Pleased to present the one hundred and fiftieth story in my blog!

Dear readers, this has been possible due to your continuous encouragement. Seeking your wishes for this journey to continue!

As it is the hundred and fiftieth story, I am narrating the story of a freedom fighter who was born 150 years ago.

In the series of ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav – Celebrating seventy-five years of Independence’ this is the fifth story, and it is the story of “Kappalotiya Tamizhan” (‘Tamilian who sailed a ship’) known more popularly as Shri V.O. Chidambaram Pillai or just VOC.

V.O Chidambaram Pillai (VOC) was born on September 5, 1872 in the village of Ottapidaram in Tuticorin district to Shri. Olaganathan and Smt. Paramayee Ammal.

His father was a practising advocate and came from a family of lawyers, well known in the society, and was well off too. VOC had many siblings. 

In his childhood, VOC learnt Tamil and English well and listened to many stories including epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata from his grandparents.

After school education, VOC worked as a clerk in the Taluk office at Kovilpatti. His father desired him to study law. Fulfilling his father’s ambition, he studied law at Tiruchirappalli and became a criminal lawyer and started practising at Ottapidaram Sub-Magistrate’s office.

Having strong moral values, he was very choosy in selecting his cases. After some time, to help him gain more exposure, his father sent him to Tuticorin to practise.

In 1893, VOC happened to hear the speeches of Shri Bal Gangadhar Tilak and was drawn to the ideology of Shri Tilak. He started believing that Independence could be got only through rebellion and violent means. This revolutionary spirit made him jump into the Independence movement and he joined the Indian National Congress.

At Tuticorin, he became thick friends with the poet-patriot Shri Subramanya Bharathi, who also shared the same ideology.

Tuticorin, in Tamil Nadu, is an ancient maritime port from the 7th century CE. It had been constantly attracting marine adventurers from all over the world from olden times including the colonizers –  Portuguese, Dutch and the British, in that order. In VOC’s time the port was under the British control.

At that time the British India Steamship Navigation Company (BISNC – established in 1856) was a large navigation company run by the British which had many passenger and cargo vessels. Their vessels sailed between Tuticorin and Colombo. This was one of the busiest routes for traders and BISNC was monopolizing the shipping services.

Once, when Subramanya Bharathi wrote a poem extolling the pride of Bharat and envisioning our country to have a large fleet of ships among other things, VOC was inspired to put it to action. He decided to challenge the monopoly of the British in the shipping services.

He registered a company called Swadeshi Steamship Navigation Company (SSNC) in October 1906. He raised capital of Rs.10,00,000/- for the company by personally touring to Bombay, Calcutta (as they were known then) and even Sri Lanka, selling the shares at Rs.25 each. He was very particular that no share should be held by the British. He had declared to his family that he would come home only with the ships, otherwise, he would drown himself in the sea.

During this time, his young son passed away due to illness and his wife was nearing her full term pregnancy. But nothing could deter VOC, in pursuing his mission.

VOC succeeded in purchasing his first ship SS Galea, from France, with the help of Shri Aurobindo Ghosh and Shri Tilak. It had a flag with “Vande Mataram” written on it and could carry 1300 passengers and about 40000 bags of cargo. It arrived at Tuticorin port in 1907. Soon another ship SS Lawoe was also purchased and SSNC started its operations in full swing.

There was stiff competition to the BISNC by the SSNC which led to a price war. When that failed, BISNC started offering freebies like umbrellas to the travelers. However due to the nationalist sentiment, mainly stirred up by the fiery speeches of VOC, people preferred to travel by the ships of SSNC.

Now the British resorted to mean tactics. SSNC was not given anchoring place in the port, or clearance for the schedule of arrival and departure of the vessels. They delayed the customs and medical clearance for passengers thus creating maximum hardship for passengers of SSNC.

Meanwhile in 1907, the Congress party split into two factions, the moderates and the extremists. The moderates believed in peaceful protest against British while the extremists believed in violence. Prominent among the extremists were Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, Aurobindo Ghosh and VOC. Taking advantage of the split, the British tried all their methods to clamp down the extremists using the slightest excuse.

The British had set up cotton mills in various parts of India from 1851 and by 1900 there were over two hundred operational mills. One of them was Coral Mills at Tuticorin which employed Indians as workers but the working conditions were most inhuman. There was no lunch break, no weekly off, no medical leave, no fixed working hours, caning was the mode of punishment and so on. In short, the workers were treated worse than animals.

This came to the notice of VOC and just during that time, he got acquainted with Shri Subramanya Siva, who was another revolutionary and freedom fighter.

Siva, travelling all over the Madras Presidency spreading the spirit of patriotism through his motivational speeches had now come to Tuticorin. VOC immediately struck a chord with Siva. He entertained Siva in his house. They addressed the mill workers on 23rd Feb 1908 urging them to strike work as a protest against the British. The strike started on Feb 27, 1908, and more than 500 workers took part in the strike.

This shocked the British administration and they brought in loads of policemen from Tirunelveli. VOC and his friends collected money and food and helped the labourers’ families during the strike. There were public meetings every day addressed by VOC and Siva which fanned the flames of ‘Desh Bhakthi’ so much, that the local grocers stopped selling to the British. Barbers refused to shave the British or anyone supporting them.

Six days into the massive strike, Mr. Ash, the deputy collector with additional charge of Tuticorin, sent word to VOC to come and meet him in person. (The same Ash was shot dead by freedom fighter Vanchinathan later)

Knowing the brutal mentality of the British, friends of VOC advised him not to go alone, to meet Mr. Ash.  So, VOC took with him an advocate T.R. Mahadeva Iyer. This meeting was on 3rd March 1908 where VOC justified the strike pointing to the inhuman conditions under which the workers had to work.

VOC has recorded in his autobiography that Mr. Ash had intimidated him with police action.

Four days after the meeting, the Management of the Coral Mills called the workers for a compromise and an agreement was reached to increase the wages by 50%, give lunch break, weekly holiday, reduced working hours, etc. This was probably the first organized strike in the industrial sector in Asia which had a favourable result for the workers.

This news spread to other mills run by British and troubles started for the British.

Now the British made up their mind that VOC should be removed from the national scene and were waiting for an opportune moment.

At that time, Bipin Chandra Pal who was in jail, was released from prison and VOC and Subramanya Siva had planned a rally at Tirunelveli to celebrate his release. Mr. Winch, a British official met VOC and Siva and asked them to cancel the celebrations. They refused. This was on 11th March 1908. On 12th of March 1908, both VOC and Siva were arrested.

The news of their arrest sparked wild rage right from Tuticorin to even parts of Kerala. Riots broke out. From the mill workers (who had resumed duty earlier) to shopkeepers to sanitary workers everybody stopped work. Educational institutions were closed. Police stations and post offices were set to fire. Everything came to a standstill. A huge number of people took to the streets in spite of being prohibited. Police forces were brought in from other parts of the state and the policemen were attacked with stones by the public. In this large-scale violence four people died.

VOC was charged with sedition for speaking against the British and giving shelter to Subramanya Siva. The punishment given was two life sentences (for the above two ‘crimes’) amounting to an imprisonment of twenty plus twenty years. VOC was thirty-six years old then! What a disproportionate punishment it was!

Siva was given ten years’ rigorous imprisonment.

VOC’s brother, unable to bear the shock of this judgement became mentally unstable and remained so till he died in 1943.

The judgement was widely condemned even by some British officials and certain British newspapers.

VOC appealed to the High Court against the sentence and later on it was reduced to four years’ imprisonment and six years in exile. VOC’s licence to practise law was cancelled.  

VOC spent two and half years in Coimbatore Jail and two years in Cannanore Jail in inhuman conditions. In Coimbatore jail, he was yoked to the oil press instead of oxen and made to go round and round in the hot sun. VOC took it all in his stride and said that he regarded the oil press as the chariot of Bharat Mata and he considered circumambulating her while going round and round! Such passion for the motherland! He came to be called “Sekku Izhutha Semmal” which in Tamil means ‘the great soul who pulled the oil press’.

This rigorous work was very detrimental to his health. Siva was also compelled to work in such conditions that resulted in his getting afflicted with leprosy.

When VOC came out of jail in December 1912, his greatest shock was that the Swadeshi Steamship Navigation Company had been liquidated by the majority stakeholders in 1911 and both the ships sold off – one to the British themselves. VOC was devastated and openly stated that he would have been happier to break the ships and throw them in the sea instead of selling it to the British.

VOC was not allowed to go to his hometown. Therefore, went to Madras where he set up a provision store and later on a kerosene store and both failed to take off. The Indian population in South Africa had sent some amount through Gandhiji to be given to VOC as financial help. The money (Rs.347 and paise 12) reached VOC in 1916 after a protracted correspondence with Gandhiji.

In 1920, VOC’s lawyer’s licence was restored by Judge E H Wallace. He went to Kovilpatti and later to Tuticorin to practise but he could not earn enough to make ends meet. In 1929 he took to writing and publishing Tamil literature. He wrote a commentary for Tirukkural and other books including some translations. He also got the ‘Tholkappiam’ the oldest treatise on Tamil grammar printed.

All these years VOC had been quitting from and joining back the Congress intermittently. He was not able to come to terms with the Ahimsa and non-violence methods for Independence, which had become dominant with Gandhiji on the scene.

Finally, Shri VOC passed away on 18th November 1936 at the Congress office of Tuticorin. Bharat Mata had lost a very special son of hers, the rare son who had the capacity to ignite the flame of patriotism in everyone who came into contact with him!!

Jai Hind!!