V. O. Chidambaram
V. O. Chidambaram
|Born||5 September 1872|
|Died||18 November 1936 (aged 64)|
Thoothukudi, British India
|Other names||V. O. C, Va Voo Cee, Kappal Oottiya Tamilzhan, Sekkizuththa semmal|
|Organization||Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company|
|Political party||Indian National Congress|
|Movement||Indian Independence Movement|
Vallinayagan Ulaganathan Chidambaram (5 September 1872 – 18 November 1936), popularly known by his initials, V.O.C. (spelled வ.உ.சி in Tamil), also known as Kappalottiya Tamizhan "The Tamil Helmsman", was an Indian freedom fighter and leader of Indian National Congress. He was a disciple of Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
He launched the first indigenous Indian shipping service between Tuticorin and Colombo with the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, competing against British ships. Tuticorin Port Trust, one of India's thirteen major ports, is named after him. At one time a member of the Indian National Congress, he was later charged with sedition by the British government and sentenced to life imprisonment, and his barrister license was revoked.
V. O. Chidambaram Pillai was born on 5 September 1872 in Ottapidaram, Tuticorin District to Ulaganathan Pillai and Paramayee Ammal. When Chidambaram was six years old, he learned Tamil from teacher Veeraperumal Annavi. He heard stories about Shiva from his grandmother and stories from the Ramayana from his grandfather. He heard stories from Mahabharatha told by Allikulam Subramanya Pillai. As a child, he played goli (marbles), kabaddi, horse riding, swimming, stilt walking, archery, wrestling, silambattam and chess.
He learned English from a Taluk officer named Krishnan in the evenings. When Krishnan was transferred, Chidambaram's father built a school with the help of villagers and appointed Aramvalarthanatha Pillai from Ettayapuram as the English teacher. The school was run by a priest at Pudhiamuthur. At fourteen, Chidambaram went to Thoothukudi to continue his studies. He studied at CEOA High School and Caldwell High School and in Thoothukudi at the Hindu College High School, Tirunelveli.
Chidambaram worked as Taluk office clerk for some time before his father sent him to Tiruchirappalli to study law. He passed his pleadership exam in 1894, returning to Ottapidaram to become a pleader in 1895.
In Chennai, Chidambaram met Ramakrishnananthar, a saint who belonged to Swami Vivekananda Ashram (monastery), who advised him to "do something for the nation". Here he met the Tamil poet Bharathiyaar who shared his political ideology. The two men became close friends.
In the 1890s and 1900s India's independence movement and the Swadeshi movement, initiated by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai of the Indian National Congress (INC), were at their peak. From 1892 Chidambaram was influenced by Tilak Maharaj and became his disciple. Along with Subramanya Siva and Subramanya Bharathi, he became a prominent spokesperson for the cause in the Madras Presidency. Following the partition of Bengal in 1905, Chidambaram entered politics, joining the Indian National Congress and taking a hardliner stance. He also presided at the Salem District Congress session.
Chidambaram established many institutions like Yuvanesh Prachar Sabha, Dharmasanga Nesavu Salai, National Godown, Madras Agro-Industrial Society ltd and Desabimana Sangam.
In response to the British India Steam Navigation Company's trade monopoly, Chidambaram started an Indian-owned shipping company. He registered the Swadeshi Shipping Company in October 1906. The capital of the company was ten lakh rupees. The number of shares was 40,000 and the face value of each share was Rs. 25/-. Any Asian could become a shareholder. The director of the company was Pandi Thurai Thevar, a Zamindar and the founder of "Madurai Tamil Sangam".
In the beginning, the Company owned no ships, instead leasing them from Shawline Steamers Company. The B.I.S.N.C. pressured Shawline Steamers to cancel the lease; in response, Chidambaram leased a single large freighter from Sri Lanka. Realizing the need for the Swadeshi Shipping Company to own its own vessels, Chidambaram travelled around India selling shares in the company to raise capital. He vowed, "I will come back with Ships. Otherwise I will perish in the sea". He managed to secure sufficient funds to purchase the company's first ship, the S.S. Gallia; shortly afterwards, they were able to acquire the S.S. Lavo from France.
In response to the new competition, the B.I.S.N.C. reduced the fare per trip to Re.1 (16 annas) per head. The 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 with a free umbrella; however, nationalist sentiment meant that the free service was underused. The B.I.S.N.C. attempted to buy out Chidambaram, but he refused the deal.
On 23 February 1908 Chidambaram gave a speech at Thoothukudi, encouraging the workers at Coral Mill (now part of Madura Coats) to protest against their low wages and harsh working conditions. Four days later, the workers of the Coral Mill went on strike. Chidambaram and Subramanya Siva led the strike. Their demands included incremental earnings, weekly holidays and other leave facilities.
Chidambaram ensured the strike was widely publicised, and it quickly gained popular support. On 6 March the head clerk Subramanya Pillai met Chidambaram and said that the management was ready to concede their demands. Chidambaram went with 50 workers and met the managers, who agreed to increase the wages, to reduce the working hours and to give leave on Sundays. The workers went back after a nine-day strike. The outcome of the strike encouraged the workers of other European companies, who also gained increased wages and better treatment. Aurobindo appreciated Chidambaram and Siva for the unequalled skill and courage with which the fight was conducted in his Vande Mataram daily on 13 March 1908.
By 1908, Chidambaram's political involvement drew the attention of the British. Hearing of his intention to speak at a rally celebrating the release of Bengali leader Bipin Chandra Pal, Winch, a British official invited Chidambaram to meet him in Thirunelveli with his political comrade Subramanya Siva. At the meeting, Winch expressed concern about Chidambaram's activities and asked him to give assurances that he would not participate in any political revolt. Chidambaram refused to accept his conditions, so he and Siva were arrested on 12 March 1908.
The arrest was followed by widespread protest. In Thirunelveli shops, schools and colleges were closed in protest, and rioting broke out. The Thirunelveli municipal office, post offices, police stations and municipal courts were attacked. A general strike was declared in Thoothukudi, which was the first political strike in India. Public meetings and processions were held, and four people were killed by the police.
Although his supporters were able to raise sufficient funds for bail, Chidambaram refused to leave the jail without the release of Siva and his other comrades. Subramanya Bharathi and Subramanya Siva also appeared in the court for questioning for the case instituted against Chidambaram. He was charged under sections 123-A and 153-A of the Indian Penal Code for speaking against the British and giving shelter to Siva. Chidambaram refused to take part in the proceedings.
He was charged with sedition, and a sentence of two life imprisonments (in effect forty years) was imposed. He was confined in the Central Prison, Coimbatore from 9 July 1908 to 1 December 1910.
The judgement was widely condemned in the popular press, with even the British Statesmen magazine claiming that it was unjust. Chidambaram appealed the sentence in High Court, gaining a reduced punishment of four years imprisonment and six years in exile. An appeal to the Privy Council led to a further reduction in sentence.
Chidambaram was interned in Coimbatore and Kannanoor jail. He was not treated as a political prisoner, nor was the sentence de facto of simple imprisonment; rather, he was treated as a convict sentenced to life imprisonment and required to do hard labour, which caused his health to suffer. Historian and Tamil scholar R. A. Padmanabhan later noted in his works that Chidambaram was "yoked (in place of bulls) to the oil press like an animal and made to work it in the cruel hot sun...." From prison Chidambaram continued correspondence, maintaining a steady stream of legal petitions. He was finally released on 12 December 1912.
To his dismay, the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company had already been liquidated in 1911, and the ships were auctioned to their competitors. The company's first ship, the SS Gallia, was sold to the British Shipping Company.
Upon Chidambaram's release he was not permitted to return to Tirunelveli district. With his law license stripped from him, he moved to Chennai with his wife and two young sons. There he ran a provisions store and a kerosene store.
V. O. Chidambaram had a long correspondence with Gandhi, not yet Mahatma, from 1915 to 1920. In 1915, when Gandhi visited Chennai (Madras then), both had met. Some in South Africa with Indian origin had collected money to help V. O. Chidambaram and transmitted the amount through Gandhi. However, V. O. Chidambaram did not receive the money. He had some lengthy correspondence with Gandhi on the subject. In one instance Gandhi wrote a postcard to V. O. Chidambaram in Tamil with his own hand. V. O. Chidambaram was delighted on seeing the postcard and, for a moment, forgot about the money dispute.
The term Gandhi Kanakku (in Tamil meaning Gandhi's accounting) became prevailing because of this incident. The term is often used in South India to refer to any debt where it is impossible for the money to be repaid, because Gandhi did not return the money to VOC with excuses. But on 4 February 1916, V.O. Chidamabaram wrote to a friend, "Rs. 347-12-0 has come from Sriman Gandhi.".
After moving to Coimbatore Chidambaram, he worked as a bank manager. Dissatisfied with the income, he petitioned the court, seeking permission to practice law again. Judge E.H. Wallace gave permission to restore Chidambaram's pleadership license; to show his gratitude Chidambaram named his last son Valacewaran.
Chidambaram moved to Kovilpatti and practiced as a lawyer. He rejoined the Congress party in 1927 and presided over the third political conference held at Salem. He said that he wanted to join Congress again because he noticed a remarkable change in the policies of Congress and was happy to note that the policies of which he did not approve were withdrawn one by one. However, after the Salem conference Chidambaram again severed his contact with Congress.
In 1929 he moved to Thoothukudi, where he spent his time writing and publishing Tamil books. By 1935, he had written commentary on the first book of the Tirukkural (Book of Virtue) and was published under a different title. However, it was only in 2008 that the complete work of his commentary on the Kural was published.
He died on 18 November 1936.
Posthumously, Chidambaram is known by the titles Kappalottiya Thamizhan ("the Tamizhan who drove the ship") and "Chekkiluththa Chemmal" ("a great man who pulled the oil press in jail for the sake of his people"). His ship is situated near Marina Beach.
The Indian Posts & Telegraphs department of India issued a special postage stamp on 5 September 1972, on the occasion of his birth centenary.
Many statues of Chidambaram have been commissioned; some of the more notable are:
M.P. Sivagnanam, popularly known as Ma. Po. Si., wrote a biography of Chidambaram titled Kappalottiya Tamizhan. Later Chidambaram was remembered as 'Kappalottiya Thamizhan'. Ma. Po. Si. brought the fame of Chidambaram to the limelight.
Books written by Ma. Po. Si. on V.O. Chidambaram Pillai are Kappalottiya Thamizhan (1944), Kappalottiya Chidambaranar (1972) and Thalapathy Chidambaranar (1950).
In 1961 Kannada film director B.R. Panthalu made a film of Chidambaram's life titled Kappalottiya Thamizhan. Chidambaram was portrayed by Nadigar Thilagam Sivaji Ganesan, Subramanya Siva by T.K Shanmugam and Subramanya Barathi by S.V Subbiah. The story of this movie is based on Ma. Po. Si.'s biography 'Kappalottiya Tamizhan'.
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