2020 marks the 106th birth anniversary of Lakshmi Sahgal, the ardent freedom fighter and a social activist who served in Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA). ‘Captain Lakshmi’, as she was fondly called, dedicated her life to public service in various capacities — as the commander of the all-woman regiment in the Indian National Army; as a medical practitioner serving among the poor and the marginalised; and as a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Sahgal was unequivocally committed to the ideals of socialism, anti-imperialism, equality, secularism, social justice, women empowerment, and adhered to them in her professional and personal life.
Lakshmi Swaminathan, popular as Capt. Lakshmi Sahgal was born on 24 October 1914 to Ammu Swaminathan, a social worker and Dr. S. Swaminathan, noted lawyer in Chennai. A Padma Vibhushan awardee in the year 1998 was a significant voice of Indian women’s movement prior to the Independence and later as well, carefully drawing a line between politics and activism on women’s issues. She worked as a medical practitioner in Singapore after completing her medical education from Madras Medical College in 1938.
Her meeting with Subash Chandra Bose in Singapore changed a lot for her. However, she had seen him in meetings and programmes when she had accompanied her mother in her early childhood days. While talking about her days in the Indian National Army, she narrates about her unwillingness to be a part of the recruitment drive of doctors into the (British Indian) Army post Second World War and therefore, she chose to go to Singapore in 1940 to pursue her medical practice.
“The Japanese forces attacked Singapore on December 8, 1941. Rashbehari Bose, who was a veteran freedom fighter, had come with the Japanese. He started the India Independence League. All Indians were expected to join the League. It was helpful because we got our ration cards, and Indian property was not treated as enemy property, and Indians were not recruited forcibly. I joined the League but could only do welfare work and underground broadcasts.” – Lakshmi Sahgal in My days in the Indian National Army.
On 8 July 1943, Sahgal had started recruiting other women into INA. Soon a regiment of 1500 women trained as soldiers was ready. In the Provisional government of Azad Hindi formed by Bose, Sehgal was appointed as a minister and handed over the portfolio of Women’s Affairs and Rani of Jhansi Regiment. Subash Bose was equally overwhelmed to find a woman to lead the regiment.
In the post-Independence era, Sahgal resumed her medical practice in Kanpur. She worked among the refugees of post-Partition India. During the Bangladesh war of 1971, she travelled to Calcutta (as it was known then) and worked in the border areas of Bongaon for six weeks, providing medical help to the displaced and the migrants.
She joined CPM in 1971 and remained an active member till the end of her life. Sahgal was the founding member of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, which was formed in 1981. The organisation became a suitable platform for her to raise women’s issues consistently and embark on several campaigns for the same. She became the joint candidate for the Left parties in the presidential elections of 2002 and ran against A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Although she lost the election, she spent a number of days traversing the length and breadth of the country, addressing a number of rallies.
She died of a cardiac arrest causing a brain stroke on 23 July 2012 in Kanpur at the age of 97 after suffering from a prolonged sickness. In her final rites, tributes were paid by political leaders from various parties, activists, communists, school children as well as students from colleges and universities amid revolutionary slogans.
Across generations, people admire her, and women especially such is her aura and contribution in public and social affairs. Some lives are born to make a difference and such was the figure of our beloved Lakshmi Sahgal who lived for others’ celebrating life, happiness, freedom and Nation.