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Remembering Capt. Lakshmi, freedom fighter & social activist, on her 6th death anniversary

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Lakshmi Sahgal, who led the all-woman regiment of Bose’s INA, was also the presidential candidate of the Left in 2002.

Delhi: Monday marks the sixth death 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.

Born Lakshmi Swaminadhan on 24 October, 1914, she broke social conventions and dogmas from a very early age, speaking out against the caste practices in Kerala. Sahgal was witness to the freedom struggle with her mother, A.V. Ammukutty, a social activist and a freedom fighter who would later become a member of the Constituent Assembly.

Sahgal completed her studies in medicine from the Madras Medical College in 1938. With the outbreak of the Second World War, most doctors were being recruited to serve for the imperialist forces. However, Sahgal went to Singapore and initiated her medical practice there, taking care of the Indian diaspora along with several Chinese and Malay patients.

INA and independence

She joined the Indian Independence League formed by veteran freedom fighter Rashbehari Bose in 1941. By 1943, the leadership of the League was taken over by Subhash Chandra Bose along with that of the INA, which was formed in February 1942 by Captain Mohan Singh and other Indian prisoners of war.

Sahgal was drawn to this movement by Bose’s charismatic leadership. She played an active role in the formation of the all-women infantry regiment of the INA, named after the famous ‘Rani of Jhansi’ who fought the British Raj in 1857. Thereafter, Dr. Lakshmi Swaminadhan would become Captain Lakshmi, leading to the conflation of a life-long identity with historical events. She was the only woman member of the cabinet of the Provisional government of the Azad Hind, led by Bose.

After her arrest in 1945, she was brought back to India. In 1947, she married Colonel Prem Kumar Sahgal, who served along with her in the INA.

Post independence

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.

In 1984, she went to Bhopal with a medical team after the gas tragedy. Her commitment to secular values in the face of adversity was displayed on numerous occasions. She confronted frenzied mobs during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 on the streets of Kanpur, ensuring the safety of Sikhs in and around her clinic.

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 passed away at the age of 97, after suffering a cardiac arrest on 23 July, 2012.

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