On September 24th 1861, a fair round-faced little baby girl, Bhikhaiji (among Parsis, Bhicaji is a boy’s name and Bhikhaiji a girl’s) was born into the wealthy Parsi family of Sorabji Framji Patel and Jijibai. She grew up surrounded by beautiful objects of art, expensive clothes, carved black rosewood furniture and exquisite jewellery. Her home was filled with chandeliers and crystal while portraits in gilt frames looked down on the family. Like all aristocratic Parsi girls, she learnt English and Gujarati, her governess taught her to play the piano and she practiced tennis and other games. In the evenings the family would attend performances of English plays or classical music.
Yet from the very beginning, young Bhikhoo was very different from other girls of her family. She was very proud of India’s culture, heritage and languages and although she played tennis with her friends, she also used to join the boys in playing cricket and was very good at batting in the cricket field. From the very first she was unconventional but the social position of her family was such that her father was able to arrange a match for his favourite daughter with Rustom Cama, who belonged to one of the richest and best known Parsi families of Bombay. Rustom was a good looking educated barrister and Bhikhoo’s father in law was the renowned oriental scholar Prof. K. R. Cama. The family not only had great trade links all over the world but K.R. Cama studied in France and Germany and set up the K. R. Cama Institute of Oriental Studies in Bombay. They also owned large presses and financed “Rast Goftar” which was established by Dadabhai Naoroji.
1885 was the year when Bhikhoo married, but for her what was even more important was that it was the year of the first session of the Indian National Congress. At the call of the Congress, Bhikhoo left behind her embroidery, music and social life. She even gave up her family life, for she had found that the needs of her country were of utmost importance. When the plague epidemic hit Bombay, she threw herself into nursing patients at the public hospital wearing a white apron and scarf. Her own family and her in-laws were shocked, but she had made her choice.
She began to assist Pherozeshah Mehta when he started the “Bombay Chronicle”, becoming the first Parsi woman to venture into journalism. This experience helped her later when she published India’s revolutionary pamphlets from abroad. For Bhikhoo, the motto of her life was RESISTANCE TO TYRANNY IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD. This was the motto which she lived by. The Congress fight for freedom was too slow to appeal to her. While she took part in the Swadeshi movement, she was being rapidly drawn into the Indian revolutionary movement with leaders who had established a worldwide network with Irish, Egyptian and Russian revolutionaries.
Shyamji Varma, Sarvarkar, Har Dayal, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya and Madame Cama were the leaders of the Indian Revolutionary Movement. Bhikhaiji Cama has been called the Mother of the Revolution. Her revolutionary activity actually starts with her arrival in England. She had been sent to England for medical treatment and an operation. She lived in London’s Holborn District and at this point she came in contact with Dadabhai Naoroji. During his campaign for election to the House of Commons, she worked as his unofficial Secretary. Instead of returning to India when her health improved, she spent years in Germany, Scotland and France before settling in London. She gave public speeches at Hyde Park corner. Here, young and beautiful, her fiery oratory stunned her audience. She wanted to carry India’s message of the need for freedom to every part of the globe.
While Dadabhai Naoroji encouraged her, she became a regular writer to the “Indian Sociologist” and an active member of the Home Rule Society and the India House. On 1st July 1905, India House was inaugurated in the presence of a large gathering, both English and Indian. Dadabhai Naoroji, Lala Lajpat Rai, Madame Cama and other founders created this centre at 65 Cromwell Avenue, Highgate, where all Indians, especially students, could gather and work for the cause of freedom. It was to be called “The House of Terror” and “The House of Mystery” by British Intelligence. Here Madame Cama held meetings and discussions, procured arms and weapons and printed revolutionary booklets. India House adopted Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s “Bande Mataram” as the National Hymn and it was sung at every meeting. These words “Hail Motherland” were so precious to Madame Cama that she later embroidered them on her flag. Each night all those at India House would repeat
“Ek Dev; Ek Desh; Ek Bhasha
Ek jath; Ek Jeev; Ek Asha.”
(One God, One Nation, one language,
one race, one form, one hope.)
Scotland Yard shadowed the revolutionaries and deported Lala Lajpat Rai. Madame Cama in June 1907 wrote an open letter to all Indians. “What is the good of talking about the glorious past of India, if you are living in slavery today? Come out and establish liberty and equality under Swaraj. He who loses his liberty loses his virtue”. She appealed, “Youth of India, work for the cause, Freedom is a conquest and never a bequest”. She called on all to refuse to work with the administration and to flood the jails. Both these ideas were later taken up by Gandhiji and became key concepts in his programme.
England was becoming very difficult to live in and Madame Cama had to move to Paris, though she often returned to India House. In Paris, Madame Cama started “Bande Mataram” in 1909 with Har Dayal as editor. In France, the Indian community regarded Madame Cama as their great hope. She explained why she had turned to violence.
“Some of you say that as a woman, I should object to violence. Well, I had that feeling at one time, but that feeling is gone. If we use force, it is because we are forced to use force. Struggle for freedom calls for exceptional measures. Successful rebellion against foreign rule is patriotism… we want back our own country. No English oak is wanted in India. We have our own noble banyan tree and our beautiful lotus flowers… let our motto be ‘We are all for India, India for Indians”.
Madame Cama’s greatest hour was at the Stuttgart Conference in August 1907. She was the cynosure of all eyes, tall and erect, dressed in a long sleeved blouse and traditional bordered Parsi Sari. She spoke with bitterness and India spoke through her. At the end of the speech she proudly unfurled the tricolour, which she had kept concealed, and to the thunderous cheers of the delegates demanded justice for India. In 1907, Gandhiji and Nehru had still not appeared on the Indian scene. This far-reaching resolution at the World Socialist Conference demanding that the English leave India was a completely revolutionary step. Madame Cama drew the attention of all in the audience, including a delegate from Russia, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who was then unknown politically. Her speech brought India the support of the socialist movement.
The tricolour unfurled by Madame Cama is with some modification the flag of India today. Her flag had three strips – the top one was green, the sacred colour of the Muslim, the centre band was golden, the sacred colour of Buddhists and Sikhs, and the lower strip was the Hindu red. There was a line of eight stars on the top green stripe emblematic of the eight provinces of India; the words “Bande Mataram” were embroidered in Sanskrit on the central gold band and on the bottom red stripe, there was an orb near the staff and on the outer edge, the crescent of Islam. All disparate elements of India’s diversity were included.
Later, this flag was smuggled into India and on August 18th 1937, Vir Sarvarkar unveiled this flag, which was then framed and preserved in the library hall of the “Kesari” office in Pune. Madame Cama was now at the height of her power. She worked tirelessly, travelling around the world to get support for India. In America, she was called the Indian Joan of Arc. Though she faced heckling, she created a lot of good will. After Sarvarkar’s arrest the revolutionaries tried to rescue him but failed. Madame Cama and her group were demoralized. She was spending all her personal wealth and sold her jewellery to keep the cause alive. Her health was also troubling her. During World War I she tried to speak to Indian troops in Marseilles and from that time was kept under surveillance and internment at Bordeaux and Vichy. This imprisonment broke her health.
Bhikhaiji Cama was now seen as a dangerous revolutionary even by her family but some of her relatives still managed to see her in Paris. She had lost her wealth and was staying very modestly on a small pension. She loved to talk in Gujarati and spoke nostalgically of her garden in Bombay, and was eager for a photograph of her family and home. She had now became careless of her appearance, and at 60 looked old and wrinkled. She craved for friendship and was very lonely. Her Gujarati and Parsi friends would send her special food at festivals and she loved spicy Indian food despite her doctors forbidding it. Till the end of her life she always wore the traditional Parsi Sari and as she grew older she became fond of wearing the Parsi velvet cap. She regarded a maroon cap, embroidered in gold as her lucky cap.
She used to be found sitting alone in the sidewalk café of Paris were she always greeted and welcomed Indians. Though she had lived abroad she still read the Gujarati Jam-e-Jamshed and Kaiser-i-Hind to keep in touch with her home and community. When an Indian student kept silent when she spoke him in Gujarati, she remarked “How sad – in a mere eight months you have forgotten your home.”
She told a friend, “Many people asked why I do not return to India. Why loving Indian as I do, I do not spend my life there. I will tell you: I have taken an oath never to go back to India on a foreign passport.”
However, she had now become very poor and had to depend on her brother Ardeshir Patel for help. Yet when he died, he did not leave her any income, though he gave away huge amounts in charity. In old age, she had a motorcar accident and her skull was cracked open. She had many surgeries and her face became paralyzed. Old and very sick she was finally brought back to India almost a cripple and tragically her countrymen had no time for her. She died alone in the Parsi General Hospital. Yet, though she had been forgotten by the people for whom she gave her life, her only wish was that India would someday be free.“My only hope in life is to see my country free and united”.
She never lived to see this day but others saw the fulfillment of her dream.