Published:  03:05 AM, 14 January 2021

The aristocratic revolutionary lady from India

The aristocratic revolutionary lady from India Madam Bhikaiji Rustom Cama

The colonial Britishers have exploited the wealth of the richest land (in those days) for two centuries and have plundered the resources of our Indian subcontinent. The first half of their exploitation was in the disguise of trading but in reality by establishing direct and/or indirect rule of British East India Company over vast land mass of the subcontinent.

Unfortunately, there was a vacuum in the central power and there was no unified leadership in the region after the virtual disintegration of the mighty Mughal Empire. It existed merely in name. In reality, different parts of India were under the rule of different rulers of various strength. Kings, Nawabs and even Emperor existed but none was powerful or tricky enough to match the advanced British. Often they were also engaged in fights amongst themselves for establishing territorial supremacy.

The British East India Company was established in 1600AD by some British merchants. They initially formed the Company and pulled together a capital of £70000 to trade in spices in the East Indies. Their charter even allowed them to raise Army and wage war against competing European companies and regional rulers to establish and ensure their supremacy to trade as per their dictated terms.

They established their first factory in Surat (Gujrat, India) obtaining a permission from Mughal Emperor Jahangir in the year 1613 and started spreading their business which covered spices, salt, indigo, dye, textiles, saltpeter, tea, opium and different other items and by intimidation of local rulers the Company started conquering their territories and imposing taxes on land to grab the agricultural wealth apart from monopolizing the trading. Later they spread their business and influence in different commercially important parts of Asia including Qing dynasty ruled China, some parts of Africa and the American continent.

At some point of time this company used to control a substantial portion of the world's trade and commerce.In India the local King/Nawab ruled territories were either annexed directly or were kept under tutelar heads but in effect ruled by the East India Company. The company had the mandate from the British Crown to maintain its own Army to conquer and rule the territories as mentioned earlier. By the mid nineteenth century whole India was under the Company's control.

They had a free hand in business, collected land revenue, implemented their prescribed laws to maintain order and ran the judiciary. To facilitate their exploitation, they helped to raise local businesses and feudals who eagerly cooperated for personal gains. After India's First War of Independence in 1857 (termed as Sepoy Mutiny by British historians) the British Crown understood that the funny system of ruling a huge, prosperous and intellectually developed country through a Trading Company has failed and will not be tenable further.

So they promulgated the Crown's direct rule and India became a full-fledged British colony. Exploitation continued in the same way. It has been estimated by economists that a total of 45 Trillion dollars has been siphoned to Britain from India during the colonial period. This figure excludes the fund transferred by individual British officials which they amassed by corruption and transferred illegally.

This exploitation never went unchallenged. During the whole period of their occupancy of the subcontinent, the East India Company and the British Government had to face tough resistance from the inhabitants. They had to fight wars against local rulers and other Europeans, skirmishes against tribal population and face political agitations and armed struggle raised by different sections of youth and revolutionary leaders.

After the industrialization in Europe, Britain emerged as the leader in industrial products and their products had a ready market created forcefully in India and other colonies. Similarly a new fighting force also developed against the Imperialists and Colonialist regimes developed in their own countries in the form of Socialists. They were sympathizers of the anti-colonial fights and Indian struggle against the British for their rights attracted foreign support as well.

The introduction has become rather long and the reader may get confused as nothing has so far been spelled out that matches the subject headline of this article. So, I better settle down directly to that. Today we are going to discuss the life and activities of a revolutionary Indian lady who is referred to as Mother of Indian Revolution. Yes, I am going to write about Madam Bhikaiji Rustom Cama. She was also known as Bhikaiji Rustom Patel or Bhikaji Rustom Cama or simply Madam Cama.

She has spent more than half of her active political career leading anti-colonial movement in her motherland staying in Europe, mostly Britain and France. Her name will go down in history as the first person who hoisted a flag designed for Independent India in a foreign country while she was leading the anti-colonial movement staying in Europe. We will come back to that again later.

Bhikaiji was born in a wealthy Parsee family at Navsari near Surat in Gujrat in 1861. Navsari is the place where Zorathustrians from Persia first landed in India. Most of the wealthy Indian businessmen of Parsee origin including the Tatas have their roots in Navsari. On another note, the famous Dandee march (led by Gandhiji as Salt Satyagraha) was started from the beaches of Dandee a few km away from Navsari. Her father was a lawyer but he was engaged in business as most other people of their community.

She got her education in Bombay and being an educated and kind hearted lady, took strong interest in social work and was politically conscious. She got married to Rustom Cama who too was a lawyer. Mr Rustom was an extremely busy and successful lawyer. Unfortunately, their marriage was not a happy one. So, for distraction and getting busy herself Bhikaji became more and more involved in social work. She devoted her time to charitable work and different philanthropic activities.

She understood the pain of the poor downtrodden people and knew the reason behind their plight. Colonial exploitation was not a secret and political movements and agitations were organised in different parts of India by Indian National Congress and other more radical political activists. In 1896 a famine broke out.

Bhikaji Cama worked relentlessly for the victims. She along with other volunteers worked in camps to arrange food for the dying hungry. In 1897 the Bubonic Plague pandemic struck a havoc and again the great young lady spent her days and nights fighting the menace for months together. In doing so, she herself contracted the disease and her life was under threat.

Extensive and prolonged treatment could save her life. But she became extremely weak and was unable to lead a normal life. Treatment in Bombay seemed insufficient and her family sent her to London for further better treatment in 1903. Slowly she recovered and came out of her severe weakness. Meantime, she got introduced to Shyamji Krishna Varma, a fierce Indian Nationalist leader who was an eloquent speaker and expert political organiser. Through Mr Varma, Bhikaji Cama came in touch with the famous leader Dadabhai Naoroji.

He was one of the founding leaders of Indian National Congress. By the beginning of the 20th century, the veteran Indian leader had already relocated to England and was the first elected MP in the British House of Commons from South East Asia. Bhikaji started working as his Secretary and her base as an active politician took shape during this period.

Dadabhai Naoroji was also the President of Indian National Congress, British Chapter. While working with Mr Naoroji, Bhikaji Cama also came in close touch with another firebrand Indian leader Singh Rewabhai Rana. Together they formed Indian Home Rule Society under the leadership of Krishna Varma.

It was a strong Nationalist movement. Indians (students, expatriate wage earners and businessmen) living in Britain started rallying behind this movement and it became a force to reckon with. Bhikaji Cama was threatened not to participate or lead this anti Government activity. Same was the case with other leaders. Bhikaji Cama and some other leaders relocated to Paris.

There in Paris the Indian politicians who were imbibed with the revolutionery stream of Freedom Struggle started getting organized. Together with S B Rana and M B Godrej, Madam Bhikaji Cama formed the Paris Indian Society. Under the banner of this Society Madam Cama wrote, published and circulated revolutionery literature amongst the Indian Diaspora in different European countries.

These literatures preached for Indian Sovereignty. Their Society also worked hard to arouse World support for Indian Independence. The literatures published by them were also smuggled into India through the French dominated Pondicherry. It provided great source of inspiration for the anti-colonial fighters in India, especially those, who were working for Indian Independence from the brutal force of British Indian Authorities.

In 1907 Madam Cama joined the International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart. This was under the auspices of the Second Socialist International. It was attended by 900 delegates from 25 countries. Socialist movement was well established by then which worked for Equality, Freedom, Justice and Peace. They supported Indian struggle for Sovereignty. In this International Congress Madam Cama unfurled a flag they have designed to represent Independent India. Damodar Savarkar took active part in this action.

Though the current Indian flag somewhat differs from that initial one, it demanded an enormous amount of courage, determination and planning to execute this feat. It also was a tricolor like the present one (Green, Saffron and Red representing Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism) with symbols of Sun and Moon representing the two major religions practiced in India.

It also had 8 lotuses representing the 8 provinces of British India. In her speech, she demanded human rights, equality of all citizens irrespective of gender, caste and religion and also self rule for Indians. Her hoisting of the flag for an Independent India and the Indian delegation's demands were highly applauded in Stuttgart.

After that Congress the Indians residing in Europe (mostly Britain) became more enthusiastic and started getting better organized. The British Government was clearly unnerved and came down heavy handedly on the Indian activists. Many of them were arrested and some sent back to India for trial as anti state activists.

In 1909/10 they requested French Government to extradite Madam Cama and other leading Indian activists based in Paris. The French Government did not comply. At this juncture the British could get hold of Veer Savarkar. He was sent back to India, tried for treason and transported to the Andamans. Madam Cama could stay back and continue with the anti Colonial movement. In 1914 the WW1 started and the two big powers (Britain and France) had to combine together to confront mighty Germany. Now the Indian activists had to be tactful. But they took an anti war stance.

When a ship carrying Punjab Regiment soldiers (summoned to Europe to take part in WW1 as part of the British Indian Army) were on transit in Marseilles port, activists under the leadership of Madam Cama and S R Rana came to the docks to persuade them to refrain from fighting as the war was not of any interest to the Indians. Rather it was for the establishment of the domination of the big powers over colonies and smaller countries.

The agitations failed. Activists were arrested. S R Rana was sent to the Carribbean islands and Madam Cama was sent to the French town of Vichy. There she had to remain interned till 1917. After the war was over in 1918 she however resumed her political activities. She also tried to return to India to get more involved in direct politics.

In India, political movements were springing up (Non cooperation movement, Khilafat Movement, for example). Since the British withdrew from its commitment of allowing Autonomy and more Liberty to Indians if they supported its war efforts, Indians were clearly deceived and consequently unhappy. Small youth groups disillusioned by the failure of politics of agitation and negotiation, took to arms and revolutionary activities (albeit futile) also started taking place in different places.

So, the British Government was apprehensive that allowing such Indian activists to travel back to India from Europe will add more fuel to the fire. So, Madam Cama was denied entry into her motherland. She was getting old and ill health prevailed. She suffered a stroke and was terminally ill. So she was desperate to get back to her home. For that, she had to agree with the British authorities that she will not remain associated with any political activity which promotes sedition.

When she could finally return to Bombay in 1935 she survived only nine months before she breathed her last in 1936. She had willed her assets to be run by a Trust which was supposed to run a school(which exists till date) and other benevolent activities. A part of her assets was donated for running their family fire temple in Bombay.

We have forgotten many of the valiant Freedom Fighters who have sacrificed their energy, wealth, youth and even life for liberating our subcontinent from the clutches of British colonialists. Fortunately, Madam Cama had a better luck. In many of the Indian cities there is a Street named after her. Indian Postal department has released a commemorative stamp so that she is remembered. Indian Navy has a Boat bearing her name. In the Indian capital there is a huge office complex by the name Madam Cama Place. She will always be remembered for her devotion and sacrifice for the cause of Indian Independence.

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