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India@75: Story of VOC Pillai, the patriot who 'steered the ship'

Chidambaram Pillai has ensured a place in history by choosing a unique path to resist British colonialism.

Diversity and Pluralism were the hallmarks of the Indian freedom movement and nationalism. Not just politics, arts, or even the world of sports, but even the trade front was animated by the rising national consciousness during the movement. Valliappan Olaganathan Chidambaram Pillai, or VOC, who came to be known as the great Tamil Helmsman, proved that Britain could be challenged by even starting a shipping company.  

Chidambaram was born in 1872 to a wealthy family at Ottapidaram in Tutikkudi. He followed his father’s path to becoming a lawyer. But Chidambaram, from an early age, was gripped by a passion for the nationalist cause, love for literature, and deep empathy for the poor. 

Chidamabaram jumped into the national movement following the Bengal partition of 1904. He became an ardent campaigner for the Swadeshi movement and an admirer of Tilak. He was aligned with the militant nationalism espoused by leaders like Aurobindo Ghosh and Bipin Chandra Pal.  

Chidambaram Pillai has ensured a place in history by choosing a unique path to resist British colonialism. Besides being involved in Congress activities, Pillai challenged the British in international shipping by starting his own shipping company. The British monopoly was exercised in the Tootukudi-Ceylon sea route through the ships run by the British Indian Steam Navigation Company. 

Pillai challenged this by starting a Swadeshi Steam Navigation company to ply this route. British authorities were enraged and began to harass Pillai in many ways. They tried to prevent him from having his own ships. Pillai hit back by travelling all over the world and buying a ship of his own called SS Gallia. 

The British tried to kill his business by cutting down their ticket fares. Finally, Chidamabaram Pillai was arrested with another nationalist Subramaniam Siva for making speeches to celebrate Bipin Chandra Pal’s release from prison. Pillai’s company was liquidated when he was in prison and ship auction doff. 

After he was released, Pillai continued his political activities. Among his comrades was the great poet Subramania Bharti and Pillai corresponded with Mahatma Gandhi. He also organized the workers in British mills and made them strike against the low wages. He also immersed himself in Tamil literature by writing interpretations for Tirukural and Tolkapiam. 

When he passed away at the Tootukudi Congress office in 1936, at the age of 64, Pillai, who had terrified the British commercial empire, was an impoverished man.

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