The First Lady of Rev­o­lu­tion

In­dia’s leg­endary woman free­dom fighter made the lib­er­a­tion of poor her life’s work

India Today - - OBITUARY - By Brinda Karat

Lak­shmi Sehgal, coura­geous free­dom fighter, peo­ple’s doc­tor, cham­pion of women’s rights and com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion­ary, passed away on July 23 at the age of 98. On that rainy day in Kan­pur on the lawns of the Kan­pur Med­i­cal Col­lege, be­fore the mul­ti­tude that had come to bid her farewell, Cap­tain Lak­shmi Sehgal’s daugh­ters Sub­hashini and Anisa ful­filled her last wish to do­nate her body to the col­lege to be used for the ad­vance of med­i­cal knowl­edge. The prin­ci­pal of the col­lege ex­pressed his deep grat­i­tude for what he called an un­prece­dented gift. For some who at­tended the mov­ing funeral, there were ques­tions as to why there was no rep­re­sen­ta­tive from ei­ther the Cen­tral or state gov­ern­ment to pay homage to this re­mark­able woman.

But for Lak­shmi her­self, such churl­ish be­hav­iour from the Delhi dur­bar would have elicited noth­ing more than a shrug of her shoul­der. In­dia’s last leg­endary woman free­dom fighter was im­pla­ca­bly op­posed to the pol­i­tics of pa­tron­age and self- ag­gran­dis­e­ment that she be­lieved marked regimes in in­de­pen­dent In­dia. It was her dis­tance from those pow­ers and her close­ness to the peo­ple of In­dia, their joys and sor­rows, their ev­ery­day strug­gles, that one could say was re­flected in her last jour­ney— the ab­sence of the for­mer and the over­whelm­ing pres­ence of the lat­ter.

One of her most strik­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics was her ut­ter lack of any per­sonal am­bi­tion and her dis­arm­ing mod­esty about her own role in those his­toric events when she led Ne­taji’s Rani of Jhansi reg­i­ment and fought British troops. This re­flected a more fun­da­men­tal choice she made, that is her choice to live her life in the ser­vice of the poor. This was by no means an ap­proach based on ‘ char­ity’. It was a highly po­lit­i­cal way of look­ing at the world. She deeply be­lieved that In­dia’s in­de­pen­dence could never be de­fended un­less In­dia’s poor were lib­er­ated from lives of ex­ploita­tion and poverty and had a say in run­ning the coun­try. She joined the CPI( M) in the sev­en­ties and was a founder leader of the All In­dia Demo­cratic Women’s As­so­ci­a­tion. She was ac­tive in the trade unions too. This is also il­lus­tra­tive of the in­de­pen­dence of de­ci­sion- mak­ing pro­cesses within the house­hold— her hus­band Prem Sehgal, a com­rade- in- arms in the INA and na­tional hero, ac­cused in the in­fa­mous 1947 Red Fort tri­als, was part of the man­age­ment of a mill where she and her daugh­ter, Sub­hashini, red flags in hand, pick­eted out­side.

It was in her mod­est clinic in Kan­pur that she de­voted her­self to treat­ing the poor, day in and out, never turn­ing any­one away, scold­ing, ca­jol­ing, coun­selling, earn­ing her­self the nick­name Mummy, even from men and women much older than her­self. In fact, she played the role of a so­cial re­former fight­ing to end su­per­sti­tions and mean­ing­less rit­u­als in the lives of those she came in contact with. She was a great be­liever in fam­ily plan­ning to pro­tect women’s health and we were of­ten in splits of laugh­ter when she would re­peat to us some of the choice phrases she had used in her lec­tures to “ir­re­spon­si­ble men”. She ab­horred the caste sys­tem and spoke pas­sion­ately against it, al­ways en­cour­ag­ing in­ter­caste marriages which she would make a point to at­tend. She didn’t mince words when con­fronted with dis­hon­esty or bad pol­i­tics. There is a telling story of how once at a com­mem­o­ra­tion rally in Bom­bay, when a politi­cian be­long­ing to a no­to­ri­ously com­mu­nal po­lit­i­cal party came up to touch her feet, she quickly drew them up and said, no thank you, first wipe the blood off your hands.

She stood as the can­di­date of the Left and some sup­port­ing par­ties in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in 1992. It was not her loss when she was de­feated. It was In­dia that lost the op­por­tu­nity to have a woman of such sub­stance, an in­spi­ra­tional hu­man be­ing, prin­ci­pled and in­cor­rupt­ible, as its first ci­ti­zen.

Her life is part of the In­dian peo­ple’s strug­gle for jus­tice. She will never die.

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