This month of July saw the passing away of two extraordinary women—Mrinal Gore and Lakshmi Sehgal—who left a deep and indelible impress on our polity and society. Veteran socialist leader Mrinal Gore, 84, died following a cardiac arrest at a hospital at Vasai in Mumbai’s Thane district on July 17. She was a staunch fighter for women’s empowerment and water rights and led many agitations against price rise in the metropolis.
Mrinaltai, as she was fondly called by one and all (for she could endear anyone who came in touch with her), earned the sobriquet “paniwali bai” for her tireless endeavours to ensure water supply to Goregaon, the Mumbai suburb where she resided.
Following her demise Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan and State Governor K. Sankaranarayanan paid glowing tributes to her. “A voice that solved people’s problems through activism has been silenced today. The people have lost a visionary leader,” said the CM. And the Governor, while describing her as the “greatest woman social worker”, observed: “Ms Gore remained in the forefront of various agitations for about four decades and secured justice for women and the urban poor. All her life, she practised the values of Gandhism to the core.”
Born in 1928, she was a promising young medical college student who left a career in medicine inspired by Gandhiji’s ‘Quit India’ freedom struggle in 1942 and joined the Rashtra Seva Dal. Subsequently she left it to form the Socialist Party. Besides taking up people’s issues in the city she participated in the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement and Goa Liberation Movement; she also fully backed Medha Patkar (whose mother was her close friend and classmate) in the latter’s Narmada Bachao Andolan, that is, the anti-Narmada Dam Movement. Only last May she had attended a gathering of all anti-Narmada Dam activists in Mumbai.
PTI writes: “Over a decade ago, in a protest against price rise; Gore led a rally of hundreds of women brandishing rolling pins from Churchgate to Azad Maidan in South Mumbai. The first time she held a similar protest on the issue was in 1972. “Gore and other colleagues of her husband Keshav set up the Keshav Gore Smarak Trust which supports community-centered activities and social awareness campaigns and actions after he died in 1958.” Meena Menon adds in The Hindu.
“Mrinaltai related to the common person and her empathy for women’s issues and problems ensured her a huge following. Since the 1950s, she along with Tara Reddy of the Communist Party of India and Ahilya Rangnekar of the Communist Party of India-Marxist formed a striking triumvirate who fought on the side of the people, at a time when few women were seen in public life. In 1983, Mrinaltai founded Swadhar which worked with women who were victims of violence and provided counselling and legal help...
“Mrinaltai was the last of the old warhorses to whom common people could turn to in a city where so many of the things she fought for remain elusive till today to the ordinary citizen. She will be remembered as the ‘paniwali bai’ in her trademark white sari with a dark border and her infinite charm and dignity will forever grace her memory.”
She was elected to the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly on the Socialist Party ticket in 1972 and later on the Janata Party ticket in 1985. During the Emergency she went underground but was eventually arrested. In the post-Emergency elections in 1977, she was elected to the Lok Sabha with a huge number of votes as a Janata Party MP.
She is survived by her daughter, Anjali Vartak.
On July 23, Lakshmi Sehgal, 97, the legendary freedom fighter, doctor, Communist and women’s leader, passed away in Kanpur (where she lived and worked) after a brief illness.
Born on October 24, 1914 in Madras to distinguished lawyer S. Swaminathan and A.V. Ammukutty, a noted social worker-turned-freedom fighter (who was later to become a Member of independent India’s Constituent Assembly), she had her schooling in the city before joining the Madras Medical College from where she did her MBBS in 1938. As a young doctor she left for Singapore in 1940 for further studies but there she got actively involved in the work of the India Independence League. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose met her there and directed her to set an all-women’s regiment, called the Rani Jhansi regiment, under the Indian National Army headed by Bose himself. That is how Dr Lakshmi Swaminathan became Captain Lakshmi, the name by which she was known thereafter.
She alongwith her regiment and the INA marched into Burma in December 1944. In March 1945 the decision to retreat was taken by the INA leadership just before their entry into Imphal. Captain Lakshmi was arrested by the British in May 1945; she remained under house arrest in Burma’s jungles till March 1946 when she was sent to India where she received a tumultous welcome at a time when the INA commanders were facing trial at the Red Fort in Delhi. She functioned as the Minister for Women’s Affairs in the Azad Hind Government set up by Netaji. In March 1947 she married Colonel Prem Kumar Sehgal, a leading figure in the INA, and they moved from Lahore to Kanpur in view of the impending partition of the country. It was in Kanpur that she plunged into medical practice. In 1971 she worked among the uprooted people in the Bangladeshi refugee camps set up in West Bengal and supplied medicines to the camp inmates. Thereafter she applied for membership of the CPI-M.
Captain Lakshmi was one of the founding members of the AIDWA, formed in 1981. After the Bhopal gas tragedy in December 1984, she led a medical team to the city. During the anti-Sikh riots that followed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, she was out on the streets in Kanpur, confronting anti-Sikh mobs and ensuring that no Sikh or Sikh establishment in the crowded area near her clinic was attacked. She was arrested for her participation in a campaign by the AIDWA against the Miss World competition held in Bangalore in 1996.
The Left parties put her up as their presi-dential candidate against A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in 2002.
Mourning her death President Pratibha Patil described her as a great patriot and PM Manmohan Singh said the country had lost an icon of selfless service in her demise.
The CPI in a statement said that her departure had left a “deep void”, and pointed out: “She is the last of India’s freedom fighters who have left us.”
Captain Lakshmi is survived by her daughters, Subhashini Ali, a CPI-M leader, Anisa Puri, and her sister, Mrinalini Sarabhai, the veteran danseuse