V.O Chidambaram Pillai

V. O. Chidambaram Pillai

VO Chidambaram Pillai The last four decades of the 19th century saw some very bright stars in the galaxy in the South of the country.VO Chidambaram Pillai was one of them. The South was in deep slumber. Even the first war of independence had not left scars in the South. It seemed that the region had nothing to do with the rest of the country.

Most of the people both educated and uneducated considered the British rule as a far gone fact. The idea that they were being ruled by foreigners was just non existent. They considered it their fait accompli. They were just not conscious of it. They didn’t feel that they must do away with the British rule. Thus there were no rumblings in this region of the country. People considered this slumbering as peace.


VOC Pillai Images


             It was in this atmosphere of so-called peace thatVO Chidambaram Pillai was born on September 6, 1872, at Ottapidaram in Tirunelveli district of Madras Presidency (now Tamil Nadu). He was brought up in a peaceful atmosphere. His father was a lawyer.

He was a loving father but strict too. The love and care of his mother was his dear possession in his childhood. As there was no school in the town he played wild games with other boys. His father Ulaganatha Pillai wanted to provide him good education.

He started a primary school himself with sincere teachers. It benefited not only Chidambaram but other boys too.

VO Chidambaram Pillai Games

VO Chidambaram Pillai began not only to shine in his studies he demonstrated his leadership qualities too. He often talked to the students on topics of common interest. He organised a game of marbles and also chedugudu (Kabaddi).

The boys had to play strictly according to the rules. After his primary education,VO Chidambaram Pillai was sent to Tuticorin to join the St Francis Xavier High School. He had an outstanding career here. He was not only intelligent and diligent but had a great interest in sports like swimming, javelin throw, archery as also in horse riding. He liked the school life and later on described it in verse in his autobiography. His qualities of heroism and leadership were aroused.

VO Chidambaram Pillai who was destined to revolt against the British by becoming an ardent follower of Tilak became popular even in his school days. He had a mastery over verse form of language. He loved his mother tongue Tamil and wrote verses in it. Of course, he did not ignore the English classics too.

Looking at the intelligence, perseverance, and honesty Chidambaram’s father decided to send him to Tiruchirapalli to study law. He obtained a degree in law in 1985.VO Chidambaram Pillai started practicing at the sub-magistrate’s court in Ottapidaram.

He was so sincere that he won all the cases. During his practice, he found that people took bribe including the magistrate. He decides to expose all these evil dealings. Other lawyers did not like his this attitude and his father was one of them. He advised him to mind his own business.

WhenVO Chidambaram Pillai did not agree with his father he was asked to leave the town. Chidambaram moved to Tuticorin and started practice there.

VO Chidambaram Pillai Against British

Young Men like VO Chidambaram Pillai hated the British for making such a vast country theirs. Tietlom the people were a slave in their own country. But instead of realizing it they were passive and had surrendered themselves before the dictates of the foreign rulers.

VO Chidambaram Pillai was all aghast. He wanted to have a fierce fight against the British. But he did not find anyone who would to have a fierce fight against the British. But he did not find anyone who would support his view.

Thus his was a lone mental fight and he had to wait for an opportunity when he would create a storm in the minds of the people. He was sure that he would one day organize something like a revolutionary party in the South. But he had to wait for the occasion. Till then the slumber continued.

While in Tuticorin Chidambaram often took a walk along the seashore. Patriotic to the core as he was his mental vision was filled with the glory of the Indian seamen in the past. History would reveal itself as the evening waves rolled on.

He remembered how the Pallava, Pandya and Chola Kings of Tamil Nadu built the seaworthy strong boats called catamaran. Later on, they started building strong ships that would move hundreds of men send a lot of merchandise to Malaysia in the third century.

The trade went for many centuries. But later on, the glory and fame faded when Portuguese, the Dutch and finally the British controlled the sea routes.

VO Chidambaram Pillai Family

In 1895 Chidambaram had married Valliammal whose demise in 1901 made him sad. But he married her sister Meenakshi Ammal as he wanted some support at the home front too.

His second wife supported his revolutionary thought and actions, as did his first one. Now he was totally prepared for the national work.

VO Chidambaram Pillai Family

            It was during this period of his life that he had a providential chance to enter national work. In 1905 Bengal was divided into Bengal and Bihar. It was backed by the divide and rule policy of the British.

There was a movement throughout the country organized by the Indian National Congress. It announced the boycott of British goods. Swadeshi movement was started under the leadership of Bal Gangadhar Tilak. The movement spread throughout the country like wildfire.

The burning of British made cloth and goods was rather symbolic to burning the British supremacy.

       VO Chidambaram Pillai who was already waiting for an opportunity to come plunged into the Swadeshi movement to lead a people’s struggle. His aim was to unite the people as beads in a strong string to make the country free.

He threw himself into action by burning and throwing out of his house all foreign clothes and household goods. He won’t even get himself shaved as the barber used an English razor.

He stopped his practice and started organising meetings where he would, in his fiery speeches, explain to the people the importance of the Swadeshi movement as a way to turn the British out of the country.

          For long Chidambaram’s eyes were concentrated on the sea routes controlled by the past kings. Now they were controlled by the British India Navigation Company that plied their ships between Tuticorin, Singapore, and Sri Lanka.

To break this monopoly of the British firm required a great effort. It meant to start a shipping company itself. Again he approached the people with this novel idea. Although a few gave him a warning saying, ‘it is a futile’! We cannot challenge the British navigators.

It was just like giving a warning that we cannot challenge the British rule and should always work according to their wishes and remain the slave. VO Chidambaram Pillai accepted the challenge and the Swadeshi. Steamship Company was born in 1906 with the help of some merchants and friends. The elder generation blessed him.

Swadeshi Steamship Company

On 16th of October 1906, the Swadeshi Steamship Company was registered. Chidambaram took two ships from a Bombay firm Shawline Steamers on rent and they started moving between Tuticorin and Colombo. Naturally, if successful, it would improve the economy of the whole country.

VO Chidambaram Pillai knew it well that a steamship company can be run successfully only if it had its own ships. But he had limited means. Still, he didn’t give up hope. He took a whirlwind tour to Madras, Calcutta, Bombay and some other metropolitan cities.

VO Chidambaram Pillai Stamp

His awe-inspiring speeches moved the people and he collected money enough to purchase two steamships s.s. Lavos and s.s. Kalibo from Bombay. Each had a capacity to have a thousand passengers and a huge quantity of goods.

They began playing regularly along the trade routes. Patriotic feelings were roused to the extent that people preferred to travel by the Swadeshi ships alone. It meant an increase in the income of the Swadeshi Steamship company and heavy losses to the British India Steam Navigation.

It was not a question of the British India Steam Navigation going into heavy loss. The British apprehended that Indians are taking steps in the direction of gaining economic independence. They must be checked or their own economy would suffer.

The British India Steam Navigation started slashing its fare. But it was not responded by the people in their favor. People had become patriotic enough not to travel in their ships even when they offered free travel.

They even tried to bribeVO Chidambaram Pillai with one lakh rupees if he agreed to close down The Swadeshi Steamship Company.

The men who had brought the amount had to suffer humiliation and they went back. The aim of Chidambaram was to give the boost to the Swadeshi movement. His entry in the navigation sector was just a part of it.

VO Chidambaram Pillai As Navigator

      Chidambaram was in no mood to restrict himself to the navigation sector. The feelings against the British were so intense in his heart that ignoring the navigation sector he jumped into the political arena.

He was a revolutionary in his own way and believed that the policy of the moderates in Indian National Congress won’t fetch any results. The differences between the moderates and the so-called extremists went to the extent of polarization in the fight for the independence of the country.

The moderates under the guidance of Gopal Krishna Gokhale believed in a constitutional way while the militants under the leadership of Tilak believed in a revolutionary surge. Tilak appointed VO Chidambaram Pillai as his representative in the South.

VO Chidambaram Pillai As Navigator

Now Chidambaram had to work hard. During the day he would look after the affairs of the Steamship Company. Mornings were devoted to meeting people individually and organizing the affairs of the day. In the evenings he would address large gatherings at the seashore.

His speeches were like a storm unabated. He bit the hearts of the people. The masses just wondered why they were inactive and slumbering so long. VO Chidambaram Pillai reminded them of India’s glory in the past The glory of the days of Marathas and the Pandya Kings.

He just wondered how a handful of foreigners guided the destiny of crores of people. He did not limit his activities to the town but moved to the villages and met the farmers, the craftsmen, the laborer and explained to them in simple language how they were exploited.

Besides Chidambaram, other minuscule groups were active among the labourers of the Harvey Spinning and Weaving Mills in Tuticorin. The labourers were paid low wages. They became restless and revolted against the management.

The revolt was so forceful that the families of the British officers of the mill took shelter on the ships anchored far away from the coast. The workers became restive. Two thousand labourers went on strike. The employers did not pay attention to their demands and shut down the mill.

Now the labourers actually needed the support of a strong leader. VO Chidambaram Pillai came to their rescue. He together with his friends offered food and shelter to the unemployed mill workers. He asked them not to give up. The struggle went on.

The revolutionary ideas with which Chidambaram had inspired the people paid. The employers surrendered. Wages were hiked and the Mill was opened. It was a victory for the Indian workers and a defeat for the British employers.

VO Chidambaram Pillai As Revolutionary Leader

Of course, Chidambaram was hailed as a savior of the labourers. But he had to look to others fronts too the common masses and the students who were young and passionate. Chidambaram organized meetings for both of them.

It was just a beginning. None else so far had come to inspire them and tell them how the Britishers sucked their blood. The masses were moved hysterically. But VO Chidambaram Pillai concentrated on the students for he knew he will have the future leaders from among them only.

Students were the potential power. They flocked to the meetings of Chidambaram in large numbers. The revolting voice rang in their ears long after the meetings were over. They just wondered why they were not awake earlier.

They would say, “How could we have been oblivious to the piteous plight of our people? Chidambaram had to come and tell us”. They just wondered and accepted Chidambaram their leader to follow.

While Chidambaram was busy in political activities The Swadeshi Steamship Company was ignored by him. But VO Chidambaram Pillai did not pay attention to what they said, as he was now strongly active champion of India’s freedom in the South.

He could move the masses as none else ever had. People followed him to the extent that even washermen and domestic aids boycotted the British officials. They did not work for the Indians who cooperated with these authorities.

But the slavish mentality remained imbedded in those who owed allegiance to the British rulers. Their opinion was that Indians were not capable of ruling their country and that Chidambaram was wrong in opposing them. One of them was a well-known lawyer Rangaswamy.

His designs were rather exposed by a barber who shaved him only on one side. No other barber in the town was ready to shave the other side and he had to go to Tirunelveli for getting him shaved.

The activities of VO Chidambaram Pillai made the British restless and apprehensive. The District Collector decided to take him to a task. But it was the district headquarters. He was accused of sedition of antigovernment propaganda, for shouting slogans and even for even for sailing ships.

He as ordered to leave Tirunelveli district. On his refusal, he was arrested on March 12, 1908. The news of his arrest spread like wildfire. The shops were closed. Schools did not open. Students arranged processions shouting slogans.

But Justice Wallace sentenced him to forty years imprisonment in the Andamans. On the intervention of the Secretary of State for India who wrote that such sentence was meant only for hardcore criminals the case first went to the High Court and ultimately to the Privy Council which reduced it to six years of rigorous imprisonment.

Behind the bars, Chidambaram was treated like other convicts. He would break stones and would turn the big wheel of the oil press for hours together. He tolerated all this patiently. The example of Tilak who was incarcerated in Mandalay Jail was before him.

On the other hand, Chidambaram had a very great set back. In his absence, The Swadeshi Steamship Company that he had nurtured went into heavy losses. It could not compete with the British Steamship Company.

The two ships it had were sold and the people who had given a loan to the company wanted their money back. When VO Chidambaram Pillai heard all this he was very sad. But he sent a message that after his release he would pay back the money. That he did by selling all his property. He had to start his living from scratch. Of course, he had to leave for Madras.

VO Chidambaram Pillai Jail Life

Chidambaram was in Jail for four years. During his Tenure there he would teach the illiterate prisoners. He had an achievement to his credit too.

His scholarly phase was rejuvenated. He wrote his memoirs in verse. He also translated works of some English authors into Tamil. He won the respect and affection of all in prison.

On the political front, the government had underestimated the influence of Chidambaram on the youth. There were revolutionaries in the North and Maharashtra who had turned the hatred of the British in personal vendetta.

Chidambaram did not believe in it. Killing an officer here and a governor there won’t fetch independence. It required a mass movement. But in his absence, the youth turned violent. They started copying their counterpart in the North.

On June 17, 1911, Vanchinathan a young revolutionary shot dead Mr. Ashe, the District Magistrate of Tirunelveli. Vanchinathan then shot himself too. Chidambaram sent a message from Jail itself that the young who are the future rulers should not lose their patience and cool.

After his release in December 1912, the British officials were as strict to him as they were to Subramania Bharati. They tried him to be brought to the verge of starvation. To earn his living Chidambaram had to start practicing as a lawyer.

His literary activities alone won’t provide him with daily meals.He applied for permission to start the practice that was promptly refused. At last, he found a real friend in Justice Wallace who was a secret admirer of Chidambaram.

He helped him in getting permission to practice. He shifted to Tuticorin. People had great regard for him. His practice flourished. As a token of gratefulness for Justice Wallace he christened his youngest son as Wallace Easwaran. He named his other two sons and two daughters too after men and women he had regard for.

VO Chidambaram Pillai Political Life

VO Chidambaram Pillai wanted to be active in politics again. Certain changes had taken place in the activities of Indian National Congress itself. With the return of Gandhi from South Africa, the moderates had started gaining ground.

He had introduced a new, novel but easy way of movement. He wanted to have a peaceful way of the fight which the common man liked. Thus he had identified himself with the common man. But the educated youth who were the followers of Tilak did not believe in his non-cooperation movement.

Gandhi had held his grip over the masses by 1920 when Tilak left for his heavenly abode. As an experiment, he gave a call for an All India Movement in 1922. The movement was on a very large scale. The people thought that the independence was not far away.

People throughout the country were furiously agitated. All of a sudden there was a violent incident at chauri chaura. Gandhi considered it vehement attack on his theory of non-cooperation. He gave importance to his ideology vis-a-vis national cause. The movement was withdrawn. It agitated the youth throughout the country. Gandhi too could not make another experiment for a decade.

Although VO Chidambaram Pillai admired the Mahatma for some of his Although Chidambaram admired the Mahatma for some of his qualities, he had reservations about his way of doing things. His conscience was quite clear.

He had visualized that this passive non-cooperation won’t bring freedom. It has not brought its goal of independence anywhere in the world. His view was that Gandhi’s tactics would delay the achievement of Swaraj. He expressed his views openly in public and published them too.

The lion of the South who considered Tilak as his guru believed in revolution mass revolution. Gandhi too had come to the same conclusion in 1942 during the Quit India Movement.

The Southern lion was not just a tail wagging lion. He was a born leader and a charismatic hero. People admired him for his fine oratory and selfless sacrifices. He was the most honoured son of Tamil-speaking region. Of course, he limited his activities to that region only.

“He fulfilled his desire to awaken his people and kindle the spirit to patriotism and the fervour for freedom that lay smouldering within them, so that they burst into flames.” But it was not destined for him to see his dream materialise during his lifetime.

The torture that he had undergone in jail told on his health in a big way. He could not participate in the joys of the people and could not experience the “delightful dawn of the country’s freedom from the fetters of foreign rule”. He could just pray and passed away peacefully on November 18, 1936, when he was just 64.

M.P. Sivagnanam was one of his best admirers. He affectionately called him ‘Kappalottiya Thamizhan’ the Tamilian who sailed the sea. Today Chidambaram Pillai is known by this name in Tamil Nadu. C. Subramaniam paid his homage to this great soul.

He wrote, “Since time immemorial our tradition has taught us to pay homage to our elders who have blazed a trail and guided us. In order to release our country from the cruel clutches of foreign rule, our heroic forefathers have fought and died.

V.O. Chidambaram Pillai being one of the foremost of these heroes, our homage is due to him. He further wrote “He tried to make the British buckle under our pressure by making our sea trade prosperous.

In the process, he suffered untold miseries, and died an untimely death before his dream of seeing an independent India come true. Let us remember the selfless service of this great soul.”

To pay homage to Chidambaram Pillai C. Rajagopalachari, the last Governor General of India launched at Tuticorin the steamship CHIDAMBARAM weighing more than a thousand tons. It carried passengers and merchandise to Sri Lanka and South Eastern countries.

Chidambaram Pillai’s dream came true when the people on the deck and land cried, “Vazhga Chidambaram”. Vande Mataram!  Rajagopalachari said, “V.O. Chidambaram Pillai loved his country, India, more than his life.

VOC Pillai Visualised the country free from the fetters of foreign rule and having a flourishing sea trade with countries like Ceylon, Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan. He worked hard to make his vision a reality in his lifetime.” Chidambaram Pillai’s dream came true and his memory was perpetuated on February 9, 1949.

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