Bhikaji Rustom Cama was born on September 24, 1861 in Bombay, British India, to Sorabji Framji Patel and Jaijibai Sorabji Patel. Her father was an influential member of the Parsi community.
She attended Alexandra Native Girl’s English Institution and was known to have a flair for languages. In August 1885, she was married to Rustom Cama, a wealthy, pro-British lawyer. Their marriage had problems, leading Cama to spend most of her time in philanthropic activities.
Rising interest in activism
In October 1896, famine and bubonic plague struck the Mumbai Presidency. Cama joined one of the many teams working out of Grant Medical College to provide care for the affected. In the process, she contracted plague but survived. However, it had made her weak and she was sent to Britain for medical care.
While in London, she met Shyamji Krishna Varma who was well-known among the Indian community there for giving nationalist speeches in Hyde Park. Through him, she met Dadabhai Naoroji, then president of the British Committee of the Indian National Congress. With him, she supported the founding of Varma’s Indian Home Rule Society in February 1905.
Meanwhile, she was asked by the British government to sign a statement promising not to involve in nationalist activities upon her return to India. Only then would she be allowed to travel back. She refused and later that year, relocated to Paris. There, she co-founded the Paris Indian Society, and with other notable members of the movement for Indian sovereignty living in exile, she wrote, published and distributed revolutionary literature.
On August 22, 1907, she attended the second Socialist Congress at Stuttgart, Germany. There, she described the devastating effects of a famine that had struck the Indian subcontinent. She also appealed for equality, human rights and autonomy from Great Britain and unfurled what she called the ”Flag of Indian Independence”. In doing so, she became the first woman to unfurl the Indian flag on foreign soil. Her flag served as a template for the current national flag.
The following few years, she remained in Paris and supported the nationalist movement in India. The Britain government once asked the French government to extradite Cama but they refused to cooperate.
However, once World War I began in 1914, Britain and France joined hands and all members of the Paris India Society, except Cama and Singh Rewabhai Rana, a revolutionary, left the country. When Rana was arrested in October that year, Cama went to live with his wife. However, Rana’s family was deported to a Caribbean island, and Cama was sent to Vichy, where she was held.
She began to fall gravely ill and was released in November 1917. The French government allowed her to return to Bordeaux provided she reported weekly to the local police. She continued to remain in Europe in exile till 1935 when she petitioned the British government to be allowed to return home. She accepted their condition of renouncing seditious activities. Later that year, she returned to India, where she died nine months later.
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