Madame Bhikaiji Rustom Cama, at times referred to as ‘mother of the Indian Revolution’, was born in Bombay on September 24. From a young age she took interest in social and political work. She unfurled the flag for Indian Independence at Stuttgart, Germany during a global conference on socialism where thousands gathered to discuss the future of the world’s most powerful movements. She was fierce and fearless and from the very start, got involved in India’s fight for independence in a most selfless way.

She was born to a well-regarded family in Bombay and her parents were Sorabji Framji Patel and Jaijibai Sorabji Patel. Bhikaiji Cama had a flair for languages and attended school. She got married by 24, an age older by the norms of those times to a man named Rustom Cama. Her husband was a wealthy, pro-British lawyer who aspired to enter politics. Their marriage broke down on issues of principles — where she was all for India’s independence from the British while her husband was a pro-British lawyer. Bhikaiji spent most of her time and energy in philanthropic activities and social work and working in many hospitals to help sick people. Till today, Mumbai city has hospitals named after her and Delhi has the famous central building complex called Bhikaiji Cama.

Raising the national flag

Bhikaiji Cama had a great role to play in India’s presence in the world and in shaping our national flag. Cama attended the second Socialist Congress at Stuttgart, Germany in 1907, where she unfurled a version of the Indian national flag in tricolour with green, saffron, and red stripes. This would become the template from which the current national flag of India was created. As she unfurled it, she created history as she said:

“This flag is of India’s independence. Behold, it is born. It is already sanctified by the blood of martyred Indian youth. I call upon you, gentlemen, to rise and salute the flag of Indian independence. In the name of this flag, I appeal to lovers of freedom all over the world to cooperate with this flag in freeing one-fifth of the human race.”

 

“This flag is of India’s independence. Behold, it is born. It is already sanctified by the blood of martyred Indian youth. I call upon you, gentlemen, to rise and salute the flag of Indian independence. In the name of this flag, I appeal to lovers of freedom all over the world to cooperate with this flag in freeing one-fifth of the human race.”

For a country still not in the throes of a full blown freedom struggle, her efforts triggered a new energy among Indians living in India and overseas. Bhikaiji Cama was ahead of the curve on the country’s sentiment and her Stuttgart moment made her a living part of India’s history.

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Selfless and caring

Bhikaiji was a selfless and caring woman, which was evident by her unstoppable desire to work with the sick in hospitals during the bubonic plague in 1896-1902. Bhikaiji joined the contingents nursing those affected at Grand Medical College, now known as Haffkine’s Institute in Sewri, Mumbai. Bhikaiji fell sick herself and had to move to Britain for recuperation in 1902.

The rise of her activism

Bhikaiji spent six years overseas. After which she wanted to return to India, as her nationalist feelings were at an all-time high. She had been tracking Indian freedom fighters through their speeches in London and elsewhere in the world. She met Dadabhai Naoroji, then president of the British Committee of the Indian National Congress, and later she even worked as his private secretary. But she was told she could only return to India if she stopped her activism to which she refused. Cama relocated to Paris, where—together with S. R. Rana and Munchershah Burjorji Godrej—she co-founded the Paris Indian Society.

For her support to revolutionary activities, the British government asked the French government for her extradition, but was refused.

Gender rights activist

Madame Cama was also a spokesperson for gender equality and women’s rights. She was a passionate follower of the Suffragette movement, and was vehement in her support for gender equality. She spoke in Cairo in 2010 and 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?”

 

“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?”

Returned home

She petitioned to the British government to allow her to return home to Mumbai in India following a long bout of sickness. In 1935, she was permitted back but only on the condition that she would relinquish nationalistic activities and activism. She died none months later at the Parsi General Hospital, Mumbai. She left most of her wealth to charity. In 1962, the Indian government released a postage stamp in her honour.

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