Born Lakshmi Swaminathan, christened Captain Lakshmi by Subhash Chandra Bose, Laksmi Sahgal’s name stands etched in bold shining letters in the annals of Indian history. Father S.Swaminathan, a practicing criminal lawyer, Mother A.V.Ammakutty, a social worker and independent activist, it was an aristocratic Nair family of Palghat, Kerala that Lakshmi was born in. Choosing to study Medicine, she received her medical degree M.B.B.S. in 1938. After a year she received her Diploma in Gynaecology and Obstetrics and worked in the Govt. Kasturba Gandhi Hospital in Chennai as a doctor.
She had a brief marriage to pilot P.K.N.Rao. When the marriage did not succeed, she went to Singapore. During that time Subhash Chandra Bose and his Azad Hind Fauj or Indian National Army was active there. Meeting some of his followers, she came to know about the role of the INA in India’s Freedom Struggle. She was already working for the health of migrant women labourers, who were mostly Indian and that was when she also became part of the India Independence League.
During the surrender of the British to the Japanese in the Second World War, Sahgal was aiding many prisoners of war, and many of them sought to form an Indian Independence Army that would help free India from the British who were ruling. Subhash Chandra Bose arrived in Singapore in July 1943. In his public speeches he emphasized the role that women could play in the fight for India’s independence and showed a keenness to form a women’s regiment that would work shoulder to shoulder with the men.
Lakshmi Sahgal was a firebrand even as a young girl in Chennai when she took part in picketing against liquor trade and the sale of foreign goods in India, and had even burned her foreign material dresses, books, toys etc. When she met Subhash Chandra Bose and proposed an all-women regiment called Rani of Jhansi regiment it was readily accepted. She became Captain Lakshmi with very many enthusiastic women under her. Things took a turn in the ongoing World War and while the Japanese got bombed, the INA as being part of it had many of its personnel arrested, of which Lakshmi was one. Arrested in Burma in 1945, she was sent to India in 1946. She was later freed.
There was a huge influx of refugees in 1947 and she literally sank her teeth into her job by working day and night for the poor. Her major concern was serving the poor especially women and her compassion for them became legendary. Her many years passed in such selfless service that she carried on tirelessly, without seeking reward or recognition. She even started a maternity home for the poor that remains till this day.
After India became independent in 1947, Lakshmi Sahgal continued her political journey in Free India.
In 1971, she joined the Communist party of India Marxist (CPI(M)) and represented it in the Rajya Sabha. the Bangladesh war saw many refugees come into India. As leader of the All India Democratic Women’s Association that she founded in ’81, she and her team campaigned and led many activities for these migrant women and many other causes. Helping the Bhopal Gas tragedy victims in 1984, working for restoring peace in Kanpur following the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, came naturally to her. Her visits to her clinic at Kanpur continued all the while and till 2006 when she was 92, she made it a regular habit in her life.
In 1998, Sahgal was awarded the Padma Vibhushan by Indian president K. R. Narayanan. She had the honor of being chosen by the Left parties in 2002 to compete against Dr.Kalam who was the favoured one for President.
In her personal life, she had married Prem Kumar Sahgal in March 1947 and settled in Kanpur. Her medical practice continued as before especially with the influx of refugees into India following the Partition. She has two daughters Subhashini Ali and Anisa Puri. Subhashini is a prominent Communist politician and labour activist.
For one who loved life and took everything in her stride and made herself extremely useful in each and all of her endeavours, not surviving a cardiac arrest in July 2012, she breathed her last. Even after death she still contributed to society through her body being donated to Kanpur Medical College, for medical research.
A selfless, caring, devoted soul that she was, she will always remain in our hearts as the one who made a difference. That is why She’s Different!