Captain Lakshmi Sahgal: Working towards a Radical Transformation of Society

Keywords: Jhansi regiment, Indian national army, Subhas Chandra Bose, World War II, post-independence, gender discrimination, child marriage, economic justice, social reform, freedom fighters, women’s studies

(This interview was conducted on 11 September 2006)

How do you find words to describe a woman whose life speaks of courage, integrity and conviction? A woman who lived by her ideals and remained fiercely patriotic to her country even when her country did not always appreciate her sacrifice. A woman (who although disillusioned by the fact that the political freedom of the country did not bring socio-economic justice) continues to struggle against the prevailing caste, class and gender inequalities. I write about Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, a woman of infinite beauty, courage and charm, whose versatile abilities enabled her to raise the Rani of Jhansi regiment of the Indian National Army in 1942. Established at the behest of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, this experiment at establishing gender equality created the only all-women regiment in modern world history.

Marching shoulder to shoulder with the men in the INA, through the dense jungles of Burma towards the Indian borders, Captain Lakshmi shared S.C. Bose’s vision of free India. This was a vision that went far beyond the immediate goal of overthrowing colonial rule, to incorporate a utopian ideal of social and economic justice. It is in the pursuit of this vision that she continues (at the age of 92) to work as a doctor seven days a week, to meet the health needs of poor working class women.1 Her work, in essence, epitomizes her ideological commitments. Critical of caste, class and religious distinctions, Captain Lakshmi does not ask her patients to mention their surnames in their registration cards, as she believes that surnames reveal persons caste and class status and these social markers are anathema to this remarkable woman.

In my opinion, Captain Lakshmi has not been given her rightful due in contemporary Indian history. My school and college history lessons did not mention her or the Rani offhansi regiment that she established as the women’s regiment of the Indian National Army (INA) during the Second World War in order to free Indiafrom colonial rule. These books only made a passing reference to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and his attempt to raise the INA with Japanese help.

Even Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India published in 1946 makes only a cursory reference to the INA trials and makes no references to the heroic sacrifices made by those who were part of the INA.2 Percival Spear, on the other hand, in his History of India (Vol. II) implies that Netaji wished to become an Indian dictator with Japanese help.3

In the early years of Independence, the contribution made by the INA towards India’s freedom struggle was ignored. The official version of history highlighted the role of Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress party in this historic struggle and did not sufficiently acknowledge the contribution of other radical streams of politics to this struggle. Consequently Captain Lakshmi, her husband Col. Prem Sahgal and scores offreedom fighters of the INA were marginalized by the politics of the Post Independence India. The credit of restoring Captain Lakshmi and her Rani of Jhansi regiment to history goes to the emergence of feminist consciousness in the 1970s and the rise of the women’s movement. It is, as part of the feminist attempt to recover women’s voices from the past, that this remarkable history has been documented. These works include Captain Lakshmi memoirs and the writings of Rohini Gawankar and Parvati Menon.4 The interview of Captain Lakshmi is set against the backdrop of all these attempts to restore to history the life of this fearless woman (who like her namesake Lakshmibai of Jhansi) fought for India’s freedom.

She was born at a point of time when the ripples of the World War I were felt across the world and grew up in the early decades of the 20th century. Her political ideologies were therefore shaped by the trajectories of the nationalist/ social reform movements and the various socio-political issues that were debated during the period.

Veena Poonacha (VP): Your life is indeed very remarkable. Could you please tell us about your background and growing up years?

Lakshmi Sahgal (LS): I was born on 24 September 1914 as the second child of my parents. We were four brothers and sisters. I had an older brother called Govind, a younger brother called Subran and a younger sister called Mrinalini. She is Mrinalini Sarabhai. My father, S. Swam inadhan was a brilliant and leading lawyer practising criminal law at the Madras High Court; and my mother was A. V. Ammukutty. In her lifetime, my mother was a freedom fighter and as a member of the All India Women’s Conference and at one time its President,. She had tirelessly campaigned for women’s rights.5 My mother, in the course of her long career spanning both the pre and post Independence decades, had successfully contested election to the Madras Municipal Corporation, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. She had even served as a member of the Constituent Assembly.6

The marriage of my parents was indeed unconventional for those times.7 My father had won the prestigious Gilchrist Scholarship which entitled him to go to Edinburgh, Scotland to do a doctorate in law and later to Harvard University in the US. His educational aspirations had delayed his marriage and it was only at the age of 38 that he decided to get married. He wanted to marry the daughter of Perupilavil Govinda Menon who had helped him obtain his education.8 By this time, Govinda Menon was no more. My father therefore wrote to my grandmother, Ammu Amma, Govinda Menon’s widow, and asked for her daughter’s hand. My grandmother was not too keen on getting her 15-year-old daughter married to a much older man. However, her daughter, Ammukutty, took the decision out of her hand. She saw the marriage as an opportunity to escape the the confines of a narrow and rigid existence in a village and made up her mind to marry my father.9

VP: It is apparent that your parents were indeed far ahead of their times. Could you tell us a little more about your childhood and the influences that shaped your life?

LS: As I said earlier, I was the second child of my parents. My father and mother had very forward looking ideas and I faced no gender discrimination. My mother in fact was taught to read and write in English after her marriage. My parents entertained lavishly and we used to have a number of European visitors to our home. Our home environment was westernized as my father had decided views about race relationships and he believed that it was through good westernized education that Indians could overcome the existing racial divide. It was only later that he revised his views. Growing up in such an atmosphere, I did not face any kind of gender discrimination. My parents gave my sister and me the same opportunities as our brothers to study and develop our interests. My early schooling was in Church Park Convent in Madras, but later I shifted to a government school, from where I passed my Senior School Leaving Certificate in 1930. As a young girl I liked to read, ride horses, play tennis and swim.

VP: What are some of your happy childhood memories that you recall?

LS: Some of my fondest memories of my childhood are my visits to my grandmother’s home in Anakara. My grandmother, Ammu Amma was a very cultured and efficient woman, who managed the affairs of the Vadakath House. She however was orthodox and observed some of the age old pollution-purity norms governing caste. I still recall an instance when I came into conflict with her over these norms. In those days there used to be clear-cut rules governing the interactions between the various castes and tribes. While some of the lower castes were treated as untouchables, the various indigenous tribes were considered unapproachable. In order to ensure that we children observed these rules our grandmother had warned us that if we touched the members of the lower castes/ tribes we would go blind. I however was not convinced by this argument. So one day I walked up to a tribal girl who had come to the Vadakath House on an errand and held her hand. Since I did not go blind I realized that my grandmother had lied to me. I therefore ran to my grandmother and confronted her with my action. I asked her “Why did you lie to me?” My grandmother did not know how to react. My uncle, who was a Gandhian, finally managed to pacify my grandmother.

VP: You mentioned earlier, that your father changed his ideas about westernization later in his life. What made him change his views?

LS: My family was confronted with the ugly face of colonialism when my father took up what was subsequently described in the press as the Kadumbar murder trial. This was the case of a young zamindar, a minor, who harassed by the British warden appointed to look after his property, had. shot his warden dead. My father, knowing that the accused had no hope of a fair trial in Madras, succeeded in getting the case transferred to the Bombay High Court and won the case. His decision to defend the zamindar, however, changed our relationship with our English friends. Although we were children, we had to pay a price for our father’s courageous decision to defend the accused. My teachers in school asked me “How could your father defend a native who murdered a decent Englishman?” I had to remind them that all of them were natives and that the accused must have been innocent if he could be legally exonerated of murder. On one occasion, my mother, brothers, sister and I were travelling by train when an English woman we were acquainted with objected to us sitting in the same compartment as herself. She asked the ticket collector to throw us out of the compartment. My mother refused to budge and the woman was forced to change her seat instead.

By this time my parents, in response to Gandhiji’s call, had become increasingly nationalist. My father died in 1930. After that my mother became increasingly involved in the nationalist movement. Listening to Gandhiji’s call to boycott foreign clothes, as it deprived the Indians of their means of livelihood, my mother decided that we would make a bonfire of our foreign clothes. Appreciating the meaning of this protest, all of us children participated enthusiastically in burning foreign goods (including my own clothes and toys) and picketing of liquor shops. As a member of the AIWC my mother was involved in the various campaigns carried out by the AIWC, such as the entry of lower castes into temples, the abolition of the devadasi system and the prevention of child marriage. These issues had a tendency to divide families and I witnessed one such divide in my own family as my mother and aunt took opposing positions on the issue of child marriage. While my mother’s political involvement made me sensitive to the existing social injustices and I wished to fight against them, I did not entirely agree with the Gandhian ideology.

VP: On what issues did you disagree with the Gandhian ideals?

LS: I did not agree with Gandhiji’s call that students should drop out of government schools. I felt that education was important and should not be discarded. Therefore after passing out of school in 1930, I joined the Queen Mary’s College (QMC) in Madras. It was here that I met with the fairness of the English. The principal of the college was the sister of the man murdered in the Kadumbar case. I was sure that my application would be rejected as my father had defended the murderer. But the principal was very fair and she not only did not reject my application, but also encouraged me in every possible way to excel in college. I also did not agree with Gandhiji that a non-violent satyagraha could win India its freedom. I personally believed that there was a need for radical action to overcome some of the existing injustices in society. Therefore, I was more attracted to the ideology of Subhas Chandra Bose and that of the radicals. The reason why I was disenchanted with the non-violent struggle was because as a young girl I had participated in many such protests. We students would be rounded up by the police, taken in trucks to the outskirts of the city and left there to trudge back home on our own. I remember the trial of Bhagat Singh in 1931-32, which had all of us students fired up. I organized a meeting to collect money to defend this freedom fighter. My experiences of the satyagraha movement made me feel that there was a need for radical action.

VP: What made you take up medicine? And who was responsible for the radicalization of your politics?

LS: I had an intense desire to work for the welfare of the people, especially women. I therefore decided to become a doctor and joined the Madras Medical College in 1932. In those days, there were generous scholarships given to women medical students. Since we were well off, I insisted that my scholarship should go to a poor deserving student. I got my first introduction to Communism while studying medicine. Suhasini, Sarojini Naidu’s sister, visited Madras after spending many years in Germany. She convinced me that the only political system that would help India was Communism.

Spreading Her Wings

VP: When did you receive your degree and how did you get involved with the Indian National Army?

LS: I received my MBBS degree from the Madras Medical College in 1938. When I was in my final year of medicine, I got married to a pilot who was working for the Tata Airways. My marriage failed, as my husband was very possessive and wanted me to give up medicine. We were separated within six months and were divorced within two years of marriage. After my MBBS, I specialized in Gynaecology and Obstetrics and received my diploma in it. In 1940, at the age of 26, I decided to take advantage of an offer to work in Singapore and establish a clinic for the poorest of the poor, especially migrant Indian labour. My work as a doctor brought me in touch with several ardent nationalists, like K.P. Keshava Menon, S.C. Guha and N. Raghavan.

By this time the World War II had gathered momentum and by December 1941 Japan had invaded Singapore. In an attempt to destroy the British resistance, the Japanese (armed with bombs to destroy important military installations) also dropped pamphlets calling upon the Indian army personnel in the British army to surrender. By 1942 the British were defeated. Segregating the defeated British ‘army on the basis of their nationality, the Japanese sought to convince Indian soldiers to join forces with them and resist the British counter offensive. As a doctor, I was extremely busy tending to the many casualties of the war. In the course of my work, I met many of the Indian Prisoners of War, who were thinking over the Japanese proposal to form an Indian army of liberation. When I heard of this possibility, I was very excited. I was convinced that this was the way by which India could win its freedom. I used to argue with the Indian POWs that this was an opportunity to fight for our country as a true nationalist. Until now they were mercenaries of the British army. Now they had a chance to fight for India. Because of my convictions, I was part of the deliberations that resulted in the formation of the INA under General Mohan Singh, a senior officer of the 14th Punjab regiment.

The Japanese captured General Mohan Singh. The Japanese took him to their headquarters and put him in touch with Rash Bihari Bose, an ardent nationalist, who had escaped from India in 1911 to Japan and established the India Independence League (IIL). The IIL had contributed significantly towards raising international awareness on the cause of India’s independence. In collaboration with Rash Bihari Bose and various nationalist Indians living in the Far East, the Indian National Army (INA) was born. Meanwhile Subhas Chandra Bose arrived in Sumatra from Tokyo and reached Singapore. Rash Bihari Bose then handed over the reigns of the IIL and the INA to Netaji. At this moving meeting, Netaji announced: “Give me blood and I will give you freedom.” Within three weeks the membership of the INA doubled.

Finding Her Political Calling

VP: Your work for the INA would have been seen as subversive by the British, what made you take such a big personal risk?

LS: As I had mentioned earlier, Subhas Chandra Bose’s ideas had always impressed me. I had first heard him speak in 1928 at the Congress session in Calcutta and sympathized with his radical ideas about the need to instill discipline among the Indians. I had always followed his career with great interest and was fascinated by his daring escape to Germany in order to raise awareness about India’s cause. It is true that Subhas Chandra Bose sought Hitler’s assistance to overthrow colonial rule in India. But this is not to suggest that he agreed with the Nazi principles of racial superiority and the genocide of the Jews. Subhas Chandra Bose never compromised his principles and vocally criticized the German policies towards the Jews, even while living in Germany. When the World War II broke out, he travelled in a submarine for six months to reach Japan and garner her support for the Indian cause. After meeting him in person, in Singapore and hearing him speak, I was convinced of his capacity to deliver India from the British rule.

VP: Since the official accounts on the Indian freedom movement are largely silent about the role of S. C. Bose, could you elaborate on what he wished to achieve by negotiating with the Japanese? And also why he wished to establish the Rani of Jhansi regiment?

LS: Subhas Chandra Bose wished to take advantage of the war situation and press for India’s freedom. He also believed that the political struggle for freedom should go hand-in-hand with socio-economic transformation. Seeing gender subordination as rooted in the prevailing colonial and indigenous structures of oppression, he felt that women needed to develop their physical and mental capacities if they wished to become equal to men. Therefore, in his public meetings, he spoke of the need to establish an all-women regiment called the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, which would also fight for Indian Independence alongside with men.

VP: What was your role in establishing the Rani of Jhansi Regiment?

LS: I was introduced to Subhas Chandra Bose as the woman most capable of fulfilling his dream of establishing the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. At the meeting held on 5 July 1943, Subhas Chandra Bose movingly spoke of the contributions of Lakshmibai of Jhansi and Begum Hazrat Mahal to the first war of Independence in 1857 and his ideas about establishing the all-women regiment. I was inspired and therefore without a moment’s hesitation, I agreed to his proposal to form the Rani ofJhansi regiment of the INA. The very next day I closed my clinic and set about the task of forming the regiment. Janaki Tewar, a woman of considerable organization capacity, helped me in my endeavour. Within a short time, we succeeded in organizing a well-trained fighting force of 1500 women recruits at a camp established in Rangoon, Burma. The women were taught combat and the handling of light weapons.

VP: What role did this regiment play in the INA?

LS: Impressed with the work we had achieved, when Subhas Chandra Bose announced the Provincial Government of Azad Hind in 21 October 1943, I was inducted as the sole woman member of its cabinet. Throughout this struggle, the Rani of Jhansi regiment fought shoulder to shoulder with men in the dense jungles of Burma and Singapore. However, after the initial victories, the INA was forced to retreat to Imphal. Moving as fugitives through the jungles, we faced considerable danger.10 I watched some of my close friends die in the jungle. I was finally captured in 1945 and kept as a prisoner of war in Rangoon, My first desire after my capture was for a bath. As a Malayalee woman, I could not bear having been without a bath for many days in the jungle. I still remember pouring buckets and buckets of water on myself. Even as a prisoner of war, I continued to treat the other prisoners. I was not held prisoner for long as I was not involved in active combat. I was deported to India on 4 March 1946. I still recall the officer escorting me saying as soon as the plane reached Indian air space that I was no longer a prisoner. After landing in Calcutta, I went to my brother’s house and found that there was no one there. I quickly travelled to New Delhi to be with my mother and sister.

VP: After your release, what did you do?

LS: I immediately began to work for the release and rehabilitation of imprisoned and demoted INA army personnel and for the freedom of India. The stories of their heroic struggle captured the imagination of the Indian public. However the British were reluctant to release them. I therefore travelled the length and breadth of the country to collect funds for the defence and rehabilitation of the INA soldiers. After the release of the prisoners including Colonel Prem Kumar Sahgal from the Red Fort, we continued to campaign for India’s freedom.

India’s Independence and After

VP: You must have been very happy when India got her freedom. Tell us about what you felt about the events that followed?

LS: We were all very happy when India won her freedom. This happiness was not unalloyed. We were unhappy about the partition and about the untold human suffering that followed. The INA was built on the sacrifices of many people irrespective of caste, class or creed. In fact the INA slogan ‘Jai Hind’ was coined by one of our Muslim colleagues. They were also unhappy about the partition and went to Pandit Nehru and pleaded with him. “All of us,” they said, “struggled for the love of undivided India. None of us believe in the division of the country into India and Pakistan. So allow us to continue serving in the Indian. Army.” Pandit Nehru could not rise to their challenge. He tamely told them that it were better by far if they migrated to Pakistan and served the newly formed nation.

VP: Could you also tell us about your personal life?

LS: I married Colonel Prem Sahgal in March 1947. He was one of the three INA officers accused in the famous INA trial of 1946. He was the son of Justice Acchuru Ram Sahgal, a member of the Punjab High Court Bench, in Lahore, who was appointed judge in the murder trial of Mahatma Gandhi. Prem Sehgal (along with the other officers of the INA) was not reinstated in the Indian army after Independence. This meant that he had to give up the army career he loved. What hurt most was that the country did not acknowledge his sacrifices. In order to persuade the Indian soldiers serving in the British army during the World War II to desert posts and join the INA, the nationalist leaders had told them: “It was not patriotic to fight for the British who are a colonial power ..exploiting your motherland. By fighting for the British, you are really behaving like mercenary soldiers rather than defenders of your country You can overcome the stigma of being mercenaries by joining the INA. Only then will you have the honour of truly fighting for your country.” To find that their patriotism was called to question, after such immense sacrifice, was indeed unkind. Many senior officers including General Thimmaya had spoken up on behalf of the INA officers and wanted them integrated into the Indian army. Pandit Nehru too had half a mind to do so. He was however dissuaded by Lord Mountbatten. After being discharged from the Indian Army, my husband found a job in Kanpur. Therefore, we moved to Kanpur.11

VP: What work did you do in Kanpur?

LS: I set up medical practice in the Navab Ganj area in Kanpur. My work focused on the rehabilitation of the refugees from Pakistan. The influx of refugees that had begun before the partition increased a hundred fold after the partition. I may add here that some of my best medical assistants were the refugee women. I particularly remember the services of Jaswant Kaur, who despite her personal suffering during the partition bore no personal animosity towards any community. Subsequently, I set up a small maternity home in a hired premise in Arya Nagar where it continues till today.’ Her compassion and service to the poor have become legendary in the city.

VP: When and why did you join the Communist Party?

LS: In the post Independence period, I was disillusioned with the Congress. I felt that the party did not have the capacity to bring about radical social transformation. I wanted to join the Communist party. I was however rebuffed by P.C. Joshi who viewed the INA as fascist. My work after Independence centered around my medical practice, my children and the rehabilitation of the INA soldiers. It was only many years later that I was able to become a member of the Communist Party of India (M).

VP: How did you become a member of the CPI (M)?

LS: My daughter Subhasini became the member of the CPI (M) before I did. I had sent my daughter Subhasini to study in Women’s Christian College in Madras, as I wanted her to understand south Indian culture. Subsequently, she went to the USA for further studies and returned politically awakened. She became a member of the Communist Party of India (M). In 1971, the outbreak of the Bangladesh war saw an influx of refugees from East Pakistan into West Bengal. One day seeing an appeal by Jyoti Basu in an issue of People’s Democracy for the services of doctors, I went to Calcutta, and with the representatives of People’s Relief Committee, went to Bogaigaon to provide medical relief to the refugees. I even crossed over to Bangaladesh to address the Mukti Bahini volunteers. On my return to Calcutta, I met the members of the Polit Bureau of the CPI (M) and again applied for membership. Thus at the age of 57, I could become a member of the CPI (M) and became active in Left politics. At the outset, I participated in the trade union movement and subsequently focused on women’s issues. When the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) was fanned in 1981, I was elected its Vice President. I have been involved in the campaigns and struggles for women’s rights ever since.

VP: What do you think of the present political situation in India?

LS: I am increasingly disillusioned with the growing caste/religious politics in the country. I believe that caste discrimination and religious fundamentalism will undermine the unity and integrity of this country. We need to speak out against the trend. I still remember in the 1984 when riots against the Sikhs broke out after Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination, I personally came out into the streets in defence of the Sikh houses and shops near my clinic. As a result, the rioters did not touch a single Sikh house or shop in the vicinity of my clinic.

I also feel that the promises of freedom have failed to make a difference to the lives of the ordinary people. The people are still steeped in superstition and blind beliefs. It is appalling that despite so many decades of freedom and efforts at education, the people still believe in superstitions, such as Ganesha drinking milk. There is also tremendous discrimination against the lower castes. In the Dalit bastis of Kanpur, for instance, there is not even one person who can claim to be a graduate. Gender discrimination continues. Even today we have not been able to get rid of child marriage or malnourishment of women.

VP: What do you have to say about the continued controversy regarding. S. C. Base’s death?

LS: I am not impressed with the continued controversy over the death of Subhas Chandra Bose. It is true when we first heard the news of his death, we too did not believe it. We had so much faith in his dynamism and courage, we were sure that he would surface sooner or later. In course of time we had to accept the reality of his death. It is true that the records of his death were destroyed by the Japanese (along with all the other important records of the World War II) as they feared reprisal from the Allies. The question of Subhas Chandra Base’s death could be laid to rest through the DNA testing of his ashes now preserved in the Renkoji Temple, a Buddhist Shrine, in Japan with that of his daughter Anita Bose nee Pfaw, who lives in Germany with her son. Instead of trying to solve the mystery regarding Netaji’s disappearance and death in air crash, the people of India need to concentrate on the ideology which would perpetuate the unity of our country. Netaji was a nationalist to the core. He however was completely against the communalization of politics and was confident that Hindus, Muslims and all the other religious minorities of the country could live and work for the benefit of the country. He proved that it was possible in the INA where all members considered themselves Indians first and last.

Captain Lakshmi Sahgal 145

It was this unity which he created, that convinced the British that they could no longer hold India which they had been ruling through the divide and rule policy. They, therefore, decided to grant independence to the country but in their diabolical way. They first partitioned the country so as to weaken it. Caste politics were abhorrent to Netaji and all members of the INA or any other organization connected with it. No one had to fill any column giving their caste background. Finally Netaji was very keen that women should be empowered educationally and financially, so that they could play their true role in the development of free India. Unfortunately, these principles are still missing in our country which is leading to the weakening of our hard won independence.

I knew I had exhausted he She was after all 92 years old, I therefore took leave of her and left her with her memories of the days more than six decades ago, when she was in the jungles of Burma struggling for India :v freedom. As I left her I took away with me the image of a gracious and charming woman, with an indomitable spirit. She had made me comfortable by recalling through her interview her various visits to my hometown in Coorg and the wonderful friendships she had there. History had not adequately acknowledged her courage or her sacrifices. It was only in 1998 that India woke up to what it owed her and awarded her Padma Vibhusan award. But she had the love and support of the common people for whom she works. It was no wonder that, when she was fielded as a Presidential candidate in 2002, she drew enthusiastic crowds of admirers.

Today at 92 she continues to live alone in her modest fiat in Kanpur. She still leaves for her maternity home at 9:00 a.m. every morning seven days a week and works till late in the afternoon. She continues to be politically active and carries out correspondence with people from diverse walks of life. Her modest apartment is furnished with taste. It has an open courtyard in the centre with a beautiful terrace garden. Somewhere along the line she has recreated in the land of her adoption a little bit of her childhood home in Anakara in Kerala.


1 I was told by one of her friends that the only time she stayed away from work for a few days was when she had a pelvic fracture about two or three years ago.

2 Jawaharlal Nehru. Discovery of India.

3 Spear writes, “S. C. Bose fled the country and raised the Indian National Army from Indian prisoners in Japanese hand. He hoped to return as an Indian dictator.” History of India (Vol. II).

4 The works used as background for this interview are as follows:

1) A Revolutionary Life: Memoirs of a Political Activist by Lakshmi Sahgal, with an indepth interview by Ritu Menon and Kamala Bhasin and an introduction by Geraldine Forbes; 2) A painstaking and comprehensive study by Rohini Gavankar entitled The Women’s Regiment and Captain Lakshmi of INA: An Untold Episode of NRI Women’s Contribution to Freedom; and 3) Breaking Barriers: Stories of Twelve Women by Parvati Menon. Rohini Gavankar’s work in particular is extremely comprehensive.

5 Established in 1927, the All India Women’s Conference (which may be deemed as the first Indian Feminist organization) was founded by Annie Besant, Dorothy Jinardasa and Margaret Cousins at Madras. The idea was to provide a kind of umbrella structure to the ever increasing provincial and local organizations working towards social reform and women’s education. Apart from its commitment to the nationalist cause, this organization has made significant contributions to improving women’s condition. Poonacha, Veena. Understanding Women’s Studies. Mumbai: Research Centre for Women’s Studies. SNDT Women’s University (Contributions to Women’s Studies Series 11). 1999. p.20.

6 Gavankar. Op cit.

7 Menon writes that according to the caste conventions prevailing in Kerala at that time a Namboodiri Brahmin could have a sambandam (informal contract) with a Nair woman. Lakshmi’s father was not a Namboodiri, nonetheless, he did not want an ambiguity about the legality of his marriage and hence after a traditional wedding in Kerala he took his 15-year-old bride to England and got his marriage registered there. (Ibid. 41)

8 Perupilavil Govinda Menon was a.munshi. He had been impressed with
the brilliance of S. Swamindhan and helped in his higher education.

9 Ibid. pp.1-3

10 Lakshmi was a Colonel in the INA , although in popular imagination she remained a Captain. ‘

Captain Lakshmi Sahgal 147

11 Nestling on the banks of the Ganges, Kanpur is one of North India’s major industrial centres. It is a city with immense historical significance as it was the epi-centre of the 1857 Indian War of Independence. It was from this historic city that the leaders of the first war of Independence including Nana Saheb, Tantia Tope, Azimoolah Khan, Brigadier Jwala Prasad and the Lakshmibai of Jhansi fought their final battle against the British. After India was transferred to the crown, this city became an important centre of leather and textile industries. Some of the important factories that were located here included the Government Harness and Saddler Factory (to supply leather material to the army), the Elgin Textile Mills and the Swadeshi Cotton Mill. It is no wonder that in the early 20th century, Kanpur was known as the Manchester of the East. In recent years, this economic importance of the city has declined, despite the existence of a two-wheeler factory and ordinance factories. It is against this backdrop of the declining livelihood of the working classes that we can fully appreciate Lakshmi’s professional and political contributions.

12 Even today she goes to the hospital every day and treats patients for a nominal fee of Rs. 5/-


Gavankar, Rohini. The Women’s Regiment and Captain Lakshmi of INA; An Untold Episode of NRI Women’s Contribution to Freedom. New Delhi: Devika, 2003: 91-140.

Menon, Parvati. Breaking Barriers: Stories of Twelve Women: New Delhi: Leftword, 2004: 40-53.

Nehru, Jawaharlal. Discovery of India. Calcutta: Signet, 1946.

Poonacha, Veena. Understanding Women’s Studies. Mumbai: Research Centre for Women’s Studies. SNDT Women’s University (Contributions to Women’s Studies Series 11), 1999 : 20.

Sahgal, Lakshmi, A Revolutionary Life: Memoirs of a Political Activist. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1997.

Spear, Pervical. A History of India (Vol. 11). New Delhi: Penguin 1965 (Reprint 1990): 141-142,

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