Capt Sahgal was a dainty lady with a giant’s spirit Ek Tha Tiger director Kabir Khan on his encounters with Netaji associate Lakshmi Sahgal who died aged 97

India lost the Rani of Jhansi all over again. At 11.20 am on July 23, Captain Lakshmi Sehgal, who commanded the Rani of Jhansi Regiment of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA), died in Kanpur at the age of 97. Sehgal has been admitted to a private hospital on July 19 after she suffered a heart attack. She had been kept on life support.

Capt Lakshmi, Mrinalini, Govind with mother Ammu Swaminathan

The gynaenocologist was born Lakshmi Swaminathan to lawyer Dr S Swaminathan and social worker Ammu Swaminathan in Chennai on October 24, 1914.

In 1940 she left for Singapore to pursue academics, and it was during the surrender of Singapore by the British to the Japanese in 9942, that Sehgal helped wounded prisoners of war, several of them keen on forming an Indian liberation army.
When Bose arrived in Singapore in July 1943, he expressed his dream of forming a women’s regiment, and Sehgal found the opportunity to become Captain Lakshmi. 

Doctor by profession but soldier by choice, Captain Lakshmi’s stint with the INA was translated to film by Bollywood filmmaker Kabir Khan. The Forgotten Army (1999) retraced the INA’s journey as it marched from Singapore to Imphal, where it was finally defeated in 1945.

“The first thing that struck me about her was how tiny she was,” says Khan, who interacted with her for several months while they shot in Burma.

“She was a dainty lady with the spirit of giant; forceful and articulate when she spoke about ideologies.” Khan says Captain Lakshmi’s role was significant since she was responsible for enlisting women from Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, all girls who were of Indian origin, but had never been to India. “She inspired them to fight for a concept called India,” says Khan.

captain Lakshmi’s time in Burma during the shoot was a sort of a pilgrimage since she hadn’t returned to the country after the second World War. “She hasn’t imagined she’d go back at 85,” Khan says. 


Her visit to Mount Popa where the INA was defeated in April 1945, was especially moving. “Her husband, Colonel Prem Kuma Sahgal, along with Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon and Gen Shah Nawaz Khan, were tried for their activities at Mount Popa,” says Khan.

“But Captain Lakshmi had never been there. Her husband would talk about it incessantly. In fact, she joked that she feared that if she ever had a son, he’d name him Popa!”

Maymo, the city that served as the provisional headquarters of the INA, threw up a surprise for Sahgal. She was positioned there during the war, thus and keen on revisitng Netaji’s home. “As we approached it, a man came out and went straight to her saying, ‘If it isn’t the most beautiful woman in the world.’

He turned out to be Netaji’s doctor, who had stayed on after the war. After 65 years, he still recognised her!” remembers Khan. Another magical moment came when they were shooting in a jungle. Col. Dhillon insisted on finding the cave that had served as their headquarters.

“We found it after four days of searching, and in it was the little Buddha idol that Colonel Sahgal had left behind, and believed would protect them,” says Khan. Lakshmi Sahgal is survived by her daughter Subhashini and filmmaker grandson Shaad Ali.

  Dancer, and Sahgal’s niece Mallika Sarabhai remembers 

When we were children, my cousin Subhashini (Subhashini Ali, labour activist) and I, people used to get confused over who our mothers were. I, round faced and fairer used to be taken for Lakshmi masi's daughter.

Subhashini, thin and angular-faced used to look like Amma. Lakshmi masi and I would laugh about this later, especially after I took up social causes, and got into trouble politically. 'After all, Mallika, you are following me closely,' she would laugh.

We'd spend time as kids in Kanpur with her, my cousins and her husband, and Netaji follower Prem Sehgal. Her clinic would have long queues of women waiting to see her. Often, grandmothers would bring their granddaughters to her, saying, 'You have delivered all babies in our family for three generations. Doctor Sahib, how could I take her anywhere else?'

When masi visited Gujarat after the 2002 genocide, I took her to the camps. People of the Indian National Army waited at various points on the roads. As our car passed, they jumped in front of our vehicle, shouting, 'Inquilab Zindabad!' They showered her with flowers. She would get out of the car and greet them. She knew several of them by name even five decades after Independence.

In 2002, masi stood for the Presidential election against APJ Abdul Kalam, believeing that in a democracy, no one should be elected unopposed. As Kalam was a student of my father's (scientist Vikram Sarabhai), both masi and Kalam visited Amma -  one for her blessings, the other to meet her sister while canvassing for votes in Gujarat.

Till her last breath, she was helping people, concerned about how her patients were doing. She was a true nationalist, forever putting country and its needy before herself. I will miss her.

Lakshmi and Mrinalini Sarabhai in Ahmedabad

►    My sister’s life has been a beacon for all those who put India before themselves. Not only during the independence movement, but in the six decades since then, did she work to make the lives of the poorest and weakest Indians better. Her life was a celebration of human generosity.
I hope others see it as a source of inspiration. She had this gift. People would trust her. In a doctor, especially in India, you have to place trust. I know so many people who’d say, ‘Doctor Lakshmi is now here, we have nothing to fear.’
It could have been this trait that encouraged Subhash Chandra Bose to zero in on her as the leader of his new all-woman Indian National Army unit, the Rani of Jhansi regiment. 

- Mrinalini Sarabhai, veteran dancer and Sahgal’s sister

►    Lakshmi masi was a unique combination of tough and gentle. Something about her reflected Indian womanhood. Five years ago, I had re-done my mother’s (Mrinalini Sarabhai) room with the help of young students of architecture, since we wanted a bigger living space.


And, it was the time Lakshmimasi was here too. Amma said, 
“I want Lakshmi to enter the room first.” She was like a little girl in front of her sister! Then we got an ‘inauguration string’, and held it near the door, and got Lakshmi masi to ‘inaugurate’ the room. It was a special moment.

- Kartikeya Sarabhai, Environmentalist and Sahgal’s nephew

                                                        Dr. Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai,