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 Bhikaji Cama: A Biography

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 by  Dr. Jyotsna Kamat
Page Last updated on : January 04, 2018

"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."  -- B. Cama , Stuttgart, Germany, 1907

Portrait of Bhikaji Cama
Madame Bhikaji Cama (1861-1936)

These were the emotional words of a frail Indian lady, with fire inside and indomitable confidence and patriotic feeling for  motherland, India. The year was 1907 and the time, 3rd week of August. The Indian independence was 40 years away, and the world was not fully aware of the burning patriotism of hundreds and thousands of young Indians who were ready to lay down their lives for the sake of freedom for their country. The British were trying their best to put down the revolutionaries by bringing in ordinances, bans and arrests for life on the basis of treason. Treason was the greatest "crime" of the Indian which ensured a minimum of  six years of black waters (kalapani) or deportation to Andaman and harsh punishment.

It was hence, no mean achievement of Madam Cama, when she unfurled the first National Flag at the International Socialist Conference in Stuttgart (Germany) in 1907. A thousand representatives from several countries were attending. An Indian lady in a colorful sari was a rare phenomena in those days and her majestic appearance and brave and clear words made everybody think that she was a Maharani or at least a princess from a native state.

She excelled many Maharanis (queens) of her time in her poise and demeanor. She fought for freedom till the last in her own way, and helped innumerable revolutionaries with money and materials across the sea as she has settled down in London/Paris at the beginning of this century. Her life and mission make a fascinating reading, showing the important role she played in the early years of freedom struggle.

Madam Cama was born on 24th September, 1861 of rich Parsi parents. Her father was Sorabji Framji Patel, a famous merchant and man of means, had a large family. Parsis by then were in the forefront of business, education, and industry (when permitted by British) and no less in philanthropy. Young Bhikaji received good English education, but from the beginning she was a rebel, and a nationalist. She had good flair to learn languages and became proficient in arguing her country's cause in different circles at a young age.

She was married to Rustom K. R. Cama, a rich handsome social worker and lawyer. But ideologically they were poles apart. Mr. Cama adored British, loved their culture and thought they had done a lot of good to India. Madame Bhikaji, now a full fledged nationalist, always believed that British had fleeced India, and practiced worst form of imperialism. She had thousand and one reasons to present how India was kept in abject poverty by the British to help themselves to become the most powerful country in the world of that period.

Their marriage proved to incompatible. Madam Cama meanwhile plunged in several social activities. Plague broke out in Bombay Presidency at that time and she was in the forefront of voluntary team which strive to save plague victims. in the end she herself caught the deadly disease, but was save miraculously. She was left very weak and was advised to go to Europe for rest and recuperation. She left in 1902 for London which was to become her home for the rest of life.

She served as private secretary to Dadabhai Navaroji, a great Indian leader in the forefront of national movement. she came in contact with several patriots students and European Intellectuals who were sympathetic to Indian cause during this brief period. Later she herself played a dominant part in promoting freedom struggle.

The First Indian TricolorThe tricolor-flag Madam Cama unfurled had green, saffron, and red stripes. Red represented strength, saffron victory, and green stood for boldness and enthusiasm. there were eight lotuses representing the eight provinces and flowers represented princely states. "Vande Mataram" in Devanagari adorned central saffron stripe which meant "salutation to Mother India." The sun and the moon indicated Hindu and Muslim faiths. The flag was designed by Veer Savarkar with the help of other revolutionaries. After Stuttgart, Madam went to United States. She traveled a lot and informed Americans about Indians struggling for Independence. She told about British efforts to smother the voice of educated Indians who protested against tyranny and despotism of British who always boasted themselves as "mother of parliamentary democracy" over the world! She could be called "Mother India's first cultural representative to USA."

Where is the Flag Now?
The flag was smuggled into India by  Indulal Yagnik, the socialist leader of Gujarat. It is now on public display at the Maratha and Kesari Library in Pune.

After returning to London she started publishing booklets on patriotic literature. Though believer in nonviolence she urged to resist unjustified violence. Tyrannical foreign rule was unjustified and she stood for Swaraj or self-rule. "March forward! We are for India. India is for Indians!" She declared. She fought for unity of Hindus and Muslims. She continued financing revolutionaries in and out of India. British were not happy with her activities and there was a plot to finish her off. Getting the wind she sailed for France.

Her Paris-home became a shelter for world revolutionaries. Even Lenin, the father of Russian revolution visited her house and exchanged views. Savarkar got all encouragement in writing the history of 1st Indian War of Independence from Cama. She helped its printing in Holland as no English publisher came forward to publish it. It was banned book but found its was to India. Smuggled ingeniously with "Don Quixote" covers! She became publisher of  "Vande Mataram" a revolutionary magazine and was a distributor as well, an extremely difficult task in the days of British Espionage. Another magazine "Madan's Talwar" was also started in memory of Madanlal Dhingra who had laid down his life for the country. Both the magazines were outlawed in India and England. Madam Cama somehow found ways to send them to Indian revolution going and for self-defense.

Madam Cama also fought for the cause of women. Speaking at National Conference at Cairo, Egypt in 1910, she asked, "Where is the other half of Egypt? I see only men who represent half the country!" She stressed the role of women in building a nation.

Her attempts to save Savarkar who jumped into the ocean from the ship "Morena" near Marseilles are well known. A few minutes delay saw the famous revolutionary back into chains, a fact which Madam Cama, came to regret for life.

When First World War broke out in 1914, Madam Cama took anti-British stand and tried her best to bring in awareness among Indians about the harm brought in by fighting imperialist forces.

The British had banned her entry in India being afraid of her revolutionary past and confirmed nationalistic outlook. But the lioness was getting old and 35 years fighting on foreign land and taken its toll. She decided to return to motherland but was very ill. After reaching Bombay, she was hospitalized and died on the 13th of August 1936. A fearless woman, she brought in awareness of Indian struggle for independence in Europe and America and was instrumental in helping several revolutionaries, with finances and publishing.


See Also:


 The Story of India's Freedom Struggle
The Story of India's Freedom Struggle




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