Physician and activist Lakshmi Sahgal (1914–2012) was involved in the independence movement against the British Empire during their colonization of India. As leader of the women's regiment of the Indian National Army, “Captain Lakshmi” became a legend. After seeing action in Burma, she returned to India, where she remained active in politics and practiced low-cost and free medicine for the poor until her death at age 97.
Lakshmi Sahgal was born October 24, 1914, in Malabar, a city in Madras state in Southern India. Her parents were comfortably well off: Her father, Subbarama Swaminathan, was a Harvard-educated lawyer, and her mother, Ammukutty “Ammu” Swaminathan, evolved from a child bride to a social worker and political activist. Both her parents were followers of Mahatma Gandhi (1898–1948), spiritual leader of the nonviolent Indian independence movement. One of Sahgal's adolescent memories was of her mother tossing her dresses onto a burning pile of the family's foreign-made goods as a protest against British colonialism.
Sahgal resisted the caste distinctions of her local community at a young age. Traditionally, people of her Brahmin caste, considered the highest of the four castes in India, would not associate with the lowest, or “untouchable” caste. The latter group included the poorest of the poor laborers, who did the dirtiest jobs in society, and also the tribal people who were not Hindu and inhabited the hills and forests surrounding towns and cities. Her grandmother, who lived near one of these groups, told her that even touching their shadows would be very polluting and that a Brahmin should avoid them at all cost. Sahgal wasted no time inviting a tribal girl to play and made a point of holding the girl's hand. Although her grandmother became angry, Sahgal knew she was in the right.
After her basic schooling, Sahgal studied medicine at Madras Medical College, specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. She graduated in 1938 and went to work at a government hospital in Chennai, a city in Tamil Nadu state. She was married by this time, to an airline pilot, although the marriage did last and no children resulted. Her family shared the matriarchal culture particular to Madras and Kerala states, in which traditional marriage (called Sambandham, literally “relationship”) was contractual and not necessarily permanent. This tradition would change as marriage laws became more standardized in the 20th century and Sambandham is no longer practiced. At the time, however, when Sahgal decided to end her marriage, she was able to do so without divorce because her marriage was not officially recognized by the colonial legal system.
By 1940, World War II had broken out and the British colonial government attempted to recruit all available doctors to serve in the British Indian Army. With her marriage failing, and wanting no part of fighting for the colonial overlord, Sahgal left for Singapore, where she had close relatives. She opened a medical practice serving the large South Indian community, taking Chinese and Malay patients as well. The practice was busy and successful while Singapore was held by the British.
In 1942, Japanese Imperial forces pushed the British out of Singapore. With them arrived veteran freedom fighters from India who had been in talks with the Japanese about an alliance. These anti-colonialists founded the India Independence League and asked Singapore's Indian population to join. Sahgal was soon caring for wounded prisoners of war, both Indian officers and soldiers who had fought for the British. Disillusioned with the British Empire, league members discussed forming an army to liberate India, taking advantage of the Japanese onslaught. Several Indian nationalists went to Tokyo to talk with the Japanese government about a concrete agreement, but they came away uncertain about Japanese intentions.
When the revered, charismatic Indian nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose arrived in Singapore, Saghal arranged to meet him, desiring to serve the nationalist cause. Called Netaji or “respected leader,” Bose was a leader in the Congress Party in India before being ousted once differences arose among Gandhi and others. While Gandhi and others preached nonviolence, Bose wanted very much to create the Indian National Army (INA) to liberate their homeland. Moreover, he advocated a partnering with Nazi Germany and, later, Imperial Japan, in order to free India from British control. While his Congress Party colleagues appreciated his intentions, they would have nothing to do with fascism, and bid him goodbye.
Bose was a charismatic, visionary leader who inspired many Indians living outside India to take action. After he arrived from Japan, he set about reorganizing the fledgling Indian National Army, recasting it as a revolutionary force and sending out a call for all able-bodied volunteers. The INA doubled from 30,000 to 60,000 members within six weeks. Sahgal attended Bose's speeches and was taken by his wish to create a women's regiment within the INA. During a meeting with him, she was tasked with setting up the all-women “Rani of Jhansi” regiment, named after an Indian queen who in 1857 had died fighting British occupiers.
Bose gave Sahgal an office in his headquarters and she began recruiting young women from near and far. She expresses a concern that all the educated middle-class families had returned to India, leaving just the workers on the rubber plantations. He admonished her to never look to the middle class in a revolution: workers would be their main force. Sure enough, a regiment of 1,500 women was soon in training as soldiers, with another 200 training as nurses.
The Rani of Jhansi regiment, the first of its kind in Asia, trained intensively for three months under the tutelage of regular army members. Recruits were outfitted in khaki and were required to cut their hair, often for the first time in their lives. All women were issued and taught to use rifles and hand grenades. Classes included military tactics, map reading, politics, and the Hindi language, which was becoming the language of wider communication in multilingual India.
The Rani of Jhansi regiment began to move out in platoons, seeing mostly guerrilla action on their route from Singapore to Burma. Their male counterparts served as a buffer against the Japanese, who disliked the idea of a women's regiment, initially refusing them campsites and other necessities. With time and the regiment's successes in battle, Japanese resentments lessened.
Ultimately, neither the hoped-for alliance or the Rani of Jhansi regiment would last. After long marches and skirmishes up the Malay Peninsula, Bose called a retreat. The INA melted into the jungle, avoiding capture for 29 days by moving constantly. The British counteroffensive had been heavy and the Japanese losses considerable. Bose shifted his plan for a government to Burma, and Sahgal, now a lieutenant colonel, would have been its Minister of Women. But defeat was total. She was captured by the British in 1945, and returned to British India the following year.
Rioting throughout India amid plans to partition the country resulted in an interim government led by Jawaharlal Nehru. On August 15, 1947, the British Raj was given independence, divided into the Union (later Republic) of India and the Dominion of Pakistan. Sahgal returned to private life and withdrew from party politics. She married her partner of several years, fellow INA officer Prem Kumar Sahgal, and they settled in the city of Kanpur, where she resumed her medical practice and gave birth to two daughters. In her medical practice, Sahgal made a point of serving the refugees—both Hindu and Muslim—who arrived in droves from Pakistan, in which Islam was the predominate faith. She aided her country during times of greatest need, such as the refugee crisis created by the struggle for independence in Bangladesh (former East Pakistan), in 1971. Hauling clothes and medicines to Calcutta, she spent five weeks caring for the the wounded and sick.
Now age 57, Sahgal was alerted to the situation in Bangladesh by her daughter, who was now a communist party member. Most at home among those who believed in an economy with shared resources and fair distribution of goods among workers, Sahgal also decided to join the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which adhered to the egalitarian philosophy of Karl Marx. A decade later, she would help found its subsidiary, the All India Democratic Women's Association. Sahgal had never valued wealth or property and put all her effort into serving the neediest. In the CPI(M), she felt she had finally come home.
Sahgal was a living example of seva, or selfless service. Hearing of another's misfortune, she would invariably show up with medicine, food, clothing, or whatever was needed to help. When the Bhopal gas plant exploded in 1984, it created a medical crisis to which she led a team, setting up a clinic to care for the injured. People found her presence comforting as well as inspiring, as she never gave up her vision of fellowship and mutual aid.
Even late in life, Saghal was known and respected, and she was not afraid to confront angry mobs, if need be. Small in physical stature but giant in her convictions, she stood for what she believed was right. Nominated for president of India by a consortium of far-left political parties in 2002, the 88-year-old Sahgal used her platform to publicly examine a political system she saw as corrupt and divisive. While losing the election, she conducted her medical practice well into her 90s, slowing down only for illness shortly before her death in Kanpar, on July 23, 2012.
Lebra, Joyce Chapman, Women against the Raj: The Rani of Jhansi Regiment, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008.
Economist, August 4, 2012, “Fighting for India: Captain Lakshmi,” p. 82.