives and devolution of power should not be from above but from below. Planning and state policy making is necessary to help reforms reach the larger section of the society.
    2. Education of women should not be restricted to mere primary education but should include vocational training for empowering them economically. Women should be made conscious of social and legal remedies that seek to mitigate women distress.
        3. Women should themselves champion the cause of women's empowerment. The government should constitute a team of welfare workers who would concentrate in educating women in rural areas and remote urban areas like slums.
        4. Women organisations should shed their non-political character, thus making their voice heard in the legislators.
        5. Separate women department should be constituted which will research into the problems of women and suggest remedies

Education and empowerment of women is still one of the most challenging issues in South Asia .Owing to the changing trends in the structure of modern society, women have been able to enjoy the fruits of science and technology, modern education etc. Women have been able to elevate their social status and to create new avenues to suit their changing life styles. However Indian cultural norms and values of the society still place a section of women in disadvantageous position. Political rights and legal remedies which seek to mitigate women distress have not been properly understood by them. The goal of empowerment has only been partially fulfilled. In today's changing world were new values and ideas are replacing traditional values and concepts and we are passing through an age of transition. Bose's ideologies were a taboo for many years. Many of his ideas have later been adopted, but sadly; without due acknowledgement. His ideas have great relevance in today's context as they present before us a set of progressive ideologies for fully realizing the pulsating needs of a growing India.


        1. V.K.R.V.Rao, Swami Vivekananda, Publication Division: New Delhi, 1979, p.189.
        2. Geraldine Fobes, Women in Modern India, Cambridge University Press: UK, 1996, p. 30.
        3. Amina Bose, Dimensions of Peace and Non-violence- The Gandhian Perspective, Gain Publishing House, New Delhi, 1987, p.57.
        4. Sisir Kumar Bose and Sugatha Bose (ed.), Essential Writings of Subhas Chandra Bose, Netaji Research Bureau, Calcutta, 1997, p.87.
        5. Before the formation of the Mahila Rastriya Sangha there were other women organisations like the Women Indian Association, National Council for Women in India etc, but they did not assume a political character. They concentrated on social reforms education of women etc.
        6. Latika Ghosh an Oxford educated teacher was a niece of Aurubindo. When the congress session 1928 was held in Calcutta Bose organised a volunteer corps of the Congress. It was a wing of the Congress with volunteers who were trained and drilled like the Irish Volunteer Army. Bose himself became the G.O.C of the Congress Volunteer Corps. The women group was entrusted to Lathika. Bose was especially impressed by her ability in organizing field demonstrations against the Simon Commission in Calcutta.
        7. Muchkund Dubey(ed.), Subhas Chandra Bose- The Man and His Mission, Harnam Publications: New Delhi, 1998, p.112.
        8. Ibid., P.114
        9. S.K. Bose, N.4, p.87.
        10. Ibid.
        11. Independent, 13 February, 1936.
        12. History of the Freedom Movement Papers, P.A. Section, File No: 44/82/3, National Archives of India, New Delhi.
        13. Statesman, 19 July, 1939.
        14. S.K Bose, N.4, p.108.
        15. Subhas Chandra Bose, A Malaysian Perspective, Netaji Center: Kuala Lumpur, 1992, p.106.
        16. Ibid.
        17. INA Records, File No. 257/INA, National Archives of India, New Delhi.
        18. Ibid.
        19. Forward, 20 December, 1928
        20. INA Records, File 244/INA, National Archives of India, New Delhi

The author completed her doctorate in 2007 from the University of Kerala. Her thesis was titled " Subhas Chandra Bose : His Ideological Dimensions". Suja's articles have been published in the Journal of Indian History.