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Mainstream, VOL L, No 35, August 18, 2012

Lakshmi Sahgal

Monday 20 August 2012, by Sagari Chhabra


Lakshmi Swaminathan Sahgal was born in Madras in 1914 to an unusual Brahmin lawyer, Subharana Swaminathan, and her mother, Ammukutty Menon. Her parents were influenced by the Congress and her mother, according to Lakshmi, “earlier a socialite, but after my father’s sudden death, founded the All India’s Women’s Conference, got a ticket and won!”. Lakshmi trained to be a doctor, but she says: “My reasons for going to Singapore in 1940, were to be free from a marriage and to also join a college classmate to set up a practice.”

It was in Singapore when Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose came that she recounted: “Netaji asked members of the Indian Independence League if there is even one woman I can commu-nicate my idea to. I had been pestering them for a chance, so I had a six-hour meeting with him.” Netaji traced the history of the national movement and said to her as she recalled: “He asked me to start recruiting for the Rani of Jhansi regiment, which was to be the first armed military regiment of women to fight the British.” She said: “In October our first camp was ready with 300 volunteers. During that time, Netaji told me, I am going to form the provisional government of Azad Hind and am appointing you as a Cabinet Minister, in-charge of the Rani of Jhansi regiment.” When I questioned her, as to whether Netaji actually envisaged these women to enter combat, she replied: “Yes. The training was done in Singapore but the transition to Burma was very precarious. We were subjected to air raids and often the tracks had been bombed.”

Once in Rangoon, Netaji appointed Janaki Thevar to take command of the women and sent Lakshmi to Maymyo, the nursing station in Upper Burma. She recalled: “In Maymyo our hands were full with casualties coming from the front. The INA was able to defeat major British forces in the Indo-Burmese border and we even had our flag flying in Moirang in Manipur, but our objective was Imphal. But, after the defeat at Imphal, Netaji decided to disband the Rani of Jhansi regiment.” Netaji marched with the regiment of girls through the tropical forests of Burma. Lakshmi stayed on in Burma and worked in an INA military hospital for incapacitated soldiers.

SHE was captured by the Guerilla Task force 136 and they “marched us prisoners to Toungoo. The trek took ten days through heavy terrain. Finally I was taken to Rangoon. I was first put under surveillance and allowed to stay with my friend, Dr Gyan Kaur, also a member of the Rani of Jhansi regiment. But several journalists visited us and I was able to put out the story of the Indian National Army and the Rani of Jhansi regiment. In other words, the intrepid Lakshmi carried on! The British then “arrested me and sent me to Kalaw in the Shan hills and in March 1946, sent me back to India”. She recalled: “I reached Calcutta penniless. I told the taxi driver, I have no money, but I worked for Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.”
She married the legendary Prem Sahgal, also of the Indian National Army, who along with General Dhillon and Shah Nawaz Khan faced the INA trials in the Red Fort and galvanised India towards freedom. The couple settled down in Kanpur where she continued to serve the poor as Prem Sahgal supervised a mill. When asked why she chose Kanpur, she replied: “It was a lowly job, but it was all he could get.” Evidently, the credit and the spoils of free India went elsewhere. But Lakshmi went on with her commitment and indomitable spirit.

After serving refugees at the border during the Bangladesh war, she joined the CPI-M where she remained a committed worker for the party and the ideals of communism. She even contested the presidential election against Abdul Kalam but this was more to put up a valiant fight, than to actually win.

I once asked her: how did she act in such a free manner at a time when most Indian women were in purdah? She replied: “We were more free than you all. We were free in our minds. The struggle for freedom is for others. We got only political freedom, you will have to fight for economic and social freedom.”
Lakshmi Sahgal (1914-2012), I and my generation salute you!

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