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The Magazine

December 30, 2001

Two words about one Parsi


IN his Of Mice and Men (Dawn, Nov 21; Two Parsis), Hafizur Rahman has written about the violent revolutionary, Bhikaiji Rustom Kama (Cama). Officially known as Madame Cama, she figured prominently in the reports of the Department of Criminal Intelligence (DCI), since 1907.

After Curzon’s reforms of police intelligence, the DCI started functioning in 1904. An historian of British Indian intelligence services, Richard Popplewell, writes, “The DCI was not given special treatment.... The Government of India treated it like any other department.... The Director was denied some additional members of staff because he would thereby acquire more...than the Inspector-General of Forests, the Director-General of Education, and the Sanitary Commissioner.”

Nevertheless, various posts were filled by Oxbridge ICS officers. One of them, James Campbell Ker, an academic and a Fellow of Caius College, Cambridge, (who joined the ICS in 1901), was serving in the Bombay Presidency (Sindh), when he was drafted into the DCI in 1907. His job was to prepare Weekly Reports of the DCI and to draw up history sheets of political agitators, both in India and abroad. Weekly Reports were distinguished by a high degree of objectivity.

While the Bombay branch of the DCI regarded Madame Cama as “brainless”, the Weekly Reports expressed some admiration for her tenacity. Ker’s treatise Political Troubles in India — 1907-19l7, exhaustively dealt with the activities of Indian revolutionaries, including Madame Cama, in India and abroad.

It was Shyamji Krishna Varma, an Oxford-educated dismissed Dewan of Junagargh State, who sowed the seeds of the “revolutionary movement” when he established, in 1905, in London, the Indian Home Rule Society and started publishing its organ The Indian Socialist, which consistently berated the Indian National Congress for its “slavish, immoral and short-sighted policy” of collaboration with and self-government under the British Empire.

Varma also opened the “India House” in London. Madame Cama, who was already politically active in France and England (she had been exiled from India for her seditious activities), attended the opening ceremony of the house which, as V. Chirol, in his Indian Unrest wrote, became the most dangerous organization outside India. It was the centre of meetings of the Indian revolutionaries and freedom fighters.

In the same year, a branch of the Indian Home Rule Society was opened in Paris by Madame Cama, S.R. Rana and B.H. Godrej. It was called the Indian Paris Society. Another important member of the Society was Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, a brother of Mrs Sarojini Naidu. Madame Cama started a monthly journal Bande Matram and Hardayal, who had come over to Paris from India, took over as its editor.

Madame Cama developed close contacts with the Socialist Party and the Russian exiles living in Paris. One Safranski taught Madame Cama and other Indians the use of explosives and the making of bombs. Greatly influenced by the Russian revolutionaries of 1905, she started advocating violence and Russian methods to bring about a change of rule in British India by acts of terror. Her policies influenced almost all the Indian revolutionaries abroad.

Before leaving for Stuttgart to attend the Second International Socialist Congress, in 1907, the delegation of the Indian Paris Society, consisting of Madame Cama, Rana and Chattopadhyaya, sent a resolution on India, requesting the Congress to adopt it on their own. Though the resolution was not put up to vote, the Congress allowed Madame Cama to address the delegates. After her speech, she surprised the delegates by waving an “Indian flag” and expressed her hope of seeing “the Republic of India established in my lifetime.” That was not to be. She died in 1936.

As reported by the Intelligence, the “flag” was a banner of three horizontal bands; the uppermost was green, representing the Muslims, with a line of eight stars, denoting the eight provinces of India; the centre band of being golden hue, the colour of the Sikhs with Bande Matram in Sanskrit and the lower end was red, representing the Hindus (Fig 1; regrettably the picture is not very clear).

About the meeting of the Congress, Ker, in his aforementioned treatise, wrote that though Lenin was present, there was no authentic proof whether he met the Indian revolutionaries. Ker added that Madame Cama referred to the Russian comrades in her speech.

In October 1907, the Indian Home Rule Society sent Madame Cama and Dr Narayan Krishna to the USA to deliver a series of lectures to tell the Americans that the continuance of British rule was injurious and disastrous to the interest of India. Madame Cama did create a stir in the States. A New York newspaper clipping, in “History Sheet of Madame Cama” reads: “Madame Cama, the East-Indian reformer and lecturer arrived here. She and her husband are high-class persons and are among the recognised leaders...to throw off the British yoke, Madame Cama being specially radical.”

An important event of her visit was a meeting with Maulvi Barkatullah, who along with an American leader of the Indo-American National Association, agreed to work with the Paris Society for achieving independence for India.

On return to Paris, she did not find it anymore a congenial place to carry on her political activities, and in 1909, she went on a lecture tour of Germany, where the authorities were quite sympathetic to the programme of the Indian revolutionaries. She invited Chattopadhyaya to shift to Berlin; and they started a newspaper, Talwar, with the latter as the editor. She looked after its distribution. This was to become the embryo of The Indian Berlin Committee which, later on, received full support from the German government for fomenting troubles in India.

A clear indication of the French negative attitude was the banning of a conference of Indian revolutionaries, which was to be held in Paris in September 1910. The venue had to be shifted to Brussels, where Madame Cama made her famous speech of “only bombs and revolvers are the proper answer to foreign occupation.”

In the meantime, Hardayal, due to differences with Madame Cama and other members of the Paris Society, left Europe, in 1910, for the States, where he was to establish the Ghadar Party, and publish a newspaper Ghadar in Urdu and Gurmukhi (Fig 2 shows the facsimile of the first page of one of its issues).

Madame Cama shuttled between Berlin and Paris. V. Savarkar, after his arrest in England, was to be shipped out to India. It was arranged that when the boat docked at Marseille on July 1, 1910, Savarkar would escape and Madame Cama would whisk him away to some unknown place. Savarkar managed to get out of the port. Madame Cama was late. And Savarkar could not give the slip to the French police.

When World War I started, the Indian revolutionaries fanned out into different European countries. Only Madame Cama and her old comrade, Rana, stayed back in France.

That was the time when there was an influx of British-Indian intelligence officers in MI5. Academics and writers were also recruited. The writer, Somerset Maugham, was enlisted to keep a watch and report on Indian revolutionaries in Switzerland. A former vice-chancellor of Calcutta university, Robert Nathan, was the leading “Indian” officer in MI5.

Two Indian infantry divisions arrived in Marseille in September 1914. That was a godsend for Madame Cama. Immediately, she got in touch with the Indian troops and tried to convince them of “the error of their ways in fighting for the Empire.” As subsequent events proved, she was, to an extent, successful in her propaganda. She was under surveillance. The French authorities, on Oct 27, ordered her to leave Marseille and “warned her of unpleasant consequences if she did not stop her nationalist activities during the war.” The British government wanted her to be deported to England. The French authorities did not oblige, and instead detained her in Vichy for the duration of war. Letters from sepoys in France (all letters were censored but some were withheld) to their relatives in India were full of advice against enlistment, such as, “Stay in the village...you will understand what I mean”; “Tell my brother...for God’s sake not to enlist”; “Certainly do not enlist”; etc. This attitude, moulded by the influence of Madame Cama’s persuasion, did play some part in the decision to move out the Indian Corps from France.

Madame Cama’s “seditious activities” must have caused some embarrassment to the Parsi community. That probably was the reason why she vanished into the seamless past. Only recently, the Bombay Parsi community has brought Madame Cama back into its horizon. A paper on her life and work was presented in the Fifth World Zoroastrian Congress, in Bombay, in 1990. About the same time, a play based on her work was staged by a Bombay Parsi theatre group. It was a success, we are told.

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