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'The people in charge of this country are an
ambitious, self-serving bunch of tired old men'

Dr Lakshmi Sehgal "She (Lakshmi) had this gift, that people had faith in her. In a doctor, especially in India, you have to have a certain faith. I know that a lot of people will now say, 'Doctor Lakshmi is here, we don't have to fear anything.' I think that touch was there even then," eminent danseuse Mrinalini Sarabhai once said of her sister, Colonel Lakshmi Sahgal.

It could have been this trait that encouraged Subhas Chandra Bose to focus on Dr Lakshmi Sahgal as the leader of his new all-woman Indian National Army unit, the Rani of Jhansi regiment.

Today, more than half a century later, this quality still forms a prominent part of Colonel Lakshmi's character. This heroine of India's struggle for Independence will not mince words when it comes to accountability - she tells Savera Someshwar there are many people who can be blamed for the degeneration of the Indian nation.

Do you agree with the way the freedom struggle was conducted?

Of course, not. Our freedom movement moved on the wrong track. It was the British who decided what kind of freedom we should get. Which is why we did not get the freedom we wanted, we got a divided freedom.

Nor did we direct our anger against the British. We were very happy with them, they had left our country. Instead, all our anger was directed against our own people. Such terrible riots took place. If all that bloodshed and violence had taken place for the sake of freedom, it would have made such a big difference. Instead, we let such terrible acts of violence take place after we gained Independence.

As a result, we have deteriorated not just politically, not just communally, but even in our behaviour. We have become barbarous, specially in our conduct towards people weaker than us. The kind of brutality that we show towards women, towards children and the weaker sections of society is because the freedom movement did not take the proper route, but went into compromise and division.

How would you account for this degeneration of the Indian character?

We have become self-centered and money-minded. We always talk of being so religious and so god-fearing but that is a load of rubbish. Today, the only god that exists is the god of money, that is the only god we worship. Of course, this has become peculiar to the whole world now. Money has become the new criterion.

Add to that, there is no proper leadership, there are no ideals that people can adopt or follow. Even though we have such a valuable media, what do people see? They see that people who have amassed millions of rupees through unfair and illegal means are going scot-free.

So what is the fellow who wants something but cannot get it out of his earnings supposed to do? He will not think twice about killing someone to get it, of stealing what he wants or needs. He can see that this is the prevalent trend these days. And these people are not punished, he also hopes to go scot-free.

During the freedom struggle, did you ever dream what India would be like?

Not really. But I did not, even in my wildest dreams, think that India would be partitioned. I knew there would be a lot of difficulties, but this was totally unexpected.

Also, I did not feel there would be this great gulf between the rich and the poor, between the haves and the have-nots. I felt that there would be some kind of egalitarian society, that some kind of social justice would prevail. Instead, this gulf in our society has been wider. All this has come as a great shock and sorrow to me.

What are the main problems facing India today?

The main problem of India then, and now, is extreme poverty. Except for the United States, I've been throughout the world. You don't see this kind of poverty and squalor anywhere, not even in Africa.

I felt that there would be a terrific social revolution where all these archaic customs would be cast off. That education would be free and people would be encouraged to take advantage of it.

Besides, we have no civic sense at all. And we have an omnipotent caste system. We have been taught, from childhood, that the dirt we make will be cleaned up by somebody else. We have been told that we are too superior to touch the dirt that we ourselves have created.

I see this happening every day outside my clinic in Kanpur. Though I have people to do this kind of work, I personally clean the place in front of my dispensary. Even that does not prevent my neighbours from littering the place.

When the poor municipal worker comes there every morning, the place is like a pig sty. Even before she moves on, the neighbours will start throwing their rubbish out of the window. But none of them will allow a sweeper to enter their houses. It is a very callous attitude.

When did we start going wrong?

From day one. We went wrong from the minute we accepted Partition. Unfortunately, the people who are in charge of this country are an ambitious, self-serving bunch of tired old men.

Colonel Lakshmi's photographs: Atul Chowdhury