‘She was a true Communist’

Sehgal realised early on that social service was her true calling

Written by Avishek G Dastidar | New Delhi | Published: July 24, 2012 12:29:18 am

In 2002,when the four Left parties nominated Captain Lakshmi Sehgal as their candidate against APJ Abdul Kalam in the presidential election,they knew that she would not win. But,they told Sehgal,who was then 87,that it was necessary to contest the poll for the sake of a larger political fight.

Those who spoke to her then say that she agreed only because when it came to defending what she stood for,Sehgal — the only commander of the Rani Jhansi regiment in Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army — never shied away from a fight.

“India lost a very good opportunity to have an extraordinary woman as president then. But she did not mind,because her politics was about serving people,which she was doing and continued to do all her life,” says senior CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat,who knew Sehgal closely.

Born in an affluent Tamil-Brahmin family in Kerala in 1914,Sehgal realised early on that social service was her true calling. Two years after obtaining a medical degree from the Madras Medical College in 1938,she went to Singapore to treat migrant labourers from India. It was there that she got in touch with prominent leaders of the Indian independence movement like K P Kesava Menon,S C Guha and N Raghavan.

But her life changed forever in 1943,when Subhash Chandra Bose arrived in Singapore and took over the reins of the INA.

Bose wanted to form a women’s wing in his army,and entrusted the job to Sehgal (then Lakshmi Swaminathan). Owing to her efforts,thousands of women joined the wing and she became became Captain Lakshmi — as she came to be known for the rest of her life.

“All her life,she was a passionate follower of Bose. At a seminar in Mumbai a few years ago,she delivered a lecture on Bose,and I saw her getting extremely emotional while speaking on him,” says Debabrata Biswas,general secretary of the All Indian Forward Bloc,the Left party that Bose founded.

He recalls another incident when Sehgal,while inaugurating a national conference of the Forward Bloc in Kanpur — where she lived with her daughter and Communist leader Subhashini Ali — urged the party leaders to focus more on mass movements. “We had a formal agenda,but after listening to her speech,the party decided to focus more on countrywide mass movements. That way she was a true Communist,” says Biswas.

Having been witness to the orthodox practices in her community in her early years,Sehgal developed a deep contempt for unfair conventions and discrimination on the basis of caste and religion.

“She had a wry sense of humour. All her jokes were aimed at age-old conventions and inequalities prevailing in the Indian society,” says Karat.

But serving the people through her original profession — as a doctor — remained her life-long passion.

After marrying fellow INA leader Prem Kumar Sehgal barely five months before Independence in 1947,Sehgal devoted her time as a doctor for the poor,especially the poor women in Kanpur.

Following her nomination as a CPI(M) Rajya Sabha member in 1971,she conducted medical relief camps in West Bengal for refugees during the Bangladesh war. She also co-founded the All-Indian Democratic Women’s Association — the nationwide women’s wing of the CPI(M). In 1984,Sehgal led a medical team to Bhopal after the gas tragedy,and worked in the streets of Kanpur to restore peace after the anti-Sikh riots of 1984.

“She loved to serve people. And through her life,she showed that to serve the country,one does not really need to enter electoral politics,” says Karat.

Champion of women’s rights,had no personal ambition

Brinda Karat

It was sometime in the eighties. Capt Lakshmi Sehgal,as the vice-president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association,was in Jaipur to participate in a women’s rally against increasing violence. She was addressing a press conference. Looking at her twinkling eyes and the mischievous smile on her face,I knew something was up.

Without waiting for introductions,she burst out: “You men think you have a nuclear bomb,don’t you? Well,we women know how to dismantle it. A pair of sharp scissors will do the trick,that’s all we need and you can be sure we know how to do it.”

There was a stunned silence from the men,and cheers and approving laughter from the women. That was Capt Lakshmi,saying it as it is,expressing her outrage at sexual violence against women.

She died at the age of 98 in a Kanpur hospital on Monday. This was the city she adopted when she and her husband,Prem Sehgal,moved there after the tumultuous years when they fought shoulder to shoulder for India’s independence. It was there that she fulfilled her dream of setting up a clinic to serve the poor.

Her devotion to her patients was extraordinary. Everyday,for over six decades,she went to her clinic where queues of women would await her with the belief that their beloved “mummy”,as she was called,would never turn them away. In fact,she was at the clinic even the day before she had a heart attack,frail and weak,but not too ill to stay away.

She was a rebel at heart,scoffing at the convention of how young women belonging to an illustrious family like hers should behave,to become an inspiring freedom fighter and a Communist revolutionary committed to socialist ideals.

We would tease her about her escapades as a student. She would smile and reply that she did all that before she became serious. In fact,she was a brilliant student,one of the few women in her class to get top marks in the MBBS exam.

In 1940,she shifted to Singapore,where she got the opportunity to develop her organisational skills,a glimpse of which was evident when,as a young schoolgirl,she joined her mother in burning foreign goods as a symbol against British rule.

She became an active member of the India Independence League and it seemed only appropriate that when Subhash Chandra Bose arrived in Singapore,he should invite Lakshmi to put together the first batch of women soldiers in what became the legendary Rani of Jhansi brigade. Photographs of the time show Lakshmi with shoulder-length hair,her soldier’s cap set on one side,in military britches.

She displayed extraordinary courage in the ill-fated battles fought by the Azad Hind Fauj against the British. In 1946,she was captured by the British and brought back to India. She often remembered those years with pride and a sort of longing.

But she was vocal and angry at what she considered the betrayal of the dreams of the people by the leaders of independent India. It was perhaps because she never compromised on her principles and refused to join the Delhi Durbar that she was denied the official recognition of being a national heroine that she so richly deserved.

But Lakshmi had not an iota of personal ambition. She commanded respect,never demanded it. She joined the CPI(M) in the early seventies and was an extremely popular leader. She was a champion of women’s rights and also worked with trade unions in Kanpur.

The last time I saw her,I asked her how she remained young. “Never give in on something you know to be right,that’s what will keep you going,” she replied. Her grandson,Shaad,brought out his camera and said,“Nani give us a smile.” She sat up and smiled that beautiful smile and gave us a salute,a closed fist and straight shoulders. “Lal Salaam,” she said.

— The writer is a CPM Politburo member.

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