Visible Women

Forgotten Women: the campaigner who fought for Indian independence

Posted by
Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we take a look at Bhikaji Cama, whose involvement in the British suffragette movement fuelled her belief in the possibility of Indian independence.

A bad marriage and the bubonic plague steered Bhikaji Cama into politics. She started campaigning as a suffragette in London and ended up becoming known as The Mother of the Indian Revolution, even though she was exiled from her homeland for much of her life.

Cama was born into a wealthy family in 1861 in Mumbai and as a schoolgirl, she excelled at languages. At the time, India was under British rule, and all around her Cama saw the difficulties of a country oppressed by another.

She married in 1885, but her husband was
 a lawyer who had done well under the British and Cama had already begun speaking out against British rule in India. The marriage struggled. She volunteered to nurse bubonic plague victims, but – after contracting the disease herself – her doctors advised recuperating in Europe and she left for Britain in 1902.

In the United Kingdom, she discovered the suffragettes, mixing with people who thought change was possible and were prepared to take extreme measures to bring it about. She began to wonder if the suffragettes’ principles could be applied to Indian independence and swiftly became highly respected by both suffrage campaigners and free India activists alike.

But wind of Cama’s nationalist activities had spread and rumours reached her that not only would she be prevented from returning to India, but she was also about to be deported from Britain. Cama fled to Paris, where her home became the unofficial headquarters of India’s pro-independence movement.

Cama was also a fantastic public speaker. At a socialist conference in Stuttgart in 1907, she unveiled the first design for an Indian flag and declared, “Behold, the flag of independent India is born! It has been made sacred by the blood of young Indians who sacrificed their lives in its honour. In the name of this flag, I appeal to lovers of freedom all over the world to support this struggle.” This speech made history, bringing the poverty and oppression under the British Raj to the attention of the world, as well as Indian campaigners’ thirst for freedom.

After the flag unveiling, Cama continued to try to mobilise public opinion – especially among expat Indians – against British rule in India. At
 a 1910 conference in Cairo, she asked: “Where is the other half of Egypt? I see only men, who represent half the country! Where are the mothers? Where are the sisters? You must not forget that the hands that rock cradles also build persons.” She truly was the queen of soundbites.

Finally, in 1936, old, frail and paralysed by
 a stroke, Cama was at last allowed to return to her homeland. She died later the same year, aged 74, never seeing the independence that India finally achieved in 1947.

Cama’s deeds live on, though, with everything from street signs to naval warships named in her honour.

“Do not forget the important role women play in building
 a nation,” she had once demanded.
 India remembers her, as should we all.

Stylist is celebrating the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote. See more of our commemorative content here

Main illustration: Josie Jammet