Khoob ladi mardani woh toh Jhansi wali Laxmi thi….
I have always envied those among my parents’ generation who had some treasured stories about personal meetings with the legends out of history books.
My own mother had a couple of such moments – my grandmother was a freedom fighter, so my mother got the opportunity to come face to face with Mahatma Gandhi once when he came visiting Jabalpur where my mother was born and brought up. “I got to garland him – with a sooti mala (cotton garland),” my mother reminisced fondly.
“What did he say?” I asked breathlessly when I first heard the story.
“Nothing,” said my mother. “He just smiled. There were tens of others who had garlanded him before me and lots behind me waiting to do the same. But I came away with the memory of that smile.”
The other story was of my grandmother’s friendship with Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, the poetess, who wrote the famous lines on the Rani of Jhansi – still my favorite to this day: “Bundelon se suni hamnein kahani thi; khoob ladi mardani woh toh Jhansi wali Rani thi…”
The poem still gives me goose pimples every time I read it. And I also break into goose pimples each time I recall my own fleeting moment with a legend from my history books in school: Captain Laxmi Sehgal of the Rani Jhansi regiment from Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. Somehow Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi and Captain Laxmi Sehgal of the Jhansi regiment had fused into my child’s mind – those impresions sometimes get carried into adulthood and are difficult to overcome.
So imagine my shock and surprise when I came face to face with my own moment of history – I almost fainted as I turned from asking a query of an organiser at the Golden Jubilee celebrations of Indian Independence to face an elegant grey-haired lady who said, “I am Laxmi Sehgal. I am looking for Usha Mehta.”
Mehta was another legendary freedom fighter who ran an underground radio service for Indians struggling against the British and was among the chief organisers of the show at the August Kranti Maidan in Bombay from where Mahatma Gandhi had given his call to the British to quit India in1942. The Maharashtra government, then led by the Shiv Sena in alliance with the BJP, was holding their celebrations in that very maidan, with chief minister Manohar Joshi supervising the arrangments rather more personally than I had seen other (Congrss) chief ministers before him do at similar events.
Of course, Joshi, too, might have felt an immense pull at his heart strings to see the legend of the first Indian women’s army regiment face to face, but then what followed was a salutary lesson in what stuff our leaders of yore were really made of. Joshi rushed forward to fall at Capt Laxmi Sshgal’s feet but that iron lady stepped back, much like an annoyed saas of one of our modern day saas-bahu serials and indicated thaf she did not want her feet to be touched by the chief minister of Maharashtra. The Sena-BJP had come to power after the BJP demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and Bal Thackeray ran riot during the violence that followed in Bombay. Captain Sehgal made it clear she would not hobnob with people with the blood of innocents on their hands and they were not allowed to touch her feet.
“Hum aap se nahin, hum Usha Mehta se milne aye hain,” she told Joshi royally, and she wouldn’t have any part of Joshi’s help in locating Mehta in that maidan either.
Joshi could hardly say much after that except, ‘Yes, yes.’ He stepped back onto the sidelines and watched like a school boy whipped and asked to stand outside class, as Mehta came into view and the two ladies hugged like long-lost friends who had unexpectedly found each other at the August Kranti Maidan. There were tears at the edges of their eyes nd when I glanced across at Joshi he seemed close to tears, too. But, perhaps, for other reasons.
If I ever felt sorry for any Shiv Sainik, it was for Joshi at that moment – he had not caused the riots but he was carrying the burden of that violence upon his shoulders and was now being treeated like an untouchable by a woman he and probably Bal Thackeray, too, greatly admired for her role in the freedom movement. But Captain Sehgal would not give the government of the day in Maharashtea any opportunity for her mehmaan-nawaazi (hospitality), graciously acceptinng Mehta’s own private arrangements in that regard.
I have never forgotten that look on Joshi’s face nor the smooth understated manner in which Laxmi Sehgal snubbed the chief minister and made it clear what she thought of parties on the other side of the secular divide.
Naturally, then, the BJP and the Shiv Sena did not supported her candidature for the Presidency in 2002 (she got only ten percent of the votes against the NDA candidate Dr Abdul Kalam). But I would have expected that when she died last week, despite the fuss over the new President of India, at least the Samajwadi Party government in Uttar Pradesh or the UPA in New DelhI would have accorded her a state funeral in Kanpur. Laxmi Sehgal deserved no less than that simple honour and courtesy. She was a legend who lived up to our times and I do not think any of our leaders of today would everv be remembered or revered as she was or even make the history books in school as Captain Laxmi Sehgal did.
But for whatever my own personal tribute is worth, I bow my head to this modern day Rani of Jhansi, who, more than former President Pratibha Patil paved the way women empowerment in India – she was among the first women doctors in this country; she was the first ever Indian woman soldier (and it took more than fifty years after Independence for the Indian Army to admit a woman into its ranks).
They make very few like Laxmi Sehgal today.