India’s Independence month has another little-known first. It was in August 1907 that Madam Cama defiantly unfurled the first Indian flag to the world and inspired a generation of Parsi firebrand women patriots
It became an irony the British took time to digest. A community, which was small, yet known for its loyalty to the Crown, still stirred up ferment enough for an independent India. Interestingly, not only did Parsis front the freedom struggle, but also some of the most radical anti-Raj voices were women. They were led, in those tumultuous times, by Bhikaiji Cama, Perin and Goshasp Captain (Dadabhai Naoroji’s granddaughters) and Mithuben Petit.
Parsi women were among the first in the country to be educated. A privilege they used to their advantage and one that formed the main reason for their involvement with the Independence movement. At the helm of the revolt rose Bhikaiji (Madam) Cama, with her legendary firebrand courage. Excited at the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885, she believed women joining politics would propel further emancipation of the fairer sex.
On August 22, 1907, she did make a strident sight at the second International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart. Sari pallav over head, she strode boldly on stage to unfurl a green-yellow-red striped flag emblazoned with the words, ‘Bande Mataram’ before the global gathering. And declared with typically passionate oratory, "This flag is of India’s Independence. I appeal to lovers of freedom over the world to cooperate with this flag in freeing one-fifth of the human race."
From delivering lectures at London’s Hyde Park and being invited by Lenin to settle in Russia, to having her portrait splashed alongside Joan of Arc in French newspapers and travelling to America and Africa with her flag, Bhikaiji raised an awareness of Indian rights on foreign soil during her long exile from her homeland.
She went on to touch innumerable lives with the same conviction. Her contemporaries, the sisters Perin and Goshasp Captain, honoured their grandfather’s political hopes for the country. When Perin studied at Sorbonne University in 1905, she came in contact with Madam Cama agitating for Indian liberation in Paris. The liaison was infectious. It goaded Perin to act audaciously. She burst into nationalist songs at a conference in Brussels and defiantly visited Veer Savarkar in jail under the assumed name of Miss Ardeshir!
On Pateti day, in 1906, Perin drew her Oxford-educated sister’s attention to "that man with very nice eyes" at a boat party on the Thames hosted by Jamshedji Tata, which Gandhiji attended. Gandhi enlisted the sisters’ support in South Africa for Indian self-rule. Later, 1915 proved a watershed year, when he returned from South Africa to energise an entire nation to fight for freedom. He explained swadeshi and satyagraha in a public meeting at the Petit ancestral home. Inspired, Perin and Goshasp traded their luxurious silks for coarse khadi saris and spearheaded campaigns to propagate ideas of ahimsa through women’s organisations like Rashtriya Stree Sabha and Desh Sevika Sangh.
The affluent Mithuben Petit also eschewed great wealth to espouse non-violence and rural activism, influenced by the Gandhian view that real India lives in her villages. She initiated setting up Stree Swarajya Sanghs, where women were instigated to peacefully picket shops selling foreign cloth. Her family members were aghast. Not minding her constructive social work as much as Mithuben sparking opposition to the British, they warned her to renounce such "ridiculous" activities or risk disinheritance.
Mithuben’s cool retort struck fresh fervour among all braveheart ladies of the day: "It is your business to sit with the government and mine to remain with the nation."
Courtesy: The Jam-e-Jamshed