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Mrs. Bhikaiji Rustom Cama

Prominent Zarathushtis

FEZANA Journal of Fall 1994




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An icon of India’s Independence Aspirations

In the first part of the 20th century, Poet Aaraf Ghazvini, a symbol of Iranian Nationalism agonizing on the conditions of his motherland composed a very touching poem.  In his composition, referring to the group of Iranians who had fled their motherland to the safety of the Indian Subcontinent in light of the fall of their motherland to the invading Arab armies centuries earlier, Aaraf projects  that rather than submit to tyranny, these noble Iranian (his reference) chose to abandon their motherland.  As the high point of his composition in projecting his aspiration for the sentiments of the descendents of those refugees from Iran in the context of Colonial India of his days, Aaraf goes on to state:

And I am sure in the heart of  those noble Iranians

The thought rings, When will India gain its independence

Years earlier in August 22, 1907, delegates from different countries had gathered in Stuttgart, Germany, for the 2nd  international Socialist Congress. A woman delegate rose to speak, a good-looking lady dressed in a sari with a border of delicate embroidery, the edge draped demurely over her head. Her speed however was far from demure, as she hurled defiance at the might of British Empire. The audience, captivated by her presence and personality was held spellbound by the sincerity, logic and emotion of her fiery speech. Describing the atrocities of British imperialism and the agony of her countrymen, she appealed to the audience to cooperate in freeing from slavery one-fifth of the whole human race inhabiting that oppressed country.  With a dramatic gesture, amid thunderous cheers, she  unfurled a tricolor flag.

That lady, who dared to defy the might of an Empire, who made history by unfurling India's first national flag on foreign soil and thus succeeded in focusing world attention on India’s plight, was an Indian, a Zarathushti from Mumbai, Bhikaiji Rustom Cama. She  was recognized as one of the outstanding Indian revolutionaries in Europe, who came to be known as the High Priestess of Indian nationalism. Her portrait appeared in French newspapers along with Joan of Arc.

Bhikhaiji was born on September 24, 1861, in an affluent Parsi Zoroastrian family in Bombay, to Sorabji and Jaijibai Patel, and was educated at the Alexandra Native Girl's English Institution.  Her marriage was arranged with Rustam Cama, the son of renowned Oriental scholar, Kharshedji Cama, in 1885. Not being content in her household role, she used to say that she was also wedded “to the uplift of my countrymen, both social and political”.

Enthusiastically following the proceedings of the first session of the Indian National Congress, Bhikhaiji later grasped its importance and opportunity. When the plague epidemic broke out in Bombay in 1896, she committed herself to the task of nursing the sick and dying. Her involvement with the plague victims and her cognizance of the suffering caused by famine and economic depression made a deep and lasting impression on her psyche. She became involved in politics and determined to fight to liberate India from foreign rule.

Due to health problems Bhikhaiji went to England in 1902 to obtain an operation and medical treatment. During her stay abroad, from 1902 to 1907, she underwent a dramatic advance in her political activism, earning the name 'Mother of the Revolution'. She started her political work in England under the guidance of the Grand Old Man of India, Dadabhai Naoroji. She campaigned for Dadabhai's election to the British House of Commons, and met many eminent Indians involved in India's freedom struggle.

During Savarkar's presidential address at the 19th session of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha at Karnavati (Ahmedabad) in 1937, he praised the Parsi community by saying "The Parsis have ever been working shoulder to shoulder with the Hindus against the English domination. They are no fanatics. From the great Dadabhai Naoroji to the renowned revolutionary lady Madame Cama, the Parsis have contributed their quota of true patriots, nor have they displayed any but goodwill towards the Hindu nation, which to them has proved a saviour of their race. Culturally too they are most akin to us".

Bhikhaiji Cama's hour of glory was at the Second International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart, Germany on August 22, 1907, attended by nearly 1000 delegates from different countries. Making a mark in history, she made a brilliant speech, conveying the greetings of the Indian people who were suffering at the hands of British capitalists, and unfurled the first flag of independent India. She said "This flag is of India's 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 the flag of Indian independence. In the name of this flag I appeal to lovers of freedom all over the world to cooperate with this flag in freeing one-fifth of the human race".

In her speech before unfurling the flag, she described the deteriorating economic condition of India which was suffering from the devastation of famine. She gave a strong appeal for justice, human rights and independence of the Indian people. For this act of sedition, she was exiled and deprived of income by the British government, and had to live for 33 years in England and France, until she was physically handicapped by a paralytic stroke and brought back to India by Sir Cowasji Jehangir in November 1935, where she died on August 13, 1936.

Bhikhaiji Cama lived her life as a deeply religious person who believed in the teachings of Prophet Zarathushtra to fight against injustice. She donated her personal assets to the Avabai Petit Orphanage for girls, and Rs. 54,000 to her family temple, the Framji Nusserwanjee Patel Agiary at Mazgaon, where a ceremony is performed every year to remember her life as a courageous and true Zarathushtrian and patriot.