The Indian struggle for independence saw innumerable people coming together from various walks of life to save our motherland from the dreadful clutches of the British. In spite of the age and times, women also came out of their homes and participated in the movement with their full might. One such woman was Bhikaiji Cama.
Born and brought up in a Bombay-based Parsi household, Bhikaiji was well educated like most other Parsi women of those times. Married at an early age to Rustom Cama, a pro-British lawyer, Bhikaiji did not find much happiness in marital life and associated herself with philanthropic activities and social work.
She found her calling in 1896, when Bombay was struck with the great famine and plague, one after the other. These successive calamities perturbed her so much that she decided to dedicate her entire life to the welfare of the ordinary people. But little did she know that this association would one day make her one of the pioneers of the Indian struggle for independence.
However, while working as a volunteer with the Grant Medical College towards the well-being of the plague victims, she herself became a victim of plague. She did survive the attack but plague left her extremely weak; she was later sent to London for full recovery. It was in London that she came in contact with famous Indian leaders like Dadabhai Naoroji and Shyamji Krishna Varma. She later became Dadabhai Naoroji’s secretary.
Needless to say, this association with such great Indian leaders transformed the social worker into one of the revolutionaries, who dedicated remainder of her life to the Indian independence movement. She worked mainly in foreign shores. In fact, she was among the first few, who supported the foundation of Indian Home Rule Society in London.
Her activism for India’s independence was not limited to London. She traveled across to Paris, where she co-founded the Paris Indian Society. In fact, it will not be wrong to portray her as one of the most prominent and first woman global ambassadors for the Indian independence movement. While in Paris, she also became the publisher of ‘Vande Mataram’, a revolutionary magazine. Cama achieved such fame that even famous people like Lenin, a Russian communist revolutionary, came to meet her in Paris.
It was finally on August 22, 1907, nearly four decades before India achieved independence, that Cama unfurled the first Indian flag on foreign shores, at Stuttgart, Germany.
August 22, 1907, was probably one of the most important days in Cama’s life, which has been etched in the history of Indian politics. It was on this day that Cama went to attend the International Socialist Conference in Stuttgart, Germany, where she voiced the agony and sufferings of millions of Indians under the British rule. It was during this event that she unfurled the Indian flag for the first time ever outside the Indian subcontinent.
You would be surprised to know that Cama, lovingly known as Madam Bhikaiji Cama, had the entire flag co-designed by herself since India did not have any national flag at that time. The eight lotuses at the top of the flag signify the eight provinces India was divided into during those times. The three different stripes represented unity among all religions of India. The tricolor-flag had the words Vande Mataram written in the middle. In fact, Cama’s flag served as one of the templates from which the current flag was created. One can see the flag even now at the Maratha and Kesari Library in Pune.
Not just a champion of Indian independence, Cama was also an advocate of women’s rights and later became India’s first cultural representative in the United States.
Cama was of the opinion that women, too, had a huge role to play in politics, which was till then largely regarded as a men’s-only arena. In fact, to champion the causes of women, she even went to faraway places like Cairo.