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Madam Cama

Bhikhaiji Cama (1861-1936)

Madam Bhikaji Cama, nee Bhikaji Patel, was born on 24 September 1861 in Bombay. Her father Sorabji Framji Patel and mother Jijibai belonged to a prosperous Parsi business family. This is evident from the fact that he had left 13 lakhs to each of his sons and created a trust of lakh for each of his eight daughters. Very little is known of this affluent family besides that fact that it contributed the first Indian woman revolutionary to fight for India’s freedom from alien rule. She had her education, both primary and secondary, in the Alexandra Girl’s School, then as now, recognised as one of the best educational Institutions for girls in India.
The atmosphere in which she was brought up could by no means be called placid. She was married on 3 August 1885, the very year when the Indian National Congress held its first session in Bombay under the presidentship of W. C. Bonnerji. The atmosphere was alive with a new spirit of defiance and independence which was to blossom into secret societies and evolutionary ardour under the leadership of Aurobindo in Bengal and Tilak in Maharastra,
For a person of young Bhikaji’s temperament, this new spirit became a strong influence in shaping her future. It is not surprising that she found the views of her husband Rustomji Cama too sober. He was an orientalist and as such his interest in politics could hardly be called active. The marriage was not a happy one, largely due to difference of opinion about the conduct of the nationalist movement.

In 1902 Madam Cama left for London for medical treatment. There, her political aspirations received fresh impetus from the Grand Old Man Dadabhai Naoroji whose electioneering she did with great enthusiasm . Before she began her activities, she decided to travel in Europe and America . She visited Germany, France, Scotland and U.S.A. In 1907 she attended the socialist Congress at Stuttgart and unfurled the flag of Indian freedom to the applause of an enthusiastic audience.
In 1908 she went to London to meet Bepin Chandra Pal. During her stay in London and her travels she met other revolutionaries, Shyamji Krishna Varma, Veer Savarkar, Sardar Singh Rana, Mukund Desai and Birendranath Chattopadhyaya, all as concerned and anxious to win the freedom of Indian as Madam Cama. Later she also came into touch with Russian revolutionaries and corresponded with Lenin, although she was not able to accept Lenin’s invitations to visit Moscow after the revolution.
It is fascinating to watch Madam Cama's evolution from social work to evolutionary activity. She began her public life as a social worker and was deeply impressed by the “72 Good Indians” who formed the National Congress. Her intense patriotism and her impatience with things in general made her a militant nationalist. This facet of her life was considerably influenced by Shyamji Krishna Varma and his colleagues. Their ‘India House’ in London soon became the nerve-centre of patriotic extremism.
Madam Cama regularly addressed meetings at the Hyde Park, explaining her patriotic mission of freeing India from British domination. These speeches which attracted large crowds were characterised by deep sincerity and intense patriotism. This naturally drew the attention of Whitehall and she was threatened with deportation. Before that happened, she left for Paris.
From 1909, Paris was her headquarters and the meeting place of young terrorists and revolutionaries like Hardyal, Shaklatvala and others. From here she published passionate appeals to her countrymen to wake up and rebel against foreign rule. Madam Cama was very clear in her mind as to what she had in view. She was convinced that revolutionary methods alone could achieve the end. In her speeches she pointed out that Indians were and had always been a peace loving people, not habituated to violence, but, she said, the condition of her people left in her mind no doubt as to the method she should adopt to achieve freedom. This feeling grew in strength as a result of her contact with Continental and Russian revolutionaries.

Her passion for freedom was so intense that violent revolutionary methods seemed natural to her. In her appeals and speeches, she drew vivid pictures of the misdeeds of the Government, the sad plight of her people and the urgent need for a national uprising against the British. All attempts to prevent the entry of this fiery literature, by interception at the custom, did not dishearten her. She found other means of smuggling revolutionary literature through Pondicherry which at that time was the refuge of revolutionaries who came under the adverse notice of the Indian Government.
Whatever Madam Cama tried to do, she did it with both thoroughness and courage. When she accepted violence as an inescapable method of ousting foreign rule, she organised the training of young revolutionaries for makings bomb. She travelled in Europe and America to appraise the people of the conditions in India and gain their support. When she attended the Socialist Conference at Stuttgart she was not content with only making, or listening to, speeches. She took the opportunity to unfurl the first Indian National Flag, which was indeed the parent and precursor of the flag of independent India, the only difference in color being the change of red into orange.
The legend on the Flag with symbols of sun and moon, the seven stars and lotus and with Vandemataram on the centre white portion, will give some idea of her imagination and nationalism. It was at this conference that she declared her resolve to fight for independence with all her might. She was also the moving spirit in the ‘Abhinav Bharat’ activity of the Indian residing in Europe. These young persons, many of them revolutionaries, had a clear picture of their goal. She declared that India would be Republic and Hindi would be the national language and Devnagari the national script.
Madam Cama was a person of remarkable courage and integrity. Along with the Sardar Singh Rana, she was smuggling revolutionary literature and explosives into India; when Shyamji Krishna Varma and Rana were suspected for smuggling, she went straight to the authorities and confessed that she was responsible for sending weapons to India. When Savarkar was arrested on the French soil she moved heaven and earth to get him released and the result was that socialist papers wrote editorials on this issue.
Her activities for the freedom of her motherland continued unabated till World War I., when England and France become allies and pressure was brought to bear on the French Government to arrest and imprison her. She was in prison for three years till the end of the War. She lived in Paris for 30 years, Nursing to the end of the hope that India’s freedom would be realised in her life time. Her attempts to get back to India did not succeed till authorities were assured that she could not be a threat to get their continuance.
In 1935, at the age of 74, she returned to India and a year after, this great patriot and pioneer revolutionary breathed her last in the Parsi Hospital, unwept, unsung an unhounered. Yet in the minds and hearts of those who love India and the fighters for freedom, her memory will live as an ineffaceable symbol of true sacrifice. A street in Bombay bears her name and a birthcentenary stamp in her honour was issued after much haggling, and belatedly on 26 January 1962 (Republic Day) .
It showed how indifferent we are in honouring those who blazed the trail for Indian freedom. At a Time when women did not participate in public life at all, Madam Cama dedicated herself to revolutionary activity without fear or favour, with only one thought, one aim, that India should become a free republic. She was completely free from any regional or parochial feeling and thought of her country as her home and the people as her kinsfolk.


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