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Atmanirbhar Bharat: As Envisioned By V O Chidambaram Pillai (1872-1936)

On 12 May 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a new mission for the country — Atmanirbhar Bharat. It means creating a self-reliant India.

It is not a goal that can be achieved as an event but a mission that constantly renews itself with new challenges and opportunities. It involves not just economic capital and resources, not just knowledge capital and resources but also spiritual and social capital. It needs coordination of all these in the service of national renaissance.

Pan-Asian Vision Prime Minister Modi describes Atmanirbharta as self-reliant India but not self-centred India. Interestingly, at a time when India and many parts of Asia, Africa and South America were suffering under colonialism, facing huge resource drain, and experiencing human misery, V O Chidambaram Pillai (VOC) envisioned a maritime Pan-Asian economic network.

In 1906, VOC launched the Swadesi Steam Navigation Company (SSNC) challenging the colonial government-facilitated monopoly of British India Steam Navigation Company (BISNC) in the trade route between Tuticorin and Sri Lanka. Though liquidated in 1911, what astonishes one is not only the way VOC toiled to create this company, which threw down an economic challenge to colonialism, but also his futuristic vision that was incorporated in the stated aims of SSNC, and among which we find the following:

  • To train Indians, Sri Lankans and people of other Asian continental nations in training maritime industries and make them reap the benefits from such endeavours.

  • To train Indians, Sri Lankans and people of other Asian continental nations in training in commanding and building ships

  • To establish colleges for the students from India, Sri Lanka and other nations to train them in navigation and ship building.

  • To create unity and achieve development for the people of India, Sri Lanka and other Asian countries through maritime trade.

  • To install Indians, Sri Lankans and other Asian nationals as agents in various commercial institutions so that they can familiarize and train themselves in (transnational) commercial operations.

It is very clear that the vision of VOC went beyond running a mere commercial Swadesi company and involved creating a transformational network, challenging the civilisational and economic dominance of the colonial world order that existed.

What is also clear from history is that the British realised the danger and went to extraordinary levels to suppress the budding movement.

They threatened the share-holders, cajoled them and tried corruption. They jailed VOC and tortured him. Ultimately, SSNC got liquidated in 1911.

But they could not erase the visionary fire that was ignited by VOC. In the chambers of the hearts of millions of Indian patriots through generations, that fire has been kept alive.

Industrial Family For The Welfare Of All V O Chidambaram Pillai, who was initially inclined towards a mechanistic sayavad, was initiated into real practical Vedanta of patriotism as sadhana by Swami Ramakrishnananda, the direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna.

Ignited with patriotism, not unlike Arjuna galvanised by Gita, VOC came back home with the mission of Swadesi — self-reliant India.

He started two sanghas: one for the weavers and another, a Dharma Sangha. In this endeavour, he was supported by two great souls — Swami Abhedananda and Bhai Paramanand.

Swami Abhedananda belonged to the Sri Ramakrishna Vedanta tradition. Bhai Paramanand came from the Arya Samaj tradition.

In terms of creed, they belonged to different traditions but in terms of nationalism they worked unitedly.

Along with these two sanghas, VOC established a Swadesi warehouse as well.


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