Lakshmi Sehgal: A life of struggle and sacrifice - by Sambhavika Sharma Back   Home  
A profile of the 87-year-old Lakshmi Sehgal, for whom what matters, is her undying and untiring commitment towards humanity. Lakshmi Sehgal is Left Presidential nominee.
For the Left Presidential nominee Captain Lakshmi Sehgal, this is her first brush with politics, although she has been for long in public life. It was more as a call of duty that she has taken up the contest, when her party wanted her to stand for the contest. Outcome of the contest is well-known. But what is still not clear is the impact of the contest, as Captain Lakshmi Sehgal is determined to put up a determined fight on the politically-sensitive issues, not only on issues like Gujarat but even on the issues like reconciling the nuclear-status of the country in the land of Mahatma Gandhi. Captain Lakshmi Sehgal files her papers on Friday.

At the age of 87, Captain Lakshmi Sehgal leaves for her maternity home in Kanpur at 9:00 every morning, seven days a week and works till late in the afternoon. She still follows a strict regimen. Adulation and awards mean very little to her. Her unpretentious manners and reticence are a source of bewilderment and motivation. Her indefatigable 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.

In 1971, when a massive influx of refugees came from what was then the East Pakistan into West Bengal, Lakshmi Sehgal worked at a camp in Bongoan for several months. In October, 1984, when anti-Sikh riots broke out in the city in the wake of Indira Gandhi's assassination, she came out for the defence of Sikh families and shops near her clinic and did not allow any of them to be harmed.

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

It was quite accidentally that Captain Lakshmi Sehgal had happened to join the Indian National Army (INA) of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. In 1940, when Lakshmi left Madras for Singapore, she quickly established a clinic where the poorest of the poor, particularly migrant Indian labour, could take the delivery of a medical treatment.

Not only did she establish herself as a victorious, compassionate and exceptionally competent doctor, but she also played a dynamic role in the India Independence League, which contributed greatly to the freedom movement in India.

In 1942 came the momentous capitulation of Singapore by the British colonial power to the Japanese. Lakshmi, at that particular time, kept extremely busy tending to the many casualties and injuries that resulted from skirmishes. She also came in contact with many of the India POWs who were deliberating over the Japanese proposal to form an Indian Army for liberation. She was extremely fervent about this possibility and argued strongly in its favour.

As a result, she was very much part of the deliberations that finally resulted in the formation of the INA under Gen Mohan Singh. 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 enquiring 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. Lakshmi was 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 valour 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.

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. After the release of the prisoners, including Col. Prem Kumar Sehgal, who married Lakshmi in March 1947, from the Red Fort the campaign for the freedom continued.

Born as Lakshmi Swaminanthan on November 24, 1914, in what was then still called Madras, her mother A V Ammukutty, who was the President of the All India Women's Conference and was also a social worker, freedom-fighter and tireless campaigner for women's rights, who successfully contested elections to the Madras Municipal Corporation, Constituent Assembly, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. Her father, Dr S Swaminathan, was a leading criminal lawyer at the Madras High Court. 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 her diploma in gynecology and obstetrics.

In Kanpur, where Lakshmi settled down after her marriage, she sank into her medical work almost immediately because the onset of refugees in 1947 had taken the shape of a flood. She worked industriously among them for several years. Later, she established a small maternity home where it continues till today. Her compassion and service to the poor have become legendary in the city.
Published in Tehelka