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The Importance of Being Lakshmi Sahgal

Captain Lakshmi's death saw glowing tributes paid to her in the media, even as this was denied in the near past to other such towering women involved in the women's movement since Independence. What was it about her that evoked such admiration? 

In a country where politics and politicians are currently the most berated community inviting the ire of the public at large, the response that “captain” Lakshmi Sahgal evoked in her death was truly encouraging. The fact that Lakshmi Sahgal hailed from Kerala, grew up in Chennai and had lived in Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, away from the seat of politics made it even more so.

At a time when a Bill to increase women’s political participation in elected bodies at the higher level has been hanging fire for over a decade and a half, this raises several questions to which there may not be any one answer. While part of the reason may lie in the very uniqueness of her personality, it may be worthwhile to explore how a communist, a woman and a nonagenarian at that, evoked such a response on her passing away.

Though such comparisons serve no purpose, and may even be misread or misrepresented, one may point out for instance that the death of no less a heroine than Aruna Asaf Ali, in the mid 1990s, did not draw forth a similar response. While the National Federation of Indian Women, (NFIW) an organisation she remained associated with for long, did conduct a condolence meeting which was attended by representatives of many women’s organisations many had felt at that time that for a woman of her stature, this was not tribute enough. The support that the Narasimha Rao government offered when she most needed it in her last days certainly ensured dignity to a woman whose life epitomised some of the most interesting possibilities that Independence had opened up for women in India.

Aruna Asaf Ali, hit the headlines with the Quit India movement in 1942 and every school going child would testify to the fact that her hoisting the flag in Bombay Maidan remains the most striking visual of that movement. She soon moved from the Congress to the Communist Party of India though the lines of her political affiliation often got blurred, given her proximity to both Jawaharlal Nehru and the Soviet establishment in the early years after Independence. But her distancing herself somewhat from the Nehru family in the face of the antics of the Sanjay Gandhi brigade evoked displeasure from Indira Gandhi and that perhaps marked a shift in her role at the national level. However, this too may be insufficient as an explanation for the lack of recognition given her location in the national capital and long involvement with politics at the centre as well as with the trade union and women’s movements in Delhi. The trajectory of Aruna Asaf Ali’s life remains significant for the women’s movement: transgression of strictly Gandhian norms of politics, a cross-community marriage, an early focus on women’s “work” and the workers’ movement. Along with other communist women in the National Federation of Indian Women, she kept alive a tradition of activism from a socially progressive standpoint during the “silent years” in the history of the women’s movement, even as she remained caught in the limitations of the political line she was long associated with, her perceived proximity to the Nehru family and, perhaps, the inter-linkages between the two. Nevertheless, between the 1950s and 1970s, she, along with Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, represented the lineage and linkage of the women’s movement with the freedom struggle.

Pani Wali Bai”

Equally unfortunately, the death of Mrinal Gore, within the same week as the departure of Lakshmi Sahgal, did not go beyond an announcement in the national dailies. A remarkable woman in her own right, Gore, drawn into public life through the socialist stream, was one of the most respected political leaders in Maharashtra. She caught the public eye when she, along with Ahilya Rangnekar- a firebrand communist from pre-Independence days - launched the anti price rise movement (APRM), in the 1970s. This developed into a mass campaign with a strong political edge, with women masses hitting the streets, rolling pin in hand. Badhate Daam Ghatata Jeevan Maan, a slogan of the movement, summed up the link the women’s movement drew between the nature of economic progress and increasing vulnerabilities. The 1970s saw these two, along with Pramila Dandavate- an equally well known socialist woman parliamentarian in subsequent years- literally shake the municipal corporation and the state assembly. The APRM heralded a new form of women’s activism in the contemporary phase. Having first made her mark by highlighting a simple but basic necessity of water and mobilising women in Bombay city Mrinal came to be known as the “paani wali bai” (the water woman). Gore’s presence in Delhi prompted a popular slogan: paani wali bai dilli mein aur dilli wali bai paani mein, in the wake of escalating price rise and popular anger against it in the early 1980s, after Indira Gandhi’s comeback election.

Mrinal Gore appeared on the national scene in the post Emergency period when all three- Gore, Rangenkar and Dandavate- shifted their arena of activity to the national capital, with the first two having been elected to Parliament in 1977 and the third shifting base along with her husband Madhu Dandavate, the then railway minister. Gore’s shift to Delhi was instrumental in extending the work of the Mahila Dakshata Samiti to Delhi. From the start, she pushed for joint action by women. In later years, this task was taken forward by Dandavate who followed up her interventions on the floor of the House with the joint movement of women’s organisations against dowry, under the banner of the Dahej Virodhi Chetna Manch. Gore, however, shifted back to Maharashtra where she steered legislation on the sex determination tests. The rising tide of right wing politics did not spare her. The Shiv Sena targeted her on many occasions even as the waning of the Socialist Party’s influence limited the scope of her political interventions. Gore’s passing, though it received wide coverage in the Maharashtra press, went largely unnoticed at the national level although few would forget the influence she and her associates had on young women growing up in Maharashtra in the latter part of the last century.

The making of Captain Lakshmi

Somewhat in contrast with the fading away of public memory with regard to these two at the national level, is the case of Lakshmi Sahgal.

Sahgal grew up in Madras , and soon after completing her medical education enlisted as a doctor serving in Singapore, where her meeting with Subhash Chandra Bose’s drew her into the struggle. She responded to Bose’s call to all Indians including women to join the Indian freedom struggle by enlisting themselves for service in the Indian National Army. Being the daughter of Ammu Swaminathan, associated with the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) from its inception, for Lakshmi, the lines between the personal and political were continuously blurred. With the AIWC being the most significant voice of Indian women’s movement in the decades prior to Independence, she had early exposure to the link between women’s issues and the freedom struggle despite AIWC maintaining an apparent distance from the Congress. For Lakshmi the boycott and burning of foreign cloth, picketing and the politics of the Gandhian era were a given. She had grown up with it and drew upon this legacy to frame issues and her own consciousness. She never drew a line between politics and activism on women’s issues. Social change, justice and dignity were integral to the framing of her mental world as also the links between politics with reference to national events or its link with daily life. What changed her life was the meeting with Subhash Chanda Bose and she never failed to make a note of that. After Independence, though she consciously chose to stay away from the politics of power and the coteries operating at work in the corridors of power, she remained deeply political in a fundamental sense remaining ever sensitive to the suffering of the people.

It is this, along with her professional commitment to the medical profession which kept her close to the people and sensitive to the political upheavals overtaking the country, be it Partition, the 1971 events, Bhopal or the anti Sikh riots. She joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the 1970s and later became a founder member of the All India Democratic Women’s Association in 1981. The latter gave her a fitting platform to take forward her commitment to issues of social change and women’s rights and from then till she became a patron of the organisation with advancing age, she was ever ready, present and available for any campaign or struggle launched. Her humility, willingness to perform any task, including translating for comrades into different languages at meetings, were all part of her matter of fact approach to tasks at hand. Seeing her, all sense of personal woes faded into insignificance. Above all, her laughter and sense of joy were legendary and infectious, to say the least. This living legend deserved a fitting tribute and for once the media responded graciously.

Nevertheless the questions raised above remain. The purpose here is not to assess, judge or compare the personalities. Not only would that be in poor taste, it would be positively insulting to the departed leaders, all of remarkable stature and whose contributions were significant, each in their own way. However, whether their role and contributions will get be sufficient recognition, not just by the women’s movement, but also by others, depends on the dynamics that operates within the domain of politics in India.

The issue is what catches the public eye and, what remains etched in public memory? Is it the image, or the person, or her work which gives it a lasting place in public memory to prevail over more immediate political issues? And, what is lost and why? Why is women’s contribution allowed to fade away so soon? Why does the national press take only selective and inadequate note of the passing of such unparalleled women in India’s history?

This needs examination if we wish to engage with the possibilities of women’s activism and the scope for intervention at the level of national agendas. This also has to be taken note of in the context of on-going discussions about 33% reservation, ”feminist politics” and “feminist perspectives” in India.

Interestingly all the three women mentioned here were not part of the mainstream Congress determined politics through all or most of their life. Nevertheless, at the level of personal friendships, or even political dialogue, each criss-crossed political boundaries, to take forward a process of constructive thinking on issues, especially with a view to advancing the struggle for change at the social level. Together and separately they were deeply aware of the intensity of social prejudice and the weight of conservative thinking and the hostilities contained therein. All three had faced these at different points of time in different ways in their own personal lives.

Yet, the initial response to the departure of Lakshmi Sahgal holds out hope that things may change. In this instance the electronic media, newspapers, national and regional/ language press, cutting across different languages carried the news with prominent headlines and visual displays. More pages were devoted to her life and struggle than may have been given to any other woman who did not hold public office in recent years.

Reasons for Media coverage

Was this pan Indian coverage a result of the story of her life: having strong roots in Kerala and Tamilnadu and then making Kanpur, a leading industrial centre in north India her base? Or was it the fact that the site of her struggle had a touch of the international, with her having entered political life under the banner of the INA, that too in faraway Singapore? Was it the romance of a woman commanding a regiment in action on the front at the height of the Second World War, that too facing the wrath of the British on the North eastern Frontier, marching from Burma through thick forest and jungle, only to be arrested and then released to a heroine’s welcome? Or, is Lakshmi Sahgal in the news today because of her children and grandchildren, being the mother of Subhashini Ali, as one internet input described her!

Equally interesting is the fact that despite attempts at raising controversy surrounding certain parts of her life, as happened in the case of her portrayal in a television serial on Bose and the INA, telecast in the 1980s, Sahgal herself remained calm and unfazed. While the depiction of the most public woman face of the INA as a woman who smoked invoked public ire it did not affect her stature.

Her allegiance to Subhash Chandra Bose remained unquestioned. She would respond with the same zeal when questions were put to her about Bose and his meetings with Adolf Hitler at the height of the War. Interestingly, she remained a popular figure on CPI(M) platform even though for years she never emerged as one of its prominent leaders at the national level in the organisational hierarchy. Yet , the popularity she enjoyed amongst the masses and mass organizations, apart from the AIDWA, of which she was a founder member and prominent office bearer and later a patron, far exceeded her official ranking in the party organisation. In fact she was the only woman leader in the party who enjoyed support in all parts of the country, matching perhaps only the mass appeal , in a different way, of AK Gopalan, considering she never enjoyed the status of someone like the unparalleled Jyoti Basu .

So what explains the wide popularity and iconic political stature of Lakshmi Sahgal in the public mind?

Was it the fact that she contested the Presidential election against A.P.J. Abdul Kalam? Or the fact that she did so at a point of time when the left democratic platform was still holding out hope for making a different India possible?

Perhaps the answer lies in the combined appeal of her politics, the context in which it was intervening as well as her own personality. The consistent, fearless and outspoken anti-imperialism with no compromise stayed till the end. In these days of nuanced and ambiguous response to imperialist driven globalisation this was no small feat and she could teach many an academic a thing or two about it. The image of the young Lakshmi marching with rifle slung on her shoulder, leading her band of Ranis, as they were called, marching to the tune of Kadam Kadam badhae Jaa, was an endearing one. At a time when many of our leaders are projecting the early years of Independence as having imposed shackles on the nation holding back its growth and shining future, this may be something to ponder over.

Her commitment to socialism and equality, the former never spelt out in brazen terms, was unquestioned and her everyday professional activity personified her commitment to this. The openness with which embraced the public image of “mummy” to one and all was a combination of the manner in which she performed her role as a woman with being a professional gynaecologist playing doctor to one and all. Being “mummy” did not adversely affect her or limit her vision. Rather it expanded the arena of her activity and the support she garnered for the issues she lent her voice to. Her professional skills were there at the service of all, be it for personal health care, or on occasions such as the Partition, 1971 or in the aftermath of Bhopal.

Equally uncompromising was her commitment to a modern secular India. Be it the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, or the Gujarat riots she was clear in her public interventions and outspokenly so. She was not one to shy away from taking positions willingly lending her voice, active support and time to advance the struggle for communal harmony, secularism and against sectarian violence. Notwithstanding her age she would travel long distances, and stand or march for hours in rallies, delivering speeches, appealing to the people for sanity and above all humanity.

Equally remarkable was her commitment and life long struggle for women’s rights and individual freedom. It was part of her combined vision of a modern India for all and not tied to a label of feminism. She was open about her first marriage and its failure, her departure to alien lands to practise medicine despite her being drawn from an affluent family, championing of women’s right to life, liberty and dignity. These were never open to negotiation in her own mind though she would/could dialogue with all and sundry on them, nor were they part of a fragmented ideological construct where women stood out separately from other social movements.

For a better India

Equally, it was the joyous spirit she brought to her endeavour which endeared her to the masses. While the parameters of her actions were spelt out by her ideological commitment, she did not allow this to narrow the frame of her interventions. Her success in merging social and political goals without pretence or personal ambition made her stand out in times when politics is largely seen to be the domain of self seekers. Lakshmi Sahgal held out hope to millions of young women and men across India that a better India was both possible and worth struggling for. It is in this that she rose above her comrades to redeem politics by providing a living example of how ideological beliefs can be lived and spelt out differently and to drive home the point that women’s rights are part of a wider struggle for equality, justice and social change where rights are a matter of collective bargaining and not just a means of personal advance. The linkages with wider social structures and historical phenomenon, were never separate or fragmented in the vision that guided her activity.

Her life, as also her death, offers an opportunity to question many of the assumptions and perceived wisdom, including about women’s rights and activism. As Eric Hobsbawm would say, the struggle for women’s rights has to successfully project itself as a movement for social advance if it has to continue to have relevance within the canvas of social movements. Lakshmi Sahgal’s life will, hopefully, serve its purpose also for advancing our tools of social analysis to understand the depth and complexity of social change and human advance.  

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