July 06, 2020
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An Exceptional Life

A revolutionary's brush with Netaji and the Rani Jhansi regiment

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An Exceptional Life
A Revolutionary Life
By Lakshmi Sahgal
Kali for Women Rs 250; Pages: 182
THIS book is a collection of a memoir and an article written by Lakshmi Swaminathan Sahgal and an interview given by her in March 1989. The compilation unfolds the story of her eventful life covering her childhood, her student days, her stint in Southeast Asia during World War II under Japanese occupation, her decision to join the Indian National Army (INA), her subsequent experiences in Singapore and Burma, her return to India and her life thereafter in Kanpur.

It is the saga of struggle, sacrifice and service by one who has dedicated her life towards the emancipation of the common people, the workers, the peasants and particularly the women in our country. In the epilogue, she has narrated the events of her life in Kanpur, her clinic, her work in the refuge camp in the post-Partition period, her joining the CPI(M) and her participation in the strengthening of the women's democratic movement in our country. In her interview with Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, she has elaborated on her experience of Partition and the aftermath of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984.

It is very apposite that this book has been published during the birth centenary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and in the 50th year of Independence. It is necessary that the people should know more about the life and contribution of Netaji in the anti-imperialist struggle for the emancipation of the country and of his contribution towards the achievement of Indian Independence. The publication of the memoirs is an important addition to the understanding of the way in which the INA significantly contributed towards hastening the achievement of our freedom. It is heartening that some attention is now being paid to the role of the INA and the Rani Jhansi regiment.

The important contribution of women in our national movement, particularly for the achievement of Independence, is correctly highlighted in the book and one cannot but feel inspired by the activities of the Rani Jhansi regiment and its contribution to the national movement. The introduction to A Revolutionary Life has raised pertinent questions in relation to the place of women in history, rightly pointed out the inadequacies of the conventional approaches to writing of history, and emphasised the necessity of giving attention to complexities and the need to go beyond social constructionism and essentialism by thinking in terms of strategic essentialism.

The memoirs will no doubt provide inspiration to the women of our country, as they unfold the pages of a very crucial period in our history when Indian women, circumscribed by various social and family constraints and value systems, made significant contributions and proved that they could be partners, on more than equal terms, with men in accomplishing the tasks which might otherwise be considered the exclusive domain of men.

Lakshmi Saghal's life illustrates what can be achieved if a woman can rid herself of what are called the rigid definitions of male-female behaviour. She could have lived a life of ease and comfort but adopted a life fraught with danger and privation so that she could contribute towards the emancipation of our country from imperialist domination. The book also highlights many important events in the INA movement and the activities of the Rani Jhansi regiment and the great hardship that Sahgal and her colleagues had to suffer—which, however, did not dampen their spirits.

Lakshmi Sahgal has dedicated herself to the overdue struggle for the true emancipation of Indian women. As she had realised that our country's Independence would not come without armed struggle, she also believed that the emancipation of Indian women also cannot be achieved without struggle and movements, albeit not an armed one. She has actively associated herself with the Left, Progressive and Democratic movement and is a leading member of the CPI(M) and All India Democratic Women's Organisation and is admired not only for her significant role in the INA, but also for her continuing struggle to organise Indian women, fight for their legitimate causes and ultimately achieve their due role in Indian society.

(The writer is a CPI-M member of Parliament.)

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