Lakshmi Sahgal : A Revolutionary Life by R Ravishankar SignUp

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Lakshmi Sahgal : A Revolutionary Life
by R Ravishankar Bookmark and Share

After all the hooplah about the need for a consensus on our next President, we are going to have an election after all! However, the fact that Dr. Kalam is going to win handsomely takes nothing away from Dr Lakshmi Sahgal's service to the society. Her life has been a saga of unwavering commitment to egalitarianism and gender equality. Handpicked by Netaji to lead the Rani of Jhansi regiment of the Indian National Army (INA), she recruited and trained the Ranis in Singapore and Burma. She also headed the Department of Women's Affairs in the provisional government of the Azad Hind, and stayed with her comrades in the jungles of Burma until the British caught up with her in 1945. After a month of intensive interrogation, when the restrictions were slackened, she even managed to hold an INA meeting and hoist the Indian flag in British-ruled Burma! This created a splash in the Indian newspapers, and she was promptly put under house arrest.

Though the INA collaborated with the Axis powers, there never was any convergence of views between them. When asked how he could fight alongside the Nazis, Netaji said, "It is dreadful, but it must be done. It is our only way out. India must gain her independence, cost what it may. Have you any idea, ... of the despair, the misery, the humiliation of India? Can you imagine her suffering and indignation? British imperialism there can be just as intolerable as your Nazism here." Netaji was of the view that while we were enslaved, we should have a pragmatic foreign policy and befriend our enemy's enemy. The consequences of an Axis victory are debatable, but this doesn't in any way diminish the sacrifices of the INA heroes. Unfortunately, INA's allying with the Axis powers created a lot of misgivings in India, and once the USSR entered the war, the INA lost the support of the radical forces in India. The Congress was of course always opposed to violent means. This, coupled with the British propaganda of Netaji being a stooge of the Japanese ensured that when Dr Sahgal finally came to India in 1946, it wasn't all approbation. With several of the INA fighters, particularly the illiterate among them, left in the lurch, she quickly busied herself in the INA Relief Committee (which was supervising the repatriation of the civilian recruits of INA). In 1947, sensing the danger of communal violence, Dr Sahgal and some of her INA comrades made an unsuccessful attempt at proclaiming their solidarity and freedom from the virus of communalism. A staunch opponent of partition and a proponent of Indo-Pak unity, she says in one of her interviews, "Hamare mathe pe nahin likha hain ke hum Pakistani hain ki Hindustani hain (Whether we are Pakistanis or Indians is not written on our foreheads)". How soothing in these times of war-mongering and brave-talk!

After her offer of honorary medical service (in the Government hospital in Kanpur) was turned down by Vijayalakshmi Pandit, the then Minister of Health, she established her own clinic in Kanpur which she runs to this day. In 1971, when West Bengal was facing a deluge of refugees from Bangladesh, she volunteered for the People's Relief Committee in Calcutta. And when the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) was started in 1980, she was elected one of its Vice-Presidents. Last year, she was elected patron of the UP state unit of AIDWA, after three terms as president. During the 1984 Kanpur riots (in the aftermath of the Indira Gandhi assassination), along with a few other committed people, she took to the streets to contain violence. The state finally took note of her services to the society and in 1998, awarded her the Padma Vibhushan. Not one to rest on her laurels, this angry young lady continues to fight against feudalism and the omnipotent caste system. She personally cleans the place in front of her clinic, for she doesn't want to leave these jobs to the menials.

Dr Sahgal and her Ranis have pretty well smashed the stereotypical image of women being passive, submissive and docile. Those of us who never miss an opportunity to cry foul at the atrocities on women and claim to fight for their rights couldn't have found a better ally. Also, while we can't reconcile ourselves to Netaji's death and keep demanding a thorough probe into his disappearance, the INA veterans have fallen out of our memory. No doubt it's a little too late for several of them, but we could still make amends and acknowledge our gratitude by electing one of their own to be our next Prez. We have opportunity knocking at our door, but the way things stand at the moment, it's sure to go begging. Though Dr Sahgal's nomination is largely symbolic, and I salute her for having taken up a lost cause, I hope her message of peace and egalitarianism gets across.  

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