The First Lady of Revolution
India’s legendary woman freedom fighter made the liberation of poor her life’s work
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.