Valliappan Olaganathan Chidambaram Pillai (5 September 1872 – 18 November 1936), popularly known by his initials, V.O.C also known as Kappalottiya Tamilan was a staunch freedom fighter. He was a disciple of Bala Gangadhara Tilak. He was born on 5 September 1872 in Ottapidaram, Tuticorin district to Olaganathan Pillai and Paramayee Ammal. He started his education in the ottapidaram primary school. His father sent him to Tiruchirappalli to study law. He passed his pleadership exam in 1894, returning to Ottapidaram to become a pleader in 1895. In Chennai, Chidambaram met Ramakrishnananthar, a saint who belonged to Swami Vivekananda Ashram (monastery), who advised him to “do something for the nation”. Here he met the Tamil poet Bharathiyaar who shared his political ideology. The two men became close friends.
In the 1890s and 1900s India’s independence movement and the Swadeshi movement, initiated by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai of Indian National Congress (INC), were at their peak. From 1892 Chidambaram was influenced by Bal Gangadhara Tilak and became his disciple. Along with Subramanya Siva and Subramanya Bharathi, he became a prominent spokesperson for the cause in Madras Presidency. Following the partition of Bengal in 1905 Chidambaram entered politics, joining the Indian National Congress and taking a hardliner stance. He also presided at the Salem District Congress session.
In response to the British India Steam Navigation Company’s trade monopoly, Chidambaram started an Indian-owned shipping company. He went to Bombay to buy ships and with the help of Bala Gangadhara Tilak he bought two ships and started his Swadeshi Shipping company. This earned him the title “Kappalotiya Tamizhan”.
On 23 February 1908 Chidambaram gave a speech at Thoothukudi, encouraging the workers at Coral Mill (now part of Madura Coats) to protest against their low wages and harsh working conditions. Four days later, the workers of the Coral Mill went on strike. Chidambaram and Subramanya Siva led the strike. Their demands included incremental earnings, weekly holidays and other leave facilities. His efforts to widen the base of the Swadeshi movement, by mobilising the workers of the Coral Mills brought him into increasing conflict with the British Raj.
By 1908, Chidambaram’s political involvement drew the attention of the British. Hearing of his intention to speak at a rally celebrating the release of Bengali leader Bipin Chandra Pal, Winch, a British official invited Chidambaram to meet him in Thirunelveli with his political comrade Subramanya Siva. At the meeting, Winch expressed concern at Chidambaram’s activities and asked him to give assurances that he would not participate in any political revolt. Chidambaram refused to accept his conditions, and so he and Siva were arrested on 12 March 1908.
The arrest met with widespread protest. In Thirunelveli shops, schools and colleges were closed in protest, and rioting broke out. Thirunelveli municipal office, post offices, police stations and municipal courts were attacked. A general strike was declared in Thoothukudi, which was the first political strike in India. Public meetings and processions were held, and four people were killed by the police.Although his supporters were able to raise sufficient funds for bail, Chidambaram refused to leave the jail without the release of Siva and his other comrades. He was then charged with sedition and a sentence of two life imprisonments (in effect 40 years) was imposed. Chidambaram was interned in Coimbatore and Kannanoor jail. He was not treated as a ‘political prisoner’, nor was the sentence ‘simple imprisonment’, he was rather treated as a convict sentenced to life imprisonment and required to do hard labour, which caused his health to suffer. Chidambaram was yoked to the oil press like an animal and made to work in the cruel hot sun. He was finally released on 12 December 1912. The people of Tamil Nadu always remember the pain and agony suffered by V.O.C. by calling him “Chekizhutha semmal”.