Capt. Lakshmi Sehgal, in each stage of her life, represented a stage of her political evolution – from 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, who restarted her medical practice in Kanpur amidst refugees and the most marginalized sections of society; and finally, as a an activist fighting for political, economic and social justice.
There was so much more to Captain Lakshmi Sahgal than the firebrand revolutionary, dedicated physician, freedom fighter, and commander of the world’s first women’s military regiment. She had a definitive artistic streak, something that perhaps runs in the family. Lakshmi was a very good singer and a true feeler of human emotions – the life of Capt. Lakshmi Sehgal leaves a legacy like very few of her times.
Lakshmi Sehgal was born Lakshmi Swaminathan on October 24, 1914 in Madras to S. Swaminadhan, a talented lawyer, and A.V. Ammukutty, a social worker and freedom fighter, who later became a member of independent India’s Constituent Assembly.
She did MBBS from Madras Medical College in 1938. In the next few years, Lakshmi and her family were 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. Lakshmi observed 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.
Indian National Army
As a young doctor of 26, Lakshmi left for Singapore in 1940. During the surrender of Singapore by the British to the Japanese, in 1942, Dr. Lakshmi aided the wounded prisoners of war. Three years later she met Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, a meeting that changed the course of her life. Lakshmi had heard that Bose was keen to draft women into the organization. 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 Swaminathan became Captain Lakshmi, a name and identity that would stay with her for life.
Captain Lakshmi was the chief of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment- an all women regiment- the first of its kind in Asia. The cadets of the regiment underwent military and combat training with drills, route marches as well as weapons training in rifles, hand grenades, and bayonet charges. The first qualified troop, numbering nearly five hundred, passed out of the Singapore training camp in March 1944. 200 more were also chosen for nursing training. The regiment participated in the successful Imphal campaign of the INA.
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.
In an interview given years later, Captain Lakshmi recalls- “To say that it was Nehru who saved the INA is absolutely false. It was the people of India who rose up in revolt and forced the British to release the INA prisoners. In a way the British did us a favour by prosecuting Prem Kumar Sehgal (a Hindu), Dhillon (a Sikh) and Shah Nawaz Khan (a Muslim). The three of them were charged for waging war against the King Emperor and the British were all set to sentence them to death. This created such a furore among the masses that it resulted in the entire country rising up and demanding the release of the three officers of the INA and the rage was such, that had they been executed not a single Englishman would have gone back alive. So the British were actually left with no choice but to release them.”
After Col. Prem Kumar Sehgal’s release, Captain Lakshmi married him 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.
By the early 1970s, Lakshmi’s daughter Subhashini had joined the CPI(M). She brought to her mother’s attention 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).
Captain Lakshmi was one of the founding members of All India Democratic Women’s Association (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 areas, near her clinic were attacked. She was arrested for her participation in a campaign against the Miss World competition held in Bangalore in 1996.
In 2002, the leftist parties of India nominated Captain Lakshmi as a candidate in the presidential elections. She ran a campaign across the country, addressing packed public meetings. She, the sole opponent to A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, lost 1 lakh to 9 lakh votes. While frankly admitting that she did not stand a chance of winning, she used her platform to publicly question a political system that allowed poverty and injustice to grow, and bred corruption and economic divide.
Death and legacy
A ninety-seven-year-old Sehgal, died or cardiac arrest in Kanpur on 23rd July, 2012. A frail Capt Lakshmi Sehgal, met patients at her Kanpur clinic even the day before she suffered the cardiac arrest. Even after death, as per her will, her eyes and body were donated to medical college. The eyes went to the visually challenged and the body was used for medical studies.
A name that shines bright in the noble tribe of selfless patriots, who fought gallantly for India’s freedom- a set of bravehearts who, over years, witnessed the rapid demise of values they once stood for. Captain Lakshmi Sehgal was a lady who chose to remain a fighter all her life. 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 underpowered. Freedom fighter, dedicated medical practitioner, and an outstanding leader of the women’s movement in India, Captain Lakshmi left behind a fine and enduring legacy for the country and its people.
Note– The article is originally published here.