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Bhikaiji Cama

The First to Unfurl our Flag

The date ?20 August, 1907. The place ?Stuttgart, venue of the second international socialist conference. Invited to speak at this prestigious conference crowded with distinguished international delegates was a young Parsi lady from India, the intrepid Madame Bhikaiji Cama, who had sacrificed home and family to pursue the cause of India’s freedom and was among the earliest Indians to do so.

During the 1800s several socialist political parties had been formed in Europe and North America with a single set of beliefs, inspired by the writings of Karl Marx. At that time socialism in its pure form meant opposition to the perceived selfishness of the capitalist system, calling for public ownership of land, factories and other basic means of production.

Deeply influenced by the principles of socialism, Madame Cama had many French, Russian, Egyptian and English socialists as her friends. She was deeply influenced, too, by the writings of her mentor Dadabhai Naoroji, who bitterly criticised British imperialists who had for years been draining India of its wealth. But Madame Cama went a step further than the moderate Dadabhai Naoroji in demanding immediate independence to end the colonial, social and political oppression of the Indian masses by their British rulers. In fact, she became an active member of Abhinav Bharat, a revolutionary organisation, which believed in armed struggle to attain freedom.

A fiery orator, who had also launched her own monthly magazine, Bande Mataram, which became the voice of revolutionary India, she remarked in the course of her address at Stuttgart how under British rule the economic situation of India was desperate: “Every year this poor country is forced to give 35 million pounds sterling to England, of which not a penny is spent on India or on Indians.?/font>

She called upon the delegates to register their strong protest against this: “This oppression cannot continue for long. For I’m convinced that one day this oppressed humanity will rise and follow the example of our comrades from Russia who are also fighting for their freedom. We send them our greetings and our fraternal salute.?/font>

Humiliating end
As the prolonged applause died down, Madame Cama stepped in front of a podium and unfurled a flag which she had kept concealed on her person and held it high before her, swinging it from right to left as she spoke: “This flag is of Indian independence. Behold it is born. It is already sanctified by the blood of martyred Indian youth. I call upon you gentlemen to rise and salute this flag of Indian independence, and I appeal to lovers of freedom all over the world to cooperate in freeing one-fifth of the human race.? Amidst thunderous applause she stepped down from the stage.

This is how a contemporary of hers, the renowned nationalist K.F. Nariman, ended his tribute to this great Indian lady: “Thus, long before the declaration of independence in 1930 and adoption of our national flag in India, this patriotic Parsi lady in exile had made the announcement and unfurled the national flag in a foreign land before an international assembly.?/font>

Madame Cama’s life ended on a tragic, humiliating note. She had sworn never to go back to India, her own land, on a foreign passport because she was unable to get the British rulers to give her an Indian visa. But homesickness, combined with fragile health, left her no choice. So, as Harindranath Chattopadhyaya wrote in an article entitled “The Passing Away of Madame Cama? published in the Kaiser-e-Hind: “For I read yesterday in the paper that Madame Cama at the age of seventy-five, signed an agreement with the Government that she would not take part in politics, nor speak anywhere. And it was on such an understanding that she was allowed to come back to the country of her love longing and birth, not to live there indeed, but to pass away, breathing her last breath on Indian air, almost with a mystical hope that it might mingle with the winds of freedom about to blow over India!?/font>

Madame Cama by Shirin Darasha, published by A.R. Gala for Navneet Publications (India) Limited, Mumbai.
The Parsis in Western India: 1818 to 1920, edited by Nawaz B. Mody and published by Allied Publishers Limited, Mumbai.