Lakshmi Swaminathan Sahgal was born in Madras in 1914 to S Swaminathan and A Menon. During one of my several meetings with her, Lakshmi, who was trained to be a doctor, told me, “My reasons for going to Singapore in 1940 were to be free from a marriage and to also to join a college classmate to set up a practice.” In Singapore, she recounted, “Netaji asked members of the Indian Independence League if there is one woman I can communicate my idea to. I had been pestering them for a chance, so I had a six-hour meeting with him.”
She added: “Netaji asked me to start recruiting for the Rani of Jhansi regiment, which was to be the first armed military regiment of women to fight the British.” She said, “In October our first camp was ready with 300 volunteers. During that time, Netaji told me that he was going to form the provisional government of Azad Hind and he was making me a cabinet minister, in-charge of the regiment.”
When I asked her whe-ther Netaji envisaged these women would enter combat, she replied, “Yes. The training was done in Singapore but the transition to Burma was precarious. We were subjected to air raids and often the tracks had been bombed.”
Once in Rangoon, Netaji sent her to a nursing station in Maymyo, Upper Burma. She recalled: “In Maymyo, we had too many casualties coming from the front. The INA was able to defeat major British forces on the Indo-Burmese border and we even had our flag flying in Moirang in Manipur. But our objective was Imphal. But, after the defeat at Imphal, Netaji disbanded the regiment”. Lakshmi stayed on in Burma and worked in an INA military hospital. She was captured by the Guerilla Task Force 136 and they marched the prisoners to Toungoo. “The trek took 10 days through heavy terrain. Finally, I was taken to Rangoon. I was first put under surveillance. Several journalists visited us and I was able to put out the story of the INA and the regiment,” she remembered.
“The British then arrested me and sent me to Kalaw in the Shan hills and in March 1946, sent me back to India. I reached Calcutta penniless.” She married the legendary Prem Sahgal also of the INA who along with General Dhillon and Shah Nawaz Khan faced the Red Fort trials and galvanised India towards freedom. The couple settled down in Kanpur where she continued to serve the poor. After serving refugees at the border during the Bangladesh war, she joined the CPI(M) and even contested the presidential elections against APJ Abdul Kalam but this was more to put up a valiant fight, than to actually win.
I once asked her how she acted in such a free manner at a time when women were in purdah. She replied “We were freer, than you all. We were free in our minds. The struggle for freedom is for others. We got only political freedom; you will have to fight for economic and social freedom”. Lakshmi Sahgal, I and my generation salute you!
Sagari Chhabra is author of the forthcoming book In Search Of Freedom — a journey through India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Burma and director, Asli Azaadi The views expressed by the author are personal.