Captain Lakshmi Sehgal, the warrior-doctor associate of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, fought tirelessly — first for the country’s freedom and then for the poor.
She also championed women’s rights and battled against injustice and the irrationalities of narrow and divisive thought.
Sehgal, 97, was relentless as well. She was preparing to go to her clinic in Kanpur on Thursday when she suffered a cardiac arrest at home. She never skipped going to her clinic and did not charge patients, who got free medicines too.
When the Left fielded her in the 2002 presidential election, Sehgal’s primary concern was her patients would suffer. She lost the election to APJ Abdul Kalam, but during the race, she helped patients over the phone.
Her courage is also legendary. During the anti-Sikh riots in l984, she stood fearlessly before screaming mobs on the streets of Kanpur. Not a single Sikh was attacked in the crowded Gwaltoli area where her clinic stands.
Sehgal was born Lakshmi Swaminadhan on September 24, 1914, in Chennai, to noted lawyer S Swaminadhan and freedom fighter AV Ammukutty.
As a youngster, she participated enthusiastically in nationalist programmes, burning foreign goods and picketing liquor vends.
Her decision to study medicine arose from a desire to serve the poor, especially women. She received her MBBS degree from the Madras Medical College in 1938. A year later, she received her diploma in Gynaecology and Obstetrics.
In l940, she left Chennai for Singapore, where she established a successful practice. Drawn towards the anti-British struggle in Singapore, she played an active role in the India Independence League.
In l942, the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese. Netaji arrived in Singapore on July 2, l943, and spoke of his determination to raise a women’s brigade of the Indian National Army, the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, to fight for Indian independence.
She met Netaji on July 5 and accepted his proposal to lead the regiment. The next day, she closed her clinic.
She was given the rank of Colonel — though she always remained Captain in public memory — and was active on both military and medical fronts.
She was captured and brought to India on March 4, l946. The British soon freed her, aware that her detention would trigger public outrage.
In March 1947, she married Colonel Prem Kumar Sehgal, who was also a leading light of the INA, in Lahore. They settled in Kanpur, where she plunged into her medical work soon because the influx of refugees from Pakistan had started.
She earned the trust of the Muslim population because she was the only doctor in Kanpur who would treat Muslims in a period vitiated by Partition.
Capt Sehgal joined the CPI(M) in 1971 and later represented the party in the Rajya Sabha. She was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the country’s second highest civilian award, in 1998.