The era of Indian Independence Struggle is one of the most painful and shattering phases in the country’s history. But it was also a period which saw the emergence of some of the finest leaders of the country.
Captain Lakshmi Sehgal is one such leader who ardently fought for the freedom of India. At a time when most Indian women rarely stepped outside of their society approved roles, here was a woman who not only broke all the social conventions but also aced her roles as a firebrand revolutionary and a medical practitioner.
Born to a progressive family in Madras, to S.Swaminathan, a criminal lawyer at Madras High Court and A.V Ammukutty, a renowned social worker and activist, Lakshmi Sehgal aka Captain Lakshmi was an iron lady who dedicated her entire life to public service in various capacities. She wore many hats: she was the commander of Rani of Jhansi regiment – the all-women regiment of the Indian National Army, a doctor, social activist and a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Right from her childhood, she never missed a chance to voice her opinions or rebel against the social evils. She came from a family of active Gandhi supporters who had strong nationalist leanings, so it was only natural that she was drawn into the ongoing freedom struggle.
Lakshmi Swaminathan to Captain Lakshmi – The Journey
In 1940, she left for Singapore, where she set up a clinic with a focus on making medical treatment and facilities available for people from all walks of life. Meanwhile, she also joined the Indian Independence League, formed by Rashbehari Bose. It was around this time, in 1942, that an army for Indian independence was formed by Captain Mohan Singh and a few other Indian war prisoners in Singapore. The army was slowly losing its initial momentum due to the lack of a firm commitment from the Japanese side regarding their participation in the war. It was the arrival of Subhash Chandra Bose which proved to be a real game changer for the Indian independence movement in Singapore.
Captain Lakshmi was one among the many who had gathered to listen to Bose while he addressed the crowd in 1943 at Singapore. He was keen on forming an army not only composed of Indian war prisoners but also of civilian Indians settled in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. He also wanted to create an all-women regiment.
Rani of Jhansi Regiment
The turning point in Lakshmi Sehgal’s life came when she was asked by Netaji to form and lead the all-women regiment. Whether it was healing wounds or holding firearms, she always put her heart and soul into whatever she did. This young woman took charge and managed to mobilise around 25-30 women for the regiment. These were mostly second or third generation Indian women who had grown up in South East Asia, who were fighting for the freedom of their motherland that they hadn’t even seen. Her ability to galvanize such a group of civilians, train them and form a regiment speaks volumes about her determination and charisma.That was the beginning of the Rani of Jhansi regiment and her life as Captain Lakshmi.
The INA marched to Burma in 1944, but before they could enter Imphal they had to beat a retreat and she, along with others, was captured by the British army. She was placed under house arrest in Burma and was later sent to India in 1946.
She was a woman of mettle and nothing could ever dampen her spirits. She continued to fight for the freedom of the country once she was back in India and actively campaigned for the release and rehabilitation of the imprisoned INA personnel. Her fight for freedom continued even after the release of the war prisoners, including Col.Prem Kumar Sehgal, in March 1947. Later she got married to Col.Prem Kumar Sehgal and moved to Kanpur.
For a person as enthusiastic and passionate as her, every day was a new opportunity to serve her country and its people. She continued her medical practice in Kanpur and was actively involved in providing aid for the refugees pouring into the country following the partition.
In the early 1970s, through her daughter Subhashini who had joined CPI(M), it was brought to her attention the need for doctors and medical supplies for the refugees from Bangladesh. She didn’t have to think twice before packing up enough supplies, clothes and medicines and leaving for Calcutta to provide her service in the Bangladesh refugee camps along the border areas.Her ideologies were inherently communist, and hence, she joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 1971 and represented the party in Rajya Sabha.
She never shied away from going out onto the streets of Kanpur during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, to confront the anti-Sikh mobs and to ensure the safety of the Sikhs and Sikh establishments near her clinic. She participated actively in the restoration of peace during the riots.
She was rightly called Captain Lakshmi for she was a born leader. Be it leading the campaigns and activities of the All India Democratic Women’s Association or the medical camps in Bhopal following the Gas Tragedy, she conducted it all with ardent passion and dedication.
Her charisma, dedication and undying spirit to fight for what she believes in were a few of the many reasons why she was selected jointly by all four leftist parties as the sole opponent of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam in the 2002 Presidential elections. In spite of knowing that her chances of winning are slim, she took that as a golden opportunity to scrutinise a political system that allowed the weeds of poverty and injustice to grow by feeding divisive and irrational thoughts to the society.
At an age when most people retired to the comforts of their homes, she regularly treated patients at her clinic. Service to humanity was the motto of her life and she never let her age get in the way of service.
She was honoured with Padma Vibhushan in 1998 and was also bestowed with an honorary doctorate by Calicut University.
Captain Lakshmi was one such person who was hard to box in by the conventions of the society. During the course of her entire life, which was only a couple of years short of a century, she had seen it all – the colonial rule, India’s struggle for independence and the post-independence nation building and transformation of the country. And through it all, she had been an active contributor to the society, who always positioned herself firmly on the side of the oppressed and needy.
Captain Lakshmi passed away on 23rd July 2012 following a cardiac arrest, but not before leaving behind her a legacy of sheer will, compassion and valour, which continues to inspire thousands of people across the country.