She didn’t let anything stop her from following her passion to serve the nation. From being a doctor, to leading the first all-women regiment in the fight for India’s independence, Lakshmi Sehgal was a free bird and she made sure that she contributed to the country till her last breath. Read about one of India's most inspiring women ever!
The hands that healed the wounds, the soft touch that would assure speedy recovery, the fingers that checked the pulse could also hold the heaviest weapons, fire a revolver and aim a grenade. Have you heard of Lakshmi Sehgal, who as a young doctor also led the Rani of Jhansi regiment, one of the first women contingents of the world?
Born on October 24, 1914 in Madras (now Chennai), to a family of a lawyer and a social activist, Sehgal was always brave and followed her heart. When untouchability was a common practice in India, she went to a tribal girl, held her hand and asked her to play with her. She had to pay a price for following her heart but she never let that come in her way. She was married at a young age to a pilot P.K.N. Rao but she soon realized that it was a mistake and returned to her hometown in Madras to continue her MBBS.
In 1940, Sehgal moved to Singapore and started playing an active role in the India Independence League while also establishing a clinic for poor and migrant laborers from India. She met Prem Sahgal, a soldier from the Indian Army who had joined the INA, and married him in 1947, settling down in Kanpur. “He was the kind of person who when he took up something, gave it his all,” she said.
During her stay in Singapore, she aided various wounded prisoners of war who were interested in forming an Indian liberation army. She got to know about Subhash Chandra Bose’s determination to start a women’s regiment who could fight for Indian independence. Always interested in standing up for the country even if it meant going against the flow, Sehgal requested a meeting with him and set up the Rani of Jhansi regiment with Bose’s help. The initiative received a huge response from women and Sehgal became the captain of the regiment. Till date, she is referred to as “Captain Lakshmi”, an identity that always remained with her.
After returning to Kanpur to a non-political career, Sehgal was unsatisfied by the political condition of the country. “The fruits of independence were benefiting only a few — the white rulers had been replaced by darker ones,” she said.
In 1971, Sehgal joined the Communist Party of India and represented the party in the Rajya Sabha. While actively participating in politics, she also organized medical and aid camps for refugees who came to India from Bangladesh during the Bangladesh crisis. She was one of the founding members of All India Democratic Women’s Association in 1981. She was also nominated as a candidate in the presidential elections against Abdul Kalam in 2002.
Always keen on contributing in one way or another to the country, Sehgal led a medical team to Bhopal after the gas tragedy in 1984. She also worked towards restoring peace in Kanpur after the Sikh-riots, again in 1984. Never hesitating in presenting her views, Sehgal was also arrested for her participation in a campaign against the Miss World competition in Bangalore in 1996.
“Political democracy has given a new meaning to our independence. We have got the resources and the manpower. But, because of widespread greed, we have not been able to make the best use of them, to benefit all of us,” she said.
Sehgal dedicated her life to the country and its people. She looked for opportunities to contribute without thinking of the consequences. She continued to look after patients in Kanpur till the age of 92. As she charged a very minimal fee or sometimes nothing at all, there would always be a queue of patients waiting for her outside her clinic. She would herself clean the space outside her clinic and did most of her work on her own.
She died on July 19, 2012 due to a cardiac arrest at the age of 97, in Kanpur. Her body was donated to Kanpur Medical College for medical research. She was also awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award, by the then Indian president K. R. Narayanan.
There are people who do so much in their lifetime that it is hard to remember their contributions to the society. Lakshmi Sehgal is one such person who never let her passion to serve the country die. Sehgal saw it all, the British rule, India’s freedom and the transformation of the nation over a period of time and she always followed her duty passionately. Her journey has been truly inspiring and there is so much that we can learn from it.