V. O. Chidambaram Pillai (V.O.C.): A Great Figure in Freedom Movement

Freedom movement against the British Raj in those days was not only confined to few states but spread over across undivided India because the British came thousands and thousands kilometres away to exploit our resources including human resources. Different websites of Wikipedia reveal that during World War I, more than one million Indian soldiers forced to serve overseas, of whom 74,187 soldiers perished and little more than 67,000 were injured. Also in the World War II, more than 2.5 million Indian troops forced to join and fight on behalf of the British force around the world. I feel if we were not under the British Raj probably our persons would not have joined in both the World Wars.

        Anyway, in those days in the Madras Presidency division, also many sacrificed their lives or imprisoned for participating in freedom movement or raising voice against the British Raj.  It is pertinent to mention that the Madras Presidency was an administrative subdivision (presidency) of British India. The Presidency included most of southern India, including the whole of Andhra Pradesh, and parts of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana, Odisha and the union territory of Lakshadweep. The city of Madras was the winter capital of the Presidency and Ootacamund or Ooty was the summer capital (wikipedia.org/wiki/Madras_Presidency).

     In this article, a great human being who was in freedom movement also an entrepreneur is presented from then the Madras Presidency.

Vallinayagan Ulaganathan Chidambaram (5 September 1872 – 18 November 1936), popularly known by his initials, V.O.C., also known as Kappalottiya Tamizhan meaning ‘The Tamil Helmsman’, was a freedom fighter and leader of Indian National Congress. He was the founder of Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, first indigenous Indian shipping service moving between Tuticorin and Colombo with the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, competing against British ships. With dynamism, courage and integrity VOC/ Chidambaram raised the people against the mighty British Raj. He was at young age motivated by Shri Ramakrishnanathar, a saint and ardent follower of Swami Vivekananda’s philosophy. The Saint advised him to do something for the country. During this period, VOC/ Chidambaram met the Tamil poet Bharathiyaar who shared his political ideology and thus both had close relationship. VOC was also great admirer of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and considered him mentor in politics.

     In 1908, VOC’s political involvement drew attention to the British. He, Subramaniya Siva and Padmanabha Iyengar along with others celebrated the release of freedom fighter from Bengal Bipin Chandra Pal, and then Tirunelveli Collector Wynch called VOC and others asked to give assurances that they would not participate in any political revolt but they refused, so all three were arrested on 12 March 1908.  Their arrests led to widespread protest. In Tirunelveli shops, schools and colleges were closed in protest and riot broke out also the municipal office, post office, police stations and municipal court were attacked, unfortunately four persons were killed by the police. VOC was charged with sedition, and the court sentenced him to two life imprisonments for charges of sedition. An appeal to the Madras High Court reduced the sentence to 6 years in prison and 4 years in transportation both to run concurrently. He was not treated as a political prisoner, nor was it simple imprisonment. V.O.C and Siva had to undergo rigorous imprisonment. V.O.C health suffered a great deal. They were  released in December 1912. During his arrest in March 1908, Sri Aurobindo lauded him in his editorial “Srijut Chidambaram Pillai has shown throughout the Tuticorin affair a loftiness of character, a practical energy united with high moral idealism which shows that he is a true Nationalist. His refusal to accept release on bail if his fellow-workers were left behind is one more count in the reckoning. Nationalism is or ought to be not merely a political creed but a religious aspiration and a moral attitude. Its business is to build up Indian character by educating it to heroic self-sacrifice and magnificent ambitions, to restore the tone of nobility which it has lost and bring back the ideals of the ancient Aryan gentleman. The qualities of courage, frankness, love and justice are the stuff of which a Nationalist should be made. All honour to Chidambaram Pillai for having shown us the first complete example of an Aryan reborn, and all honour to Madras which has produced such a man” (Aravindan Neelakandan, in Swarajya,   5/9/2017)

After his release his law license was taken away and he moved to Chennai then Madras city with his wife and two young sons where he ran a grocery store and a kerosene shop.

  VOC was a dynamic and enterprising person which is reflected by his activities as he set up many institutions and some of which are Yuvanesh Prachar Sabha, Dharmasanga Nesavu Salai, National Godown, Madras Agro-Industrial Society Ltd and Desabimana Sangam. He was a great human being also as in 1908, 23 February VOC  supported the workers at Coral Mill (now part of Madura Coats) to protest against their low wages and harsh working conditions.  The workers at the British-owned mill were unfairly treated and 59 percent of the workers were aged 14 – 16.   He was also a prolific writer in Tamil. Some of his works are – Meyyaram, Meyyarivu, Autobiography, commentary on the Thirukkural, compiled works of Tolkappiyam, etc.

In 1920, VOC withdrew from the Indian National Congress, citing ideological differences with Gandhiji and concentrated his activity on establishing labour unions in Madras so that the labourers were not awfully exploited.

     For VOC’s great sacrifice in the freedom movement, the Tuticorin Port Trust was named after him and now known as V. O. Chidambaranar Port Trust. It may be mentioned here that   Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) district was formed by reorganising Tirunelveli district in the year 1986.  In his honour and for remembering him, the Indian Posts & Telegraphs Department issued a special postage stamp on 5 September 1972, on the occasion of his birth centenary. VOC/Chidambaram although passed away on 18 November 1936 (aged 64) but he will remain forever in our hearts and memories.

Also for reference consulted:

  1. https://byjus.com/free-ias-prep/this-day-in-history-nov18
  2.  https://swarajyamag.com/culture/v-o-chidambaram-pillai-the-forgotten-patriot

Dr. Shankar Chatterjee

Former Professor& Head (CPME), NIRD &PR (Govt. of India),

Hyderabad-500 030

Telangana, India

Email <shankarjagu@gmail.com>