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BHIKHAIJI RUSTOM, MADAM CAMA (1861-1936)


Bhikhaiji Rustom Cama, née Patel, a revolutionary activist, had great impact on the struggle for Indian Independence. She was the first freedom fighter to publicly unfurl the Indian flag on foreign soil. She announced to the world India’s decision to fight the British. She advocated the use of force to gain Indian Independence, declaring in revolutionary zeal ‘Freedom is a conquest and never a bequest.’

She was born in Mumbai on 24 September 1861, to a prosperous Parsi family and received her primary and secondary education at the prestigious Alexandra Girls School. On 3 August 1885, she married Rustomji Cama, a lawyer. Their marriage did not work and she resolved to lead her own life. In 1896, she became a nurse at a public charity hospital in the city and looked after plague patients, an action unexpected in one of her class and background. At a time when women had few rights and no real prospects, Bhikhaiji distinguished herself by becoming one of the first Indian woman journalists. She caught the plague herself,. Survived but was severely weakened and went to Britain in 1902 to recover. There she met Shyamji Krishna Verma and through him Dadabhai Naoroji, whom she helped in his unsuccessful election campaign of 1906. She was deeply impressed by the ‘72 good Indians’ who formed the first National Congress. Her intense patriotism and her impatience with the existing political scenario made her a militant nationalist. She trained students in bomb-making and the use of guns. She found means to smuggle revolutionary literature into India and travelled in Europe and America to tell people of conditions in India and gain their support. She was the moving spirit behind the ‘Abhinav Bharat’ organisation working among Indians living in Europe.

On 22 August 1907, Bhikhaiji was invited to speak to the thousand delegates of the second International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart, Germany. At the end of her fiery and eloquent speech she dramatically unfurled a tricolour in green, gold, and red, bearing a crescent and a sun. Waving it aloft, she exclaimed, ‘this flag is of Indian independence…. In the name of this flag, I appeal to lovers of freedom all over the world to co-operate … in freeing one-fifth of the human race.’ Not unnaturally, her activities were closely watched by British government agents, and secret reports describe her as ‘anarchical, anti-British and irreconcilable’. In 1909, to avoid arrest, she left London for Paris, where her home became the headquarters and meeting place for young terrorists and revolutionaries. She nearly managed to help V.D. Savarkar to escape from British custody in Marseilles but arrived too late to meet him. She toured as part of a campaign to raise awareness of Indian political realities, visiting Egypt in 1910. She was also a staunch campaigner for gender rights and women’s suffrage. In 1920 she met with an accident in Paris, and subsequently fell seriously ill. When war broke out in 1914 she was forced to take refuge in Bordeaux and was interned in 1915. This greatly worsened her health.

In 1936 after suffering a stroke she was allowed to visit India where she died at the Parsi General Hospital in Mumbai in August. She had her tombstone inscribed with the words: ‘Resistance to tyranny is obedience to god.’ Today her portrait hangs in the Indian Parliament. In Delhi the Bhikhaiji Cama Palace has been constructed in her memory, while in Mumbai Madam Cama Road was named after her.
 
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