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Remembering Bhikaji Cama: The First Indian to Unfurl the National Flag on Foreign Soil on Independence Day 2021

Bhikaji Cam met several strong leaders such as Dadabhai Naoroji, Lala Har Dayal, and Shyamji Krishnavarma in London. (Image Credits: YouTube/Rajya Sabha TV)

Bhikaji Cam met several strong leaders such as Dadabhai Naoroji, Lala Har Dayal, and Shyamji Krishnavarma in London. (Image Credits: YouTube/Rajya Sabha TV)

Bhikaji Cama unfurled the first version of the Indian national flag—a tricolour of green, saffron, and red stripes—at the International Socialist Congress held at Stuttgart, Germany, in 1907.

India will wake up to its 75th Independence Day on Sunday. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will address the nation from the historic Red Fort, while the Indian Tokyo Olympic contingent will be present there as guests. The whole country will once again remember and pay respects to the leaders and freedom fighters who played their parts in freeing the country from British rule. While we remember the leaders on this day, there are many such fighters who often go overlooked — One such leader is Bhikaji Rustom Cama, the fiery lady who unfurled the first version of the Indian national flag—a tricolour of green, saffron, and red stripes—at the International Socialist Congress held at Stuttgart, Germany, in 1907.

Born on September 24 1861 to an affluent Parsi family, Bhikaji was the daughter of famous merchant Sorabji Framji Patel. She married Rustomji Cama, a well-known lawyer in 1885. However, while Rustomji was a pro-British lawyer, Bhikaji remained a nationalist at heart and believed that the Britishers had exploited India. Eventually, they separated.

According to Better India, Bhikaji volunteered during the bubonic plague breakout in 1896 and suffered from the disease herself, which eventually led to her poor health. In 1902, she left for London for medical care and recovery.

In England, Bhikaji met several strong leaders such as Dadabhai Naoroji, Lala Har Dayal, and Shyamji Krishnavarma. She got a notice from the British that she would be prohibited from returning to India unless she would sign a statement promising not to participate in nationalist activities, which she refused to sign.

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Bhikaji moved to Paris and co-founded the Paris Indian Society along with Singh Rewabhai Rana and Munchershah Burjorji Godrej. She wrote, published and distributed revolutionary literature such as Bande Mataram (founded in response to the British ban on the patriotic poem) and later Madan’s Talwar (in response to the execution of Madan Lal Dhingra), which were also smuggled into India.

On August 22, 1907, Bhikaji hoisted the Indian flag in Stuttgart in Germany, becoming the first Indian to do so on foreign soil, and appealed for human rights, equality and freedom from British rule. The flag, that she co-designed with Shyamji Krishna Varma, later served as one of the templates for our current national flag. Its top green stripe had eight blooming lotuses, ‘Bande Mataram‘ was written across the central saffron stripe in Hindi and on the bottom red stripe, a half moon was on the right and the rising sun on the left.

Bhikaji remained in Europe till 1935, when she was left paralysed by a stroke and petitioned the British government to be allowed to return to India. She was granted the person and returned to Bombay on November 1935. She died nine months later on August 13 1936.

Bhikaji bequeathed most of her personal assets to the Avabai Petit Orphanage for girls, which established a trust in her name. Multiple cities in India have streets or locations named after her, the Bhikaji Cama Place in New Delhi being one of the most famous and notable ones. The Indian Posts and Telegraphs Department issued a commemorative stamp in her honour on January 26, 1962.

While we celebrate famous freedom fighters this Independence day, let us also remember leaders such as Bhikaji Cama for their notable contributions in the freedom struggle.

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first published:August 15, 2021, 07:39 IST