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An indomitable patriot and his relentless saga for India’s freedom

The oldest school in Thiruananthapuram (earlier Trivandrum), the capital city of Kerala, is one of its premier educational institutions called Government Model Higher Secondary School, popularly known as ‘Model School’. Located in the Thycaud area of the city, it was established in 1905 under the name ‘Government Model High School’. Early in the school’s history, a 14-year-old boy from among its earliest students created a furore, by defying the British rule of India then, shouting “Jai Hind” within the campus. Nicknamed ‘Venkidi’, his name was C Chempakaraman Pillai. The school authorities panicked and called the police. A head-constable named Chinnaswami Pillai arrived to investigate the incident. To the general amusement and closure of the case, it turned out that the culprit ‘Venkidi’ was the policeman’s son.

Born in 1891 in a middle-class Tamil family of his policeman father and mother, Nagammal, both hailing from Nanjinadu in the present-day Kanyakumari District of Tamil Nadu, Chempakaraman Pillai grew up in a small house the family lived in at the spot in Trivandrum where the office of the Accountant General of the State stands today. As a young boy, he was infused with a fierce sense of patriotism by reading about Lokmanya Tilak. In 1906, he happened to meet a British Naturalist, Sir Walter Strickland, who was in Trivandrum engaged in the study of butterflies of Western Ghats. Impressed by a paper published in a science journal, about the ability of spiders to change their colour, by an 18-year-old lad from the city named Padmanabha Pillai, Strickland sought out the youngster and offered to take him to Europe to pursue further studies. Either on Padmanabha Pillai’s request or to help him overcome his reluctance to leave the Indian shores alone, the naturalist took Chempakaraman Pillai, who happened to be the cousin and neighbour of the former, also along for the journey. As it turned out when the trio had travelled up to Colombo, Padmanabha Pillai got cold feet and returned to Trivandrum. Chempakaraman Pillai, then all of 15 years, however, went along to Europe with Strickland, who enrolled him in a school in Austria, where he completed his high school education.

Pillai continued his education in Europe, attending ETH Zurich, where he did a diploma in engineering. Subsequently, he graduated in public governance and economics, while also developing a working knowledge of a dozen languages. Staunchly dedicated to the cause of India’s freedom from colonialism, he seized the opportunity presented by the outbreak of the First World War in July 1914. As soon as the war broke out, Pillai gave a clarion call for the soldiers of the British Indian Army to revolt, and formed an Indian National Volunteer Corps, the forerunner of the INA, headed by Nethaji Subhas Chandra Bose during the Second World War. He tried to garner the support of Germany for India’s fight for freedom by reaching out to its Embassy in Zurich, and by September 1914, formed an International Pro-India Committee with himself as its President, headquartered at Zurich. The organization launched a publication ‘Pro India’ in German and English. Pillai is also credited with coining the slogan ‘Jai Hind’ (apparently when he was still a school boy) that was later adapted by the Indian National Army of Nethaji Subhas Chandra Bose as its official form of greeting, which in turn was adapted by the Indian Army of free India. Although Switzerland was neutral territory, the British intelligence went after Pillai’s group by sending a team to eliminate the revolutionaries. John Wellinger, head of the British spy network, was believed to have assigned his deputy, identified as ‘R’, to lead the team. Pillai got the wind of it and escaped to Berlin. It is believed that ‘R’ was actually the famous novelist, Somerset Maugham, who in later years went on to create many of his characters modelled on Indian Revolutionaries.

Parallel with Pillai’s initiative, similarly motivated Indian expatriates in Berlin had raised the Indian Independence League, led by Virendranath Chattopadhyay, elder brother of Sarojini Naidu, poet-leader of the Indian National Congress. On his arrival in Berlin, Pillai merged his Pro-India Group with this league, which had a galaxy of patriots under its umbrella. Some of its prominent members were Bhupendranath Dutta (brother of Swami Vivekananda), A Raman Pillai, Taraknath Das, Maulavi Barkatullah, Chandrakant Chakravorty, M Prabhakar, Birendra Sarkar, Heramba Lal Gupta and A C Nanu Nambiar. Interestingly, T Padmanabha Pillai, who had abandoned his journey to Europe alongside Chempakaraman Pillai, had subsequently come to Germany and was also in the league with other compatriots. One of the members, A Raman Pillai, who was a student at the University of Gottingen, and Chempakaraman Pillai, both hailing from Travancore and educated in Europe, maintained steady correspondence between them. Many of the letters Chempakaraman Pillai wrote to Raman Pillai have been preserved by the latter’s son, Roskott Krishna Pillai, Trivandrum-based writer and social activist. These letters throw some light on the eventful years Chempakaraman Pillai spent in Germany.

Early during the war, the German cruiser SMS Emden, struck Madras City. In a daring attack on the harbour during night of 22 September 1914, it caused havoc, blowing up the fuel storage tanks at the harbour, which triggered widespread panic among the people and caused severe embarrassment to the British establishment. It is widely believed in India that Chempakaraman Pillai was on board the cruiser, guiding the attack. Although Germany officially denied the presence of any Indian national being involved, there have been corroborative evidence from multiple sources that suggest that Pillai was instrumental in prompting the attack, and could very well have been on board the ship. After the attack, Emden sailed to the Malabar Coast and hung around the Minicoy Islands in Lakshadweep for a while. During that period, it sank five British vessels. All personnel on board those vessels were rescued, in keeping with the chivalrous practice Emden’s gallant skipper, Captain Karl von Muller, followed. They were all put on board a cargo ship, St Egbert, carrying sugar cane from Ceylon to New York that was captured by Emden, and sent to Cochin Harbour. The German sailors who alighted at Cochin was reported to have dined at a Jew’s house, as observed by an English lady, and Chempakaraman Pillai was believed to have been among them.

Although Pillai’s Pro-India Group had merged with the Indian Independence League, it continued to be the guiding and controlling organization for all pro-Indian revolutionary activities in Europe. Along with Lala Hardayal who joined him, Pillai managed to set up its branches in Amsterdam, Stockholm and other places in Europe, as well as in American cities, including Washington. The duo collaborated with the German Intelligence Bureau for the East in launching propaganda among the Indian POWs in German camps, especially those at the Halbmondlager, where a large number of Muslim prisoners were held, along with some Hindu and Sikh ones. The Germans aimed to incite the Muslim detainees to wage a jihad against Britain and France. Pillai also helped the German espionage to make its forays into India. He travelled incognito across Europe, Asia and German Colonies in Africa, campaigning to promote Indian independence movements. He tried mobilizing funds for revolutionary activity along with Virendranath Chattopadhyay in what came to be called the Chatto-Chempak Committee. Meanwhile in Berlin, an Indian Revolutionary Council was set up under the auspices of the German Foreign Office, attached to the German General Staff. The move, was part of a grand Indian revolutionary surge, which the British Intelligence remained in the dark for long and were to call the Hindu-German Conspiracy, and comprised a series of initiatives to forge an international front against the British rule in India.

India’s revolutionary exiles in the US and Europe including those of the volatile organization, Gadar Party, joined the grand conspiracy. In an outstanding gesture of defiance of the British Raj, the revolutionaries formed a provisional government of India, based at Kabul in December 1915. With Raja Mahendra Pratap as its President and Maulavi Barkatullah as the Prime Minister, Obaidullah Sindhi held the portfolio of Home and Chempakaraman Pillai that of Foreign Affairs. They planned an offensive against British India from its Northwest Frontier by a force of 20,000 Turkish and German soldiers brought to Afghanistan. The plan never took off because of the German defeat in the war in 1918.

After the war, Chempakaraman Pillai, continued to live in Germany, working as a technician, while still pursuing his pro-independence agenda. He also endeavoured to promote trade between Germany and India, especially to find overseas market for Swadeshi goods and aid India’s industrial development. In 1930, he became the Berlin representative of the Indian Chamber of Commerce. In 1931, Pillai met Lakshmibai, an Indian expatriate from Manipur, in Berlin, and married her. During 1933, he met Subhas Chandra Bose in Vienna and is believed to have mooted the idea of raising a national army of India in the event of another war, which of course, was what exactly the latter went on to do during the Second World War.

All the revolutionaries involved in the conspiracy had to wait for several years before they could set foot on Indian soil again, since the vindictive British regime kept gunning for them, through prosecutions and prolonged trials. Many, with communist leanings, migrated to Russia following the Marxist takeover of that country, not always for their good though. ‘Chatto’ Chattopadhyay, the prominent leader among them, was summarily executed by Stalin’s storm troopers. Pillai lived in Germany for 20 years. Post war, he had everything going for him to lead a comfortable life and prosper, but he chose otherwise.1930s saw the ascendancy of Hitler to power in Germany. To begin with, Pillai had very friendly relations with Hitler. He was, in fact, the only non-white member of National People’s Party, which supported the Nazis. However, Adolf Hitler turned out to be as vile a racist as Winston Churchill and made disparaging remarks about India and Indians. Way back in 1925, in Mein Kampf itself, he had expressed his absolute contempt for Orientals, calling them ‘charlatans who gave themselves big airs’ ‘pompous Orientals’ and ‘Asiatic mountebanks’. He considered the British rule in India legitimate for the racial inferiority of Indians. During a press meet in August 1931, Hitler stated that if non-Aryan Indians were ruled by the British, it was their fate. Again, in December, he commented that Britain losing India would not augur well for any nation, including Germany. Enraged by such caustic remarks, Pillai demanded that Hitler withdraw the statements and tender an apology. Setting a deadline for Hitler to act on his demand, Pillai wrote “You seem to attribute more importance to the colour of the skin than blood. Our skins may be dark, not our hearts.” Although Hitler tendered an apology through his secretary and expressed his regret a day after the deadline set by Pillai, the rift would only deepen.

Hitler became the Chancellor in 1933 and soon turned autocratic. The Nazis, gave vent to the grudge for Pillai’s recalcitrant attitude in their characteristic vicious manner. It is suspected that they subjected him to gradual poisoning, resulting in deterioration of his health. Then they raided his house and appropriated it, manhandling and forcibly evicting him. Pillai moved to Italy, where a blood clot was detected in his brain. Lacking finance to afford proper treatment, he passed away on 28 May 1934 in an ordinary nursing home in Italy. Thus ended the life of this fierce patriot, who gave his entire life for India and was bold enough to challenge a dreadful dictator like Hitler, with only his wife of a three-year-long marriage to keep him company in his last moment.

Lakshmibai returned to India with the ashes of her husband in 1935. Pillai’s last wish was to sail home on board a warship flying the Indian flag. Lakhshmibai did fulfil that wish, although she had to wait for 32 long years, living in Bombay. On 17 September 1966, INS Delhi set sail from Bombay, carrying Pillai’s ashes on board to arrive at Cochin on the 19th. From there it travelled by road to Trivandrum and onward to Kanyakumari where it was immersed in the Indian Ocean with full state honours. Chempakaraman Pillai had finally come home to his motherland, free from the shackles of colonialism, which he had fought so hard to break.

After fulfilling her mission, Lakshmibai lived with her husband’s family for a while before returning to Bombay, where, after independence, Morarji Desai had arranged a flat for her to live in. A lady charged with patriotic fervour who, to escape persecution by the British, had moved over to Russia after the October Revolution and on to Berlin where she met her future husband, her travails were no less intense than Pillai’s after his death. She lived in Bombay in constant fear of being arrested by the British, until independence. Sadly, even after independence, although the government did allot her a flat, no provisions seemed to have been made for her sustenance. Consequently, in her old age, the hapless widow lived alone and penniless, with no one to care for her, until her death in 1972. P K Ravindranath, an accomplished journalist, seems to have been the last person, who had had interactions with her. He had first met her in 1969, when she told him about a set of documents of her husband she was in possession of. Although he was keen to get hold of those documents and write a biography of Pillai, since he did not have the necessary funds to pay her the amount of 1.5 lakhs she expected as compensation, he could not take up the project. Nevertheless, she shunned the journalist’s offer to arrange regular food for her, even when she was starving, probably out of her pride in accepting charity in any form. In December 1972, Ravindranath got a call from St George Hospital in the city, where he was obliged to identify the dead body of Lakshmibai. He identified the frail body of the woman he knew as the widow of one of India’s greatest revolutionaries, her bony fingers clutching a bunch of keys. She had held on to those keys that gave access to her husband’s documents until her last breath. On being alerted by the journalist, the Government of Maharashtra had had her flat cordoned off immediately, and the documents safely transferred to the National Archives. And there rests the tale of one man’s heroic struggle for India’s independence, which most Indians know little of. A Statue of his installed by the Government of Tamil Nadu at the Gandhi Mandapam at Adyar in Chennai is the only known memorial honouring this freedom fighter extraordinaire, who waged war against the British Raj from overseas.

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Lt Col S V Sundar
Lt Col S V Sundar
1 year ago

What a story of grit , determination, valour and courage. Terribly sad to read of the manner in which the lady passed away..very well brought out sir. Fantastic read.

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