V.O. Chidambaram Pillai serialised Tilak's biography in the 1930s in a Colombo Tamil magazine. A look at the relationship between the two men in the light of the new sources and correspondence between them. Reproduced here is a facsimile of VOC's 1914 letter to Tilak, being published for the first time. An exclusive for us... - R. Venkatachalapathy

V.O. Chidambaram Pillai (1872–1936), or VOC, was known contemporaneously as the ‘Tilak of the South'. Not surprising considering that he was Bal Gangadhar Tilak's (1856–1920) staunchest lieutenant in the southern part of the country. However, VOC's close relationship with Tilak awaits a detailed documentation and an interpretative narrative.

For long it has been known that VOC, towards the fag end of his life, wrote a biography of Tilak and serialised it in Virakesari, the Tamil daily published from Colombo. Unfortunately, for more than seven decades, no attempt had been made to recover it from the back volumes of Virakesari. In 2002 and 2008, I made two visits to Colombo to accomplish the task. The volumes are now lodged in the Archives Department, Government of Sri Lanka and the Virakesari office. The newspaper, started by Indian mercantile interests in Colombo in August 1930, covered the Indian nationalist movement extensively and is thus a mine of information. From April 1933 the daily began to publish an illustrated weekly supplement on Sundays.

Forgotten narrative

VOC's Tilak biography, titled Bharata Jothi Sri Tilaka Maharishiyin Jeeviya Varalaru, was serialised in the Sunday supplement. Nineteen instalments, published between May 1933 and October 1934, could be recovered. It's not clear why it was published intermittently and is incomplete. The narrative stops with Tilak's return to India in late 1919 after his abortive attempt to sue Sir Valentine Chirol for defamation. Tilak died some months later on August 1, 1920. Tilak's biography by his illustrious disciple — for, VOC refers to Tilak always as Guru — is an interesting document. Its recovery provides the context for reconstructing the relationship between teacher and disciple.

In a memoir on Tilak written in English in 1927, VOC recollects that he had began to follow Tilak's writings from as early as 1893. There's evidence to show that he had been elected a delegate to the Congress session of Madras (1898) and Tilak too had attended it. But their meeting apparently did not take place. The tryst was delayed by a decade.

Curzon's infamous partition of Bengal set afire the Swadeshi movement with its programme of native industry, boycott of foreign goods and national education. While Swadeshi enterprise across India was limited to such tokenisms as making candles and bangles, in Tuticorin it took the spectacular form of running nothing less than a steam shipping company — an enterprise that propelled VOC, until then a modest pleader in the local court, to national attention. VOC had galvanised the local merchants to launch the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company in late 1906 and gave the British shipping company a run for its money. The swadeshi company ran steamers between Tuticorin and Colombo and VOC spent considerable time in Colombo raising share capital and organising the company. Probably it was this connection that led to his later association with Virakesari.

By then he was closely aligned to the Extremist faction of the Congress led by Tilak. VOC's efforts to buy two steamships took him frequently to Bombay. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, a visit to Pune, Tilak's hometown, never materialised.

The Moderates' attempt to sideline the Extremist was increasingly getting desperate. And the stage was set in Surat, the venue of the Congress in December 1907, for a showdown. VOC wired to Tilak and Aurobindo proposing Lala Lajpat Rai for the presidentship of the Congress. In the event, Rash Behari Ghosh, the Calcutta moderate was set to take the presidential chair. All the while Tilak had tried to avoid the inevitable split. But the Moderates' sly attempts to tamper with the letter and spirit of resolutions passed in the preceding Calcutta session of the Congress was the last straw. The Congress conference ended in pandemonium with blows exchanged and chairs and shoes thrown. Tilak proposed a committee of one member each from both factions from every province to effect a compromise. VOC was Tilak's handpicked choice from the Madras presidency, and he was also nominated Secretary of Tilak's new party. There was little doubt that VOC was the spearhead of the nationalist movement in the South.

The months following VOC's return from Surat were full of intense nationalist activity. The swadeshi shipping enterprise grew from strength to strength. VOC led a major strike in the European-owned cotton Coral Mills of Tuticorin. Swadeshi meetings with fiery nationalist speeches, probably for the first time in the Tamil language, led to widespread nationalist mobilisation. Colonial ire was turned on the nationalists. VOC and his colleagues were arrested on March 12, 1908, which in turn led to an insurgent uprising in Tuticorin and Tirunelveli.

Evidently the guru was following his disciple's exploits, for, Tilak's English weekly Mahrattaregularly reported the events in far-off Tirunelveli. By the time a draconian double life sentence was imposed on VOC in July 1907, Tilak himself was jailed. While VOC languished in prison for the next four and a half years (on a reduced sentence on appeal) Tilak was transported to Mandalay (Burma).

Not surprisingly, the two lost touch during their imprisonment. Barely a few days after Tilak's release, VOC wrote from his Mylapore home on June 19,1914. Addressing Tilak as ‘Respected Brother' he congratulated him on his release. He offered condolences on his wife's death and expressed the desire to meet him in a month or two. After enquiring about his intellectual output during the prison years, he signed off ‘obediently' with the words ‘I prostrate before you and offer my namaskaramsto your holy feet'. VOC's deep respect for Tilak is palpable.

VOC's promised visit did not materialise for many months. VOC arrived in Pune on the day of Gokhale's death (February 19, 1915) and spent a week with Tilak as his house guest. The two deliberated on how to use the ongoing First World War to India's benefit, and in this connection Tilak even discussed a secret message from Indian revolutionaries abroad. Such was his trust in his disciple.

When Tilak launched his All India Home Rule League in 1916, VOC took an active part in it, organising and conducting meetings in Chennai. However Tilak's close association with Annie Besant caused some friction, with VOC neither being able to overrule Tilak's advice nor stopping his campaign against her. The struggle within the labour movement between VOC and the Besant-ites took on bitter propositions.

Tilak's critical attitude to the Montagu-Chelmsford reform proposals were faithfully echoed by VOC. When Tilak canvassed the senior leader C. Vijayaraghavachari's support for the Bombay special Congress session (August 1919), he specifically stated: ‘I have fully explained my position to Mr. Rajagopalachary and Mr. Chidambaram Pillai and they will be able to give you further explanations…'

Tilak invited some Congress luminaries after the Bombay special session to Pune and VOC was among the invitees to discuss the future course of action. When VOC rose to spoke he was ‘loudly cheered'. Motilal Ghose, the venerated editor of Amrita Bazar Patrika, who was present on the occasion, expressed his desire to see the hero of Swadeshi days and warmly hugged VOC.

Momentous times

Tilak's case against Chirol and his campaign for Home Rule in England consumed the next fourteen months, months that were momentous. The passing of the Rowlett bills and the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, and Gandhi's conversion of the nationalist movement into a mass movement signalled the end of the Tilak era. The Calcutta special Congress's endorsement of Gandhi's non-cooperation programme was only a fait accompli. And in an event pregnant with symbolism, Tilak had breathed his last barely weeks before the Calcutta session. Tilak's followers were deeply demoralised. VOC resigned from the Congress on his return from Calcutta. While many of his Maharashtra disciples — G.S. Khaparde, B.S. Moonje and others — drifted into Hindu communalism, the germ of which was very much in Tilak's ideology, VOC's politics kept clear of it. He continued to play a part in the nationalist movement, labour movement, the non-Brahmin movement and the social reform movements.

When VOC died November 18, 1936 no obituary or tribute failed to mention his closeness to Tilak.

A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a historian and Tamil writer. chalapathy@mids.ac.in

This article is based on the introduction to his forthcoming edition of Tilaka Maharishi by V.O. Chidambaram Pillai (Kalachuvadu Publications, Nagercoil).


Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012