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Tributes to Captain Lakshmi Sahgal

24 July 2012

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The Hindu, July 23, 2012

Captain Lakshmi Sahgal (1914 - 2012) - A life of struggle


Captain Lakshmi Sahgal in the uniform of INA.

The Hindu Captain Lakshmi Sahgal. File Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

“The fight will go on,” said Captain Lakshmi Sehgal one day in 2006, sitting in her crowded Kanpur clinic where, at 92, she still saw patients every morning. She was speaking on camera to Singeli Agnew, a young filmmaker from the Graduate School of Journalism, Berkeley, who was making a documentary on her life.

Each stage of the life of this extraordinary Indian represented a new stage of her political evolution – as a young medical student drawn to the freedom struggle; as the leader of the all-woman Rani of Jhansi regiment of the Indian National Army; as a doctor, immediately after Independence, who restarted her medical practice in Kanpur amongst refugees and the most marginalised sections of society; and finally, in post-Independence India, her life as a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), years that saw her in campaigns for political, economic and social justice.

“Freedom comes in three forms,” the diminutive doctor goes on to say on camera in her unadorned and direct manner. “The first is political emancipation from the conqueror, the second is economic [emancipation] and the third is social… India has only achieved the first.”

With Captain Lakshmi’s passing, India has lost an indefatigable fighter for the emancipations of which she spoke.

First rebellion

Lakshmi Sehgal was born Lakshmi Swaminadhan on October 24, 1914 in Madras to S. Swaminadhan, a talented lawyer, and A.V. Ammukutty, a social worker and freedom fighter (and who would later be a member of independent India’s Constituent Assembly).

Lakshmi would later recall her first rebellion as a child against the demeaning institution of caste in Kerala. From her grandmother’s house, she would often hear the calls and hollers from the surrounding jungles and hills, of the people who in her grandmother’s words were those “whose very shadows are polluting.” The young Lakshmi one day walked up to a young tribal girl, held her hand and led her to play. Lakshmi and her grandmother were furious with each other, but Lakshmi was the one triumphant.

After high school in Madras, she studied at the Madras Medical College, from where she took her MBBS in 1938. The intervening years saw Lakshmi and her family drawn into the ongoing freedom struggle. She saw the transformation of her mother from a Madras socialite to an ardent Congress supporter, who one day walked into her daughter’s room and took away all the child’s pretty dresses to burn in a bonfire of foreign goods. Looking back years later, Lakshmi would observe how in the South, the fight for political freedom was fought alongside the struggle for social reform. Campaigns for political independence were waged together with struggles for temple entry for Dalits and against child marriage and dowry. Her first introduction to communism was through Suhasini Nambiar, Sarojini Naidu’s sister, a radical who had spent many years in Germany. Another early influence was the first book on the communist movement she read, Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China.

Meeting Netaji

As a young doctor of 26, Lakshmi left for Singapore in 1940. Three years later she would meet Subhash Chandra Bose, a meeting that would change the course of her life. “In Singapore,” Lakshmi remembered, “there were a lot of nationalist Indians like K. P. Kesava Menon, S. C. Guha, N. Raghavan, and others, who formed a Council of Action. The Japanese, however, would not give any firm commitment to the Indian National Army, nor would they say how the movement was to be expanded, how they would go into Burma, or how the fighting would take place. People naturally got fed up.” Bose’s arrival broke this logjam.

Lakshmi, who had thus far been on the fringes of the INA, had heard that Bose was keen to draft women into the organisation. She requested a meeting with him when he arrived in Singapore, and emerged from a five-hour interview with a mandate to set up a women’s regiment, which was to be called the Rani of Jhansi regiment. There was a tremendous response from women to join the all-women brigade. Dr. Lakshmi Swaminadhan became Captain Lakshmi, a name and identity that would stay with her for life.

The march to Burma began in December 1944 and, by March 1945, the decision to retreat was taken by the INA leadership, just before the entry of their armies into Imphal. Captain Lakshmi was arrested by the British army in May 1945. She remained under house arrest in the jungles of Burma until March 1946, when she was sent to India – at a time when the INA trials in Delhi were intensifying the popular hatred of colonial rule.

Captain Lakshmi married Col. Prem Kumar Sehgal, a leading figure of the INA, in March 1947. The couple moved from Lahore to Kanpur, where she plunged into her medical practice, working among the flood of refugees who had come from Pakistan, and earning the trust and gratitude of both Hindus and Muslims.

CPI(M) activist

By the early 1970s, Lakshmi’s daughter Subhashini had joined the CPI(M). She brought to her mother’s attention an appeal from Jyoti Basu for doctors and medical supplies for Bangladeshi refugee camps. Captain Lakshmi left for Calcutta, carrying clothes and medicines, to work for the next five weeks in the border areas. After her return she applied for membership in the CPI(M). For the 57-year old doctor, joining the Communist Party was “like coming home.” “My way of thinking was already communist, and I never wanted to earn a lot of money, or acquire a lot of property or wealth,” she said.

Captain Lakshmi was one of the founding members of AIDWA, formed in 1981. She subsequently led many of its activities and campaigns. After the Bhopal gas tragedy in December 1984, she led a medical team to the city; years later she wrote a report on the long-term effects of the gas on pregnant women. During the anti-Sikh riots that followed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, she was out on the streets in Kanpur, confronting anti-Sikh mobs and ensuring that no Sikh or Sikh establishment in the crowded area near her clinic was attacked. She was arrested for her participation in a campaign by AIDWA against the Miss World competition held in Bangalore in 1996.

Presidential candidate

Captain Lakshmi was the presidential candidate for the Left in 2002, an election that A. P. J. Abdul Kalam would win. She ran a whirlwind campaign across the country, addressing packed public meetings. While frankly admitting that she did not stand a chance of winning, she used her platform to publicly scrutinise a political system that allowed poverty and injustice to grow, and fed new irrational and divisive ideologies.

Captain Lakshmi had the quality of awakening a sense of joy and possibility in all who met her – her co-workers, activists of her organisation, her patients, family and friends. Her life was an inextricable part of 20th and early 21st century India — of the struggle against colonial rule, the attainment of freedom, and nation-building over 65 tumultuous years. In this great historical transition, Captain Lakshmi always positioned herself firmly on the side of the poor and unempowered. Freedom fighter, dedicated medical practitioner, and an outstanding leader of the women’s movement in India, Captain Lakshmi leaves the country and its people a fine and enduring legacy.

Lakshmi Sehgal is survived by her daughters Subhashini Ali and Anisa Puri; her grandchildren Shaad Ali, Neha and Nishant Puri; and by her sister Mrinalini Sarabhai. (parvathi.menon at

The Hindu

CHENNAI, July 24, 2012

A fulfilling journey that began in Madras

CITY CONNECT: Capt. Lakshmi Sahgal has written about her life in Chennai in her autobiography (left); With Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and other members of the Indian National Army (right). Photos: Bharathi Puthakalayam

Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, freedom fighter and close aide of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, who died in Kanpur, aged 98, was born in Chennai and worked as a doctor in the city.

She was the daughter of eminent Madras advocate S. Swaminathan and social activist Ammu Swaminathan, who was later elected to the Parliament from Dindigul Lok Sabha constituency. Capt. Lakshmi’s parents belonged to Kerala and theirs was an inter-caste marriage.

Her brother Govind Swaminathan was an eminent lawyer and one of the leading members of the Chennai Bar, and her sister Mrinalini Sarabhai, wife of nuclear scientist Vikram Sarabhai, is a famous dancer.

“In Chennai, she would address meetings in Tamil. Capt. Lakshmi was a polyglot. I heard her speaking to delegates of the All India Democratic Women’s Association conference in Kanpur in their mother tongue,” said P. Vasuki, a secretary of AIDWA.

A doctor by profession, Capt. Lakshmi studied at Chennai’s Queen Mary’s College and later completed her MBBS at Madras Medical College. She then got a diploma in obstetrics and gynaecology (DGO) and worked in the Government Kasturba Gandhi Hospital, Triplicane.

Though brought up in an Anglophile family, Capt. Lakshmi and her kin were to turn their backs on their colonial leanings after her father defended a young man, Kadambur, accused of murdering a British officer, De la Haye, the principal of Newington House in Madras, and got him acquitted.

“It created a storm in Chennai. We had to face its consequences. English friends of my mother kept a distance from us after that. In school, English teachers cursed me for being the daughter of an advocate who saved a native who murdered an honourable English officer,” Capt. Lakshmi wrote in her autobiography A Revolutionary Life: Memoirs of a Political Activist.

After this, Capt. Lakshmi and her siblings were pulled out of the English school and admitted to a government school. “We soon started conversing in Tamil and Malayalam instead of English and wore Indian costumes. Most of the servants at our home were Dalits and we shared food with them much to the surprise of others,” she wrote.

Interestingly, the principal of Queen Mary’s College was the sister of the murdered British officer De la Haye. “But she never exhibited any hatred towards me,” Capt. Lakshmi had recalled.

Her interest in politics was kindled by Subashini, the younger sister of Sarojini Naidu, and one of the accused in the Meerut conspiracy case. She was hiding in Capt. Lakshmi’s house at that time and they spent many nights discussing communism. Later, she joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Her marriage to pilot P.K.N. Rao was a failure and she left for Singapore in 1940 “to escape the marriage”. It was there that she came in contact with the members of Netaji’s Indian National Army (INA) and later formed the Rani of Jhansi regiment (an all-woman unit).

She was fielded as the Left parties’ candidate against Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in the presidential elections of 2002. Her daughter Subhasini Ali, who was elected to Parliament from Kanpur to the Lok Sabha, is also a graduate from the Madras University.

India Today, Print Edition 6 August 2012

The First Lady of Revolution: Lakshmi Sehgal

[by] Brinda Karat

(Published online July 27, 2012)

Lakshmi Sehgal, courageous freedom fighter, people’s doctor, champion of women’s rights and communist revolutionary, passed away on July 23 at the age of 98. On that rainy day in Kanpur on the lawns of the Kanpur Medical College, before the multitude that had come to bid her farewell, Captain Lakshmi Sehgal’s daughters Subhashini and Anisa fulfilled her last wish to donate her body to the college to be used for the advance of medical knowledge. The principal of the college expressed his deep gratitude for what he called an unprecedented gift. For some who attended the moving funeral, there were questions as to why there was no representative from either the Central or state government to pay homage to this remarkable woman.

But for Lakshmi herself, such churlish behaviour from the Delhi durbar would have elicited nothing more than a shrug of her shoulder. India’s last legendary woman freedom fighter was implacably opposed to the politics of patronage and self-aggrandisement that she believed marked regimes in independent India. It was her distance from those powers and her closeness to the people of India, their joys and sorrows, their everyday struggles, that one could say was reflected in her last journey-the absence of the former and the overwhelming presence of the latter.

One of her most striking characteristics was her utter lack of any personal ambition and her disarming modesty about her own role in those historic events when she led Netaji’s Rani of Jhansi regiment and fought British troops. This reflected a more fundamental choice she made, that is her choice to live her life in the service of the poor. This was by no means an approach based on ’charity’. It was a highly political way of looking at the world. She deeply believed that India’s independence could never be defended unless India’s poor were liberated from lives of exploitation and poverty and had a say in running the country. She joined the CPI(M) in the seventies and was a founder leader of the All India Democratic Women’s Association. She was active in the trade unions too. This is also illustrative of the independence of decision-making processes within the household-her husband Prem Sehgal, a comrade-in-arms in the INA and national hero, accused in the infamous 1947 Red Fort trials, was part of the management of a mill where she and her daughter, Subhashini, red flags in hand, picketed outside.

It was in her modest clinic in Kanpur that she devoted herself to treating the poor, day in and out, never turning anyone away, scolding, cajoling, counselling, earning herself the nickname Mummy, even from men and women much older than herself. In fact, she played the role of a social reformer fighting to end superstitions and meaningless rituals in the lives of those she came in contact with. She was a great believer in family planning to protect women’s health and we were often in splits when she would repeat to us some of the choice phrases she had used in her lectures to "irresponsible men". She abhorred the caste system and spoke passionately against it, always encouraging inter-caste marriages which she would make a point to attend. She didn’t mince words when confronted with dishonesty or bad politics. There is a telling story of how once at a commemoration rally in Bombay, when a politician belonging to a notoriously communal political party came up to touch her feet, she quickly drew them up and said, no thank you, first wipe the blood off your hands.

She stood as the candidate of the Left and some supporting parties in the presidential election in 1992. It was not her loss when she was defeated. It was India that lost the opportunity to have a woman of such substance, an inspirational human being, principled and incorruptible, as its first citizen.

Her life is part of the Indian people’s struggle for justice. She will never die.

Brinda Karat is a CPI(M) MP in the Rajya Sabha.


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