“Behold, the flag of independent India is born! It has been made sacred by the blood of young Indians who sacrificed their lives in its honour. In the name of this flag, I appeal to lovers of freedom all over the world to support this struggle.” – Bhikaji Cama
These were the emotional words of an Indian lady with fire in her heart and indomitable confidence and patriotic feelings for her motherland. It was August 1907 and the Indian independence was 40 years away; the world was not fully aware of the burning patriotism of thousands of young Indians who were ready to lay down their lives for the sake of freedom for their country.
Bhikaji Cama, when she unfurled the first National Flag at the International Socialist Conference in Stuttgart (Germany) in 1907, was a rare phenomenon in those days. A thousand representatives from several countries attended the event when an Indian woman’s brave words launched the flag for freedom.
Bhikaji Rustom Cama was born in a well-off and large Parsi family to Sorabji and Jaijibai Patel on September 24, 1861 in Bombay. Her father, a lawyer by training and a merchant by profession, was an influential member of the Parsi community. Like many Parsi girls of the time, Bhikaji attended Alexandra Native Girls’ English Institution. She was by all accounts a diligent, disciplined child with a flair for languages.
On August 3, 1885, Bhikaji married Rustom Cama, a lawyer and son of the famed Kharshedji Rustomji Cama, patron of the KR Cama Institute of Oriental Studies. It was not a happy marriage, and Bhikaji spent most of her time and energy in philanthropic activities and social work.
In October 1896, the Bombay Presidency was hit first by famine, and shortly thereafter by bubonic plague. Bhikaji joined one of the many teams working out of Grant Medical College (which would subsequently become Haffkine's plague vaccine research centre), in an effort to provide care for the afflicted, and (later) to inoculate the healthy. Cama subsequently contracted the plague herself but survived. Severely weakened, she was sent to Britain for recuperation in 1901.
She was preparing to return to India in 1908 when she came in contact with Shyamji Krishna Varma, who was well known in London's Indian community for the fiery nationalist speeches he gave in Hyde Park. Through him, she met Dadabhai Naoroji, a strong critic of the British’s economic policy in India, and then president of the British Committee of the Indian National Congress, and for whom she came to work as a private secretary. She came in contact with Lala Har Dayal too.
Together with Naoroji and Singh Rewabhai Rana, Cama supported the founding of Varma's Indian Home Rule Society in February 1905. In London, she was told that her return to India would be prevented unless she would sign a statement promising not to participate in nationalist activities, but she refused.
That same year Cama relocated to Paris, where together with SR Rana and Munchershah Burjorji Godrej, she co-founded the Paris Indian Society. Together with other notable members of the movement for Indian sovereignty living in exile, Cama wrote, published (in the Netherlands and Switzerland) and distributed revolutionary literature for the movement, including Bande Mataram (founded in response to the Crown ban on the poem Vande Mataram) and later Madan's Talwar (in response to the execution of Madan Lal Dhingra). These weeklies were smuggled into India through the French colony of Pondichéry.
Bhikaji’s Flag of Independence
On August 22, 1907, Madam Cama became the first person to hoist the Indian flag on foreign soil in Stuttgart, Germany. Appealing for human rights, equality and for autonomy from Great Britain, she described the devastating effects of a famine that had struck the Indian subcontinent.
The flag she unfurled was co-designed by Cama and Shyamji Krishna Varma, and would later serve as one of the templates from which the current national flag of India was created. In the flag, the top green stripe had eight blooming lotuses representing pre-independence India’s eight provinces. Bande Mataram was written across the central saffron stripe in Hindi. On the bottom red stripe, a half moon was on the right and the rising sun on the left, indicating the Hindu and Muslim faith.
The same flag was later smuggled into India by socialist leader Indulal Yagnik and is now on display at the Maratha and Kesari Library in Pune.
Travel to US
After Stuttgart, Bhikaji went to the United States where she travelled across the country, informing Americans about India’s struggle for independence. She also fought for the cause of women and often stressed on the role of women in building a nation. Speaking at the National Conference at Cairo, Egypt in 1910, she asked:
“Where is the other half of Egypt? I see only men who represent half the country! Where are the mothers? Where are the sisters? You must not forget that the hands that rock cradles also build persons.”
Exile and Death
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Bhikaji took an anti-British stand.Since France and England were allies in this war, she was asked to live outside Paris and to report to the police station once a week. Unshaken, the indomitable lady continued to maintain active contacts with Indian, Irish, and Egyptian revolutionaries as well as with French Socialists and Russian leadership.
Cama remained in exile in Europe until 1935, when, gravely ill and paralysed by a stroke that she had suffered earlier that year, she petitioned the British government through Sir Cowasji Jehangir to be allowed to return home. Writing from Paris on June 24, 1935, she acceded to the requirement that she renounce seditionist activities. Accompanied by Jehangir, she arrived in Bombay in November 1935 and died nine months later, aged 74, at Parsi General Hospital on August 13, 1936.
The cause to which she devoted her life, however, survived and thrived. That cause was not just the independence of the Indian sub-continent but the emancipation of the women as well.
Bhikaji Cama bequeathed most of her personal assets to the Avabai Petit Orphanage for girls, which established a trust in her name. She donated INR 54,000 (1936: £39,300; USD157,200) to her family's fire temple, the Framji Nusserwanjee Patel Agiary at Mazgaon, in South Bombay.
Several Indian cities have streets and places named after Bhikaji Cama, or Madame Cama as she is also known. On January 26, 1962, India's 11th Republic Day, the Indian Posts and Telegraphs Department issued a commemorative stamp in her honour.
In 1997, the Indian Coast Guard commissioned a Priyadarshini-class fast patrol vessel ICGS Bhikaji Cama in her honour.
The Life and Times of Madam Bhikaji Cama by Rachna Bhola 'Yamini'
Madam Bhikaji Cama by Kapil