Sttugart, Germany, 1907
The International Socialist Congress was underway at the industrial city in Germany, attended by 1000 representatives from across the world. Among the many delegates was an Indian lady in a colorful saree, whom many thought to be some kind of princess. India was burning with the fire of revolution against the British rule, who in turn tried to stem the rising tide of nationalism with a series of draconian bills, ordinances and repression. And when her turn came, the fraily looking lady, boldly unfurled the Indian flag, defiantly proclaiming.
This flag is of Indian Independence! Behold, it is born! It has been made sacred by the blood of young Indians who sacrificed their lives. I call upon you, gentlemen to rise and salute this flag of Indian Independence. In the name of this flag, I appeal to lovers of freedom all over the world to support this flag.
That frail Indian lady was Madame Bhikaji Cama, revolutionary leader, close associate of Veer Savarkar and a truly remarkable lady. Born on September 24, 1861 into a well to do, Paris family in Mumbai. Her father Sorabji Patel, was one of the city’s leading merchants, also an educationist, philantrophist too. Though the recipient of English education, she had strong nationalist feelings from a young age, and was a born rebel. A polyglot who used her flair in different languages to advocate the cause of Indian independence.
She was married to Rustom Cama, one of the leading lawyers of Mumbai at the age of 24. However her husband’s pro British leanings, clashed with her own nationalist ideology. While he felt, that the British did a whole lot of good to India, she on the other hand, felt they were no more than exploiters who looted the country. Not surprisingly, their marriage was rather troubled and unhappy.
Madame Cama plunged into social work, to forget her unhappy personal life, and when Mumbai was hit by plague in 1896, she volunteered her services. Unfortunately she too was affected by the deadly disease and her health broke down. Though saved from the deadly disease, she was considerably weakened and was advised to go abroad to recover. She left for London in 1902, which would also be her home for quite a long time, before she returned back. It also ended her rather troubled, unhappy marriage too in a way.
It was in London that Bhikaji Cama met Dadabhai Naoroji and inspired by his ideals plunged into the freedom movement. She also began to meet with other Indian nationalists like Shyamji Varma, Lala Hardayal, and soon became one of the active members of the movement. She began to publish booklets for the Indian community in England, propagating the cause of Swaraj. . “March forward! We are for India. India is for Indians!” she defiantly declared. She also toured US, where she gave speeches on the ill effects of British rule, and urged Americans to support the cause of India’s freedom.
August 22, 1907
She became the first person to hoist the Indian flag on foreign soil, during an International Socialist Conference at Stuttgart in Germany. It was also her way of drawing global attention to the British oppresion in India. The flag had 8 lotuses representing the 8 provinces, flowers representing the princely states. Vande Mataram inscribed in the center, this flag was designed along with Veer Savarkar and Shyamji Krishna Varma. It is now on public display at the Maratha and Kesari Library in Pune.
The British could not stop her, inspite of their best efforts, they asked her a to give an undertaking that she would be allowed to return to India only if she stopped taking part in nationalist activities, she refused point blank, and preferred to stay in exile,fighting for India’s freedom from abroad. Having got wind off a plot to finish her off, she shifted to Paris, where along with Singh Rewabhai Rana and Munchershah Burjorji Godrej, she founded the Paris Indian Society and began to mobilize the Indian expats living in Europe for the cause of Indian freedom. Her Paris home became a refuge for revolutionaries across the world, including Lenin.
It was however the association with Savarkar, that would be the most notable aspect of her life. While he stayed at her Paris home, during his exile from the British, she was the one who gave him all the support in writing his epic work on the First War of Independence in 1857. When no English publisher came forward to publish the book, it was Madame Cama, who got it printed in Netherlands, and got it smuggled to India, using Don Quixote covers. When the British banned Vande Mataram, she started a magazine with the same name, which she published herself. She also started another magazine Madan’s Talwar in memory of Madan Lal Dhingra who was hanged by the British. Though banned in India and UK, Bhikaji Cama neverthless managed to smuggle her works to Indian revolutionaries and leaders who were in Europe.
When Savarkar was arrested by the British and deported to India, she planned his daring escape at Marseilles. However a delay in reaching the port, meant Savarkar was caught by the police and sent back. This was something she would regret her entire life and never quite forgave herself for this. The British requested the French Government to extradite her, who however refused to do so. The reprisal from the British for her assistance to Savarkar and plotting the escape was swift. They seized all her property in England, and she had to live in exile. Lenin invited her to the Soviet Union, but she refused.
However inspite of all the British harassment, Madame Cama never wavered in her stand at all. When WWI broke out, she refused to support em, and asked the Indian soldiers-” Would you fight for some one who chained your motherland? ” But with France now becoming an ally to Britian in WWI, it meant Madame Bhikaji Cama had no safe haven, and exiled outside of Paris, made to report to the police station every week. The French Govt too cracked down on the Paris India Society. Rana and his whole family were deported to Martinique, the Paris India Society was forcibly disbanded by the French Govt, and she herself was placed under house arrest in Bordeaux, where she had to report to the local police station daily till end of WWI.
Madame Cama was also a vocal advocate of women’s rights, she felt that women had an equally important role in nation building. ” You must not forget that the hands that rock cradles also build persons. Do not forget the important role of women in nation building”. However for Bhikaji Cama, women’s rights were secondary compared to India’s independence. She felt that once freedom was obtained, women’s rights wud come by themselves and could wait. “When India is independent, women will not only have the right to vote, but other rights too”.
Her later years were painful, spent most of her time in exile in Europe till 1935, until a paralytic stroke, forced her to come back to India with the help of Sir Jahangir Cowasji, and finally passed away on August 13, 1936 at the Parsi General Hospital. A truly selfless patriot, Madame Bhikaji Cama bequeathed most of her personal inheritance to the Avabai Petit Orphanage for Girls in Mumbai.