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Thursday, September 5, 2013

5th Sept : Teachers' Day... remembering the great VOC - Kappal Ottiya Thamizhan

Today is 5th Sept…and those in Chennai – know well this road connecting Beach Road [Kamarajar Salai] from Gandhi statue to Gemini flyover [Anna Membalam] ……it is Dr. Radhakrishnan Salai, earlier known as Cathedral Road.  Today is Teachers Day… in many countries, it is a special day appreciating the role of Teacher… but the World Teachers’ Day is distinctly different, for it is on Oct 5th.

In India, it is after a person whose father  was not keen on him learning English or going to school – he wanted his son to become a priest – somehow this man went to a school in Tiruttani.  Later he became a great scholar – the man - Sarvepalli Radhakrishna, a scholar, philosopher and statesman who rose to become the first Vice President of India (1952–1962) and the second President of India from 1962 to 1967.

One of India's most influential scholars of comparative religion and philosophy, Radhakrishna built a bridge between the East and the West by showing how the philosophical systems of each tradition are comprehensible within the terms of the other. He is known for his scholastic achievements. Radhakrishna was awarded the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award in India, in 1954. Among the many other honours he received were the British Knight Bachelor in 1931 and honorary membership of the Order of Merit (1963), but ceased to use the title "Sir" after India attained independence.  Dr Radhakrishna believed that "teachers should be the best minds in the country". Since 1962, his birthday is celebrated in India as Teachers' Day on 5 September.

5th Sept for sure should rekindle the memories of another great patriot who underwent untold sufferings at the hands of British… more than a century ago, his speech at Thai Poosa Mantapam in the bed of river Thamirabarani at Tirunelveli [on the night of 9th March 1907] sent shivers and he was convicted under sections 124A & 153A of Indian Penal Code by the Bench consisting of CA White & Miller. In that famous speech, he had thundered “"As soon as the English people set foot in India, poverty also made its appearance in the country. So long as the foreign Government exists we shall not prosper. So long as we continue to be the servants and slaves of foreigners we shall have to endure hardships.”

One of the primitive implements for extracting oil is bullock powered oil press. It is no engineering marvel – it has a large wooden mortar with a groove encircling its tucked-in waist, into which a broad plank with open semicircular end fits. A wooden pestle of a size proportionate to the mortar rests on it; the other end is connected to the broad plank. The power required to move, rotate and crush the ingredients is supplied by oxen – which generally is a retired old animal no longer capable of pulling cart or ploughing. To ever imagine replacing the animal with a man would send chill on the nerves. But for the cruel British Govt, that was one way of punishing the young and brave who dared to openly challenge them.


The Great man is - Vandanam Olaganathan Chidambaram Pillai ~ more famous as VOC or Kappolottiya thamizhan,  was born on 5th Sept 1872. His father was the eminent lawyer Ulaganathan Pillai in Ottapidaram, Tuticorin Dist. Like his father, he also became an advocate and often pleaded for the poor. His exemplary fighting qualities made him establish the “Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company” during Nov 1906 by purchasing two steamships ‘S.S.Gaelia’ and ‘S.S.Lawoe’. This indeed is an exemplary act when somebody can imagine the stringent measures and imperialistic attitude of the Britishers who crushed any such activity by brutal force. By running ships, he challenged the monopoly enjoyed by the British India Steam Navigation Company, formed in 1856. In 1913 the company later became part of P&O Group.

In trying circumstances where British wanted the venture to collapse in no time, VOC posed formidable challenge. Undercutting and offering freebies is not something new to Indian market, the British in those days itself resorted to reducing the fare trip and offered free trips plus a free umbrella and ensured that the trading of the Indian shipping company was affected.

VOC did everything to create awareness of imperialism and mobilised the workers of textile mills in that area. On 12th Mar 1908 he was arrested on charges of sedition. Mahakavi Bharathiyar and Subramanya Siva appeared in the Court in the case and VOC was sentenced to double life imprisonment tantamount to 40 years ad confined to prison. He was treated badly as a convict and subjected to inhuman torture. History has it that he was yoked in place of bull in the oil press and made to work cruelly. He was later released in Dec 1912. Upon release, he was not permitted to return to Tirunelveli, his bar license had been stripped, his Company had been liquidated and ships auctioned. VOC died on 18th Nov. 1936 in chill penury. One of his sons contested from Ottapidaram in 1967 TN Assembly but lost. He was also an erudite scholar. The 1961 tamil movie ‘Kappal ottiya Thamizhan’ (the Tamil who ran a ship) with Sivaji in lead role is a legendary film in tamil tinseldom.

5th Sept marks his 142nd   Birth day. I for one is against celebrating birth days of those persons who are no more. Still, it would remain a day worthy of remembering and recalling his commitment, strong will and sacrifice. The young generations of India should read his life as an example of resistance, strife, struggle, suffering and sacrifice.


With regards – S. Sampathkumar

5th Sept. 2013.

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