In July 1943, a 29 year old doctor of Indian origin living in Malaya decided she had to do more to fight for India’s freedom from the British. This young lady was Lakshmi Swaminadhan. She was swayed by the persuasive exhortations by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose to join the Azad Hind Fauj, or the Indian National Army. She met Bose and when she asked what more she could, other than treating prisoners-of-war, he told her to raise a regiment of women. He told her that women should fight shoulder to shoulder with men. They have as much responsibility for fighting for the country’s freedom as men did, he said.The rest, as they say, is history. Lakshmi Swaminadhan, the doctor, became “Captain Lakshmi”, the Commandant of the first all-women’s regiment in South Asia. Bose, with his flair for history and the dramatic, christened the women’s outfit, the “Rani of Jhansi Regiment.” The name came from the legendary Rani Lakshmibai, the Queen of Jhansi who herself fought at the head of her troops in an earlier war of independence in 1857.
I find the whole story of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose very fascinating. There are many chapters to the story ending in his premature death, amidst a lot of controversy. The very concept of the Indian National Army and the Rani of Jhansi regiment and his ability to fight the might of the British Empire in open conflict seems all the more admirable when we think back to those far away times. The difficulties they faced in those days were extremely painful, to say the least.
I felt deeply moved when I saw videos of the story of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. It may sound very romantic as I say this but scores of young women took the unprecedented step of volunteering for armed combat, often against the wishes of their families, to fight the enemy.
Capt. Lakshmi was a woman with a conscience and a deeply committed social worker. For decades after independence, she continued her practice in Kanpur, where she settled with her husband, Col. Prem Sahgal, a comrade of hers from the INA days. She won fame for her unassuming manner, total dedication to the causes she stood for and for being, quite simply, a great human being.
We feel immensely saddened to hear the Capt. Lakshmi passed away yesterday, aged 97. She led a full life and will remain a source of inspiration, I hope, for thousands of Indian women who, sadly, do not have many role models today.