People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 30

July 29, 2012



The Fight for Equality Will Continue


                                                                                                                      Sudha Sundararaman


AT 11.20 on the morning of July 23, Comrade Lakshmi Sahgal breathed her last at the Kanpur Medical Centre, where she was admitted on July 19 with severe breathlessness. The city seemed engulfed by a tidal wave of grief, as thousands of people from every walk of life poured into the Macroberts hospital where her body was placed for a final darshan. We who were there saw a frail woman who could hardly walk stumble past with tears rolling down, asking hopelessly “what will we do now, who will treat us for Rs 20 as you used to”. It was a cross section of humanity that told its own tale – where young and old, Hindus and Muslims, rich and poor, came and cried out for their “Mummyji”, in a unity of voices paying homage to a great revolutionary, and a caring idealist. It was a fitting tribute to a person who lived and died a communist, through 97 years of her life – in the process, making history and impacting the lives of all around her with her fearless fight against injustice, and her unwavering dedication to humanity.


Revolutionaries do not die, we say. Capt Lakshmi’s eyes were donated after her death. As per her own wish, her body was handed over to the GSVM Medical College for research purposes. Her family was not surprised. All her life had been spent in service to others. She had been treating patients at her clinic till some days before she became critically ill! Her two daughters, Subhashini Ali, leader of AIDWA and of the CPI(M), and Anisa Puri, had grown up sharing with others an affection that seemed to know no boundaries. On that last journey, they accompanied her, along with her two grandsons and grand daughter, witnessing and acknowledging the spontaneous outpouring of sorrow on the streets of Kanpur that cloud covered morning.


Her body was draped in the red flag of the Party that she joined in 1971, by the leaders from the CPI(M) – Sitaram Yechury, Brinda Karat, Tapan Sen, and many more. Political leaders across the spectrum paid their last respects. AIDWA leaders from many states rushed to Kanpur for a last glimpse of their beloved mashima – Banani Biswas and Savithri Mazumdar from West Bengal, P K Shrimathi, T N Seema, and Shailaja from Kerala, Jagmati and Sumitra from Haryana and Rajasthan, Madhu garg from Uttar Pradesh, to name but a few. For all the thousands present there, it was a chance to recall Captain Lakshmi’s tumultuous life, and re-dedicate oneself to the ideals that she upheld uncompromisingly throughout her life. 




Lakshmi Sahgal was born in Madras, to S Swaminadhan, a brilliant and leading lawyer, practicing criminal law at the Madras High Court, and A V Ammukutty, a social worker, freedom fighter and tireless campaigner for women's rights.   


As a young girl, Lakshmi was greatly influenced by the budding freedom movement, and responded positively to the transformation of her own mother into a freedom fighter. She participated enthusiastically in nationalist programmes - the burning of foreign goods including her own clothes and toys; and the picketing of liquor-vends. Her fierce anger against social injustice was expressed even earlier, when she revolted against the practice of untouchability which ostracised tribals near her grandmother’s house in Kerala. She recalls walking up to a young tribal girl, holding her hand and leading her to play, scandalising her grandmother in those early years!  


When she looked back at the freedom movement later, her perceptive comment that the fight for political freedom was dialectically intertwined with the struggle for social reform in the South underlined her own understanding and approach. She supported campaigns for political independence being waged together with struggles for temple entry for Dalits and against child marriage and dowry. Such an understanding is of contemporary relevance, in a society still plagued by social injustice and denial of rights.


After her schooling in Madras, Comrade Lakshmi’s decision to study medicine was born of a desire to be of service to the poor, especially to poor women. She received the MBBS degree from Madras Medical College in l938 and her diploma in gynecology and obstetrics a year later. Around this time, her reading expanded to include those breaking new frontiers. Her first introduction to communism was through Suhasini Nambiar, Sarojini Naidu’s sister, a radical who had spent many years in Germany. Another early influence was the first book on the communist movement she read, Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China. She was drawn to the ideals of communism from an early age.




In l940, Lakshmi left Madras for Singapore. Here she quickly established a clinic where the poorest of the poor, especially migrant Indian labour, could receive medical treatment. Not only was she a successful, compassionate and extremely competent doctor, but she played an active role in the India Independence League which contributed greatly to the freedom movement in India.


Her meeting with Subhash Chandra Bose proved to be a turning point in her life. She took on the leadership of the women’s contingent – the Rani of Jhansi regiment – in the Azad Hind Fauj, the Indian National Army which took on the might of the British Army in the jungles of Burma. Comrade Lakshmi was given the rank of Colonel (although in the popular imagination she remained ‘Captain Lakshmi’). She was active both militarily and on the medical front. She played a heroic role not only in the fighting but during the terrible days when INA personnel were hunted by the victorious British troops, when she saved many lives through her courage and devotion. She was finally captured and brought to India in l946.


But a warrior against imperialist oppression had been created in this process – a warrior who, even after laying down arms, even after freedom was won in India – would continue to raise a voice against newer forms of domination and control being exercised by the imperialist countries. Even much later, she would underline the importance of anti-imperialist struggles in AIDWA meetings, and call for militant actions of protest. At one such demonstration where she was participating, she aimed a vigorous kick at a burning effigy of US imperialism, not at all concerned that her clothes almost caught fire! Such was her anger against imperialism!


Due to popular demand, the INA prisoners were released from the Red Fort after a few months, the list including Capt. Lakshmi, and a comrade- in- arms, Col. Prem Kumar Sahgal.  In March 1947, Col. Sahgal and Capt. Lakshmi were married in Lahore (Col. Sahgal was the son of Justice Achhru Ram Sahgal, a member of the Punjab High Court Bench who was one of the judges in the Gandhi Murder Case). After their marriage, they settled down in Kanpur.  Capt. Lakshmi plunged into her medical work almost immediately because the influx of refugees (in the aftermath of the partition) started even before August l947 when it became a flood. She worked tirelessly among them for several years, earning the trust of both Hindus and Muslims.


Later on, she established a small maternity home in a hired premise where women would come from far and near. Babies delivered by her were considered very lucky! They would grow up, and bring their daughters/daughters-in-law to her for delivery! Wherever she went, she carried her practice along with her. Her instructions were simple, her treatment was practical, and affordable.


Her work embraced the social, economic and political dimensions effortlessly. “Freedom comes in three forms,” she said in an interview to a journalist in 1996. “The first is political emancipation from the conqueror, the second is economic [emancipation] and the third is social… India has only achieved the first.”


And so, she chose to become active in Left politics, starting with trade union work, proceeding to building up the women's movement, although she never neglected her medical work. When the All India Democratic Women's Association was formed in l981, she became vice-president of the largest women's organisation in the country and was actively involved in its activities, campaigns and struggles ever since. Her presence in struggles usually generated a lot of enthusiasm and vigour. In one memorable protest by AIDWA against beauty contests in Bangalore, she climbed onto a car  (there was no podium or stage available) and delivered a blistering speech blasting the way markets were operating to package and “sell” beauty as a product, before getting arrested, along with many activists from AIDWA!  




Her commitment to secularism was absolute. In October l984, when anti-Sikh riots broke out in the city in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, she came out on the streets in defence of Sikh families and shops near her clinic and did not allow any of them to be harmed. She was active on many other issues, including gender specific issues like sati, against sex selection, regarding maintenance rights for Muslim women, and so on. In the immediate aftermath of the Union Carbide gas tragedy in Bhopal (1984), Comrade Lakshmi headed a medical team to the city, and later submitted a report with regard to the effect of the gas on pregnant women. In the 1990s, she associated herself actively with the women’s jatha for literacy as part of the total literacy campaign, and emphasised its importance as a tool for emancipation.


In l998, she was awarded the Padma Vibhushan by the president of India. When she was fielded as the presidential candidate by Left parties in 2002, she toured the country, receiving  huge public response as she reminded the people, and the nation, of its anti-imperialist and secular traditions embedded in the freedom movement. Her call, delivered on innumerable platforms ten years back for strengthening democracy and socialism in free India, resonates till today.




Her commitment to her work as a doctor was unsurpassed – she would go to her clinic without fail everyday, almost till the end. Her unassuming manners, her cheerful smile that encouraged and gave strength, combined with the spark of indignation with which she would speak and arouse listeners against inequality and violence were an unending source of amazement and inspiration. Her rousing address at the ninth national conference of AIDWA held in Kanpur in 2010 electrified and inspired the hundreds of activists who heard her calling to them in their own different languages – English, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam ... She stood with a red cap on her white hair, with her hand upraised – a figure of defiance – and told the AIDWA delegates and activists gathered there to fight against oppression and injustice till the last breath was left in their body.


Capt. Lakshmi, AIDWA salutes your courage and determination, your love for all humanity. We pledge to continue the struggle for democratic rights, equality, and women’s emancipation, till the last breath leaves our body!


Capt Lakshmi, zindabad!

Capt  Lakshmi amar rahe!