Zoroastrian Heroes: Madame Bhikaiji Cama

No. 2: MADAME BHIKAIJI CAMA
(1861-1936)

Madame Cama, or Bhikaiji, as we may refer to her, more familiarly, in our acquired Aussie informality, is a worthy successor to our first named hero Dadabhai.

Her biographer Lakshmi N. Menon in the Dictionary of National Biography, has honoured her with the title of “first Indian woman revolutionary to fight for India’s freedom from alien rule”.

Born on September 24 th. 1861 into a wealthy Bombay Parsi business family, Bhikaiji went to the Alexandra Girls’ School, well known for its high educational standards, for both her primary and secondary education. Not much else is known of her early years, or of her parents Jijibai & Sohrabji Framji Patel, or their family, from these official sources.

However, born four years after the great Indian mutiny of 1857, and married in 1885, the year of the first session of the Indian National Congress, Bhikaiji grew up in “an atmosphere ... alive with a new spirit of defiance and independence” (Menon in Sen ed. 1972-1974).

Bhikaiji was married to Rustumji Cama, himself an orientalist, (and a son of the famous orientalist Kharshedji Rustumji Cama). Bhikaiji and Rustumji disagreed about the importance and method of the struggle for independence, and largely because of this, the marriage was not a happy one. Madame Bhikaiji Cama began her public life as a social worker. With her own independent fortune, she traveled to Europe and the USA.

In 1902 Bhikaiji went to London for medical treatment, and while there, joined Dadabhai Naoroji in his electioneering. There she met other revolutionaries from all over the world, including Russia (corresponding with Lenin, but later unable to accept his invitation to visit Moscow after the revolution). Bhikaiji attracted large crowds to her speeches at Hyde Park, London. She was the moving spirit of the ‘Abhinav Bharat’ (Indians in Europe) group. India House in the Strand, London, more recently a haven for Indians visiting England, was then a hot bed of the group’s revolutionary activities.

In 1907 she attended the Socialist (International) Congress in Stuttgart where she unfurled for the first time an “Indian” flag*, which she had either designed herself or at least had a good part in designing, also declaring there that independent India would be a Republic, that Hindi would be its language and Devanagari its script. This was an act of heroic defiance against the British Government. [The flag* used today, is very close to her design. Her flag was the original tricolour (a possible French influence) with red where it is orange now. She had the sun, and moon, in the two lower corners, and a row of eight lotus buds in the top portion. In the central part, instead of the chakra, she had the words “Vande Mataram” (I Bow to Thee My Country) in the Devanagri script completing the legend. The inclusion of seven stars in the flag, is mentioned by Menon (in Sen ed. 1972-1974), but not evident in the photograph in Godrej-Mistree (2002)]

All these activities drew the attention of Whitehall and Bhikaiji was threatened with deportation. She preempted this by moving her headquarters to Paris in 1909. Extremely distressed by the plight of her country, she made passionate appeals to her countrymen to wake up and rebel, her speeches smuggled into India via Pondicherry. She organized the training of revolutionaries. Her “remarkable (personal) courage and integrity” were evident in the acts of rescuing her fellow revolutionaries by taking the blame on herself for the offences (like sending weapons to India) that they were charged with, and securing the release of those threatened with imprisonment, at great risk to herself.

In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, England persuaded France, her new ally, to arrest and imprison Bhikaiji, which France did for the next three years, till the end of World War I. After the war, released from prison but still not free to return to India, Bhikaiji, remained in Paris for another seventeen years. In 1935 aged 74, she was allowed to return to India, when “the authorities were assured of her lack of “threat to their continuance (in ruling India).” A year later “this great patriot and pioneer revolutionary” died in the Parsi General Hospital, “unwept, unsung and unhonoured” (Menon in Sen ed. 1972-1974)

Yet, she will always live on in “the hearts and minds of those who love India”. “ A street in Bombay bears her name, and a birth centenary stamp in her honour was issued “..(Menon in Sen ed. 1972-1974) on Republic Day, 26 th January 1962.

References:

  • Godrej, P., and Punthakey Mistree, F., Eds., Zoroastrian Tapestry, Mappin Publishing 2002.
  • Menon, L. N., Madam Bhikaji Cama, in Sen, S.P., Ed. Dictionary of National Biography, Culcutta Institute of Historical Studies, 1972-‘74

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