Bhikaiji Cama was an important figure in the movement for an independent India. Known to some as ‘Madam Cama’ and others as ‘The Mother of the Indian Revolution’.
Bhikaiji Sorab Patel was born on the 24th September 1861 into British-ruled India. Her young life was fairly uneventful; raised in a privileged family, she did well at school and had a flair for languages.
In 1885 she was married, and her name became Bhikaiji Rustom Cama. Unfortunately this marriage wasn’t very successful. By this time in her life Bhikaiji had begun to have strong feelings about the British rule of India, and had become very interested in the Indian Nationalist Movement which campaigned for a free and independent country. Sadly her husband didn’t share her views, he was pro-British and enjoyed the benefits this gave him. Eventually, and controversially for the time, she left him.
In 1896 events happened that would change the course of Bhikaiji’s life. The district of Bombay where she lived was struck first with a famine, and then with the bubonic plague. Bhikaiji, along with other young women, went to help look after the sick and assist in the inoculation against the disease. While doing this she fell sick herself, catching the illness from those she was helping. Although gravely ill she survived, but was severely weakened by the ordeal. It was recommended that she travel to Europe to receive medical treatment and recover. And so in 1902 she left her beloved India for London. Little did she know then that she wouldn’t return for another 34 years.
In London Bhikaiji’s political interests increased. She worked as private secretary for Dadabhai Naoroji, who was an MP and the first Asian person to be elected to British Parliament. Through him she met many others who believed that India should be freed, and her own views were cemented.
After living in London for several years she decided she wanted to return to India, however the British government were concerned that she was becoming a problem, and were worried she would stir up revolutionary thoughts if she returned home. They told her that she would only be allowed to go if she signed an agreement, promising she would have nothing to do with the Nationalist Movement and would cease her campaigning. This was something that Madam Cama could not agree to, and so she was effectively exiled from her own country.
Within a few short years things grew uneasy for Cama in London, where she had developed a reputation for being a passionate speaker and activist for a free India. In 1908 she escaped to Paris, which became her home for much of the rest of her life.
In Paris she helped found a group called the Paris Indian Society, where other Indian people who wanted independent rule met together. She started two revolutionary magazines, Bande Mataram and Talvar, both of which aimed to stir up unrest amongst Indian people, and encourage them to revolt against the British rule. Both publications were outlawed in Britain and India, but Bhikaiji continued to write, publish and circulate them – smuggling many all the way back to India for her people to read.
Perhaps the most well known moment from her life occurred at the International Socialist Conference in Stuttgart, Germany, in August 1907. In front of over a thousand representatives from many different countries she delivered a powerful speech and unfurled a new flag for an independent India.
Bhikaiji had been one of a small group who had helped design the flag, which represented different elements of the Indian nation and identity. Its three colours of green, yellow and red were said to stand for strength, victory and boldness; the eight lotus flowers at the top of the flag stood for the eight areas of India; at the bottom a crescent and a sun represented both Muslims and Hindus united under one nation; and in the centre, written in Devanagari script were the words ‘Vande Mataram’ – the rallying cry of many Indian freedom fighters around the world, which meant ‘I bow to thee Mother India’ – words thought so powerful that at one point they were banned by the British Raj.
As she held the flag for all to see she declared:
“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.”
While living in France she helped many other revolutionaries, sometimes sheltering them in her home. She even smuggled weapons to her comrades in India, by sending them inside Christmas presents. The British government asked France to hand her over to them, but France refused.
When the First World War began however, Britain and France became allies. Bhikaiji Cama was imprisoned for a short while, because she kept talking to the Indian troops, asking them why they were fighting for the British and trying to stir up dissent. She returned to Paris after the war.
In 1935 Madam Cama suffered a stroke and became very unwell. She appealed to the British government that she be allowed to return to her beloved homeland. Their original stipulations remained, and they told her that she could return, but only on the promise that she would stop her political activity. This time she agreed, and in November of that year she finally went home to India. In August 1936, nine months after she had returned, Bhikaiji Cama died at the age of 74.
Her unrelenting passion for the liberation of her country has won her a lasting place in India’s history and in the hearts of many people. There are streets named after her in India today, and in 1962 she appeared on an Indian postage stamp.
Sadly Bhikaiji Cama didn’t live to see the Indian independence she struggled so hard for, which eventually came in 1947, but her lifelong efforts made her an instrumental figure in the journey to freedom.
Find out more:
These websites have more information about the story of India’s struggle for independence, with information about key figures like Bhikaiji Cama, and much more:
You can see the stamp that Bhikaiji appeared on here.
Find out more about the various flags which India has had throughout it’s history here.