Champaka Raman Pillai – The forgotten freedom fighter

Some years ago, I had introduced him in a blog ‘Emden and Pillai’. Then I alluded to him in the blog about ACN Nambiar. I think it will do justice to provide details on this gentleman from Trivandrum (I have heard many a Tamilian clamor – he is not a Malayali, he is Tamilian) , for he was at the forefront in the fight for Indian Independence, even before Gandhiji, NSC Bose and many other luminaries stepped in and wrote their names in the records of history. I don’t think many in Trivandrum or Kerala will recall this character, Oh! Forget it; most of India would not know the man behind the usage ‘Jai Hind’ that we hear uttered every now and then…

But I still wonder, how would Hitler or Goebells or Himmler have addressed him? Herr Schampak, or Herr Pillai? Pillai as it turns out was a mysterious figure, flitting in and out of different accounts and locations, without being in any of them to the end. Here below I plan to record his known life, and portray a brave soul and an interesting man, who left his mater land & its friendly shores to fight from afar.

Early days
He was born on Sept 15th, 1891 in Trivandrum to police constable (One relative mentions that the father was the Travancore royal physician) Chinnaswamy Pillai and Nagammal of the Vellala community. Pillai was greatly influenced by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and his journal, Kesari, and when Tilak was arrested and sentenced to transportation, Pillai pledged lifelong dedication to the cause of India's liberation. It was at this time that Pillai came into contact with an Englishman, Strickland, and with the latter's help left India bound for Italy when he was seventeen years old. Even from his younger days there was spirit of revolution in his blood. His thirst for freedom was so great, that during his student days in Maharaja’s College, Trivandrum, he greeted all his friends with ‘Jai Hind’ coined by him”.

In the course of his short life abroad he was to meet many famous and infamous people, including Gandhiji, Nehru, ACN Nambiar, Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru, MN Roy, Chatto, NSC Bose, Kaiser, Hindenberg, Hitler and many others in the Nazi party. He even served aboard the Emden during its voyage and probably partook in its shelling of Madras living his last years in Germany, dying before the world war. All through this period he worked for India’s freedom, though ending up choosing the wrong route and some wrong friends in the process. Some even say that he was the inspiration behind NSC Bose.

His overseas trip & scholarship
He sailed out in 1908 (probably staying two years in Ceylon in exile as some put it) with Strickland, studied in Italy and Switzerland before proceeding to Germany which would then become his home for the rest of his life. He was proficient in English, French German and other languages and spearheaded the fight against the British from Germany.

He reached Italy and was able to study in the Berlin School of Languages there, and also enrolled for engineering studies. He continued education in Switzerland and finished it in Germany, securing doctorates in Engineering and Economics. An engineer armed with a dual doctorate (some have mentioned wrongly that he was a Doctor of Medicine and as Emden’s surgeon) in Political science & economics, he found employment in the German foreign office.

Anti British activities
As a student in Berlin, he formed the Aid India International Committee that campaigned for India’s liberation. When World War I (1914-1918) broke out, he established the Indian Independence Committee and the Indian Voluntary Corps. He also set up an army camp at Mesopotamia from where he established secret contacts with Indian nationalist leaders.

Dr Champakaraman Pillai then helped set up an organization called International Pro-India Committee at Zurich before the outbreak of the World War I. During the war Dr Champakaraman Pillai intensified his revolutionary activities. By 1914 Pillai had organized and created a revolution movement in Zurich (with the support of the German Counsel for his activities). The other members of his group were Chatto, Prabhakar & Hafiz, later joined by Har Dayal & Thara Chandar Das. All these people reached Berlin either through USA or Switzerland, two neutral states.

During the World War I in 1914, an organization was established in Germany, namely the Berlin Committee. After 1915, it was renamed the Indian Independence Committee. The organization was formed by Indian students and political activists who resided in the Germany. The organization was established with the aim to promote the cause of Indian Independence. In the beginning the organization was called the Berlin-Indian Committee. Later, this Berlin-Indian Committee played an instrumental part in the Hindu-German Conspiracy. Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, Champakaraman Pillai and Abinash Bhattacharya were the key members of the committee.

During the First World War, he is said to have printed & dropped pamphlets from airplanes among the Indian soldiers in France, exhorting them to turn against the English

Responding to “Fourteen Points” of the then President of the United States Woodrow Wilson, Chempakaraman came up with an Eight Point proposal for Indian independence. His proposal demanded the French and the Portuguese also to leave the country.

In 1919, he and American author Edwin Emerson established the League of the Oppressed People to fight for the right of every person to shape his own domestic institutions and determine their relations with others.

Chempakaraman launched Pro-India, a monthly published in German and English from Zurich, Switzerland, through which he highlighted the glorious past of India.

Another institution founded by him at Berlin was the “Orient Club.”

Post world war I
After the war, Champak became a Member of the nationalist party of Germany. Champakraman Pillai was not pro-Nazi as some said, but was apparently murdered (poisoned or beaten to death) by Hitler’s goons. In the Pan German Nationalist party, he was the only non-white man to have the honor and with his shiny black complexion, was proud of the distinction. Having met Kaiser Wilhelm and claming close friendship with two important Generals, Hindenberg and Ludendorf, he was considered something of a dandy with perfect drawing room manners. Pillai was then active in the German Fatherland Party. In later years in Berlin, where he died, he remained one of the very few Indians in Germany.

After the world war when Hitler came to power, Dr Champakaraman Pillai developed a working relationship with Hitler with a hope of getting military assistance to end the British rule in India. Though he had a friendly relation with Hitler, he could not tolerate a derogatory remark made by the latter against India. This led to discordance between them and an enraged Hitler ordered the confiscation of Champakaraman Pillai’s property. This incident hurt him deeply and it turned out to be the cause of his death on May 13, 1934.

By 1930’s he had become upset with Hitlers attitude about Indians, comments about color and other principles, especially those expressed in speeches and his book. Hitler had stated that Indians deserved to be ruled by the British and stated that they were not Aryans due to the color. Finally he chose to protest, in 1931, writing a complaint to him with a deadline for an answer. While many say the letter was addressed to the fuehrer, it was actually sent to the secretary. The reply of apology apparently came one day later than Pillai required. Pillai first wanted to send the letter dated 10/12/1931 to Hitler direct, after listening to his press conference words at otel Hotel Kaiserhof in Dec 1931, but then changed his mind and sent it to the Reich Chancellor

His secret name

Many of the Indians were on the English secret service watch lists, they were all entrusted with special tasks and Pillai worked under the assumed German East African name Abdullah Bin Manzur.

Swadeshi movement
In 1924, Dr Champakaraman Pillai organized the first exhibition of Indian Swadeshi goods at the international fair held at Leipzig.

Free government of India 1915
He had the privilege of being the Prime Minister of the Provisional Government of India set up in Afghanistan in December 1915, with Raja Mahendra Pratap of Kabul as President. However, the defeat of the Germans in the war shattered the hopes of the revolutionaries. On the other hand, some documents list him actually as Foreign minister

Pillai and the INA
Pillai was the forerunner of Rash Behari Bose and Subhas Chandra Bose in organizing an Indian Army abroad to strike against the enemies at home. In 1933, Dr Champakaraman Pillai met Subhash Chandra Bose, and they jointly conceived the idea of Azad Hind

Marriage to Lakshmi
In 1933, Pillai met Lakshmi Bai, from Manipuri living in Berlin and they decided to get married. After a short married life, Pillai fell ill due to apparent poisoning and went to Italy for treatment. They came back to Germany but he died on May 28th, 1934. The body was cremated by Lakshmi Bai. Immediately before his death, he asked his wife to sprinkle his ashes in “Nanjilnadu” (Kanyakumari district) and the Karamana River in Thiruvananthapuram. His wish was fulfilled in September 1966. Let us now see what she has to say about her husband.

' My husband's ashes have been kept in the drawing room of my flat in Bombay, awaiting the honor commensurate with the bold, noble and self-sacrificing life led by Dr. Pillai for the sake of his motherland. When he was alive he had taken a vow that he would return to the land of his birth in a powerful warship flying the flag of the Indian Republic. But cruel fate willed otherwise and he died an untimely death on foreign soil of suspected slow poisoning. He died a crushed and wounded man in the service of his country though he was the only man in Germany who had the moral courage to challenge Adolf Hitler when the latter made disparaging remarks about India. It was because of this that both he and I suffered numerous troubles and difficulties in Germany including the loss of our flat and belongings.

'Now that India is free, independent and a republic, it is time that it carried out the cherished desire of Dr. Pillai as a mark of respect to the memory of a man who gave all his time, energy and thought for the liberation of his country. I feel it would be a most significant and noble gesture on the part of the Government if his ashes are taken from Bombay in a warship of the Indian Navy to Cochin, the biggest port in Kerala and the land of his birth and where he once landed during World War I from the German Naval Ship Emden.........

'For the past thirty years, I have preserved the ashes as the symbol of the partriot who gave his all and who gained nothing. I have lived a lone life.....I only want the dream of Dr. Pillai to be honored with me accompanying the ashes.'
'When the country becomes independent, it is not possible to forget those who achieved it. Dr. Pillai was the greatest of revolutionaries, who really carried the torch of freedom to other countries.'

After independence, she wanted to keep the memory of Dr. Pillai alive and to spread his views. She was also supported by a nephew of Dr Pillai to petition the Government of Tamil Nadu, in order to rename Fort St. George to Fort Chembakaraman but that did not seem to have gone well with the government. They erected a statue there as you can see in the picture.

Sethu Seshan, the grand-nephew of Dr. Chembakaraman Pillai adds a final note to the Chembakaraman Pillai saga by retailing the story of the doctor's `last journey.' She Lakshmi Bai, traveled with her husbands ashes from Bombay to Trivandrum aboard INS Delhi some years after Independence and immersed them in the River Karamana during a Government-sponsored function. The Dr in Emden was finally laid to rest — in Kerala.

Curiously LakshmiBai confirms the visit of Pillai to Cochin on the Emden. That Emden called on Cochin is clear and is well documented in the book Ruby Daniel of Cochin (a very interesting story of German sailors landing up for supper in a Jewish house in Cochin and the men folk of Cochin forcing the Germans to eat with their hands). Lakshmi Bai died in Bombay in 1972..

Famous ornithologist the late Salim Ali recalled “Pillai was an excellent cook and gave us delicious Indian meals prepared from ersatz masalas.”

Pillai figures in famed ornithologist Salim Ali’s autobiography, The Fall of a Sparrow. Salim Ali spent 1929-30 in Germany, during which time, in August 1929, he ran into Champakaraman Pillai who, he says, was “one of the prominent Indians settled in Berlin since before and all through World War I.” Pillai, a “fugitive” from India, was a member of what called itself the Provisional Government of India. This revolutionary group was recognised in a sort of a fashion by the Kaiser. In fact, Salim Ali writes, “Pillai claimed to have had frequent meetings with the Kaiser during the progress of the War in Europe to apprise him of the subversive propaganda (anti-British) conducted vicariously by the Provisional Government in India.” I wonder whether the story of the Emden and Pillai was part of this propaganda, a hero-building exercise. The President of the Provisional Government was Raja Mahendra Pratap from the United Provinces, a sincere but naive idealist; Pillai, on the other hand, according to Salim Ali, was “a more practical and pragmatic revolutionary.”

TC Sankara Menon writes, To Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Pillai appeared to be somewhat pompous.

Rohini another relative of Pillai says - Chempaka Raman alias Venkat had a sister named " Papathi ammal" who married a sculptor named Chetrapatha Pillai. His "Koravan Korathi statue is still available in the Trivandrum Museum. Papathi ammal had four daughters and one daughter Sarojini is still alive in Trivandrum. I'm a great great grand niece of Chempakka raman.

Strangely during Champakjaraman’s stay in Zurich, his brother Padmanabhan was also around and partaking in the activities, but he seems to have quietly faded into the annals of history without leaving a trace. Bhupendra Nath Datta, brother of Swami Vivekananda was also a member of the movement, just as Sarojini Naidu’s brother Chatto and sister Suhasini Nambiar were members.

Emden & Pillai
A summary - Although the war had been going on for eight weeks, Müller found the city of Madras lit up like a carnival. Already aware of reports of German atrocities on the Western Front, he took pains to angle his 25 salvos of 130 shells against the fuel tanks with a minimum of error. As a result, only five people were killed and 12 injured in the destruction of 346,000 gallons of fuel worth about 8,000 pounds. The destruction was less than it might have been, but its psychological effect on the British was devastating. For days, trains were packed with people fleeing before the "mystery ship" could return; the economy of the city was affected for weeks; the raid was the talk of the bazaars for months; and the word "Emden" took its place in the Madras dialect of the Tamil language to signify "an enterprising and ingenious person."

That was the time, as rumor mills state, when the Iyer’s of Madras started to learn German, spending valuable midnight oil..

It is stated that Pillai was directing the attack from Emden -Now after so many comments for and against, I started to delve deeper into the mystery, was Pillai indeed aboard the Emden? I saw pictures & lists of survivors after the Emden was sunk, there was no Pillai. Finally I saw one reference documenting the names. The list of individual crew members does include Herr Pillai. Pillai, Dr., D., Chembakaraman, however the linked details about Pillai are from Hindu articles. I am still not sure.

In memory
Suresh Babu’s painting
Chennai memorial - In July 2008, a memorial in his honor was unveiled in Chennai

References
Essays on freedom movement – Raj Kumar
Article by N Daniel Rose “A Forgotten Fighter” ,The New Indian express Dec 4,2007
Intelligence and imperial defense - Richard James Popplewell ( Pg 222,223)
Pillars of modern India, 1757-1947 - Sayed Jafar Mahmud (Pg 72)
The story of Emden
Wiki article
Vande mataram.com article
Hindu article & this second article
India in Axis strategy - Milan Hauner
Curt Prüfer, German diplomat from the Kaiser to Hitler - Donald M. McKale
Madras Presidency in Pre-Gandhian Era - Saroja Sundararajan

Note: Not much could be learned about this Strickland. He is variously named in books as John Strickland, Walter William Strickland, with a knighthood or being an Earl at times and is claimed to be different things such as a wealthy landlord, zoologist and even a German spy in Trivandrum.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Hi Maddy

Another interesting article-well done.

Had always heard about the brothers from Kerala and their German connection [enemy's enemy is my friend?!]but did not know that he was from my own Trivandrum.[still prefer that to Thiruvananthapuram].

The vellala origin clears the other topic of debate surrounding the brothers-whether they were Tamilian or not.Guess they were Mallus as Kanyakumari was then part of Kerala. [for a long time, I thought that all Pillais were Nairs!]

Alex.
Vijay said…
Great post Maddy!

Here is an interesting bit of irony. As you have noted Dr.Campakaraman Pillai may (or may not) have been on board the Emden when it shelled Madras. The Emden and its captain Muller were part of Admiral Graf Spee's small fleet, although the Emden operated alone as a raider.

After the war, in the run up to WW II, the Germans built a cruiser and named it the Admiral Graf Spee, after the admiral who died in WW I. This ship was also a hugely successful raider (like the Emden) and accounted for many thousands of tons of allied shipping sunk in the north and south Atlantic.

This ship met its end when it was bottled up in Montevideo harbor by three British ships causing the captain to scuttle the ship (the Emden also met a similar end when Captain Muller ran it up a reef when cornered by HMAS Sydney). The three British ships that hunted down the Graf Spee were the Exeter, Achilles and Ajax.

HMS Achilles later became the INS Delhi that carried Dr. Champakaraman's ashes on that last trip.

A circular twist across two world wars...
What a nice article, so well researched, and in such detail. Maddy, I salute you for your meticulous approach in writing these articles.
I was also happy to get a piece of trivia from here - the origin of Jai Hind.
And to think that he was sitting in Emden, pointing those cannons at the British in Madras.
Maddy ki Jai ho. An otherwise unknown chapter of India's independence movement (to me atleast and there could be many others). Now I can proudly grill my North Indian friends on Jai Hind too. Thanks.
Maddy said…
thanks alex,
it is not too important if he was tamil or mallu..But at least they remember him in Madras..

Vijay - Thanks for that lovely linkage in history, what a funny twist of fate!!

Thanks Raji - Though i knew about the word yamundan - used often in Kerala & Tamilnadu, I first came across the Emden story in an RK Narayan book.

Thanks PNS - Hind became Azad Hind movement. The Jai Hind came up in those early days!!
Maddy said…
PNS - one additional comment. Some people have mentioned that Jai Hind became popular as a Hindu alternative to 'Zindabad' - which seemed to have a Muslim connotation at that time, but I am not sure about that - but the fact remains that Pillai coined it.
Anonymous said…
another interesting article!at the end of the article it is said that not much is known about strickland. i have heard a story about an european spy who came to travancore and stayed with ayya guru, as his disciple. recently I heard a story that towards the end of his life, Ayya guru was obsessed with alchemy. It is said that like many yogi’s of the time, he had conducted experiments to make gold out of copper. Even a European spy was send to keep an eye on him.
but ayyaguru failed to make gold.
do you think mr.strickland could have some connection with the guru?
Maddy said…
anonymous - that was interesting indeed, it could have been so. I am a bit surprised though as it is said that Ayya swami of Thycad had scant interest in popularity and material goods .. so the gold angle sounds strange!!
A well written article, Maddy on Champaka Raman Pillai. As we know, History is the story of the winner. Any individual or institution against the empire (or in India against the Congress) did not get the deserved prominence. We all know of the controversies surrounding Bharat Ratna to Netaji and about INA in general. Thanks for the brilliant work.
am the one who posted the above comment, i got this information from prof: V.George Mathew sir (para-phsycologist), he had read this in an old book years back, he's not able to locate the book n said that it was in mysore university library that he last saw the book.
ayya guru was not interested in material pleasures but he was trying experiment a trick taught by one of his masters, narayana guru n chattambi swamikal were his disciples during that time n they were against this idea.
Suja Sugathan said…
Great post Maddy...there are many who sacrificed for the cause of India's independence but sadly many have been pushed to the background.

with this article you paid tribute to a great freedom fighter...

He was the inspiration behind several revolutionary leaders including Rash Bihari Bose and Subhas Chandra Bose. Subhas work in Germany was a continuation of what was done by Pillai.

Bose research in German Archives between the years 1933-37 was aimed at developing a broad strategy of forming a revolutionary army from outside India and the Berlin Committee work no doubt proved as a guiding principle. But what interested me greatly was the strange coincidence. Both Pillai and Bose boldly protested against the derogatory remarks of Hitler on India unmindful of the dictators wrath . Both proved that accepting accepting German help was not surrendering their nation's honor.
Kamini said…
Fantastic post, thanks for all the effort and time you have put into it to share it with us. I am ashamed to say, I knew very little about Pillai before reading this.
Maddy said…
Thanks Murali - You are very right. As for the INA stories, I wish somebody would take off the shrouds around it, hopefully Suja who has commented as well, will do that one day

Thanks again Sharat - Intriguing indeed, the connection between Ayya Swami to all this. I will work on it a bit more & see if there is more to be dredged.

Thanks Suja - The problem with the INA stories are that what you read today is all given a Bengali tilt, and all the others except for Netaji and Chatto and a few others have faded away. In reality, I believe that there was more balance in the leadership and that Netaji was not really the all - in - all one man INA show that we hear about.

Thanks Kamini - there are so many more like him, I myself come across these things in the course of studying something else, nobody ever told me about Pillai nor did his name come up in any text book. Like everything else, history is also politicized and regionalized. Look at Indian history books, how much of Malabar history is mentioned in it, other than the great arrival or Gama?
Happy Kitten said…
Jai Hind!

So much we do not know about our history....
JPS Kohli said…
Very interesting post. I am the grandson of Dr. Mathra Singh, who was made the minister plenipotentiary in the provisional govt. of India in exile in Kabul, Afghanistan and was with Mr. Champakraman Pillai in Kabul in 1916. Some preliminary info is provided here:

drmathrasingh.blogspot.com

I am researching with a view to writing the biography of Dr. Mathra Singh and was unable to get much info on Mr. Champakraman Pillai till now. Thanks for sharing this precious gem of information.
hai maddy,
ma sam kannan from tamil nadu,now i am planning will write one tamil historical noval about cembagaraman pillai.so help me for more details.
my mail id ismasamkannan@yahoo.com
yours
masamkannan
Venkata said…
Hello Maddy,

I am Venkat, Great grand nephew (Son of Sethu Seshan) of Dr.Champaka Raman Pillai. I am thankful to you for the post about a truly forgotten freedom fighter.

Jai Hind

Venkat
Jothi said…
Hi Maddy,

I am Jothi Seshan (daughter of Sethu Seshan), Grand niece of Dr.Champakaraman Pillai.Thank you very much for this extensively researched & well written article. I am very glad to see the responses and the additional information others are sharing in this blog.

-Jothi
ROHINI said…
Sir,
Thanks for the thoroughly researched write up on Dr. Champ who was a great freedom fighter from India. It hardly matters whether he was a Malayalee or Tamilian, for he belongs to an era when the citizens took pride in being called an INDIAN rather than by their regional backgrounds.
I was greatly amazed at the data you have had access to, as most events you relate were the precious possessions of my late grandmother Mrs. Sreemani alais Nagammal, who was the niece of Dr. Champ. If only my g’ma was alive she would have been thrilled by you blog. Good job Sir.
Just a few points.(shall we say collected from my grandma’s ramblings) Dr. Champ was the son the police constable and the grandson of the physician in the royal palace.
Further Mr. Strickland was indeed in search of an alchemist. Having failed in his efforts, he was found by the roadside – a defeated and impoverished man. He was helped by Dr. Champ’s family . Later, when the independence movement was gaining momentum there was the classic movie style situation – the son standing against the Government as a freedom fighter and the father the faithful government servant as a police man. The situation got so worse, there was a prize on Dr. Champ’s head, so he was packed off abroad with the help of Mr. Strickland (again à la movie style).
My family joins me thanking you for bringing to light the life of an unsung hero.
Rohini
ROHINI said…
THANKS TO THE CONTRIBUTIONS OF FREELANCE SCHOLARS SUCH AS YOU, THE TAMIL NADU STATE GOVT. HAS REALISED THE SIGNIFICANCE OF GREAT LEADERS LIKE Dr. CHAMP & INDEED, THERE IS ONE LESSON ON Dr.CHAMP IN THE PRIMARY SCHOOL SYLLABUS.
ROHINI
Maddy said…
Thanks Rohini, Jothi, Venkata, JPSK and Hk..

I was equally happy unearthing all this data, with even more difficulty that you believe. It took me hours of work. Nice to hear that they are mostly right.
Common man said…
thank you very much for sharing this maddy
hi maddy,
im so glad to see my fore father's life history in your blog.you doing a great job sir.we are very moved seeing this article.thanks on behalf of DR.chambakaraman pillai family.Jai Hind.
zurabeth said…
Dear maddy,
have u ever have heard of emmenden ,a slang in malayalam.well that came from the name of that ship!!!!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SMS_Emden_(1908)
Ravi said…
Our history books should have details of forgotten warriors of pre-Gandhi period.

This is a well written detail about Champakaraman.

Thanks,
Ravi

http://filmbulb.blogspot.com/
http://teashoptalks.blogspot.com/
suresh menon said…
Hats off to you Maddy, truly. I came across Dr.Chempakaraman Pillai in A.Sreedhara Menon's Survey of Kerala History recently. I wanted more and you gave me more than what I wanted. Thanks so much

Suresh Menon
Maddy said…
thanks Common man, maoni, zurabeth, ravi and suresh..
glad you enjoyed this
rgds
Naveen Kumar said…
thanks maddy,
i wondered about that great legend
Maddy said…
thanks naveen
now you know
sgvignesh1987 said…
The Great Chenbagaraman 's from Knyakumari,, now its a part of Tamil nadu.. I'm from Kanyakumari and I have studied a lesson about Mr.Chenbagaraman in my Tamil Syllabus during my school days.. The unit titled as "Jaihind Chenbagaraman".. sorry i forget which grade..

- Vignesh
somsdeva said…
Thank You for this great information. There are so many great revolutionaries like V D Savarkar Who were kept in darkness by the Nehru Government.
somsdeva said…
There are so many great revolutionaries like V d savarkar who were kept in dark by Nehru Government. And one more thing Chmpakaraman pliia was not a Thamil. He was a Malayali. Kanyakumari was in Kerala that time.

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