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The woman who broke the rules

By Payal Mohanka
October 24, 2006 08:17 IST
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Sunlight filters through the leafy canopy in the courtyard, creating patterns on the floor. Outside vehicles jostle for space on a hot and dusty Kanpur thoroughfare. A long corridor leads into the interiors of a house steeped in history. Its occupant is an extraordinary woman, probably the only living link with the freedom struggle, Lakshmi Swaminadhan Sahgal, more popularly know as Captain Lakshmi.

She headed the only all-women's regiment in history. She is a woman who charted her own course and changed widely held perceptions of what was considered acceptable behaviour for women. Sahgal, who turns 92 October 24, continues to live an exemplary life.

A doctor by profession, Lakshmi Sahgal was selected by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose to head the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. This was part of Netaji's Indian National Army. A bronze plaque she received on the 50th anniversary of Independence sits proudly on the cabinet next to the dining table.

The walls are lined with photographs from bygone years interspersed with family photographs, a collage of the INA days, a faded portrait of Netaji, the women's regiment, Netaji inspecting a guard of honour... one can almost hear the sound of bugles, of marching feet.

India, 60

The gentle tinkling of the wind chimes with their swaying white doves brings us back to the present. Her short white hair frames her face, glasses perched on her nose, Sahgal pores over the newspaper. The years have not dimmed the twinkle in her eyes nor her passionate concern about the world around us.

Her leader Netaji felt that Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent struggle had its advantages but final victory could only come through armed struggle. "Netaji felt we were an indisciplined nation. We needed army training to bring a sense of discipline. I believed in his philosophy. Indisciplined violence is worse," she explains.

Netaji also wanted women to be equal partners in the freedom struggle. This was an idea that was scoffed at by the Japanese. But Netaji was determined to go ahead.

It was a chance meeting in Singapore where she was practising medicine in 1943 that changed the course of Sahgal's life. Impressed with her, Netaji selected her to lead the women's regiment. She accepted instantly.

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"I was struck by his sincerity. I could trust him completely. I felt it was a revolutionary idea."

Those were memorable days. She enjoyed the excitement of putting together a regiment with largely illiterate lower middle class women, wives of rubber estate workers and PWD workers.

After three months' training they had been transformed. Their health and physical stamina had improved. They were enthused and determined to achieve their goal. The women's regiment comprised 1,000 women and 200 nurses, while the INA had 60,000 men.

The news of Netaji's death in an air crash in 1945 while flying from Saigon to Japan had stunned them. Initially, they did not believe it. "We were only convinced when Habib-ur-Rehman, an INA member who had survived the air crash met us," she says.

If their leader had survived, history would have been different. He was totally against Partition. He did not believe in the two-nation theory. "We fought for the independence of India, we didn't fight for this," she adds with a sigh.

Memories come rushing back... "The majority felt that the INA should be taken back into the Indian Army but Mountbatten (the last British viceroy and first governor general of India) dissuaded Nehru from doing so. He convinced him it would spoil the discipline."

One great battle had been won but more lay ahead. Her leader had a two-fold plan. Independence from British rule and independence for women. The first had been achieved but a lot more remained to be done.

"White rulers have made way for brown ones. The system remains the same," she laments.

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Sadly, in the autumn of her life, there is a sense of disappointment. It isn't just that the INA never got its due. "We have not yet achieved what had been our goal at that time. Our leader had always spoken of freedom and its three parts: political, financial and social. While we achieved the first, the rest is still unchanged. The position of women is still unfortunate. Social evils continue unabated. The caste system still thrives."

An old recollection brings a smile to her face, "An INA soldier was once being interrogated by an Indian officer at the behest of the British. The officer asked, 'Jaat kya hai?' (What is your caste?) The INA soldier replied, 'Netaji kehtey hai do jaat hai. Aadmi aur janwar. Mein aadmi hoon.' (Netaji says there are two castes. Human beings and animals. I am a human being.]

Child marriages still take place and dowry deaths are still happening. "It is sad how consumerism has led to a hankering for material goods. We had dreams of social change," she adds wistfully.

Even today she works for less privileged women and also attends her 50-year-old clinic, Dr Lakshmi Sahgal's Clinic and Maternity Home, for lower middle class women.

Clad in a pale pink salwar kameez, she is all set to reach the clinic at sharp 10 am. The frail frame belies the energy within. The mind is vibrant. Four hours each day of the week, her involvement in the day-to-day activities of the clinic keeps her going. Catering to mostly mill workers' families, the charges are extremely nominal, ensuring a steady stream of patients.

A veteran gynaecologist, she is a source of inspiration for all those around her. She takes down the case history, studies an ultrasound report, wears her rubber gloves and examines patients.

Dr Shobha Vij, who has been working with her in the clinic for close to three decades says, "There is so much one can learn from her. She keeps herself updated in every sphere: social, political, cultural. She has a sensitive way of handling her patients. I have learnt self-grooming from her, the importance of not neglecting myself. Her positive attitude towards life has influenced me too. I learn something new from her every day."

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Her sentiments are echoed by Dr Feroz Khan, another lady doctor attached to her clinic, who has known her for four decades, "She has enormous strength. She has always wanted women to be self-reliant. Only this can lead to the empowerment of women. She can face anything and take it in her stride."

During the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, she single-handedly faced unruly crowds. Her presence was enough to make lumpen elements retreat. She even brought several Sikhs home in a bid to protect them from the mayhem that had engulfed Kanpur.

Her daughter Subhashini Ali, who has been named after her hero Subhas, also works for the rights of women through the All India Democratic Women's Association. AIDWA is an organisation which Sahgal has been involved with for the last two-and-a-half decades. Her mother has certain striking traits of which Subhashini, a former member of Parliament from Kanpur, is proud.

She remembers the day when her mother had two wedding invitations. One from an affluent person, the other living a hand-to-mouth existence. Without making an issue, she quietly went to the less privileged person's celebration. "She is totally fearless about expressing herself and saying what she believes in... There was an occasion in 1997 when she was being felicitated in Bombay on the anniversary of Quit India. While she was on the dais with Prime Minister I K Gujral, Maharashtra Chief Minister Manohar Joshi touched her feet. His allegiance to a right-wing party which had played an unsavoury role in communal riots was in sharp conflict with her political ideology. She recoiled, dragged her feet back and exclaimed, 'Don't you dare touch me with your blood-stained hands'," recounts Subhashini.

In 2002, the Leftist parties nominated her for the post of the President of India. One day she woke up with a smile on her face. Subhashini looked at her inquiringly, Sahgal continued to beam and said, "I dreamt I had become President. A lot of construction work was going on. There were busy women wearing white saris with blue borders all over. I had given Rashtrapati Bhavan to Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity to turn into a hospital!"

Inching her way through religious bigotry, male chauvinism, caste and economic exploitation, she continues to keep alive the INA's ideals of unity and equality for all Indians. Her yearning for freedom lives on. The fire still burns.

Photograph: Atul Chaudhry

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