Wednesday, August 26, 2009

“The issue is not of winning or losing. The spirit of fighting is more important"


These were the words of Dr. Lakshmi Sehgal when asked why she was contesting a loosing battle against Dr APJ Abdul Kalam for the presidential post in 2002 & that was my first brush with the lady who is better known as Captain Lakshmi to generations of Indians. Very rarely did I hear about her heroics during my childhood, but then I realized that she has been part of the great historical transition India has seen from colonial subjugation to freedom. A freedom fighter, a dedicated medical doctor, an outstanding leader of the women' movement in India, and a presidential candidate at the age of 87 in 2002, Captain Lakshmi represents the progressive and secular traditions of the freedom movement & the struggle for democracy, women' emancipation and socialism in free India. And after Jhansi Lakshmi Bai, it would be very apt to pay tribute to a woman, for whom what matters, is her undying and untiring commitment towards humanity.

Early Life

Sahgal was born as Lakshmi Swaminathan on October 24, 1914 in Madras. She was the daughter of Dr S. Swaminathan, a leading lawyer practising Criminal Law at Madras High Court. Her mother was A.V. Ammukutty, better known as Ammu Swaminathan, a social worker and freedom fighter & hailed from the famous Vadakkath family of Anakkara in Palghat, Kerala. Even as a young girl, Lakshmi involved herself ardently in the nationalist programmes of smoldering foreign goods, including her own clothes and toys and picketing of liquor-vends. She decided to opt for studying medicine not from the point of view of embarking on a successful career but because she wanted to serve the poor, especially the poor women. As a result, she received an MBBS degree from
Madras Medical College in 1938. A year later, she received her diploma in gynecology and obstetrics.

In 1940, she left for Singapore where she established a clinic for the poor, mostly migrant labor, from India. She became one of the most popular and prosperous gynecologists in the city. She established herself as a victorious, compassionate and exceptionally competent doctor.

Freedom Fighter

It was quite accidental that Captain Lakshmi Sehgal had happened to join the Indian National Army (INA) of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. In 1942, during the historic surrender of Singapore by the British to the Japanese, she worked hard in serving the prisoners of war who were hurt during the skirmishes. In the process, she came in contact with many Indian Prisoners of War (POWs) who were thinking of forming an Indian liberation army.

Events moved rapidly with the arrival of Subhash Chandra Bose in Singapore on July 2, 1943. The next few days, at all the public meetings, Netaji, as he was popularly known as, spoke of his fortitude to raise a women's regiment, the Rani of Jhansi regiment, for the freedom struggle of Indian Independence. On July 5, when he was inquiring whether there was any Indian woman in Singapore, who would be suitable for the task of leading a regiment, Menon instantaneously suggested the name of Lakshmi. She was brought to Bose quite late the same night due to his insistence on meeting her immediately. As soon as he put his proposal to her, she accepted it without a moment's uncertainty and the very next day, she began her preparations for the formation of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment of the INA. These preparations progressed very soon and, in a short time, a well-trained fighting force of women recruits took shape. This woman's army unit was the first of its kind in Asia. Lakshmi was also the sole woman member of the Cabinet on October 21, 943, when Provisional Government of Azad Hind was announced.

The Rani of Jhansi Regiment saw active duty at the front. Lakshmi, who was given the rank of a Colonel, was popular as Captain Lakshmi, and was active both at the military and on the medical front. She played a gallantry role by saving many lives because of her valor and dedication. She was finally captured and brought to
India on March 4, 1946, where she received a heroine's welcome. But soon she was released, after the British authorities realized that keeping her a prisoner would be counter-productive. Lakshmi married Col. Prem Kumar Sehgal in March 1947, who was one among the many INA prisoners who were released from the Red Fort. They settled down in Kanpur.

Never Ending Public Service

After her release, Capt Lakshmi campaigned tirelessly for the release and rehabilitation of imprisoned and de-mobbed INA personnel and for the freedom of India. By traveling the length and breadth of the country she was not only able to collect huge funds for the INA soldiers' but also mobilize people against the colonial power. In 1971 she joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and represented them in the Rajya Sabha. The same year, when a massive influx of refugees came from what was then the East Pakistan into West Bengal, Lakshmi Sehgal worked industriously at a camp in Bongoan for several months. During the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, she single-handedly faced unruly crowds. Her presence was enough to make anti social elements retreat. She even brought several Sikhs home in a bid to protect them from the mayhem that had engulfed Kanpur.

Although never neglecting her medical work, she became very active in social activities. First the trade union and then the movement for women. She became the Vice-President of the largest woman's organization in the country; the All India Democratic Women' Association, which was formed in 1981, and has been actively involved in its activities, campaigns and struggles ever since.

Brush With Politics

In 2002 four leftist parties (Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India, Revolutionary Socialist Party and All India Forward Bloc) nominated Lakshmi Sehgal as a candidate in the presidential elections. She was the sole counter-candidate to the eventual winner A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. She was the first woman candidate to contest for the country's highest constitutional post. She used the campaign and the all-India platform it created for her to campaign for issues that were dear to her heart - the issue of social and economic justice, women' empowerment, the secular traditions of the country and self-reliance.


Captain Lakshmi Sehgal has established a small maternity home in Kanpur which servers the poor till date. Her compassion and service to the poor have become legendary in the city. Adulation and awards mean very little to her. Her unpretentious manners and reticence are a source of bewilderment and motivation. Her untiring and everlasting commitment to humanity and its service are exceptional. Whether as a medical practioner or INA officer, service has been her motto. In 1998, she was awarded the Padma Vibhushan.

Sadly, in the autumn of her life, there is a sense of disappointment. She says it isn't just that the INA never got its due. "We have not yet achieved what had been our goal at that time. Our leader had always spoken of freedom and its three parts: political, financial and social. While we achieved the first, the rest is still unchanged. The position of women is still unfortunate. Social evils continue unabated. The caste system still thrives. Child marriages still take place and dowry deaths are still happening”. Inching her way through religious bigotry, male chauvinism, caste and economic exploitation, she continues to keep alive the INA's ideals of unity and equality for all Indians. Her yearning for freedom lives on. The fire still burns.

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