Bhikaji Cama — who’d come to be known as Madame Cama during the latter half of her life — was an Indian activist and politician renowned for her role in mobilising Indians and other nationalists living in various countries of Europe against the British colonial rule in India.
Born on September 24, 1861, in an affluent, upper-class Parsi family as Bhikaji Patel, she played a prominent role in the Indian freedom movement despite not residing in India for the majority of her life. She was also at the forefront of advocating and negotiating for women ‘s rights and devoted most of her life to the cause.
Bhikaji received her early education in Bombay, attending Alexandra Girls’ English Institution where she first discovered her affinity for languages. She would go on to acquire skills in numerous languages and dialects to aid her attempts at endorsing women’s rights and inciting the nationalist sentiment of Indians living and working abroad.
Bhikaji gradually developed a knack for politics and diplomacy as she spent her formative years witnessing the cruelties of the British regime in India. A patriot by heart, she had wished to bring change to the situation of fellow Indians in the country. At the age of 24, she was married to a pro-British lawyer, Rustom Cama.
Her years being married to Cama were not spent happily. The couple was always in disagreement with the stance taken by the British government against Indians. Therefore, the tumultuous nature of her marriage urged her to devote most of her time to socio-political activism. It was due to marital problems and her worsening health that she left for London in 1902.
During her time in London, she became acquainted with Dadabhai Naoroji, a strong critic of British economic policy in India, and began working for the Indian National Congress in earnest. As Bhikaji began to immerse herself in the freedom movement with full fervour, her influence rose amongst Indian nationals around Europe.
In 1907, she attended the International Socialist Congress held at Stuttgart, Germany, and unfurled the first version of the flag of an independent India. The flag was a tricolour — comprising green, saffron and red stripes — and was embellished with the words ‘Vande Mataram’ written in Devnagari script.
On receiving several warnings from the British authorities in London of being deported on the accounts of her continuous participation in the resistance against British rule, Bhikaji relocated to Paris in 1909 and spent the rest of her years providing shelter to nationalists all around Europe.
In 1935, at the age of 75, she was permitted to return to India, where she died the following year. Bhikaji’s life was dedicated to her endeavours in bringing social change. Disappointed with her personal life, she did not let her circumstances deter her and used her privilege to advocate for those in need.
Here are 8 facts you might not know about Bhikaji Cama:
- Bhikaji had a privileged childhood. Her parents, Sorabji Framji Patel and Jaijibai Sorabji Patel, were renowned personalities in Bombay, where her father Sorabji — a lawyer by training and a merchant by profession — was a persuasive member of the Parsi community.
- In 1896, bubonic plague broke out in the Bombay Presidency and Bhikaji volunteered to assist the team working to save plague victims. She too caught the plague during her period of volunteer work in the city and her health condition never truly recovered, eventually prompting her to move to London.
- During her early stints as an Indian envoy in London, Bhikaji came in contact with several other Indian nationalists such as Vir Savarkar, Lala Har Dayal and addressed meetings in London’s famous Hyde Park.
- It is rumoured that the flag that was unfurled by Bhikaiji Cama in 1907 was co-designed by her and Shyamji Krishna Varma and later served as a template from which the inspiration for the current national flag of India was drawn.
- Bhikaji was denied entry in both India and England due to her involvement in the freedom movement against British rule. helped Thus, she relocated to Paris in 1909 and assisted Har Dayal to launch his revolutionary paper ‘Bande Mataram,’ copies of which were smuggled into India from London.
- After relocating to Paris, Bhikaji, along with Singh Rewabhai Rana and Munchershah Burjorji Godrej co-founded the Paris Indian Society.
- During her exile in Paris, she fell severely ill and suffered a stroke which left her incapable of participating in the freedom movement. She was granted permission to return to India on this basis in 1935. Bhikaji died on 13 August 1936 and handed over all her personal assets to the Avabai Petit Orphanage for girls shortly before her death.
- On 26 January 1962, on the occasion of India’s 11th Republic Day, the Indian Posts and Telegraphs Department issued a commemorative stamp in her honour. In 1997, the Indian Coast Guard also commissioned a Priyadarshini-class fast patrol vessel named the ICGS Bhikaji Cama.