In 2002, an unlikely figure ran as the presidential candidate against Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Captain Lakshmi Sahgal was a lieutenant in the Indian National Army during World War II, who fought with Subhash Chandra Bose and the Japanese against the British. She lost the nomination but remains one of the most fascinating women to ever run for president in India.
It was in a German submarine, travelling underwater from Germany to Japan, that Bose came up with the idea of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment (RJR) for the Indian National Army (INA).
Named after Rani Lakshmi Bai, the fierce rebel of the Revolt of 1857, the RJR was an all-woman fighting force that numbered up to 156 in 1943. To help recruit women to its cause, an equally fierce modern-day Lakshmi was found in Dr. Lakshmi Swaminathan, a 28-year old doctor who became Bose’s most trusted Lieutenant.
In her life, Lakshmi saw the story of India play out from World War I to 2012. She played many roles, from doctor to revolutionary and later Communist Party worker. Towards the end of her life, she devoted herself to activism and nursing the poor.
She was born in Madras on October 24, 1914. Her parents were highly educated and Lakshmi sought similar heights for herself – obtaining her MBBS from Madras Medical College in 1938. The next year, she studied gynaecology and obstetrics. After a brief marriage with a pilot, she left for Singapore in 1940.
When Singapore fell to the Japanese forces in 1942, Lakshmi was best placed to help form the RJR. Bose’s plan was to recruit Indians to the INA, and form an army that could take back the Indian subcontinent with the help of the Japanese. She was a skilled doctor, familiar with the community, and spoke Tamil and Malalayam. She travelled door-to-door, and recruited 20 women. Dressed in saris, they trained with the heavy Lee Enfield .303 rifle. They wore Khaki, and cut their hair short.
Bose convinced Lakshmi to lead the RJR, on the grounds that the liberation of India with the participation of women would lead to their own liberation from men. The combination of Bose and Lakshmi saw volunteers come in from across the region – even from the Malay peninsula. For raising the number of troops up to 156 (in a later account, she says the regiment numbered 1700), Bose honoured Lakshmi with the title ‘Captain’ – which she held for the rest of her life.
The INA chapter of Lakshmi’s life did not end with victory. Her regiment was largely deployed as nurses, healing the wounded during the INA’s retreat through the Burmese forests in 1945. Lakshmi was the only woman in Bose’s Azad Hind government as its Minister of Women’s Affairs, but a violent takeover of independence was not to be. She was captured in Burma, where she remained until 1946.
During her time in the INA, Lakshmi married Prem Sahgal, and they had a daughter together.
The independent communist
When Lakshmi was very young, her grandfather had exhorted her not to touch an untouchable girl – lest she go blind. Defiantly, she picked the child up in her arms and shouted
You see, nothing happened. Nothing at all. And I knew that nothing would happen!
Throughout her life, she maintained a compassion for the weakest sections in society. As a young revolutionary, she had dreamt of serving as a doctor for an Independent India. But the violence of partition made her realise just how much nursing, the wounded nation needed. She moved in with her husband to a textile mill in Kanpur, where she set up a clinic for the sick.
In 1970, she started getting involved with the Communist Part of India (Marxist). Her affinity for the left began at her childhood home, where her family housed India’s first woman member of the Communist Party, Suhasini Nambiar, who was forced to go underground.
During the 1971 war with Pakistan, Lakshmi helped tend to the wounded and starving refugees in refugee camps near the border. The next year, she joined the CPI(M). And in 1982, she helped found the CPI(M)’s woman’s wing – the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA).
1984 was a year of double tragedy. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy that killed thousands saw Lakshmi visit the city with a medical team to ascertain the effect of the deadly gas on pregnant women. Not too long after, she had to deal with the anti-Sikh riots that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination – Kanpur being particularly affected.
In 2002, she became the first woman to run for president. Her opponent was none other than A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. She lost, but used her campaign to raise awareness on poverty and injustice. It was a rare clash of candidates – voters would have been happy with either as president.
Until the very last day of her life, at the age of 98, she regularly saw patients at her clinic. The first Indian woman to run for president lived a full life to the very end.
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