Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, freedom fighter and close aide of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, who died in Kanpur, aged 98, was born in Chennai and worked as a doctor in the city.
She was the daughter of eminent Madras advocate S. Swaminathan and social activist Ammu Swaminathan, who was later elected to the Parliament from Dindigul Lok Sabha constituency. Capt. Lakshmi’s parents belonged to Kerala and theirs was an inter-caste marriage.
Her brother Govind Swaminathan was an eminent lawyer and one of the leading members of the Chennai Bar, and her sister Mrinalini Sarabhai, wife of nuclear scientist Vikram Sarabhai, is a famous dancer.
“In Chennai, she would address meetings in Tamil. Capt. Lakshmi was a polyglot. I heard her speaking to delegates of the All India Democratic Women’s Association conference in Kanpur in their mother tongue,” said P. Vasuki, a secretary of AIDWA.
A doctor by profession, Capt. Lakshmi studied at Chennai’s Queen Mary’s College and later completed her MBBS at Madras Medical College. She then got a diploma in obstetrics and gynaecology (DGO) and worked in the Government Kasturba Gandhi Hospital, Triplicane.
Though brought up in an Anglophile family, Capt. Lakshmi and her kin were to turn their backs on their colonial leanings after her father defended a young man, Kadambur, accused of murdering a British officer, De la Haye, the principal of Newington House in Madras, and got him acquitted.
“It created a storm in Chennai. We had to face its consequences. English friends of my mother kept a distance from us after that. In school, English teachers cursed me for being the daughter of an advocate who saved a native who murdered an honourable English officer,” Capt. Lakshmi wrote in her autobiography A Revolutionary Life: Memoirs of a Political Activist.
After this, Capt. Lakshmi and her siblings were pulled out of the English school and admitted to a government school. “We soon started conversing in Tamil and Malayalam instead of English and wore Indian costumes. Most of the servants at our home were Dalits and we shared food with them much to the surprise of others,” she wrote.
Interestingly, the principal of Queen Mary’s College was the sister of the murdered British officer De la Haye. “But she never exhibited any hatred towards me,” Capt. Lakshmi had recalled.
Her interest in politics was kindled by Subashini, the younger sister of Sarojini Naidu, and one of the accused in the Meerut conspiracy case. She was hiding in Capt. Lakshmi’s house at that time and they spent many nights discussing communism. Later, she joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Her marriage to pilot P.K.N. Rao was a failure and she left for Singapore in 1940 “to escape the marriage”. It was there that she came in contact with the members of Netaji’s Indian National Army (INA) and later formed the Rani of Jhansi regiment (an all-woman unit).
She was fielded as the Left parties’ candidate against Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in the presidential elections of 2002. Her daughter Subhasini Ali, who was elected to Parliament from Kanpur to the Lok Sabha, is also a graduate from the Madras University.