The Gritty Revolutionary

The month of August, to echo Sylvia Plath, is “the odd uneven time” as “the best of summer gone, and…

The Gritty Revolutionary

Bhikaji Cama

The month of August, to echo Sylvia Plath, is “the odd uneven time” as “the best of summer gone, and the new fall not yet born.” The season is wet and wearisome, overcast and oppressive. Yet it carries the last emotions of summer and festivity mingled however with those of nostalgia and sadness as the season gradually winds down. To Indians, this bittersweet season has been a very special time for the last 77 years – a time of celebration and a time of remembrance; a time to wow at the vast progress of democracy and to bow before great fighters of freedom. It is the time to pay tribute to the great souls who gave their all to free their motherland from the clutches of the colonial power. It is also time to retrace the forgotten heroes and their stellar deeds in attaining freedom.

The spirit of independence grips everyone and one gets overwhelmed by an intensive feeling of patriotism and pride in our identity as citizens of a free state as we see our national flag being raised atop flagpoles across the country. Yet we often tend to forget the long history and struggles through which the tricolour evolved as the national flag of our country. We also forget the brave woman, Madam Bhikaji Rustam Cama, who took the first initiative to unfurl our national flag, although in a somewhat different form, on foreign soil at Stuttgart in Germany. The flag was a tricolour – comprising green, saffron and red stripes – and was embellished with the words “Vande Mataram” written in Devnagari script. Unfortunately, the role of Cama, the ‘Mother of Indian Revolutionaries’, has been thrust into near oblivion as we celebrate our national heroes. A truly dynamic leader, Bhikaji Cama was one of the earliest women to enter politics in India. It was indeed a splendid moment for the entire nation and especially for her when she unfurled India’s first national flag at the Second International Socialist Congress on 22 August 1907 before nearly 1,000 delegates in the German city.

It was an act of courage and defiance as independence was still a far cry and not many countries in Europe cherished a positive and respectful attitude toward India. By hoisting the flag, Cama not only drew the world’s attention to her country, but also offered freedom fighters a powerful weapon and inspiration in the form of a banner. At a time when very few girls could even dream of attaining formal education, Madam Cama, born as Bhikaji Patel, received the best possible education attending Alexandra Girls’ English Institution like many Parsi girls of that time. The progressive attitude of the Parsi community helped Cama get her education without unnecessary hurdles. She was a diligent student and had a flair for languages. Yet contemporary political stirrings moved her deeply and she plunged into the political field flouting prohibitive customs and conventions. The unhappy marriage with proBritish lawyer Rustom Cama did not last long as she developed serious differences with him on the issue of the attitude of British rulers.


The tumultuous nature of her marriage compelled Cama to devote a lot of time to sociopolitical activism. Joining the first session of the Indian National Congress in Bombay, she learnt a lot about politics. Cama linked emancipation of the country with the emancipation of women who were weighed down by centuries of neglect, indifference, exploitation and oppression. Cama sought to bridge this dual objective by using her foresight and dedication. At the time of the outbreak of bubonic plague in Bombay in 1896, she defied social convention and wearing a white apron threw herself wholeheartedly into the task of nursing the sick and the dying.

Yet Cama herself caught the deadly plague while nursing patients and this forced her to leave India for treatment in London. Her work among the social victims, her awareness of the ravages of famine and of the economic depression caused by the British rule left an indelible mark on her sensitive mind. She jumped into politics hoping for a better life for countrymen, and it was also a quest for a new life after her failed marriage. Cama joined the liberation struggle taking the fight to foreign shores after a visit to Germany, Scotland, France and England.

European visits widened Cama’s vision and contacts, and through her daring activities she got the nickname ‘Mother of Revolutionaries.’ She was one of those remarkable revolutionaries in Europe who even before the First World War came to be known as the ‘High Priestess of Indian Nationalism.’ It was indeed a great tribute when her portrait appeared in a French newspaper along with that of Joan of Arc. To see India liberated from the British was a dream for Bhikaji. Cama appreciated the values of human rights, equality and freedom for her countrymen.

Cama also had the belief that equality for women and freedom from the British rule meant the same thing: “When India is independent, women will not only have the right to vote but all other rights.” Her popular slogan was: “India must be free, India must be a republic, India must be united.” Starting her political career under Dadabhai Naoroji, a strong critic of British economic policy in India, during his campaign for a seat in the House of Commons, Cama met many Indians overseas who were involved in the freedom struggle. To crusade for India’s cause, she gave public speeches at London’s Hyde Park. But the fire imbibed through the speeches and activities of Mazzini and Garibaldi soon forced a disillusioned Cama to drift from Dadabhai’s politics of petitions to that of militant extremists. A number of scathing attacks on the moderates in the Congress came from her in articles in the Indian Sociologist, an organ of the Indian Home Rule Society that propagated India’s cause in the United Kingdom.

After joining the Free India Society established by V D Savarkar in London, Bhikaji started distributing revolutionary literature in support of India’s freedom struggle. When the British banned Savarkar’s book First War of Indian Independence, which was to become a bible for Indian revolutionaries, it was Cama who arranged for the book to be smuggled into India and translated it into French. It was Cama who formulated Savarkar’s escape plan when the Indian revolutionary was arrested by the British. She was also active in starting a movement in France demanding Savarkar’s release when the trial was going on.

Even after Savarkar was sent to life imprisonment, she carried on her revolutionary activities in spite of the fierce opposition by the British government. Gandhi’s political approach did not find favour with Madam Cama. When Gandhi visited London in 1906 to promote the cause of Indians in South Africa, they had an argument over the method of securing independence for India. The moment Gandhi said he thought it better not to speak of India’s independence at that stage, Cama countered firmly: “India must have independence here and now.” By 1906, Bhikaji became fully convinced that only violent methods of resistance would bring freedom from British rule.

The British Labour Party leader Ramsay MacDonald tried his best to prevent Cama from attending the international gathering at Stuttgart, but failed due to the strong support of French socialists and German leaders. At the forum, Cama’s speech was greeted with thunderous applause. With the national flag in hand, she said: “This flag of Indian independence is born and sanctified by the blood of martyred Indian youth. I call upon you, gentlemen, and appeal to the lovers of freedom all over the world to cooperate with this flag in freeing one-fifth of the human race inhabiting the oppressed country since the socially perfect state demands that no people should be subject to any despotic or tyrannical form of government.” She moved the resolution at the end of the speech demanding complete independence for India. In Paris, Cama worked very closely with revolutionaries like Savarkar, M.P.T. Acharya and V.V.S. Aiyar. After Savarkar’s arrest, Cama was helped by Acharya in the publication and distribution of the journal Bande Mataram, a monthly radical Hindu journal started in 1909 that spoke about the nationalistic and revolutionary acts and rebellions of that time.

The journal would be regularly smuggled not only to all revolutionary centres, but also to the Indian Army to arouse disaffection amongst its ranks. It is a lesser known fact that Cama also had links with Indian revolutionaries in Pondicherry when it was a French colony. Under her guidance, arms and revolutionary literature were sent to them to give momentum to the freedom struggle. Maxim Gorky’s The Song of the Falcon, a hymn to the brave, inspired Cama greatly.

The renowned Russian writer, on the other hand, requested Cama to write an article for a Russian magazine stating that Russian women would be grateful to her for acquainting them with “The struggle of the people living on the banks of the Ganges, that is, the democrats and women of great India.” In her letter of acceptance, Bhikaji wrote: “All my time and energy is devoted to my country and her struggle” and “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.” Cama infuriated the French government at the time of World War I when in Bande Mataram she requested Indian troops based in France to lay down their arms as India would not benefit from this war in Europe.

Cama was not willing to return to India by agreeing to the British demand of writing an apology for her ‘misdeeds’ and promising not to take part in politics after her return. However, a fatal car accident at an old age that fractured her skull and declining health condition forced her to change her view and she was allowed to return to her beloved motherland in November 1935. Cama breathed her last in August 1936 after a life dedicated fully to the cause of emancipation – emancipation of her native land from foreign rule; emancipation of women from all forms of injustice and exploitation; emancipation of all people in bondage across the globe, and finally, emancipation of the mind from all forms of fear and temptations.

Cama was an extraordinary woman, a rebel woman turning down the primrose path of life; a true forerunner in the nationalist movement and a strong proponent of armed resistance to end foreign rule. Time is ripe for us now to respect and remember our forgotten revolutionaries. And it is indeed time to relocate Madam Cama in the pantheon of great Indian freedom fighters.

(The writer, a PhD in English from Calcutta University, teaches English at the Governmentsponsored Sailendra Sircar Vidyalaya, Shyambazar, Kolkata.)