Biography of V. O. Chidambaram Pillai

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Indian Freedom Fighter V. O. Chidambaram Pillai Biography

V. O. Chidambaram Pillai,  popularly known by his initials, V.O.C. (spelt Vaa. Oo.Ce in Tamil), was an Indian freedom fighter born on 5 September 1872 in Ottapidaram, Tuticorin district of Tamil Nadu State of India. He was a prominent lawyer, and a trade union leader.

V. O. Chidambaram Pillai  gets credit for launching the first indigenous Indian shipping service between Tuticorin and Colombo with the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, competing against British ships.

V. O. Chidambaram Pillai was an Indian National Congress (INC) member, later charged with sedition by the British government and sentenced to life imprisonment; his barrister license was stripped. He is also known as “Kappalottiya Tamilan””, or The Tamil Helmsman in Tamil.

V. O. Chidambaram Pillai Early days

Vallinayagam Olaganathan Chidambaram Pillai or else V.O.C. was born on 5 September 1872 to an eminent lawyer olaganathan Pillai and Paramyee in Ottapidaram, Tuticorin district of Tamil Nadu State in India.

After completing schooling in Ottapidaram and Tirunelveli, he worked for a few years in the Ottapidaram district administrative office. Later following his fathers footsteps he completed law.

Days as a lawyer

As a lawyer he often pleaded for the poor, at times appearing against his father, who appeared for the affluent. Among his notable cases, he proved corruption charges on three sub-magistrates. In the Kulasekaranallur Asari case he proved innocence for the accused.

Entry into politics


In the 1890s and 1900s India’s independence movement and the Swadeshi movement, initiated by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai of Indian National Congress (INC), were at their peak. Mahatma Gandhi was yet to land in India.
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They were against the British Imperial coercion of trade, which was damaging traditional Indian industries and the communities dependent on them. This is the essence of the Swadeshi movement.

In Madras Presidency the Independence movement was championed by the likes of Subramanya Siva, the poet Subramanya Bharathi, and Aurobindo Gosh later to be joined by V.O.C. He entered politics in 1905 following the partition of Bengal, joining the Indian National Congress and taking a hardliner stand. He also presided at the Salem District Congress session.

Shipping company

V.O.C., drawing inspiration from Ramakrishnananda, a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, resorted to Swadeshi work. Following requests by local citizens, he initiated steps to break the monopoly of British shipping in the coastal trade with Ceylon.

On 12 November 1906, V.O.C. formed the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, by purchasing two steamships ‘S.S.Gaelia’ and ‘S.S.Lawoe’, thanks to the assistance and support of Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Aurobindo Ghose.

The ships commenced regular service between Tuticorin and Colombo (Srilanka), against the opposition of the British traders and the Imperial Government. V.O.C. was thus laying the foundation for a comprehensive shipping industry in the country, more than just a commercial venture.
Until then the commerce between Tuticorin and Colombo was a monopoly enjoyed by the British India Steam Navigation Company (BISN).

This was later to be merged with P&O Lines and its Tuticorin agents, A.& F. Harvey. The British had assumed the Indian venture would collapse like a house of cards, but soon found the Indian company to be a formidable challenge.

To thwart the new Indian company they resorted to the monopolistic trade practice of reducing the fare per trip to Re.1 (16 annas) per head. Swadeshi company responded by offering a fare of Re.0.5 (8 Annas).

The British company went further by offering a free trip to the passengers plus a free umbrella, which had ‘S.S.Gaelia’ and ‘S.S.Lawoe’ running nearly empty. By 1909 the company was heading towards bankruptcy.

Conflict with the British

To widen the swadeshi base and to create awareness of British Imperialism V.O.C.became instrumental in mobilising the workers of Coral Mills (also managed by A. & F. Harvey) (now part of Madura Coats) in Tirunelveli. This brought him into increasing conflict with the British Raj.

On 12 March 1908, he was arrested on charges of sedition and for two days, Tirunelveli and Tuticorin witnessed unprecedented violence, quelled only by shooting four people to death (a Muslim, a Dalit, a baker and a Hindu temple priest). Punitive police forces were brought in from neighboring districts.

The press

But newspapers had taken note of V.O.C. Sri Aurobindo’s nationalist Bengali newspaper Bande Mataram (spelt and pronounced as Bônde Matôrom in the Bengali language) acclaimed him (March 27, 1908) with “Well Done, Chidambaram”. Apart from the Madras press, Anand Bazaar Patrika from Kolkata (Calcutta) carried reports of his prosecution every day.

Funds were raised for his defence not only in India but also by the Indians in South Africa.


Poet Subramanya Bharathi and Subramanya Siva too appeared in the court for questioning for the case instituted against V.O.C. He was charged with sedition and a sentence of two life imprisonments (in effect 40 years) was imposed. He was confined in the Central Prison, Coimbatore (from 9 July 1908 to 1 December 1910).

Court sentence may be seen as a reflection of the fear the British had of V.O.C. and their need to contain the rebellion and be sure that others would not follow in Chidambaram Pillai’s footsteps.

Confinement in Prison
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It is to be noted that Chidambaram Pillai was not treated as a ‘political prisoner’, nor was the sentence ‘simple imprisonment’, he was rather treated as a convict sentenced to life imprisonment and required to do hard labour. V.O.C. was in fact subjected to inhumane torture, which took a heavy toll on his health.

The noted historian and Tamil scholar, R. A. Padmanabhan, would later note in his works “yoked (in place of Bulls) to the oil press like an animal and made to work it in the cruel hot sun….” Even from prison VOC continued a clandestine correspondence, maintaining a steady stream of petitions going into legal niceties. Later the High Court would reduce his sentence and he was finally released on December 12, 1912.

After his release

The huge crowds present during his arrest were obviously absent, reminding him of Aurobindo’s similar fate upon his release from Uttarpara in 1909 and his famous remark “When I went to jail the whole country was alive with the cry of Bande Mataram… when I came out of jail I listened for that cry, but there was instead a silence… a hush had fallen on the country and men seemed bewildered”.

Upon V.O.C.’s release he was not permitted to return to his Tirunelveli district. With his bar license stripped from him he moved to Chennai with his wife and two young sons. To his dismay, the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company had already been liquidated in 1911, and the ships auctioned to their competitors.

V.O.C and his family had lost all their wealth and property in his legal defence. In Madras, almost broke, he continued organising labour welfare organisations. V.O.C. attended the Calcutta Indian National Congress in 1920. He later would quit, but rejoined later.

V.O.C. and Mahatma Gandhi

M.K. Gandhi in 1910s was yet to be known as Mahatma, and V.O.C. carried on a steady stream of correspondence between them (1915–16). They would even once meet in Chennai, but sadly none of their correspondence was published in the 100-volume Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi.

In one of the letters Gandhi enquires whether he received the money which he had collected for V.O.C. in South Africa. In another letter V.O.C. expresses unease over an early morning appointment to meet Gandhi, as he explains the unavailability of Tram service at that hour.

Last Days

On hearing V.O.C.’s destitute condition Justice Wallace, the judge who sentenced V.O.C. later being Chief Justice of Madras Presidency, restored his bar license. But V.O.C. spent his last years (1930s) in Kovilpatti heavily in debt, even selling all of his law books for daily survival. V.O.C died on the 18 November 1936 in the Indian National Congress Office at Tuticorin as was his last wish.

Family then and now

V.O.C. married Valliammai in 1895, who died in 1901 due to complications in delivery. Later he married Meenakshi Ammiar. The couple would have four sons and four daughters. The eldest son Ulaganathan died in childhood.

The second son, Arumugam Pillai, contested Ottapidaram in the 1967 Tamil Nadu assembly elections, but lost (as did many other Congress members, including K. Kamaraj). V.O.C.’s third son, Subramaniam, worked for many years in Dinamani (Indian Express group), later in the American Embassy in Chennai.

V. O. Chidambaram Pillai  fourth son, Walleswaren, (referring to the Englishman E.H. Wallace, who first committed his case to the session’s court but was instrumental in getting his sanad back) retired working from the Labour welfare department and settled in Dindigul Now settled in Madurai(2009) still alive.

All of his daughters were married and several of his descendants live around various places in Chennai.

Scholarly Works

Apart from the above, V.O.C. was an erudite scholar. The autobiography in Tamil verse which he started in prison was completed upon his release in 1912. He also wrote a commentary on the Thirukural and compiled ancient works of Tamil grammar, Tolkappiam.

V. O. Chidambaram Pillai showed ingenuity in his works of “Meyyaram” and “Meyyarivu”, praised for spontaneous style, and earned an indisputable reputation for translations of James Allen’s books. He authored a few novels, as well.

Impact today

V.O.C. was one of the colourful figures in Indian political life. V.O.C. showed the way for organized effort and sacrifice. He finished his major political work by 1908, but died in late 1936, the passion for freedom still raging in his mind till the last moment.

V. O. Chidambaram Pillai was an erudite scholar in Tamil, a prolific writer, a fiery speaker, a trade union leader of unique calibre and a dauntless freedom fighter.

V. O. Chidambaram Pillai  life is a story of resistance, strife, struggle, suffering and sacrifice for the cause to which he was committed.

Post independence honours

Today his name among people in Tamil Nadu evokes his sufferings in jail and his shipping company. He is aptly called as “Kappal’ottiya Thamizlan ’ –- the Tamil who drove the ship, and as “Chekkiluththa Chemmal” — a great man who pulled the oil press in jail for the sake of his people.

The Indian Posts & Telegraphs department of India issued a special postage stamp on 5 September 1972, on the occasion of his birth centenary.
A college in Tuticorin is named after V.O.C.

Sivaji Ganesan played the lead role in the 1961 Tamil movie “Kappal’ottiya Thamizlan ’.

The Public park and the meeting grounds of Coimbatore is named V.O.C. Park (Vaa. Vu.Ce Poonga) and V.O.C. Grounds (Vaa. Vu.Ce Thidal).

The Central Prison in Coimbatore has built a commemorative monument, preserving his Yoke and Oil Grinding stone. The Bridge connecting Tirunelveli and Palayamkottai over the river Tamaraparani is named V.O.C. Bridge.

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