This tribute to Comrade Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, written by her daughter Comrade Subhashini Ali, charts her life, her ideological and political journey, and her deep commitment to public service. It was first published in Frontline and republished with the author's approval.
LAKSHMI was a true child of the era that her life spanned. Born in 1914, the year that saw the start of the First World War, her infancy witnessed that most tumultuous of the last century’s upheavals, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. The 97 years that she lived were years of incredible transformations. Movements for democracy, for national liberation, for social justice, for women’s emancipation and for revolutionary change dominated the years of her childhood and adulthood and the idealism and commitment that fired them entered her spirit and became part of her being.
In 1915, Mahatma Gandhi returned to India and transformed the nature of India’s movement for independence. He galvanised the Indian masses like never before to shake the British empire by its foundations. The reverberations were felt in her home. Her mother was Ammu Swaminadhan, perhaps the most emancipated and outgoing woman in the Madras (now Chennai) of the time, holder of the first driving licence issued to a woman in that city, often seen driving down Marina beach either in her convertible car or her horse-drawn carriage, organiser of garden parties and tennis evenings that were attended by English women and other privileged Indians. She was not, however, just a Lady about Town but was also a member of Annie Besant’s group of admirers who frequented lectures and meetings at the Theosophical Society. A non-Brahmin married to a Brahmin, she was acutely aware of the viciousness of Brahminism and befriended many singers, dancers and musicians who were denied respectability because of their social origins. Her entry into nationalist activism was, therefore, not a break with a fashionable lifestyle but the culmination of her development as an independent, autonomous, thinking woman who questioned and challenged social mores not only for the way in which they affected her but for the stranglehold that they exercised on much of society and all women.
As a young child, Lakshmi set fire to her golden-haired dolls from England and her own lacy frocks. Any initial sense of loss that she may have experienced was almost immediately transformed into the kind of missionary zeal that would infect all her future commitments. She and her younger sister, Mrinalini, abandoned their Western clothes for Indian ones and immediately felt a sense of relief and freedom in their new, loose-fitting attire. Lakshmi, to the dismay of her pro-establishment teachers whose pet she was, converted many of her classmates and friends to her cause, organising bonfires of their clothes and toys. A pattern that would recur throughout her life was established. Her immediate sense of complete and absolute commitment to a cause that took hold of her entire being, her complete lack of any fear of criticism or isolation or danger that may ensue and, most amazing of all, her ability to continue to be loved and admired by those who opposed both her cause and her commitment. As many who met her throughout her life would say, “Anyone who ever met Lakshmi, fell in love with her and, no matter what she did or did not, could never fall out of love with her.”
Moplah protectors and an ‘untouchable’ friend
Growing up did not mean just being confined to burning dolls and clothes and organising meetings and processions of little children carrying tricolour flags around the grounds of her home, Gilchrist Gardens. There were also regular visits every vacation to her tharavad in Kerala, Vadaketh, family home to her large, matrilineal Nair family. This was where her redoubtable grandmother, A.V. Ammukutty Amma, lived. She was a strong-willed matriarch who managed her home and her land and exercised a strong influence on the lives of her many sons and daughters and their families. Lakshmi was a special favourite, as fearless as she herself was, but with the softest and kindest heart.
While Lakshmi was still a child, her grandmother lived through the nightmarish days of the Moplah rebellion alone in her tharavad in Malabar. Her village, Anakkara (Ponnani taluk), had a large Moplah population and she was advised by her family to leave for Madras as soon as possible. She was mulling over this proposal when two of her Moplah tenants came to plead with her not to leave. They said that her departure would mean that she had lost faith in their ability to protect her. She decided to stay on and her tenants slept outside her bedroom door every night as long as the troubles lasted. They also held meetings with the other Moplahs in the village and in neighbouring villages and sent a letter to their community leaders on the other side of the Bharatapuzha river asking them not to cross the river and to leave them in peace. Apparently, their request was acceded to.
This experience of her grandmother’s must have left a lasting impression because it was one that she often referred to throughout her life. Many, many years later she would introduce a prominent Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader of her village saying that he was a member of the family of the two men who had not only protected her grandmother but had also ensured, along with their neighbours, that communal carnage did not occur in their area.
But there is another memory associated with her grandmother. Lakshmi was very fond of a little Pulaya girl who used to accompany her mother to work in the tharavad. Once Ammukutty Amma saw her talking to the little girl and called her away. Ammukutty told Lakshmi that she should never touch her friend because, if she did, she would go blind. Lakshmi was aghast and wanted to know why such a thing would happen and her grandmother explained to her that this was because the girl was an untouchable. It was completely impossible for Lakshmi to accept something like this and she ran out of her grandmother’s room and picked the little girl up in her arms and danced around with her. In a few minutes, she was shouting, “You see, nothing happened. Nothing at all. And I knew that nothing would happen!”
Very soon, Lakshmi’s maternal uncles fell under Gandhiji’s spell and the practice of untouchability was ended forever at Vadaketh. But it was Lakshmi who had been the first to breach the divide.
Her father, Dr S. Swaminadhan, an unusual man for the time, was a pioneer in crossing caste barriers himself. Born a Brahmin, he detested Brahminism and Brahminical practices. He married Ammu not once but twice – once in her tharavad and then in a Registry Office in London, to ensure the legality of their union. He was determined not only to protect her social status but also her right to inherit his worldly goods. Their marriage was boycotted by the Tamil Brahmin community, but this affected him as much as the social boycott they had resorted to earlier when he refused to undergo a prayaschit (purification) ceremony on his return from England, that is, not a whit. He was not only democratic in his social attitudes but, even more unusually, in his attitude towards his wife whom he treated with the utmost consideration and support and whose independent mind and decisions he respected completely. He was also a democratic, if rather aloof, father who wanted to treat his four children, two boys and two girls, equally. The sons were packed off to England to study, but the strong-willed daughters refused to go. As a result, Lakshmi grew up in the heady atmosphere not just of nationalist politics but also of exciting social change. Their home was a place frequented by many leaders of the nationalist movement, of whom the most beloved was, of course, Sarojini Naidu. But it was Sarojini Naidu’s sister, Suhasini Nambiar, the first woman member of the Communist Party, who made a lasting impact on Lakshmi.
Suhasini came to stay at Gilchrist Gardens as a political fugitive at the time of the Meerut conspiracy case. There was no warrant of arrest against her, but she was under police surveillance, and she spent a few weeks with Lakshmi’s family. Lakshmi shared a room with her and listened, wide-eyed, to late night narrations about the Bolshevik revolution, about Lenin and about the nascent Communist movement in India. Suhasini provided the content for Lakshmi’s yearning for Independence. She made her see beyond the middle-class aspirations for freedom and laid the foundation for her later commitment to a freedom that would eradicate poverty, caste injustice and gender discrimination. Lakshmi was fortunate that the first Communist she met was not just someone with a wide knowledge and experience of revolutionary theory and practice but also a person imbued with the joy of living and changing and, even, just having fun. Suhasini had a wonderful, deep voice and, on some evenings, she would sing out to the hapless policemen waiting for a glimpse of her at the Gilchrist Gardens’ gate, “Somebody over there really loves me….” That was not all. She also taught Lakshmi to sing the Internationale. Communists, the revolutionaries of Bengal and Punjab and militant nationalists inspired Lakshmi more than Gandhi did. While she respected him as the man who brought the people into the national movement, his adherence to non-violence, vegetarianism and various fads were disquieting. She could not believe that the British could be forced to leave India by the means that he was determined to impose on the movement that he had done so much to strengthen.
Gandhi & Bhagat Singh
For a while, Bhagat Singh was her hero. His inspiring words and deeds struck a chord in her as they did with millions of young people all over the country. In faraway Madras, she heard about a secret meeting that Bhagat Singh and his comrades held in the ruins of Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi in 1928 to change the name of their organisation from the Hindustan Republican Association to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association and to declare their intention of fighting for the establishment of a socialist republic in India. Obviously, the new name of the organisation meant something to her, and so she collected for it Rs.3,000, a princely sum then. More than 50 years later, she said in an interview: “Gandhiji’s opposition to Bhagat Singh was quite a big obstacle in our way in those days.” Not that any obstacle could ever deter her, then or at any stage of her life.
Lakshmi’s decision to become a doctor grew out of her commitment to the cause of freedom. Gandhiji’s call to students to give up their studies made no sense to her and neither did her father’s offer to send her to England to study medicine. She felt strongly that a free India would need doctors to minister to the poor and that she could acquire the professional skills and experience needed to do this by studying in India where she would learn at first hand the problems of the sick in India. It was literature, not science, that she had loved to study, but the strong sense of service that remained the defining aspect of her life until her last conscious day on earth pushed her into a profession of which service seemed to be a natural corollary for her. She, therefore, joined the Madras Medical College, one of a small group of women pioneers in the field. Her years in the medical college are still the stuff of legend around Madras.
By 1940, she was a qualified gynaecologist. A colleague a year senior to her had gone to Singapore, and she followed. Her practice flourished but her patients were mostly from the families of the poor, indentured Indian labourers. Her political interest and lineage ensured her involvement with the activities of Indian nationalists in Singapore and the India Independence League. But, all in all, it was a quiet life that she was living far from the momentous political events in India. All that changed in l942 when the completely unforeseen occurred. Singapore, the jealously guarded eastern jewel of the British Crown, was humbled into surrender by a sudden aerial attack by the Japanese. Within hours, the island was under Japanese occupation and the British Army posted there surrendered.
The British Army was, of course, mostly Indian, and Indian officers and men alike were shocked when they were handed over to the Japanese by their British officers before they marched off to comfortable camps. The Indian soldiers were already infected with the nationalist virus and, for many of them, this latest sign of British perfidy was the proverbial last straw. The Japanese leadership was also interested in encouraging the formation of an army of Indian soldiers and officers to fight the British.
Although a civilian, Lakshmi was soon caught up in the heady excitement of what ensued. Two young Indian officers had come looking for her soon after the surrender. They needed medical supplies for their men and had been told that there was an Indian lady doctor who could help them. One of the two was Prem Sahgal, a young Punjabi, who was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the proposed formation of the army that would fight for the liberation of India with Japanese help. Lakshmi not only gave them the medical help that they needed but became, within minutes of meeting them, the most passionate partisan in their cause.
In a relatively short time, the army did begin to take shape, but there was an acute need for a leader who would be accepted as such by both the men and the Japanese. Only Subhas Chandra Bose could fulfil that role. When he landed in Singapore, he was met by three Indians, one of whom was Lakshmi. The attraction that militant nationalism had always held for her combined with the force of Subhas’ personality and his courageous rejection of both Gandhian non-violence and British-inspired rules of the freedom game led her to a complete acceptance of his leadership that never faded in her lifetime. Subhas’ arrival was followed by his address to the Indian soldiers and officers who gathered at the parade ground to welcome him. His speech that ended with the slogan “Give me your blood and I will give you freedom” won for him the unquestioning loyalty of the most hard-bitten and war-scarred of soldiers and officers.
The Indian National Army was born. Lakshmi was also at the parade ground, on fire with an unquenchable thirst to be part of what she was witnessing but frustrated by the fact that her gender denied her the opportunity.
Or so she thought. That very night, however, she was invited to meet Subhas and the Indian nationalist leaders with whom he was conferring. Subhas felt that the Japanese were extremely patriarchal in their outlook and could not imagine that gender equality could ever be established. He had told them that he was determined to organise a regiment of Indian women to fight alongside the men and they had been absolutely aghast. They had refused to have anything to do with such a preposterous idea. Subhas, however, was determined. He told the Indian leaders that he needed just one woman who could lead the regiment. And they immediately thought of Lakshmi and invited her to meet him. When she arrived, Subhas did not waste time on niceties. He told her about his plans and said that without women participating in the struggle, there could be no real independence. He was convinced that women would fight with greater courage and commitment because they had everything to gain and nothing to lose. He could not have asked for a more receptive listener than Lakshmi. She told him that she did not need any time to think. The decision was made. She would start work the next day.
The Rani of Jhansi regiment was born, led by another Lakshmi of another era. It was an integral part of an army that had little hope of victory but which refused to accept defeat. The British victors brought the INA officers and men and Lakshmi back to India as their prisoners, but the people of the country, who looked upon them as their liberators, refused to rest until they were freed. The tumultuous crowds that welcomed them wherever they went and their boundless enthusiasm for the path to freedom that they had embraced created the kind of frenzied fervour that has never been seen since.
Of course, the new victors were others who negotiated and parleyed their way to a freedom that was unacceptable to Lakshmi because it was fractured. It was a freedom that brought not joy but carnage and hatred of an unimaginable intensity. It was not what she had dreamed of or fought for, so she did what she could always do best. She immersed herself in the task of assuaging suffering. She practised her medical skill, bringing relief to countless numbers of refugees from the Punjab who gathered in hundreds of thousands in her new home, Kanpur.
At the same time, there were others, equally needy and more neglected. Muslim women in the city could not move out of their localities for fear of being attacked and doctors refused to enter their neighbourhoods either out of fear or prejudice. Lakshmi, of course, was the exception. She did not hesitate to visit the most “dangerous” of neighbourhoods, even in the middle of the night.
She became a doctor of the poor, quite removed from public life. Much later, her daughter joined the CPI(M), and various leaders of the party, including the revered Comrade E.M.S. Namboodiripad, visited her home. Of course they admired her greatly in spite of the stand that the united Communist Party of India had taken during the War against the tactics adopted by Subhas Chandra Bose. She soon started working among textile workers along with the Communists. She had been treating their wives and children for years, and now she became part of the struggle for their rights. In 1971, she volunteered to work in a medical camp for refugees from what was still East Pakistan, organised by the CPI(M)-led Peoples Relief Committee. The dedication of the volunteers and doctors convinced Lakshmi that she should join the party, but some outstanding issues had to be settled first. She met Jyoti Basu in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and had a long discussion with him about Netaji and his complete opposition to the fascist ideology despite the fact that he entered into a tactical alliance with the enemies of his enemy.
The discussion seems to have gone satisfactorily as far as she was concerned and she joined the party. She said that, for her, “ it was like coming home”.
This new trajectory expanded her reach in many different directions. She became a popular fighter for many causes from that of the Bhopal gas leak victims to that of victims of communal violence; she became a spirited leader of working class movements of textile and jute workers; and she came to the forefront of the women’s movement of the country. The anti-Sikh carnage of 1984 saw her standing in front of her clinic, chappal in hand, daring rioters to kill or burn any of the Sikh families in the area. The marauders went skulking off in other directions.
All these various paths merged in her campaign as the first woman presidential candidate in the country’s history in 2002 when she was nominated for the post by the CPI(M) and the Left. It was as much a losing battle as that of the INA but, once again, Lakshmi emerged indomitable and unbowed. She began her campaign with a visit to the relief camps set up by voluntary organisations for the victims of communal carnage in Gujarat. From there she travelled to State after State, evoking memories of the national movement and exhorting people to fight for the real freedoms that it had promised.
After that, like it had always been after each historic journey that she had undertaken, it was back to work, back to service, back to the poor. Until her last day of her conscious life.
The response to her passing away has been unprecedented. There is a sense that someone unique has been lost, that an era has ended. At the same time, there is a conviction that she will always live on. In history. In memories. And 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.
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.
Subhashini Ali is the elder daughter of Lakshmi Sahgal. She is vice-president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association and a Central Committee member of the CPI(M).