VOC, who was endearingly called Kappalotiya Tamizhan (‘the Tamil who steered the ship’) for challenging British shipping interests, is today a memory marginalised.
Yet the fire stoked by him still burns bright.
A young lawyer from the famous southern district of Tamil Nadu, Tirunelveli had come to see a monk in Madras as it was known then. The monk was the direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, who had been sent to Madras to establish Sri Ramakrishna Mission and expand its work. The young lawyer with flaming eyes soon entered into a conversation with the monk. “Is it not all these maya?” the lawyer asked the monk, showing a campaign for swadesi, “Should we who pursue spirituality get trapped in maya?”
Swami Ramakrishnananda was silent for a few minutes. Then he said to the young lawyer, “No. It is not maya. It brings goodness. It serves the people. Anything that serves the people with innate goodness is not maya but the manifestation of Brahman itself.” Then he looked straight into the eyes of the young man and said, “You should make swadesi your swadharma! Make it your life mission.” Usually monks would guide youths away from social activities and into secluded spirituality. But here the youth saw a monk who told him that serving the society is not maya and is the one definite path for his own spiritual sadhana.
The words transformed the youth, so much so that in 1908 he would be sentenced to a double life imprisonment by the British for sedition. The youngster was V O Chidambaram Pillai (VOC) who had not only launched Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company (a swadesi enterprise in shipping); but had also urged people to boycott British goods and services and successfully organised a workers’ strike in the port city of Tuticorin. He had shown his determination by refusing to avail for himself bail without his fellow workers and other leaders of the strike being released. The double life imprisonment was later reduced to four years imprisonment and six years in exile. Later the exile was dropped. However, he was not treated as a political prisoner. He bore all sorts of hardships including being yoked to the oil mill to extract oil. VOC was released in 1912. Later, he would constantly face poverty and alienation.
During his arrest in March 1908, national, philosopher and yogi Sri Aurobindo lauded him in his editorial thus:
Srijut Chidambaram Pillai has shown throughout the Tuticorin affair a loftiness of character, a practical energy united with high moral idealism which show 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.
Sri Aurobindo also pointed out that the nationalist movement had started becoming a mass movement. It was on these nascent movements that later Gandhi would build the subsequent mass movement.
However, the ‘Aryan reborn’ was treated in the most humiliating way by the very people for whom he fought. Government orders forbade him to live in his native town. He had to move to Madras (Chennai). VOC was forbidden by the British to practise law. Gandhi had meanwhile become a great force in politics. In 1920, when Mahatma Gandhi visited Madras, VOC requested Gandhi for an appointment. Mahatma Gandhi being very strict about time schedules replied to him in an one-liner saying that he could allocate "a few minutes” for the man who had toiled years in the jail for freedom, if the latter would call at “6 am next Friday”. Offended, VOC wrote back that he would not trouble Gandhi for just a few minutes. Realising his mistake, Gandhi wrote back to VOC requesting him to allocate a few minutes for Gandhi: “If you do not want to see me I would like to see you myself. Will you kindly ... give me a few minutes?”
VOC met Gandhiji. And after a long chain of letters (from April 1915 to February 1916) that would shame even a government office file movement, VOC also recovered an amount of Rs 347.12, which had been collected for him in South Africa during Gandhi's times there. Till the end of his life, VOC would battle poverty. He had to look after the family, too. But all that did not stop him from writing a series of works on philosophy and literature. In a way, the sidelining of VOC in Congress was part of the subtle process of Gandhian elimination of (Bal Gangadhar) Tilak elements from Congress – a very non-violent Gandhian purge.
A staunch Tilak disciple, VOC had written on the nationalist and social reformer, calling him a great rishi (‘Bharatha Jothi Sri Tilaka Maharishi’). In that he had recorded the reminiscences of his staying with Tilak and how he was treated as a member of the family with no distinction and how both Tilak and VOC dined together, something which even the other family members would not do. Of course, VOC had to share the diabetic food of Tilak, VOC adds humourously. The point that VOC drives home was that Tilak would have appeared orthodox in some of his public postures, but in his private life, he was beyond caste. Great souls like him and VOC cared only for the nation. VOC himself, despite his own poverty had asked people to help Swami Sahajananda a great savant who was working for the scheduled communities. In fact, it was VOC who taught the swami Thirukkural in his own house.
The freedom we enjoy today was born out of the sacrifices and sufferings of such great men. VOC, who was endearingly called Kappalotiya Tamizhan (‘the Tamil who steered the ship’) for challenging British shipping interests, is today a memory marginalised in Dravidian politics. Yet the fire stoked by him still burns and is waiting for us to light our lamps of inspiration and to dedicate ourselves to the cause of Mother India.