Although "captain" Lakshmi Sahgal lost at the presidential stakes, she had made her point: the right-wing government could not have its way all the time.
Dr Lakshmi Sahgal was born on 24 October 1914 in what is now the state of Tamil Nadu. Her father, S Swaminadhan, was a leading criminal lawyer at the Madras High Court, her mother, A V Ammukutty, a social worker, freedom-fighter, and tireless campaigner for women's rights. Ammukutty successfully contested elections to the Madras Municipal Corporation, the Constituent Assembly, the Lok Sabha, and the Rajya Sabha, and also served as national president of the All-India Women's Conference.
Young Lakshmi was afire with the spirit of nationalism that swept the country. Charged with the sight of mountains of foreign goods being incinerated by the public, she burnt her own toys and clothes. Studying medicine, she wanted to use her skills to assist the poor and the disempowered, especially women. In 1938, she received her MBBS degree from Madras Medical College, and a year later, her diploma in gynecology and obstetrics.
In 1940, on the insistence of her cousin and his wife, Lakshmi left for Singapore to practice medicine. Her clinic in Singapore served the poorest of the poor, especially migrant Indian labor. She quickly earned a reputation for being an extremely competent and compassionate doctor. During this time, she also played an active role in the India Independence League, which was actively working for the cause of Indian independence among the substantial population of persons of Indian origin (PIO) in Singapore and Malaysia.
Two years after Lakshmi reached Singapore, the British colonial power there was routed by the Japanese. This turn of events swamped her under, tending to the many horrendously wounded and the dying. She met many Indian prisoners of war, who told her of a Japanese proposal to form an Indian army of liberation. It was an idea that enthused her no end. She became part of the deliberations that eventually led to the formation of the charismatic "Netaji" Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian National Army (INA), with whose arrival, the movement gathered momentum.
Bose was extremely keen on raising a women's regiment, which he decided to call the Rani Jhansi Regiment, after the legendary warrior. Hearing about Lakshmi, he requested an immediate meeting with her. He asked her to join him, and she accepted without a moment's hesitation. When the provisional government of the Azad Hind Fauz (Free India Army) was announced, Lakshmi was the only woman member in its Cabinet.
Although Lakshmi is popularly known as "Captain Lakshmi", her official rank was colonel. The appellation was apt: she was fearless on the frontlines and tireless in her medical duties. When she was finally captured in 1946, the British authorities realized that she had already attained near-mythical status in the popular imagination. It would be easier to release her than to incarcerate her, they understood.
Lakshmi plunged forthwith into campaigning for India's freedom, and for the release and rehabilitation of the many captive INA members. She managed to collect substantial funds for them. Among the prisoners released was Colonel Prem Kumar Sahgal, whom Lakshmi married later in Lahore.
The couple decided to settle down in Kanpur. There, Lakshmi plunged into medical work. Refugees had begun streaming into India even before the official Partition in August 1947. She worked with them tirelessly for many years. In 1950, Lakshmi established a small maternity home on hired premises. The establishment continues to this day in the same place. Apart from patients who could afford to pay her, she established a wide network among the poorer settlements in town. Her service and compassion for the disempowered are the stuff of legend in Kanpur.
Another turning point in her life was the influx of refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) into West Bengal. Lakshmi worked at a refugee camp in Bongaon for several months, becoming, during this period, very active in Left politics, trade union activism, and the women's movement. She joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 1971, but only after she discussed frankly with its leaders their attitude to her beloved INA and Subhas Chandra Bose. Many of the Marxist stalwarts, including former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu, publicly acknowledged that these discussions helped them change their earlier understanding.
Lakshmi's commitment to social change and the women's movement was first explicitly expressed and channeled through her membership of the All India Women's Conference. She soon became involved with the formation of the All Indian Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), all the way from the preliminary discussions held between the leaders of various women's organizations active at the state levels in West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra.
When AIDWA was formed in 1981, the largest women's organization in the country, Lakshmi became its vice-president. Consistently involved in AIDWA's activities and campaigns since then, Lakshmi is working on issues that concern women, like dowry, sati, maintenance for Muslim women, sex-selective use of amniocentesis, and the reproductive health of women.
Kanpur's people remember her staunch defense of Sikh families during the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom that followed former prime minister Indira Gandhi's assassination by her own Sikh bodyguards. She was out on the streets preventing violence against families and shops near her clinic. Her passion and diligence made certain that not one of them was harmed through that entire tense period.
She was also amongst the first to reach the victims of the world's greatest industrial disaster, the infamous Bhopal Gas Leak from the Union Carbide factory on 3 December 1984. She did her best as a doctor, and assessed the long-term damage to the health of the affected women and children, and the gas' impact on future generations.
In 1988, the Government of India awarded her the Padma Vibhushan in recognition of her contributions. Her efforts to fight caste-based discrimination, and to counter communal and divisive agendas, especially in the wake of the State-sponsored genocide in Gujarat in 2002, are remarkable. It was in this context that she agreed to her nomination as a presidential candidate in 2002. The Left, in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots, felt the need to register a strong protest against the ruling Right-wing National Democratic Alliance. The Left decided to oppose the government's presidential candidate, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, a fence-sitter popularly known as the father of the Indian nuclear bomb.
The readiness with which she responded to Bose's call was in evidence in the alacrity with which she was ready to pit herself against Kalam. She told a leading Indian magazine, "The biggest threat to India is communalism and war-mongering. For Kalam to assume office at this time, it's not the right signal to the world." Lakshmi did not win the elections; no one expected her to. However, she made her point loud and clear--not everyone in India was willing to stand by and watch the communal forces work their will in the country.
At a venerable 91, Lakshmi still attends to her maternity home in the morning, and works late. Her work was never geared towards awards or recognition. She aimed merely to reach out to people in every way she could. Lakshmi has the ability, in fact, to pose complex issues of political significance in simple terms, as goals that everyone, cutting across social and cultural barriers, can relate in their everyday lives and needs. She acknowledges no impediments--except the lack of social and political will.
Lakshmi Sahgal met Subhas Chandra Bose in Singapore, where he invited her to lead the women's regiment of the Indian National Army in 1942. A doughty fighter, Lakshmi was captured in 1946, by which time she had attained near-mythical status in the popular imagination. After her release, she married a colonel and Indian National Army colleague. Lakshmi worked alongside refugees for many years. She also established a wide network among the poorer settlements in Kanpur, where her service and compassion for the disempowered is the stuff of legends.
In 1981, her commitment to social change and the women's movement was channeled through her involvement with the All Indian Democratic Women's Association. Her activism notwithstanding, Lakshmi has never neglected her medical practice. The people of Kanpur also remember her staunch defense of Sikh families during the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom that followed former prime minister Indira Gandhi's assassination by her own Sikh bodyguards. Lakshmi was out on the streets, barricading her clinic against any violence.
Lakshmi's efforts to fight caste-based discrimination and to counter communal and divisive agendas, especially in the wake of the state-sponsored genocide in Gujarat in 2002, were remarkable. It was in this context that she agreed to her nomination as a presidential candidate the same year. The left, in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots, felt the need to register a strong protest against the ruling right-wing National Democratic Alliance and decided to oppose the government's presidential candidate, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, known as the "father of the Indian nuclear bomb". Lakshmi did not win; no one had expected her to. But the point was made, in neon-not everyone in India was willing to stand by and watch the communal forces work their will in the country.
India's post-Independence milieu was enslaved to residual imperialism and feudal principalities-enough fodder for the revolutionaries brought up on the ideology of unshackling the country from colonialism. This was the beginning of developmental activism.
All India Democratic Women's Association (Aidwa)
South Asia | India