Born On: September 5, 1872
Born In: Ottapidaram, Tamil Nadu, India
Died On: November 18, 1936
Career: Lawyer, Politician
V. O. Chidambaram Pillai, popularly known by his initials V.O.C, was one of the most prominent lawyers in 19th century British India. While V. O. Chidambaram Pillai provided a strong leadership to trade unions functioning in his native state Tamil Nadu and also fought for India’s freedom from the British, he is best remembered as the man who set up the first indigenous shipping service between Tuticorin and Colombo. Owing to V. O. Chidambaram Pillai’s rebellious attitude and his courage to act against the British government, the English stripped the title of barrister associated with his name. It was his brave nature that won V.O.C the name ‘Kappalottiya Tamilian’ in Tamil Nadu, which translates to ‘The Tamil Helmsman’ in English.
Childhood and Legal Career
V. O. Chidambaram Pillai was born on September 5, 1872 in the town of Ottapidaram in Tuticorin district of Tamil Nadu. His father Olaganathan Pillai was one of the most important lawyers of the country and it was in his father’s footsteps that V.O.C followed after completion of his education. V. O. Chidambaram Pillai enrolled in schools in his native Ottapidaram and nearby Tirunelveli. V.O.C started working in the Ottapidaram district administrative office after the end of his school education. It was only a few years later that he enrolled in law school and completed law studies to become a lawyer like his father Olaganathan Pillai.
Though his father was his biggest inspiration in the profession of law, there was a basic difference in the working styles of V. O. Chidambaram Pillai and Olaganathan Pillai. While his father catered to the problems of only the affluent in the society, V.O.C was sympathetic towards the poor people whose cases he sometimes took up against the wishes of his influential father. A case in which V O Chidambaram Pillai proved that three sub-magistrates in Tamil Nadu were guilty of corruption charges won him attention and fame as a lawyer.
Career in Politics
V. O. Chidambaram Pillai entered into active politics in the year 1905 by becoming a member of the Indian National Congress. The Swadeshi movement in India was already at its hilt during this time and leaders like Lala Lajpat Rai and Bal Gangadhar Tilak were trying their best to put an end to British Imperial coercion of trade. The same cause which would also ensure the safety of traditional Indian industries and communities dependent on them was being championed by Aurobindo Ghosh, Subramanya Siva and Subramanya Bharathi through the Madras Presidency. V.O.C then decided to join the Indian National Congress and fight along with other members of the Madras Presidency. He later presided over the Salem District session of the INC.
After joining the Indian National Congress, V. O. Chidambaram Pillai wholeheartedly immersed himself into Swadeshi work to secure independence for India. Part of his Swadeshi work was to put an end to the monopoly of British shipping in the coasts of Ceylon. Inspired by freedom fighter Ramakrishnananda, he set up the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company on November 12, 1906. With the help of other Swadeshi members Aurobindo Ghosh and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, V.O.C bought two steamships S. S. Gaelia and S. S. Lawoe to start his shipping company. Much to the annoyance of the British government and British traders, V.O.C’s ships started regular services between Tuticorin and Colombo. His shipping company was not only a commercial venture, it was also the first comprehensive shipping service set up by an Indian in British India. The Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company gave stiff competition to the British India Steam Navigation Company, due to which the latter had to reduce fares per trip. While V.O.C responded by reducing his rates even further than that of the British India Steam Navigation Company, he could not afford their tactics of offering free rides and umbrellas to passengers, thus taking the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company on the verge of bankruptcy.
V. O. Chidambaram Pillai aimed at expanding the reach of Swadeshi in the country and making the common Indian man aware of the faulty British government. It is for this purpose that V.O.C took the support of workers of Coral Mills in Tirunelveli. The British authorities had already taken a disliking towards Pillai and this act compelled them to arrest V.O.C on March 12, 1908 on charges of sedition against the government. Violence erupted in the state after the arrest of V.O.C. Clashes between police and common men followed, leading to the death of four people. Though his actions were vehemently condemned by British authorities, V.O.C got the support of the press in the country which praised his nationalistic spirit elaborately. While the British were trying their best to prosecute V.O.C, Indians in the country as well as in South Africans were accumulating funds to free him from prison. Mahatma Gandhi, then staying in South Africa, also had collected money and sent it to India to fund the defense of V O C. After his arrest, Pillai was housed at the Central Prison in Coimbatore from July 9, 1908 to December 1, 1910. The British had slapped a sentence of life imprisonment on V.O.C, clearly indicating that they were afraid of his rebellious spirit.
During his days in prison, V O Chidambaram Pillai did not receive the treatment shown to other political prisoners; rather he was made to engage in hard labor in prison just like other convicts. The hard work took a toll on his health and the gradual deterioration of his condition forced the British authorities to release him from prison on December 12, 1912. While in prison, V O Chidambaram Pillai continued with his Swadeshi activities through legal petitions. Cruel circumstances struck him when V O Chidambaram Pillai was released from prison. Instead of a large gathering of supporters which he had expected in front of the jail gates, there was an eerie silence. The title of barrister was taken away from him, meaning that V.O.C could not practice law anymore. The Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company was also liquidated in the year 1911, so V.O.C was left a poor man. V O Chidambaram Pillai settled in Madras with his wife and two children and became the leader of various trade unions and labor welfare organizations in Madras. In the year 1920, V O Chidambaram Pillai presided over the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress.
Apart from his works as an eminent lawyer and a politician, V O Chidambaram Pillai was also a scholar. He started his autobiography while in prison and completed it soon after his release in the year 1912. V O Chidambaram Pillai was the author of a couple of novels; he translated several James Allen works in Tamil and made compilations of important Tamil works like the Thirukural and the Tolkappiam.
V O Chidambaram Pillai married Valliammai in the year 1895, but she died prematurely in the year 1901. He married Meenakshi Ammiar a few years later. The couple had four sons and four daughters. His eldest son died when still a child, the second son was a politician, the third son was the employee of the American Embassy in Madras and the fourth son, still alive is settled in Madurai. All his daughters had been married in Madras. The descendants of V.O.C Pillai still live in various places across Tamil Nadu.
V O Chidambaram Pillai spent such an impoverished lifestyle after he was released from prison that Justice Wallace who sentenced V O C to prison restored his bar license. But V O C was never successful in repaying his debts and lived in poverty till the end of his life on November 18, 1936. V O Chidambaram Pillai breathed his last at the Indian National Congress office in Tuticorin.
Vallinayagam Olaganathan Chidambaram Pillai is remembered as one of the most important figures in India’s struggle for independence. He is much loved and celebrated in the Tamil Nadu society till today.
He was given the title of ‘Kappalottiya Tamilan’, or the Tamil Helmsman; or one who drives the ship and shows the direction.
The Tuticorin port was renamed as V.O.C Port after independence in fond remembrance of V.O.C.
V.O.C has a college in Tuticorin named after him. A special postage stamp was released by the Indian Posts & Telegraphs department to mark the birth centenary of Vallinayagam Olaganathan Chidambaram Pillai on September 5, 1972.
V.O.C Park and V.O.C Grounds are the most important public park and meeting ground in Coimbatore.
The Central Prison in Coimbatore where the revolutionary was housed has a monument constructed inside the prison premises dedicated to him.
The connecting bridge between Tirunelveli and Palayamkottai has been named the V.O.C Bridge.
The 1961 Tamil movie ‘Kappal’ottiya Thamizlan’ is based on the life story of Vallinayagam Olaganathan Chidambaram Pillai. It stars Sivaji Ganesan in the lead role.