Until a few days before she died, 98-year old Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal left her home at 9am for her clinic, located in a working class district of Kanpur (India). She opened her doors of this clinic for the past sixty years, providing reliable and cheery medical care to her patients. This medical training and practice was central to the political and social life of Dr. Sahgal. She was driven by her medical ethics and her medical service: when she went to provide medical care for the Bangladeshi refugees in 1970-1 and when she went to tend to the survivors of the Union Carbide factory explosion in Bhopal in 1984 (she wrote an important report on the impact of the poisonous gas on pregnant women).
Born in 1914, Lakshmi Swaminadhan took her medical degree in 1938 from the Madras Medical College. Lakshmi’s parents were part of the freedom movement, which was not only against British colonialism but also for social reform (to open temples to dalits, untouchables, to end child marriage and dowry). In college, Lakshmi found herself askance of Gandhi’s movement, whose insistence on non-violence and close collaboration with Indian capitalists dismayed her. Communist ideas filtered into her college, through activists such as Suhasini Chattopadhyay (the sister of Sarojini Naidu) and books such as Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China.
Lakshmi took her medical training to Singapore in 1940, working at a hospital as war crept out of the South China Sea into Malaysia. Three years into her practice in Singapore, Lakshmi met the nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose. Like Lakshmi, Bose had become disenchanted with the Gandhian strategy against imperialism. He wanted to take advantage of the contradictions within the major powers, to use Japanese ambitions against English obduracy. Lakshmi told Bose that she wanted women to be a fundamental part of the armed struggle, “I know women in our country are suffering from very grave social and economic disabilities…but even after freedom, women will have to fight for their rights and their proper place in our society, because men won’t give it to them that easily, they’ve had their own way all these centuries…it’s so ingrained in them. So this will be an opportunity for women to fight for their own rights.”
At age 29, Lakshmi joined Bose’s struggle, becoming the Commander of the Rani of Jhansi regiment (all-women) of Bose’s Indian National Army (INA). Captain Lakshmi briefly hung up her stethoscope for the gun, and led her regiment to Burma in December 1944. When Bose set up the Azad Hind (Free India) government, Lakshmi was the Minister of Social Welfare and Medicine. When Bose’s INA would not allow the women to the frontline, they wrote to him, “Our training has been satisfactory and complete. But we are now denied access to the front-line. We are reduced to a corps of nurses.” Bose complied with their wishes, to his own advantage. At the famous battle of Imphal, the two thousand strong Rani of Jhansi regiment defeated a British force, and in the battle of Moulmein (Mawlamyine) they provided the defensive line until Bose himself was able to get out to safety. The Regiment eventually retreated in March 1945, and took shelter in the Zamindar of Ziawadi’s sugar plantation and factory. The British bombed the plantation, and as Nilanjana Sengupta reports, “Many of the factory workers were fatally burned. The few who were alive were in ineffable agony as the hot molasses stuck to their flesh and splintered bones. It was Captain Lakshmi and her team’s task to nurse these miserable men. She calls it a scene from ‘Dante’s inferno.’” Arrested in May 1945, Captain Lakshmi was held in captivity in Burma till March 1946 when she returned to India.
The captured INA force (20,000 at its height) was repatriated to India. The British tried three INA officers in Delhi’s Red Fort: one Muslim (Major General Shah Nawaz), one Sikh (Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon) and one Hindu (Colonel Prem Sahgal), religious equity in a way despite the fact that Sahgal at least was an atheist. A massive campaign to release them briefly pushed the Indian Left to the forefront of the national movement. Nehru put on his lawyer’s robe to defend the officers. Captain Lakshmi and Colonel Prem got married in March 1947 in Lahore, where the fires of Partition had already begun to burn.
The Sahgals moved to Kanpur, where Dr. Sahgal started her medical practice to tend to the Partition refugees who streamed in from the newly created Pakistan and social refugees who had been dislocated by the riots that followed. Her clinic was open to those of all religious backgrounds, holding fast to the best traditions of Indian pluralism. The daily work of healing defined a great deal of Lakshmi Sahgal’s life. It was this attention to the individual and to the collectivity that thrust her into the major struggles of the next several decades. During the lead-up to the creation of Bangladesh (1971), a large number of refugees streamed into India. Dr. Sahgal went to Bengal to answer the call of the Communist Party of India-Marxist’s Jyoti Basu (and her own daughter, Subhashini Ali, by then a member of the party). The work amongst the refugees, side by side with the Communists, drew the fifty-seven year old doctor into the party. She told the journalist Parvathi Menon that this was “like coming home. My way of thinking was already communist, and I never wanted to earn a lot of money, or acquire a lot of property or wealth.”
Sahgal’s work with refugees and with the working-class in Kanpur gave her an acute sense of the everyday struggles of women, whose energy kept together a social fabric broken by war and capitalism. This instinct led to her participation in forming the All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) in 1981, and it is what fueled her daily activism and her extraordinary heroism (during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Sahgal was on the streets of Kanpur, as Menon notes, “confronting anti-Sikh mobs and ensuring that no Sikh or Sikh establishment in the crowded area near her clinic was attacked”). It is also the spirit that motivated her when the Left parties nominated her to for India’s presidency in 2002. Sahgal knew she could not win, but she used the “contest to fight,” traveling around the country to push ideas of social justice and equity to the forefront.
In 2006, the filmmaker Singeli Agnew interviewed 92-year old Sahgal, who described her understanding of social justice that guided all of her professional and political commitments during her life. “Freedom comes in three forms,” she said. “The first is political emancipation from the conqueror, the second is economic and the third is social… India has only achieved the first.” The tasks before the Indian Left loomed, and she gave herself to overcome them.
Last week, Sahgal (age 98) was getting ready to leave home for her clinic when her heart gave out. She had given so much, and so willingly. It was time for a rest.
Elisabeth Armstrong teaches at Smith College, and is the author of the forthcoming Gender and Neoliberalism in India: The All India Democratic Women’s Association and Globalization Politics (Routledge).
Vijay Prashad teaches at Trinity College, and is the author, most recently, of Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today (New Press).