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Lakshmi Sehgal no more

July 23: “Captain” Lakshmi Sehgal, who headed the women’s regiment of Netaji’s Indian National Army and later unsuccessfully fought the 2002 presidential election, died at a Kanpur hospital this morning.

The former CPM Rajya Sabha member, who had suffered a heart attack on Thursday, was 97.

Despite her age, Sehgal, a qualified doctor, would be at her free clinic in Kanpur’s Civil Lines Road every day, treating the poor, mostly jobless labourers and their families.

Many of those patients thronged Kanpur Medical Centre today to pay their last respects to the woman they, like everyone else, addressed as “Captain Sehgal” despite her rank of colonel as head of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment of the Azad Hind Fauj.

Sehgal, a Malayali who had opened a clinic in Singapore after graduating in medicine from Madras, traded her stethoscope for the rifle in 1943, inspired by Subhas Chandra Bose’s arrival in the Southeast Asian nation.

After her return to India post-Independence, she picked up the stethoscope again and immersed herself in helping the poor. She joined the CPM in the 1970s.

“To us slum-dwellers in Shastrinagar and Shivajinagar, Captain Sehgal was a symbol of hope. Now we don’t know who to turn to for treatment,” said Dasrath Yadav, an industrial labourer who is barely able to find work 10 days a month.

Sehgal was at her clinic even on Wednesday afternoon, a day before her heart attack. On Friday, after she suffered a brain haemorrhage, she was wheeled into the hospital where she slipped into a coma on Saturday.

Today, the doctors gave up hope. “The ventilator was stopped around 11am and she died around 11.20am,” said Sehgal’s daughter Subhashini Ali, a CPM luminary and former MP.

Among those who visited her in hospital were CPM general secretary Prakash Karat and fellow politburo member Brinda Karat. Brinda remembered Sehgal today as a “politically motivated human being who fought injustice wherever she saw it”.

Sehgal was born in late 1914 to S. Swaminathan, a Madras High Court lawyer, and A.V. Ammukkutty, a freedom fighter. After completing her MBBS in 1938, she earned a diploma in gynaecology and obstetrics.

In Singapore, where she arrived in 1940, she mostly treated migrant Indians. After the Japanese attack, she was captured by the British army and detained for a short time.

When Bose visited Singapore, Sehgal was only too happy to accept his request to lead the Jhansi of Rani Regiment. She was the sole woman member of the Indian National Army’s (INA) “cabinet of the provisional government”.

Sehgal was recaptured by the British in 1947 and brought to India to a massive reception. The government soon realised that keeping her imprisoned would only lead to more protests and released her.

The same year she married a former INA colleague, Colonel Prem Kumar Sehgal, and settled down in Kanpur.

She worked for the release and rehabilitation of jailed INA members, provided medical aid to refugees from Pakistan and later, in 1971, worked for months in a Bongaon camp to help refugees from the then East Pakistan. The same year her party sent her to the Rajya Sabha.

Sehgal was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1998 and became the Left candidate in the 2002 presidential election against A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

In 2005, reminiscing about her INA days, she had told a newspaper: “Those years of my freedom struggle under the leadership of Netaji are memories to treasure for me now.”

Sehgal’s body will be donated for medical research.