Few people remembered her when she agreed to contest the Presidential election as the Opposition candidate against Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, who was being fielded by the NDA Government led by Atal Behari Vajyapee in 2002. But, even at the ripe old age of 87, she fought it the way she was trained by her mentor, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, in the Indian National Army (INA) in the 1940s.
“Captain” Lakshmi Sehgal dedicated her life to the country. As a young doctor, she also led the Rani Jhansi Regiment of the INA, one of the first women’s regiments in the world.
Sehgal, born in 1914 in the Swaminathan family of lawyers and social activists in the Malabar region of the then Madras Presidency, was always a brave girl who followed her heart. Back then, when untouchability was a common social evil in India, she courageously played with a tribal girl ignoring warnings.
Married at a young age to a pilot P.K.N. Rao, she soon realized her mistake and returned to her hometown in Madras to continue her studies to graduate as an MBBS doctor.
Soon, she was drawn to play an active role in the India Independence League even as she set up a clinic to treat poor and migrant labourers. Then she met Prem Sehgal, a soldier from the Indian Army who had joined the INA, and married him in 1947. Later, they settled down in Kanpur.
In 1940, she went to Singapore where she aided wounded prisoners of war who would soon join the INA. There, she came to know about Bose’s determination to start a women’s regiment who could fight for Indian independence. Eager to serve the nation even if it meant going against the flow, Lakshmi met the Netaji and set up the Rani of Jhansi Regiment.
The initiative received a huge response from women across India and she became “captain” of the regiment.
In 1971, Sehgal joined the Communist Party of India and represented it in the Rajya Sabha. She also organized medical aid and health camps for refugees who came to India from Bangladesh around 1971. She was a founding member of All India Democratic Women’s Association in 1981. In 2002, she lost the Presidential elections against Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.
When the Union Carbide gas tragedy struck Bhopal in 1984, she rushed to the capital of Madhya Pradesh with a medical team to provide medical succour to the victims. She also worked towards refurbishing peace in Kanpur after the anti-Sikh riots in the same year. Exceptionally outspoken on presenting her views, she was also arrested for her participation in a campaign against the Miss World competition in Bangalore.
For her services to the nation, the great freedom fighter was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award, by the then President K. R. Narayanan in 1998.
India lost a great nationalist when she died on July 19, 2012 due to a cardiac arrest at the age of 97, in Kanpur. Her body was donated to the local medical college for research.
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