Written by Ishaan Singh Sarna, a 15-year-old student (this is an archived piece, first published in August 2020)
While gender disparities and hierarchies have existed before, during, and after the colonial rule, the nationalist movement for an Independent India had witnessed a significant amount of participation from women.
These revolutionary women were the flagbearers of many demonstrations against the oppressive colonial rule, while simultaneously fighting local and regional marginalization by their husbands and fathers.
One such woman was Bhikaji Cama.
Despite her prominent contributions, Bhikaji Cama’s is a forgotten legacy, overshadowed by those of her male counterparts’.
Who was Bhikaji Cama? Her personal and family life
Bhikaji Cama was born into an affluent Parsi family as Bhikai Sorab Patel on 24th September 1861 in Bombay (now, Mumbai), to Mr. Sorabji Ramji Patel and Mrs. Jaijibai Sorabji Patel.
Her father was a lawyer by training and merchant by profession and a prominent member of the Parsi community. Madam Cama, as she was also called, completed her schooling from Alexandra Native Girl’s English Institution and was a diligent and disciplined student.
Growing up in an environment where anti-colonial and pro-nation building sentiments were at an all-time high, Cama got involved in matters of politics very early in her life.
She was married, in 1885, to Rustomji Cama, a well-known, affluent, and pro-British lawyer who had high aspirations to set foot in the field of politics. Due to her interest in anti-colonial politics, the couple had regular altercations.
In 1896, with, first, the famine in the Bombay Presidency followed by the spread of the bubonic plague, Madam Cama signed up to volunteer with one of the teams formed to assist those afflicted by the illness. Subsequently, she contracted the virus herself but survived.
As a result of her deteriorating health, she moved to London, in 1902, where she received medical attention.
Freedom struggle and activism
In London, she met Shyamji Krishnavarma, a fierce nationalist who regularly delivered speeches in Hyde Park. Through him, she got in touch with Dadabhai Naraoji, the president of the British Committee of the Indian National Congress, and other prominent leaders like Vir Savarkar, Lala Har Daya, and Singh Rewabhai Rana.
However, she had to leave London after she refused to sign an agreement that made her promise not to participate in nationalist activities in London. After she realized that she might be deported to India, she fled to Paris, where she formed the Paris Indian Society along with other prominent Indian nationalist leaders.
While in Paris, she also helped Lala Har Dayal launch his paper, Bande Mataram, copies of which were smuggled into India.
In 1907, Cama attended the International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart, Germany, where she launched a scathing attack on the misgovernance of the British Raj and appealed for the protection of human rights, autonomy, and political emancipation of her people.
In this appeal of hers, she unfurled the first version of the Indian flag – a tricolor of green, saffron, and red stripes, which is one of her most notable achievements. Madam Cama is credited for spreading the message of the Indian Freedom Struggle to the entire world.
The outbreak of the First World War led to France and Britain becoming allies. The French authorities interned her for allegedly mobilizing support against the colonial rule of Great Britain.
She was held captive till 1917 when she returned to Bordeaux due to declining health. It was finally in November 1935 when she returned to India after a 33-year long exile.
Only nine months after her return, on 13th August 1936, Madam Cama died at Parsi General Hospital, aged 74.
Madam Cama – a Feminist Icon
Besides being an active political activist and an essential figure in the Indian Independence Movement, Bhikaji Cama was also a feminist icon and a staunch advocate of women’s’ rights.
Her stance on equality was interwoven with her desire for freedom from British rule, not above it. She envisioned that in a free India, women will not only have voting rights but all other rights. “Where is the other half of Egypt? I see only men who represent half the country! Where are the mothers? Where are the sisters? You must not forget that the hands that rock cradles also build persons,” said Bhikaji Cama at the National Conference of 1910 in Cairo, Egypt, reflecting her relentless passion for working towards achieving gender equality.
She immersed herself wholeheartedly in the service of others and donated most of her assets to Avabai Petit Orphanage for Girls. Her passion for philanthropy and social service can also be indicated in her choice to sign up to become a frontline volunteer during the bubonic plague.
It is incredibly imperative not to neglect the reforms born out of the struggles of fierce, brilliant, and passionate women such as Bhikaji Cama.