The only woman who defeated the British without being recaptured.
Captain Lakshmi was a firebrand revolutionary, dedicated physician, freedom fighter and commander of the world’s second women’s regiment, the Rani of Jhansi regiment. World’s first women army was formed by an Indian, Maharani Velu Nachiyar of Tamil Nadu in 1770s with which she defeated the British in 1780 and ruled her kingdom Sivagangai till her death in 1790. (Maharani Velu Nachiar is unique in world history since she is the only one to defeat the British in modern era without being recaptured by the British and that too she did with just an army of women warriors.)
She was born as Lakshmi Swaminathan in Chennai on October 24, 1914 to S Swaminathan, a lawyer who practiced criminal law at Madras High Court, and AV Ammukutty, better known as Ammu Swaminathan, a social worker and independence activist from the Vadakkath family of Anakkara in Palghat, Kerala. Lakshmi received an MBBS degree and a diploma in gynaecology and obstetrics from Madras. She worked as a doctor in the Government Kasturba Gandhi Hospital located at Triplicane Chennai. In 1940, she left for Singapore. There she established a clinic for the poor, most of whom were migrant laborers from India. In 1942, during the surrender of Singapore by the British to the Japanese, Dr Lakshmi aided wounded prisoners of war, many of whom came together to form the Indian National Army (INA or Azad Hind Fauj).
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose arrived in Singapore on 2 July 1943 and took charge of INA. Dr Lakshmi helped him set up a women’s regiment, called the Rani of Jhansi regiment. Women responded enthusiastically to join the all-women brigade and Dr. Lakshmi Swaminathan became Captain Lakshmi, a name and identity that would stay with her for life. She was arrested by the British army in May 1945, remaining in Burma until March 1946, when she was sent to India – at a time when the INA trials in Delhi heightened popular discontent and hastened the end of colonial rule.
After her release from the custody of the British in 1946, Lakshmi travelled the length and breadth of the country to collect funds for INA Relief Committee and also to mobilise people against the British.
In 1971, Capt Lakshmi Sehgal was elected to Rajya Sabha. During the Bangladesh crisis, she organized relief camps and medical aid in Calcutta for refugees who streamed into India from Bangladesh. She was one of the founding members of All India Democratic Women's Association in 1981 and led many of its activities and campaigns. She led a medical team to Bhopal after the gas tragedy in December 1984, worked towards restoring peace in Kanpur following the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and was arrested for her participation in a campaign against the Miss World competition in Bangalore in 1996. In 1998, she was awarded the Padma Vibhushan by Indian president KR Narayanan and ended her journey on July 23, 2012 at the age of 97 at Kanpur. —Ravi Kumar, HSS