Doyen of Swadeshi shipping


The nation will always remember V. O. Chidambaram Pillai, whose 130th birth anniversary was on September 5, principally for the pioneering role he played in building India's swadeshi shipping industry.

The life of Pillai, fondly known as "V.O.C." to millions of countrymen, was interesting and colourful. He was a freedom fighter, (who challenged the might of the British rulers and suffered long terms of imprisonment,) VOC was born on September 5, 1872, in a family of "old-time pleaders" in Ottapidaram in the composite Tirunelveli district and presently in Tuticorin district. Drawing inspiration from Ramakrishnananda, a disciple of Swami Vivekananda, VOC 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 .

The efforts of VOC and his colleagues took a concrete shape on October 16, 1906 when the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company Ltd., was formed, not as a mere commercial venture, but to lay the foundation for a comprehensive shipping industry in the country. Against all odds, VOC succeeded in defeating the designs of the alien rulers who wanted to nip the swadeshi initiative in the bud. He was able to procure two ships for the company, thanks to the support and assistance of great leaders including Lokamanya Bal Ganghadhar Tilak and Aurobindo Ghose. Contrary to the calculations of the British that it would collapse like a house of cards, the company not only survived but threw a tough challenge to the colonialists.

VOC, as a radical Congressman and disciple of Tilak, plunged into the freedom movement along with revolutionary poets, Subramanya Bharathi and Subramanya Sivam. He was arrested in March 1908 on charges of sedition and sentenced to a double transportation for life. Though detained in Indian jails , VOC was subjected to inhuman torture. He was "yoked to the oil press like an animal and made to work it in the cruel hot sun..." writes, historian and Tamil scholar, R. A. Padmanabhan. He was finally released on December 12, 1912.

To his dismay, the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company was forced to wind up as it could not withstand the onslaught of the British pressure, in the absence of VOC's able leadership. The disheartened VOC retired from active politics. He fell ill and passed away on November 18, 1936. "Even on his death bed, Chidambaram Pillai's thoughts were only about the motherland and its freedom", observes Padmanabhan. The extraordinary zeal of the patriot will always remain a source of inspiration for generations to come.

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