There are several notables who contributed significantly to India’s freedom struggle, and are icons in the trajectory of the subcontinent attaining freedom from the British yoke. Though this persona played key roles and facilitated several milestones in the attainment of freedom and independence, many of them remain unsung heroes and heroines in our overtly recorded history. Madame Bhikaji was one such. From this issue onwards, we bring you this feature, about great Indians who have contributed in no small measure to make India what it is today.
Madame Bhikaji Cama may indeed be called one of the bravest daughters of Bharat Mata. Though physically lean and thin, she was full of passion of patriotism for the Mother India that she called ‘Hindustan.’ She was the lady who unfurled the first-ever Indian tricolour. She unfurled this at the International Socialist Conference, held in Stuttgart, Germany, on the 21st of August 1907. A conference that was attended by not less than a thousand representatives from various parts of the world. There, the lady declared, “This is the flag of independent Hindustan. I appeal to all to stand and salute the flag.” She always carried the badge on her chest. Incidentally, Veer Savarkar had designed the flag with three colours. Prior to it, the Congress used to march with the Union Jack. Bhikaji Cama then read the resolution drafted by Savarkar to garner international support for the freedom of her motherland. Bhikaji vowed, “I want to tell you that while I am alive I completely hope to see that the Republican state of India is formed. Vande Mataram.” American nationalists, in response, invited her to America, where she exposed the great suppression then prevailing in India. In fact, Madam Cama and Shri Shamji Krishna Varma’s wife Bhanumati themselves stitched this flag, using rich satin and silk cloth of the same three colours. Three such flags were made, the reason being, in the event of seizure of one during police action, the other could be used. Later, Madam Cama carried one flag out of England hidden it in her blouse. Barrister Rana carried the other two flags to Paris. Around this time, the British government had ordered Madam Cama to leave England.
People need to remember that Bhikaji made Savarkar’s ‘The Indian War of Independence – 1857,’ a book that was banned by the British, available at her house in Paris. She also published its French transcript. Besides, she nursed Savarkar like a second mother in Paris when he fell sick in 1910. Not only that, she wanted to save Savarkar from being arrested in an assassination case, and advised him to stay put in Paris and not move to London. But when Savarkar insisted, she bade farewell to him. Accompanied by another revolutionary Lala Hardayal, Sarvarkar was later arrested and sent back to India in the Morea Ship. On knowing that the ship had arrived at the Marseilles port, she drove there but reached 15 minutes late. By then Savarkar was caught after his historic dive into the ocean. Again, she told the Mayor of Marseilles that the arrest of Savarkar by the British police on French soil was an insult to France and got the news of his illegal arrest published in the French media. Madame Cama’s wish to secure the release of Savarkar was so intense that she visited the British Embassy in Paris and handed over an application to the Ambassador, mentioning “The onus of sending the pistols to India in the association case was mine and not of Savarkar. I gave Chaturbhuj Amin the pistols to carry to India”. Such a gesture for a revolutionary was unimaginable. This act reflects her courage, dynamism and clear Great Indians patriotism. She did not stop at that, but also sent all information related to Savarkar to newspapers for publishing. On the 30th January 1911, Savarkar was sentenced to life imprisonment. When Savarkar was at the Andamans, she also provided financial aid to Savarkar’s younger brother Narayanrao Savarkar for higher studies. An angry British Government sent a request to the French to send Madame Cama back to India, but they chose not to abide by it.
Madame was born on the 24th September 1861, at Mumbai into a rich Parsi Family. She completed her schooling in Mumbai and learned four languages – English, Gujarati, Hindi and Marathi. Her father and brother were big traders in Mumbai. On 3rd August 1885, she was married to Rustom Khurshid Cama, a solicitor by profession, but soon had to leave her husband. Though her family life was ruined, she dedicated herself to social work. In 1896 when Mumbai was struck with a Plague epidemic, she along with others served patients at the Parsi Fever Hospital. During the First World War, Madame Cama used to visit military camps in Marseilles and ask Indian soldiers over there: “Would you fight on behalf of those who have forced your motherland into slavery?” During this war, since France and England were allies, Madame Cama was asked to stay outside of Paris and was required to report to the police station once a week. Madame Cama still stood firm and unshaken. After the end of the war, Madame Cama returned to Paris and resumed her political activities. But her health was not supportive, as she had been continually neglecting her health. Her financial situation had also deteriorated, and her wish to return to her motherland started getting intense. On severe perseverance and assurance of not participating in the freedom struggle, in 1935 i.e., after 34 long years, she was granted permission to return to India. She came to Mumbai, but did not live for long. On 13th August 1936, she passed away. Madame Cama stood for self-rule. Her Paris home became a shelter for world revolutionaries. Even Lenin visited her house and exchanged views. She published and distributed “Vande Matarm,” a very brave work during British rule. Another magazine “Madan’s Talwar” was also started in memory of Madanlal Dhingra who had laid down his life for the Country. Both the magazines were outlawed in India and England.
Madam Cama also fought for the cause of women. 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!” She stressed the role of women in building a nation. It is a matter of great shame that no suitable memorial of Madame Cama has been created in spite of her devotion and her long exile in foreign lands for the Independence of India. In the recent past though, a commercial locale in south Delhi has been named after her. This is indeed great that of late Paris is setting up a memorial in her memory at her residence. This is a big step taken by the GOPIO International’s France chapter. We urge the Indian Government to make a suitable memorial in Madame Bhikaji Cama’s memory, so that the coming generations are familiar with her name and made aware of her huge sacrifice of living in exile to help Indian revolutionaries.