Madam Bhikaiji Cama
MADAME BHIKAJI CAMA
Bhikaiji Cama was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in a large, affluent Parsi Zoroastrian family. Her parents, Sorabji Framji Patel and Jaijibai Sorabji Patel, were well known in the city, where her father Sorabji—a lawyer by training and a merchant by profession—was an influential member of the Parsi community. Like many Parsi girls of the time, Bhikhaiji attended Alexandra Girls’ English Institution. Bhikhaiji was by all accounts a diligent, disciplined child with a flair for languages.
On 3 August 1885, she married Rustom Cama, who was the son of K. R. Cama, a famous Parsi scholar and reformer. Her husband was a wealthy, pro-British lawyer who aspired to enter politics. Cama adored the British, loved their culture and thought they had done a lot of good to India, Bhikaji was a nationalist at heart and believed that the Britishers had ruthlessly exploited India for their own profit. It was not a happy marriage, and Bhikhaji 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. Bhikhaiji 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. As she was severely weakened, she was sent to Britain for medical care in 1902.
She was preparing to return to India in 1904 when she came in contact with Shyamji Krishna Varma, who was well known in London’s Indian community for fiery nationalist speeches he gave in Hyde Park. Through him, she met Dadabhai Naoroji, then president of the British Committee of the Indian National Congress, and for whom she came to work as private secretary. 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. She refused.
On 22 August 1907, Cama attended the second Socialist Congress at Stuttgart, Germany, where she described the devastating effects of a famine that had struck the Indian subcontinent. In her appeal for human rights, equality and autonomy from Great Britain, she unfurled what she called the “Flag of Indian Independence.” Cama’s flag, a modification of the Calcutta Flag, was co-designed by Cama, and would later serve as one of the templates from which the current national flag of India was created.
“This is the flag of independent India. I appeal to all gentlemen to stand and salute the Flag.”
Surprised by the dramatic incident, all the representatives at the conference stood up and saluted the first flag of independent Hindustan. Madam Cama had wanted to bring the poverty, starvation and oppression under the British Raj, as also India’s thirst for freedom to the attention of the international community and she had succeeded.
The green, yellow and red represent Islam, Hindu and Buddhism. The crescent moon and the sun also represent Islam and Hinduism. The 8 lotuses are the 8 provinces of British India. The words in the middle are in Devanagari script, Vande Mataram- we bow to you Mother India – the slogan of the Indian National Congress.
Influenced by Christabel Pankhurst and the Suffragette movement, Madam Cama was vehement in her support for gender equality. Speaking in Cairo, Egypt in 1910, she asked, “I see here the representatives of only half the population of Egypt. May I ask where is the other half? Sons of Egypt, where are the daughters of Egypt? Where are your mothers and sisters? Your wives and daughters?”
Cama’s stance with respect to the vote for women was, however, secondary to her position on Indian independence; in 1920, upon meeting Herabai and Mithan Tata, two Parsi women outspoken on the issue of the right to vote, Cama is said to have sadly shaken her head and observed: “Work for Indian’s freedom and independence. When India is independent women will not only have the right to vote, but all other rights.”
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, France and Britain became allies, and all the members of Paris India Society except Cama and Singh Rewabhai Rana left the country.
She visited the army camp at Marseilles and asked the Indian forces there, “Are you going to fight for the people who have chained your motherland?”
They were required to leave Marseilles, and Cama then moved to Rana’s wife’s house in Arcachon, near Bordeaux. In January 1915, the French government sent Cama to Vichy, where she was interned. In bad health, she was released in November 1917 and permitted to return to Bordeaux provided that she report weekly to the local police. Following the war, Cama returned to her home at 25, Rue de Ponthieu in Paris.
Cama remained in exile in Europe until 1935, when, gravely ill and paralyzed 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 24 June 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 13 August 1936.
Bikhaiji Cama bequeathed most of her personal assets to the Avabai Petit Orphanage for girls, now the Bai Avabai Framji Petit Girls’ High School, which established a trust in her name. Rs. 54,000 went to her family’s fire temple, the Framji Nusserwanjee Patel Agiary at Mazgaon, in South Bombay.
An unsung name among the stalwarts of Indian Independence Struggle, Madam Bhikaji Cama’s conviction, courage and integrity took the message of Indian freedom struggle to the world with a force and clarity it had never had before. As the fiery lady had once declared,
‘Do not forget the important role of women play in building a nation.’
Courtesy : Prochy Mehta