Once a soldier in the INA during India’s freedom struggle, Laxmi Panda now lives in poverty forgotten by the government and society.
“Who cares for the INA veterans? No one,” says Panda ruefully.
meet Laxmi Indira Panda in an air conditioned room at Delhi’s Orissa Niwas a day after Independence Day. Panda is an INA veteran who, back in Jeypore in Orissa’s Koraput district, lives on a monthly pension of Rs. 1000. And, till a few months back, worked as a domestic servant.
She may have been a member of an outfit that fought for a free India but she is now homeless. And when she did have a roof above her head she led a life of penury after she lost her husband more than thirty years ago.
She was a guest of the President and the Prime Minister at this year’s Independence Day celebration, thanks to the efforts of Bhubaneswar-based philatelist, Anil Dhir. And Panda is happy to have watched, for the first time, the event at the Red Fort, recollecting Netaji Subas Chandra Bose’s ‘Delhi Chalo’ slogan.
The veteran recounts her days in the INA and her life after that; obviously her life has been one long struggle. She goes back 66 years to talk about how she joined the INA. Her parents were labourers working in the Japanese railway construction in Burma . “When we approached Subash Chandra Bose in 1943 in Burma to join the INA, my brother and I had been orphaned. Our parents died in a British air strike while hiding in a trench."
The 14-year-old girl was, however, refused permission by Bose as she was too young. “But I was stubborn. I had to avenge myself for having been orphaned because of the attack by the British,” she says. She had her way and she joined the Rani Jhansi regiment led by Captain Lakshmi Sehgal. “Since my name was also Laxmi, Subas Chandra Bose christened me Indira.” In the INA
She began training “in marching and parade and using the sword and the gun, the rifle 303 and bayonet charging” and enjoyed every bit. The veteran remarks Bose was wont to ask: ‘will we get our freedom’? “And ‘Yes’ would be my forceful reply,” says Panda who was the only Oriya woman in the INA. The girl who set out to avenge herself for being orphaned became a brave INA soldier with a larger interest in India’s independence.
Panda lost her brother about a year after enlisting. INA records show Nakul Rath in the “missing/presumed dead” list. And thus the one brother she had too was gone.
When the young Indira’s six-month training in Burma ended, she was ready for the battlefront on the India-Burma border at Arakan and Akyab. Then, in August 1944, when the INA began to retreat from Burma, the train they were travelling in was bombed, forcing them to walk to Bangkok over 26 days in the midst of bombs and booming guns.
She is nostalgic and sorrowful when she remembers seeing Bose last in Singapore; on August 12, 1945, a week before his death. Difficult times
For Panda, who married Khageswar Panda (also an INA soldier in the Bahadur regiment) in 1951, “life was fine” till she lost him. She then settled in Jeypore and began living in a slum with her only son. Her life became increasingly difficult with an unemployed, alcoholic son, and then his seven children. She began to work as a domestic help to augment the family income. “During the Rath Yatra in Jeypore I would also sell toys and dolls on the street,” says Panda, now frail after a stroke and an eye operation.
Dhir, who accompanied Panda to Delhi, reveals, “In January this year she lost even the jhuggi to live in." She was not wanted by the family. “She would spend the nights in a telephone booth or a shop,” says Dhir, who tracked Panda down while researching on the INA’s Azad Hind stamps.
“Who cares for the INA veterans? No one,” says Panda ruefully. She has, in fact, not been recognised as a freedom fighter by the government and has been denied the Rs. 22,000 monthly pension that she could receive. But then she does not meet the condition of having served a jail sentence!
Incidentally, in October 1945, she was arrested by the British along with other INA soldiers when the steamer they were travelling in from Singapore came in at Chittagong. But she was not jailed due to her young age and poor health. A jail sentence, which could have ensured her a better future, was denied to her!
For a woman who, three months ago, contemplated ending her life by immolating herself before the Jeypore Collectorate or at the Parliament House in Delhi, things are slowly improving. Although her pension continues at Rs. 1000, a house is being built for her under the Indira Awas Yojana on a piece of land given to her by the Jeypore Collectorate. But does the government not owe her a better deal?
And what is it she really wants to do? “I want to put up on display all the pictures I have of Subas Chandra Bose. And sit quietly and look at those.”
7 months ago