Lakshmi Sehgal was a doctor, activist, captain and politician. Perhaps more than anything else, though, she was her mother’s daughter.
Lakshmi was born in Madras, India, on October 24th, 1914. Her father, S. Swaminadhan, was a lawyer, and her mother Ammukutty Swaminathan was an activist. Ammukutty was a child bride who married Swaminathan when she was just 14 years old. He was twenty years her senior, but she was the one who set the terms, insisting that she be allowed to live in the city, study English until she achieved mastery of the language, and never be asked what time she was going to be home because no one asked that same question of her brothers.
Ammukutty went on to play a significant role in the freedom struggle of India and ultimately helped draft the country’s Constitution. She protested the caste system, supported bills designed to empower women, and in 1917, formed the Women’s India Association in Madras, which was designed to provide assistance to, and address challenges facing, female workers in India.
Lakshmi was still a toddler when her mother founded the Woman’s India Association, and she spent her childhood surrounded by her mother’s activism. She recalls one incident wherein her mother walked into Lakshmi’s bedroom, took all of her best dresses, and burned them in a bonfire of foreign goods.
This activism rubbed off on Lakshmi, whose refusal to adhere to societal norms began early. As a child, in an act she would later describe as her first rebellion, she marched over to a child from a local tribe who was deemed so unworthy by the caste system that Lakshmi’s grandmother described even their shadows as being polluting. Defying her grandmother and society’s expectations and beliefs, little Lakshmi grabbed the young child’s hand and ran off to play with her. It was horrifying to her grandmother and a start of a lifelong commitment to activism and equity for Lakshmi.
After high school, Lakshmi went on to earn a medical degree, but the call to activism was strong, and by the time she was in her 30s, Lakshmi had become a profoundly important figure in the Indian National Army, where she served as a captain and created and led an all-female regiment that was 1500 women strong.
In 1947, she married Col. Prem Kumar Sehgal, who was also a prominent figure in the Indian National Army, and the two moved to Kanpur. There, Lakshmi set up a medical practice where she spent her days providing treatment to refugees. She continued seeing patients daily, even into her 90s. She also remained active in politics and activism, joining the Communist Party of India in the 70s and helping to found the All Indian Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) in 1981. In 2002, she served as the Left’s presidential candidate. Though she knew, and even admitted, that she had no chance of winning, she used her platform to critique the increased poverty, inequity, and division inherent in the political system.
Lakshmi had two daughters—one grew up to be a dancer and the other a political activist just like her mother and grandmother. Lakshmi died in 2012 at the age of 97, leaving a tremendous legacy behind her.
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