“The fight will go on,” said Captain Lakshmi Sahgal one day in 2006, sitting in her crowded Kanpur clinic where, at 92, she still saw patients every morning. She was speaking on camera to Singeli Agnew, a young filmmaker from the Graduate School of Journalism, Berkeley, who was making a documentary on her life.
“Freedom comes in three forms,” the diminutive doctor goes on to say on camera in her unadorned and direct manner. “The first is political emancipation from the conqueror, the second is economic [emancipation] and the third is social… India has only achieved the first.”
As a young doctor of 26, Lakshmi left for Singapore in 1940. Three years later she would meet Subhash Chandra Bose, a meeting that would change the course of her life. “In Singapore,” Lakshmi remembered, “there were a lot of nationalist Indians like K. P. Kesava Menon, S. C. Guha, N. Raghavan, and others, who formed a Council of Action. The Japanese, however, would not give any firm commitment to the Indian National Army, nor would they say how the movement was to be expanded, how they would go into Burma, or how the fighting would take place. People naturally got fed up.” Bose’s arrival broke this logjam.
Lakshmi, who had thus far been on the fringes of the INA, had heard that Bose was keen to draft women into the organisation. 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 Swaminadhan became Captain Lakshmi, a name and identity that would stay with her for life.
The march to Burma began in December 1944 and, by March 1945, the decision to retreat was taken by the INA leadership, just before the entry of their armies into Imphal. 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.
Captain Lakshmi married Col. Prem Kumar Sahgal, a leading figure of the INA, 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 an appeal from Jyoti Basu 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). For the 57-year old doctor, joining the Communist Party was “like coming home.” “My way of thinking was already communist, and I never wanted to earn a lot of money, or acquire a lot of property or wealth,”
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 area near her clinic was attacked
Freedom fighter, dedicated medical practitioner, and an outstanding leader of the women's movement in India, Captain Lakshmi leaves the country and its people a fine and enduring legacy.
Lakshmi Sahgal is survived by her daughters Subhashini Ali and Anisa Puri; her grandchildren Shaad Ali, Neha and Nishant Puri; and by her sister Mrinalini Sarabhai.