Freedom fighter, activist, rebel and India’s first female army captain, Lakshmi Sehgal is a heroine and popular social and political icon in India. We pay tribute to one of India’s most important women who embraced her inner tomboy spirit and defied the old-fashioned, conservative Indian stereotypes of women in the army.
In an article for The Hindu, the story begins with typical Sehgal gusto – “The fight will go on,” said Captain Lakshmi Sehgal one day in 2006, sitting in her crowded Kanpur clinic where, at 92, she still saw patients every morning. She was speaking on camera to Singeli Agnew, a young filmmaker from the Graduate School of Journalism, Berkeley, who was making a documentary on her life.
“Freedom comes in three forms. Political emancipation from the conqueror, economic and social emancipation. India has only achieved the first.”
And that was how Lakshmi Sehgal, one of India’s pioneer female soldiers describes her life. Not one for talking but doing, Lakshmi was never afraid to embrace her inner tomboy spirit of daring to go against the grain to achieve her ideals and goals. Lakshmi Sehgal was an extraordinary Indian who represented what every woman could be in India if they pursued it with excellence.
She started her career as a young doctor aiding the prisoners of war during Singapore’s surrender to the Japanese in 1942, many of whom who were interested in forming an Indian liberation army.
In came Bengali nationalist leader, Subhas Chandra Bose to Singapore on 2 July 1943. In public meetings, Bose spoke of his determination to raise a women’s regiment which would “fight for Indian Independence and make it complete”.
Lakshmi had heard that Bose was keen to draft women into the organisation and requested a meeting with him from which she emerged with a mandate to set up a women’s regiment, to be called the Rani of Jhansi regiment. Women responded enthusiastically to join the all-women brigade and Dr. Lakshmi Swaminathan became Captain Lakshmi, a name and identity that would stay with her for life.
The Rani of Jhansi Regiment of the Indian National Army (INA) is one of the most unusual and colourful female-only military units ever created. The regiment’s name was inspired by a Indian warrior queen, Rani of Jhansi, where most of the regiment’s members were lower-class overseas Indians. This unique and short-lived regiment was also a training ground for some of India and Malaysia’s pioneering post-independence female leaders and activists, which led to many amazing developments in the region when the war ended and knowing that Lakshmi Sehgal had a hand in these revolutionary developments makes her one badass Asian woman indeed.
In life, Captain Lakhsmi Sehgal had the same warrior qualities as Rani of Jhansi had. She was a very honest and forthright lady who pursued the breakdown of female oppression in India by speaking out against child marriages, dowries and the ban of remarriage of widows or divorcees. She fought for Indian women to have equal rights as their male counterparts by constantly rallying support for her equality campaigns. She stressed the importance of providing equal opportunities for women in education and work. Women, she believed needed to be self-supporting and independent and had to be able to make their own choices about marriage.
| CAPT. LAKSHMI SEHGAL AS A YOUNG RECRUIT IN THE INDIAN ARMY WITH SUBHASH CHANDRA BOSE
On a larger scale, she dreamt of an India that was finally united without all the unnecessary divisions that separated the country from language, income bracket, caste and even religions. Lakshmi’s compassionate tomboy spirit burned with so much fire that she would always be at the forefront of any domestic crisis or disaster that plagued any of the country’s communities. The nadir of her amazing work was when she interposed her tiny frame to save Sikh shopkeepers in the street when Indira Gandhi was brutally assassinated by her Sikh guards in 1984.
In 1992, she went badass again down at the front lines when she rebuked Hindu neighbours who were dancing in celebration the mosque at Ayodhya was destroyed.
She also stirred controversy throughout her life when the media found out about her strong communist influence and ideals when growing up. Despite that, she continued to defy norms and joined some of India’s first women communists in 1971 which allowed her to pursue her ideals for society. For her, communism, was at its heart, an ideal that took care of everyone – an ideal that brought equality to those who embraced it and it was an ideal she felt most at home with.
Eventually that communist wave helped her to crash into politics, getting her as far as the upper house of Parliament where she constantly espoused the importance of a unified India. However, despite her busy schedule involving politics and fighting for women’s rights, Lakshmi never forgot that she was still first and foremost, a doctor and continued to devote a lot of time to aid the poor and sick.
Every morning, until the day before her heart attack in July 2012, she went to the clinic at 9am. Since she charged almost nothing, there were always many more patients than she could see. Before she opened up, she would personally sweep the street in front of the place, to clear away the litter the neighbours threw out of their windows. Someone lower-caste maid or caretaker could have done it for her but for Lakshmi, it was her ode to the kind of equality within India that she would have liked to see. It’s been a few years now since her death but she will constantly be a beacon of hope and inspiration not just for women in India but also for women around the world.
The video below features an exclusive video with this amazing and fearless woman who had fought and faced enemies in battle, been arrested for her beliefs and for consciously pushing the envelope of political and social freedom for India’s people. The video was produced by Shaad Ali before she passed on in 2012.
In it, she recounts her parents, her early life and her foray into the Indian National Army and how she helped form India’s first national women’s regiment, the Rani of Jhansi Regiment.
So are you inspired yet by Lakshmi’s story? We know that we are. Extraordinary women who push for what they believe in are very hard to find and Lakshmi has certainly done her country proud for pioneering and leading revolutionary change not only for women socially and politically but for India as well.