Saturday, August 15, 2020

Captain Lakshmi Sahgal: A beacon of inspiration

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Captain Lakshmi Sahgal in INA Uniform | Source: Indiatimes

Indian freedom movement has given countless heroes who gave the prime of their lives to see India chart her own destiny by throwing out the Britishers. While there were leaders and fighters like Mahatma Gandhi or Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, whom everyone knows, there were many other bravehearts who gave up their lives and used every ounce of their strength to free India from the clutches of British Rule. Doctor Lakshmi Sahgal was one of them.

Early Life

Lakshmi Swaminathan was born in Madras (now Chennai), which was under the Madras Presidency, British India, on October 24, 1914. Born to influential parents, Lakshmi was enthused with her mother’s contribution in the field of social work and inherited her father’s intelligence, who was a lawyer, and went on to become a doctor.

She received her MBBS degree from Madras Medical college in the year 1938 and a diploma in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, the following year and was a working doctor in the Kasturba Gandhi Hospital, Chennai. Moreover, she established a clinic in Singapore, a year after getting her diploma, for the under-privileged and Indian migrant labourers.

In Singapore she joined hands with the Indian Independence League, a political body headquartered in Singapore, which prepared Indians living outside of India, to seek independence from the harsh British rule.

Indian National Army days

When the Japanese forces lost the 1942 Battle of Singapore to the British Army, DR. Sahgal played a prominent role in tending to the injured war prisoners. Several of these prisoners had not lost hope yet and wanted to begin an Indian Liberation Army. Their wish was granted when Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose visited Singapore in July, 1943. After listening to Bose’s speeches on wanting to establish an army composed of women to fight against the British forces, Lakshmi quickly set up a meeting with Bose and expressed her desire to be a part of the women regiment. She soon launched the Rani of Jhansi regiment, which was a wonderful opportunity for numerous women to do something for their nation.

Lakshmi Swaminathan turned into Captain Lakshmi, which marked the beginning of her inspiring journey in the freedom struggle. Nearly 50,000 women trained and fought under her command. She also carried the title of Colonel in the women’s army unit, the first one ever to be carried by a female in the entire continent of Asia during that time. Her regiment battled against the British forces along with the Axis Powers.

Unfortunately, she was arrested in 1945 in Burma (now Myanmar) and remained there for a year until she was sent back to India.

Later years

Lakshmi married Colonel Prem Kumar Sahgal in March, 1947 in Lahore, British India. Lakshmi Sahgal moved to Kanpur with her husband and carried on with her medical practice, attending to the needs of evacuees after the Partition of India.

After Independence, Lakshmi entered into the world of policy making and represented her party, The Communist Party of India (Marxist), in Rajya Sabha. During the Bangladesh crisis, she was the one who called for medical aid for thousands of refugees from Bangladesh who came into Calcutta. Moreover, she led a medical team to tend to the victims of the catastrophic Bhopal Gas Tragedy and worked towards refurbishing peace during the anti-Sikh riots, both which took place in the year 1984.

In 2002, she was the only opponent of A.P.J Abdul Kalam when she got elected as a candidate in the Presidential elections, of four leftist parties namely the Revolutionary Socialist Party, All India Forward Bloc, the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

DR. Lakshmi Sahgal was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian award, in 1998 for her great achievements, by R.K. Narayan. An airport in Dehat district of Kanpur, Captain Lakshmi Sahgal International Airport, is named in her honour.

She passed away on July, 23, 2012 after suffering from a cardiac arrest, at a good age of 97. Her noble deeds did not stop even after her death as she donated her body to Kanpur Medical College for medical research.

She was a true leader who broke the glass ceiling and barged into the male dominated world of revolutionary army which played a great role in throwing out the Britishers from India. After India’s independence she excelled in another male dominated domain, politics. Hers is an inspiring story that women can be equally brave and fierce as men and can achieve anything by showing perseverance.

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October 23, 2020 3:57 PM

Male gaze, their female guardians and sports-wear

In Helen Cixous’ essay, ‘The Laugh of Medusa’, she urges women to redefine what their body means to them, not just physically but also socially, emotionally and politically. This could happen by re-writing about your body in a way you deem  fit, the expression you identify with and separating it from how your body has been written about by men. The expression could be how you view your body separate from the patriarchal lense.

It is no secret that a woman’s body is subject to critique. While clothing for men is just a tool to cover themselves as per the surrounding environment, clothing for women isa social and political narrative that dictates their life or as we affectionately call it ‘culturally appropriate’.

The clothing style could vary. It could be a woman covered head to toe in a Burqa, it could be a woman who decides to wear sports-wear in a park or it could be jeans and a top. Everything is critically evaluated by men and by women who work towards protecting the male gaze.

The male gaze is a heterosexual way of looking at female bodies that sexualises these bodies into an object. It is a gaze that runs on the self-affirmative notion that the bodies of women, and what they do with it, is directly linked to how they  appear in front of a man.

In a recent incident in Bangalore, India, popular Indian actress Samyuktha Hegde was abused and threatened by senior political leader of the congress party, Kavitha Reddy,  for wearing sports-wear, in Bangalore’s Agara Lake park. She was exercising with her friend.

Kavitha Reddy initially claimed she was in indecent attire and went onto morally police and then later abused the actress and her friend.  A supposedly progressive political leader gets uncomfortable by what women are wearing. It breaks into an argument and a fight where the politician is supported by five to six men. Later on, the police appear to be appeasing the politician instead of the women who were harassed. Although she did apologise, her apology came after her video went viral, and as a protection for her own political reputation.

To look at Samyuktha Hegde’s clothing as a threat is to view her clothing as an act of obscenity therefore bullying her identity and sense of agency and reducing her to sexual object, who, by putting her in public, apparently gives the men present a right to look at her? Nevermind that she was there to workout like everyone else, her actions were confused as to how men look at her. In the video posted by the actress, the politician is surrounded by men who are championing her on. The politician choses to side with the patriarchal figures in shaming these women. Asking to protect from the male gaze is a far stretch but punishing women for the male gaze is where we should draw a line.

What roles does Kavitha Reddy play? She is the guardian of the male gaze. We find her in our mothers, in our grandmothers, in aunties and sometimes our friends. She understands a woman’s body as an object that is there to be looked at by men. She gets angry at women for wearing certain kinds of clothing but she is not angry at men for looking. The agency in this case always belongs to men.

When Cixous asks women to re-define their identity, she urges us to strangle the moral police that comes alive in such instances. It is the moral police that shames women for wearing clothes that don’t flatter their bodies or clothes that do flatter them. She urges us to reflect upon the source of such vigilance. Do we shame other women because we believe in what we are saying or our identity is partially (or  wholly) shaped by the male gaze?

Whether we chose to wear a burqa, or a dress, or variations of the new type clothing produced everyday, the crux of the matter is that it should not worry anyone apart from the one wearing it. The identity of a woman, sexual or otherwise, has to be redefined to be separated from the men and their gaze. We have to draw a line otherwise people in power will continue to abuse their power and preserve patriarchy and male gaze.

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