The title Kappalottiya Tamizhan (The Tamil Helmsman), given to Vallinayagam Olaganathan Chidambaram Pillai (VOC), was for no small reason. VOC, an Indian Tamil freedom fighter and politician, founded an indigenous Indian shipping service (Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company) that plied between Tuticorin and Colombo. This was the first such venture during the regime of the British
VOC was born on 05 September 1872 in the town of Ottapidaram in the Tuticorin district of Tamil Nadu. Professionally, he followed in the footsteps of his father who was a barrister, and became a lawyer himself. However, unlike his father, VOC was sympathetic towards the poor whose cases he sometimes took up against the wishes of his influential parent. His fame as a lawyer with civic awareness led him into active politics and leadership in trade unionism.
Apart from his legal activities, he was also a prolific writer and Tamil scholar. Till 1905 his professional and journalistic activities consumed most of his time. It was the Partition of Bengal in 1905 that prompted him to enter the political arena. VOC joined the Indian National Congress and embraced the Swadeshi movement nurtured by the Lal-Bal-Pal triumvirate. He considered Bal Gangadhar Tilak to be his guru and even wrote a biography in his praise in Tamil. It was Sri Ramakrishnananda of the Sri Ramakrishna Ashram who inspired him to think about breaking the monopoly of British shipping in the Indo-Ceylon waters. In 1906, VOC started the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, which regularly plied leased ships between Tuticorin and Colombo, thereby giving stiff competition to British India Steam Navigation Company on the same route over the ticket prices. VOC then decided to buy two vessels of his own. The success of his company irritated the British.
On 27 February 1908, VOC, along with his friends Padmanabha Iyengar and Subramania Siva, led a strike in the British owned Coral Mills at Tuticorin to protest against the harsh working conditions of its employees. The nationalist leaders, with strong support from the people of Tuticorin, resolved to take out a mammoth procession on the morning of 9th March 1908 in Tirunelveli to celebrate the release of B.C. Pal from jail and to hoist the flag of Swaraj. The British authorities got wind of this, and on 12 March, VOC, Subramania, and Iyengar were arrested and imprisoned in the district jail. Infuriated by the illegal detention of their leaders, the people of Tirunelveli retaliated, and the district became engulfed in riots. Even to this day, 13 March is observed by the people of Tirunelveli as Tirunelveli Uprising Day (Tirunelveli Ezhucchi).
Afier the three leaders had been released, VOC and Siva were tried again for sedition. The courts sentenced both of them to transportation (twenty years for Chidambaram Pillai and ten years for Subramania Siva). After several appeals the duration was shortened to six years for VOC and three for Siva. VOC was treated inhumanely in the Coimbatore jail, where he was forced to draw and pull an oil press that is normally drawn by oxen. By the time VOC was released in 1912, his shipping company had been taken over by the British. He was also deprived of his title of barrister and reduced to a very impoverished state.
After attending the 1920 meeting of the Indian National Congress at Calcutta, he turned his attention to literary pursuits including writing an autobiography in verse form in Tamil. He also wrote a commentary on the Thirukural and compiled ancient works of Tamil grammar, Tholkappiam.
VOC spent his last years in abject poverty: he even had to sell all his law books to survive. His end came on 18 November 1936 at the Indian National Congress office in Tuticorin.
Tamil Nadu remembers their Kappalottiya Tamizhan very fondly even today. The Tuticorin Port, a college in Tuticorin, a park and a meeting ground in Coimbatore, and a bridge in Tirunelveli have all been named after VOC. A monument has been built in the Coimbatore Central Prison to remind us of his traumatic stay there. The oil press that he was forced to draw is an object of respectful viewing in a hall named after him in Tirunelveli.
The image of struggle and national pride left behind by VOC is a legacy that will inspire the generations to come.