In quick succession, loss of feisty ladies Switch from stethoscope to rifle and back
July 23: “Captain” Lakshmi Sehgal, who headed the women’s regiment of Netaji’s Indian National Army and later unsuccessfully fought the 2002 presidential election, died at a Kanpur hospital this morning.
The former CPM Rajya Sabha member, who had suffered a heart attack on Thursday, was 97.
Despite her age, Sehgal, a qualified doctor, would be at her free clinic in Kanpur’s Civil Lines Road every day, treating the poor, mostly jobless labourers and their families.
Many of those patients thronged Kanpur Medical Centre today to pay their last respects to the woman they, like everyone else, addressed as “Captain Sehgal” despite her rank of colonel as head of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment of the Azad Hind Fauj.
Sehgal, whose maiden name was Lakshmi Swaminathan, was born in Madras Presidency in late 1914 but traced her roots to Palakkad in Kerala.
She opened a clinic in Singapore in 1940 after graduating in medicine from Madras but traded her stethoscope for the rifle in 1943, inspired by Subhas Chandra Bose’s arrival in the Southeast Asian nation.
After her return to India post-Independence, she resumed treating patients and immersed herself in helping the poor. She joined the CPM in the 1970s.
“To us slum-dwellers in Shastrinagar and Shivajinagar, Captain Sehgal was a symbol of hope. Now we don’t know who to turn to for treatment,” said Dasrath Yadav, an industrial labourer who is barely able to find work 10 days a month.
Sehgal was at her clinic even on Wednesday afternoon, a day before her heart attack. On Friday, after she suffered a brain haemorrhage, she was wheeled into the hospital where she slipped into a coma on Saturday.
Today, the doctors gave up hope. “The ventilator was stopped around 11am and she died around 11.20am,” said Sehgal’s daughter Subhashini Ali, a CPM luminary and former MP.
Among those who visited her in hospital were CPM general secretary Prakash Karat and fellow politburo member Brinda Karat. Brinda remembered Sehgal today as a “politically motivated human being who fought injustice wherever she saw it”.
Sehgal was born to S. Swaminathan, a Madras High Court lawyer, and A.V. Ammukkutty, a freedom fighter. After completing her MBBS in 1938, she earned a diploma in gynaecology and obstetrics.
In Singapore, she mostly treated migrant Indians. After the Japanese attack, she was captured by the British army and detained for a short while.
When Bose visited Singapore, Sehgal was only too happy to accept his request to lead the Jhansi of Rani Regiment. She was the sole woman member of the Indian National Army’s (INA) “cabinet of the provisional government”.
Sehgal was recaptured by the British in 1947 and brought to India to a massive reception. The government soon realised that keeping her imprisoned would only lead to more protests and released her.
The same year she married a former INA colleague, Colonel Prem Kumar Sehgal, and settled down in Kanpur.
She worked for the release and rehabilitation of jailed INA members, provided medical aid to refugees from Pakistan and, in 1971, worked for months at a Bongaon camp for refugees from the then East Pakistan. The same year her party sent her to the Rajya Sabha.
Sehgal was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1998 and became the Left candidate in the 2002 presidential election against A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.
In 2005, reminiscing about her INA days, she had told a newspaper: “Those years of my freedom struggle under the leadership of Netaji are memories to treasure for me now.”
Sehgal’s body will be donated for medical research.
|ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ANANTHAKRISHNAN G|
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. By T.V. Antony Raj
On July 19, 2012 Captain Lakshmi Sehgal suffered a heart attack at her residence in Civil Lines area, Kanpur. The 97-year-old, who as a young woman fought allied forces during World War II, breathed her last in a private hospital at 11:20 a.m. on July 23, 2012 due to her advanced age and multi-organ failure.
Communist Party of India (M), which she had joined in 1971, described her as an “inspiring and courageous freedom fighter, a dedicated and compassionate doctor in the service of the poor, (and) a fighter for women’s rights…“
Vice President Hamid Ansari and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh condoled the death of Sehgal, saying that the nation has lost an icon of selfless service.
Who is this Captain Lakshmi? What is so special about her?
A doctor by profession, as a young woman she fought allied forces during World War II leading the women’s wing of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose‘s Indian National Army. An activist.
ChildhoodShe was born as Lakshmi Swaminathan on October 24, 1914 in Madras, Madras Presidency, British India, to S. Swaminathan, a lawyer who practiced criminal law at Madras High Court and A.V. Ammukutty, better known as Ammu Swaminathan, a social worker and independence activist from the prominent Vadakkath family of Anakkara in Palghat, Kerala who later became a member of independent India’s Constituent Assembly.
Lakshmi observed how the fight for political freedom was fought along the struggle for social reform in the South. Her mother, a Madras socialite became an ardent Congress supporter. One day she walked into Lakshmi’s room, took away all the child’s pretty dresses to burn in a bonfire of foreign goods. Lakshmi also saw campaigns for political independence waged together with struggles for temple entry for Dalits and against child marriage and dowry.
Even as a child, Lakshmi had a rebellious temperament. One day at her grandmother’s house in Kerala, she walked up to a young tribal girl, held her hand and invited her to play with her. Though her conservative grandmother was extremely angry with her, Lakshmi faced it bravely. It was her first rebellion against the humiliating institution of caste.
Doctor LakshmiAfter high school in Madras, Lakshmi obtained her MBBS degree from the Madras Medical College in 1938. A year later, she received her diploma in gynaecology and obstetrics. She worked as a doctor in the Government Kasturba Gandhi Hospital at Triplicane Chennai.
Two years later at the age of 26 she left for Singapore after the failure of her marriage with pilot P.K.N. Rao.
Fall of SingaporeIn 1942, Britain and its allies had imposed a trade embargo on Japan in response to its continued campaigns in China. Seeking alternate sources of necessary materials for its Pacific War against the Allies, Japan invaded Malaya. Singapore was the major British military base in Southeast Asia and nicknamed the “Gibraltar of the East”. The Japanese saw Singapore as a port which could be used as a launch pad against other Allied interests in the area.
The Empire of Japan invaded the Allied stronghold of Singapore on February 9, 1942. The fighting lasted a week. In just seven days, Singapore, the “Impregnable Fortress”, fell to the Japanese that resulted in the largest surrender of British-led military personnel in history. About 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops became prisoners of war, joining 50,000 taken by the Japanese in their Malayan Campaign.
Indian National ArmyLakshmi attended the wounded prisoners of war, many of whom interested in forming an Indian liberation army and young Lakshmi got drawn to the freedom struggle to liberate India from the British rule.
At this time in Singapore, there were many nationalist Indians like N. Raghavan, K. P. Kesava Menon, S. C. Guha, and others, who formed a Council of Action. The aim of their Indian National Army (INA) or Azad Hind Fauj was to liberate India from the British occupation with the help of the Japanese. Initially composed of Indian prisoners of war captured by Japan in the Malayan campaign and at Singapore, it later drew volunteers from Indian expatriate population in Malaya and Burma. However the INA received no firm commitments or approval from the occupying Japanese forces about their participation in the war. At this juncture the arrival of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose in Singapore on July 2, 1943 ended this moratorium.
In December 1944, the march to Burma began. In March 1945, just before the entry of their armies into Imphal, the INA leadership took the decision to retreat. In May 1945, the British army arrested Lakshmi. She remained under house arrest in the jungles of Burma until March 1946. She arrived in India amidst the popular hatred of colonial rule, intensified by the INA trials in Delhi.
Captain Lakshmi SehgalIn March 1947, Captain Lakshmi married Col. Prem Kumar Sehgal, a leading figure of the INA. The couple moved from Lahore to Kanpur, where she plunged into her medical practice, working among the flood of refugees who had come from the newly formed Pakistan. She earned the trust and gratitude of both Hindus and Muslims. Even at the age of 92, she saw her patients every morning.
daughter Subhashini had joined the CPI(M) in early 1970s 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 Lakshmi 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,” she had said.
AIDWACaptain Lakshmi was one of the founding members of All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) formed in 1981. She later led many of its activities and campaigns.
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.
She was out on the streets in Kanpur, during the anti-Sikh riots that followed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, confronting anti-Sikh mobs and ensuring the safety of Sikh or Sikh establishments in the crowded area near her clinic.
In 1996, she got arrested for her participation in a campaign by AIDWA against the Miss World competition held in Bangalore.
Presidential candidateIn 2002, the Left fielded Captain Lakshmi as their presidential candidate against Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. During her whirlwind campaign across the country, she addressed huge crowds at public meetings. She frankly admitted that she did not stand a chance of winning and she used her platform to publicly condemn a political system that allowed the growth of poverty and injustice.