For many it would seem that the decision to accept the challenge of contesting the Presidential election was a tough one for Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, but the 87-year-old war veteran unflinchingly accepted the suggestion by the Left parties. One who has never been cowed down in the face of responsibility, this soldier, who led the Rani Jhansi Regiment of the Indian National Army, is prepared for another struggle, this time against bigotry, obscurantism, social injustice, poverty and economic misery. While in New Delhi, she shared with Frontline some thoughts of her visions. Excerpts from an interview she gave T.K. Rajalakshmi:
An elaborate campaign schedule has been drawn up for you. What kind of issues do you intend to address in the States where you are expected to meet legislators?
The powers of the President are very limited. The most important thing is that he or she is the protector of the Indian Constitution. The most significant issue is that our Constitution needs to be adhered to properly in the first place. It has been so designed that it can solve all our problems, but unfortunately some provisions in it have been used only to supersede rival government policies. The problem facing this country is the inability to claim the right to education, the right to work and the right to health. The weaker sections, like Dalits and women, should be given their fair due. Federalism is also a very important issue involving the devolution of powers.
What is the greatest threat or challenge that needs to be addressed in the current Indian context?
Undoubtedly, poverty is the biggest challenge facing us. We have not been able to solve it at all. By increasing the expenditure on armaments, we will have less money to spend on welfare and development needs. We need to implement the fundamental rights to work and obtain an education. On foreign policy matters, we should reject this slavish attitude of going after the United States.
There must have been a vision of India that you along with others had at the time of the freedom struggle. Have any of those basic aspirations been realised in post-independent India?
We were against Partition. Netaji made several broadcasts to India stating that Partition would create more problems. We did not see religion having a place in politics. We hoped for a multi-religious and multi-cultural society where no one would be discriminated against on the basis of their religion, sex, caste, etc. There was a vision of real social justice.
People today are unable to buy food. They are dying of starvation even as the granaries are overflowing. This is not something that we had thought would happen.
Subhas (Chandra Bose) wanted firm ties with the rest of the Asian countries and the West Asian Countries. He was also wary of America who, he predicted, would vanquish countries like the Soviet Union and then turn its attention to countries like India. He was very specific on the aspect of economic slavery practised by imperialist America. He wanted the establishment of an egalitarian society and felt that our country should go about establishing such a society based on our specific conditions and should not blindly emulate just any model.
You have been in Kanpur for several decades and must have witnessed the upheavals in the industrial set-up there and the resultant massive unemployment and changes in the social fabric. What has been your experience all these years?
I have been in Kanpur since 1947. Today, it has become a graveyard of industry. Workers have taken their children out of schools as every member has to work so that the family can eat. There is no health insurance, and cases of tuberculosis among women have increased. Economic hardship in the country has gone up and virtually no social struggles are taking place. Unnecessary expenses at marriages and related demands such as that for dowry have gone up tremendously owing to rank consumerism. The ground is ripe for a revolution in the country but these fascist forces have entered the field and are dividing the people.
Did you ever expect that communalism and jingoistic tendencies would pose such a stiff challenge to our secular and democratic polity?
We never foresaw that a party like the Bharatiya Janata Party would go to this extent. It has to do a lot with the weak-kneed policies of the Congress(I) governments which never tackled basic problems such as land distribution, the rights of women. There is a strong resemblance between the Nazism in Germany and the jingoism that is seen here today.
It has been proved again and again that military strength and wars have not solved problems but, instead, created fresh ones. And with both countries (India and Pakistan) having nuclear capabilities and America doing the balancing act, it is very dangerous. To say that nuclear capabilities have acted as a deterrent is not true as it is the U.S. that is keeping the two countries apart, but in its own interest. These people who are shouting about war don't know anything about it.
The present war rhetoric is vastly different from what we had envisaged during the freedom struggle. We had only one objective - the independence of our country - and we were prepared to take on a vastly superior enemy. It was not only a military fight but a political fight. People were motivated by the spirit of national unity and sacrifice. There was no question of jingoism. In the defence services, a large number of young men are unable to qualify because they are not strong. In Kanpur, I have seen so many of them wanting to get recruited but because they come from poor families, they fail the physical tests. You have to ensure that people get enough to eat first before anything else.
If you get elected as President, how would you see yourself in that position?
Indian democracy, if applied in its true form, will work well for the people but it is used more often to cover the weaknesses of the political system. As I said earlier, even with the limited powers of the President, if the Constitution can be preserved then I would consider my responsibility fulfilled. My views as such are diametrically opposed to those of the ruling party, so I don't know how it will work out - a democratic, socialist President and a fascist government.