People's Democracy

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


No. 35

September 02, 2012




‘Fighter, Reformer, Guide to Millions of Women’


Manjeet Rathee


CAPTAIN Lakshmi Sahgal, veteran freedom fighter and a powerful commander of the Rani Jhansi regiment of INA, left us on July 23. While of the age of 98 years, she was still active as a doctor serving the poorest of the poor, as a social reformer and as a patron and guide to millions of women and young girls striving for equality and emancipation under the banner of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA).


The AIDWA organised a condolence meeting in her memory on August 12, 2912, in the Deputy Speaker’s Hall of the Constitution Club, Rafi Marg, New Delhi. It was attended, among others, by some of her long time friends and associates, family members, AIDWA leadership and activists from Delhi and neighbouring states and the leaderships of various other organisations of women  including the National Federation of Indian Women, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, Guild of Services and Joint Women’s Programme. The meeting, quite appropriately, began with the singing of songs related to the freedom struggle, the cause for which Captain Lakshmi dedicated her life and selfless services, by Sumangala Damodran. This was followed by a condolence resolution moved on behalf of the AIDWA by its general secretary Sudha Sundraraman.


Remembering “Mashima” on the occasion, Brinda Karat, her long time associate, elaborated on how she was successful in breaking all kinds of gender barriers in her personal as well as social life and in exercising her opinion and actions in favour of the most oppressed sections of the society. At the time of struggle against the British imperialist rule, she followed a different path from that of her family, and decided to go to Singapore all alone to work in association with Subhash Chandra Bose, as the first captain of the Rani Jhansi Regiment of Indian National Army. Given the fact that there was no organised women’s movement at that point of time to guide and help in taking such crucial decisions, this was a very bold step that shows Captain Lakshmi’s extreme courage and sense of personal and social responsibility. The huge welcome that she received while she was brought back to the country as a political prisoner after independence went on to show the nation’s appreciation for her heroic role during the freedom struggle. Her medical services to the nation in the form of a doctor always went hand in hand with her chosen path of serving the poor and the oppressed. Her hatred for imperialist rule and capitalist path of development, that was always visible in her right from her early childhood, was all the more strengthened when she joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist) at the age of 56 while she was serving the common people in Bangladeshi refugee camps in 1971. She termed the occasion of joining the party as her ‘homecoming’ (“I felt as if I have returned to my own house”). Brinda Karat fondly remembered how thereafter Captain Lakshmi practised two salutes --- one for Netaji and the other for the communist party but she did not differentiate between the two because, for her, both the streams for Indian freedom struggle carried equal significance and she was the one leader whose truth, honesty and sincerity to the cause national service would continue to inspire us even in the darkest of the times.


NFIW senior leader Pramila Lumba rightly described the condolence meeting as an occasion for celebration of her momentous life which symbolised the whole era of selfless service and of dedication to human values and human upliftment. She recalled how, in her life, she has been most deeply influenced by two great personalities of the age --- Aruna Asaf Ali and Lakshmi Sahgal --- and how these two have had an abiding influence during the country’s struggle for independence, especially on the young girls. She concluded her homage with the words that a life, if it has to carry a meaning and purpose, should be lived the way Captain Lakshmi lived it (“Jiye to Captain Lakshmi jaisi zindagi jiye”).


A former chairperson of the National Commission for Women and senior leader of the Guild of Service, Mohini Giri paid her homage by equating Captain Laksmi’s heroism with that of the Rani of Jhansi and urged upon the gathering to tirelessly work for the realisation of her dreams.


Jyotsana Chatterji, senior leader of the Joint Women’s Programme, recalled on this occasion how, while she was at school in Calcutta, they were called upon to follow the footsteps of Netaji and Lakshmi Sahgal.


Indu Agnihotri from the CWDS, who had a long association with Captain Lakshmi Sahgal while working with the AIDWA since its foundation, expressed her feelings by saying that great personalities like Lakshmi Sahgal are not just meant for history books; rather leave indelible imprints on our real lives as well. She said that like all others, she too was deeply touched by her simplicity, humility and absolute spontaneity of feelings, and her emotions for the poor and the marginalised. Captain Lakshmi did not join politics for petty power or for any vested interest but had larger goals in view and she was always very clear in her protests and resentment against the imperialist rule. Indu said that while she was preparing Captain Lakshmi’s profile to be sent for nomination to “Thousand Women for Nobel Peace Prize,” she came to realise the real meaning of the word ‘peace’ and how it has many facets attached to it. She concluded her tributes in a poetic way:


Jahan yudh tha, wahan tum thi,

Jahan tum thi, wahan kai aur ladai baki hai….

(You were where the war was; and many wars are yet to be fought where you were.)


AIDWA vice president Subhashini Ali, the proud daughter of Captain Lakshmi and one who has been carrying forward her legacy and struggles in a most exemplary way, remembered her as a mother who had provided new meaning and new dimensions to the common perceptions of an ‘ideal mother.’ Subhashini said that if an ideal mother means devoting time and care to only one’s own children, then Laksmi Sahgal was nowhere near an ideal mother. But as a doctor and as a human being, she always devoted more time and care to others and when we complained against it, she used to say --- there are many people to take care of you but there are so many children who have nobody to fall back upon in times of need. So being “ideal” does not carry the same meaning and connotation as given to it by social norms. An ideal person is one who cares equally for everyone else in the society, and for an ideal mother all children are like her own children. Subhashini recalled how the whole life of Captain Lakshmi was as spotless as a single straight truthful line and how it is impossible to find even a single fault or in her mother’s life or deeds, dedicated wholly to the cause of equality, social justice and to the service of humanity at large. She also recalled how everyone who came in contact with Captain Lakshmi, in spite of political or other differences, was bound to be deeply influenced by her. Subhashini recollected how Captain Laksmi had this unique capability and strength to take her own independent decisions, even in the midst of most difficult and disturbing times. She was a fearless soul and could single-handedly face and intervene in the turbulent times. Be it during communal riots or anti-Sikh riots or violence related to women, she was always there trying to intervene in a positive way for communal harmony and for the establishment of a peaceful and just society. Subhashini recalled how she readily agreed to contest for the highest post of president of the nation because, in her own words, she wanted to remind the nation about the myriad sacrifices that ultimately led to the country’s independence and hence no one has the right to misuse this freedom. Captain Lakshmi lived and died for others and her life would continue to remain a source of inspiration for many generations to come. Captain Lakshmi’s body was donated to the Kanpur Medical College and the light of her life and ideals continues to shine in the eyes of two people, a young girl of 16 called Babli from a village in Hardoi district, Uttar Pradesh, and a woman of 55 called Rampyari from Kanpur, who received her corneas within hours of her death.


In the words of Subhashini Ali, “The surgeon who performed the transplants said that the corneas were as clear and unblemished as a young child’s. Like her heart, like her life, like her smile.”