On the night of 22 September 1914, Madras city was winding up another hectic day. Since the disturbances of World War 1 had not affected South India, days and nights were peaceful and as any other day, the city was getting ready for a night’s slumber, downing its lights one by one. At 9.45 pm, a ship, ‘The Swan of the East,’ slipped in stealthy and dropped anchor at the harbor.
A few minutes later, the peace of the night was shattered by the roar of cannons that aimed for British oil tanks erected on the harbor. The attack was lethal, precise and swift and in minutes, about 10 lakh liters of kerosene stocked in the tankers burst into flames lighting up Madras city as if it was mid day. SMS Emden had struck Madras!
On that fateful day, Madras had a providential escape, thanks to winds that were blowing out to the sea. Shaken by the boldness of the attack that challenged the British naval might, the people of Madras shuddered at the thought that SMS Emden had hit their city; the same ship that is believed to have caused maximum damage to its enemies in the history of naval warfare.
Even though the ship had not aimed for other parts of the city and the few shots that fell elsewhere were those that had missed their targets, the attack prompted an exodus from the city. By then, Emden had entered into the coastal waters of Kerala. It hung around the Minicoy Islands in Lakshwadeep from October 15 for five days and during that time sank five British vessels. However, enemy sailors were not left to die on the seas. A ship that was carrying sugarcane from Sri Lanka to New York, St Egbert, was captured by SMS Emden and all the enemy sailors, about 350 of them, were sent home to Kochi Harbor on it. Perhaps, inspired by this audacious impunity of SMS Emden in the waters of Kerala, ‘Emanden’ which means gigantic, huge or even demonic, became local parlance.
Meanwhile, stories began to circulate about the exploits of SMS Emden and especially about the second officer in charge of the ship, presumed to be Chempaka Raman Pillai. It is believed that the city of Madras was spared a more destructive fate because Raman Pillai was in command.
An English lady wrote during that time that some German sailors who had alighted at Kochi from St Egbert had dined at a Jew’s house. It is believed that one of them was Chempaka Raman Pillai, a man who wanted to create an anti-British army and redeem India from British rule. The attack by SMS Emden was reportedly part of the plan. Tamil Nadu still remembers the unexpected attack on the night of 22 September 1914, and stories about Raman Pillai’s exploits still do the rounds.
Eight years ago, chief minister Karunanidhi had unveiled a statue of Chempaka Raman Pillai at the Gandhi Mandapam Campus in Chennai. Kerala, however, has long forgotten the patriot, except for the word, ‘Emandan,’ which itself has lost its real meaning and continues to be used as a cheap mimicry on the valor of the man and his sincere designs for independent India.
Who was Chempaka Raman Pillai and how did he reach Germany?
There was once a small home at the same spot where the AG’s office is now situated, near the secretariat, in Thiruvananthapuram. There the family of Raman Pillai, alias Venkidi, used to stay. While studying in Model School, he rallied against the British and shouted ‘Jai Hind’ in the school campus. Fearing retribution, the frightened principal called in the police. A constable, Chinnaswami Pillai, was sent to investigate the misdemeanor of the erring kid. It turned out that Venkidi was the son of Chinnaswami Pillai.
During that time, British botanist, Sir Walter Strickland, was camping at Thiruvananthapuram and he had come to study butterflies that were found in the Western Ghats. Here, he met a boy who had presented a paper in a well-known science journal about the ability of spiders to change their color. Strickland was impressed by the skills of the 18-year boy, T. Padmanabha Pillai and took him to Europe for further studies. Along with him, his close friend and neighbor, Chempaka Raman Pillai was also taken to Europe.
Raman Pillai continued his education in Austria and went on to complete his diploma in engineering. He also graduated in public governance and economics and had a grasp over 12 languages. He lived for 20 years in Germany working in German companies in various roles. According to his wife, Lakshmibhai, he had everything to live like a king. However, his destiny would lead him to entirely different and less-fanciful circumstances in life; circumstances that could perhaps be called cruel and unfortunate.
The Emden connection
As per official records, Pillai was not aboard SMS Emden during the two months the ship was traversing the Indian Ocean. He was, as per records, involved in hectic parleys with politicians and like-minded revolutionaries. However, his wife has corroborated the assumption that Pillai had indeed alighted from SMS Emden at Kochi. With or without Pillai, the German ship must have received ample support from Indian revolutionaries. Memoirs of SMS Emden’s first officer, Lt Hellmuth von Mücke, points to this possibility.
After touching the British-Indian waters, SMS Emden had looked to depart via the Indonesian coast. Dr Douwes Dekker, an exiled freedom fighter, remembers that he had extended support to Raman Pillai to attack British India. Even the British Intelligence has gone on records saying that a ‘prominent Indian revolutionary’ had met the German ambassador to Switzerland to appraise him about the plans and strategies of Indian revolutionaries. Raman Pillai is also believed to have been close to the German emperor, according to ornithologist Salim Ali, who had mentioned his meeting with Pillai in Germany in his autobiography.
The plan to attack British India
Pillai formed a group of international pro-Indians in Switzerland, which had taken a neutral stance during the First World War. A publication, ‘Pro India’, was also launched in German and English. He partnered with Virendranath Chattopadhyaya (Chatto), brother of Sarojini Naidu, for the endeavors. John Wellinger, who was in control of the British spy network in those times, is believed to have sent a team under his deputy, ‘R,’ to finish off the revolutionaries. Pillai and Chatto however escaped to Berlin. R turned out to be the famous novelist Somerset Maugham and he later created many characters in his novels based on the life of Indian revolutionaries.
In Berlin, Chatto and Pillai were in the company of many Indian revolutionaries operating under the Indian Independence League. Keralites among them were novelist C.V. Raman Pillai’s nephew A.R. Pillai; A.C. Nanu Nambiar, son of short-story writer, Vengayil Kunjiraman Nair; and T Padmanabha Pillai, whom Chempaka Raman Pillai had accompanied earlier to Europe. Chatto and Raman Pillai (Chempak) formed the Chatto-Chempak Berlin Committee. It received support from other revolutionaries. They decided to mobilize money and weapons on Indian shores.
With the aim of driving out the British and establishing a socialist democracy in India, Pillai travelled across Europe, Asia and German colonies in Africa, incognito. The German foreign office offered money and support and many revolutionaries including, Padmanabha Pillai, returned to India to direct the war against the British.
A vessel was arranged to drop off weapons at Java, which was the closest war-neutral region near India. It was agreed that a German war ship would drop off the weapons there. Narendranath Bhattacharya was sent to receive the weapons. However, the ship did not come and the plan did not materialize. Bhattacharya later went to Moscow, changed his name to M.N. Roy and formed the Indian Communist Party with his foreigner wife.
Raman Pillai wanted to attack British India from the north-western side of Kashmir. For that he sourced support from rebel forces in Turkey and highly placed officials under the Emir of Afghanistan. The Emir was however against providing any support while his close relatives and allies agreed to provide financial help for the movement.
On July 31, 1914, Raman Pillai formed the Indian National Voluntary Corps and urged war on British India. He called on all Indians, especially Muslims and Sikhs, to fight for India. He also sent emissaries to Japan and China to forge alliances. All these activities led to the notion that he was in SMS Emden when it struck Chennai.
Swami Vivekananda’s brother, Bhupendranath Dutta, was sent to Russia to garner support for the cause. Two members were also sent to talk to US leaders. Pillai started a military camp in Mesopotamia and formed a provisional government in Kabul to look after Indian affairs when revolution would start. Raman Pillai was to handle foreign affairs of the new government.
However, all the grand plans came to nought when Germany was defeated in World War 1. In 1919, Pillai went to Germany. The Russian revolution that happened two years earlier saw many leaders, including Chatto, leaving for Russia. Chatto was later unceremoniously executed by Stalin’s army. M.N. Roy quit Marxism, pained at the cruelty perpetuated by Stalin.
Raman Pillai continued to work in a German company, but kept his efforts for Indian independence alive. He directed an exhibition of Indian products in Germany in 1924. In 1930, he became the Berlin representative of the Indian Chamber of Commerce. He was the only non-white in the National People’s Party that supported the Nazis.
The squabble with Hitler
Raman Pillai initially enjoyed a cordial relationship with Hitler, whose prominence was rising. However, during a press meet on August 10, 1931, Hitler said that if non-Aryan Indians were ruled by the British, it is their fate. This irritated Pillai. The same year on December 4, Hitler said, “Britain losing India would not augur well for any nation, including Germany.”
Miffed at Hitler taking sides with the British, Raman Pillai wrote to him thus, “You seem to attribute more importance to the color of the skin than blood. Our skins may be dark; not our hearts.”
Raman Pillai gave a deadline for Hitler to withdraw his statement and apologize. Hitler sent his secretary to Pillai to apologize, but also expressed his irritation at being attributed with a black heart. Raman Pillai retorted that Indians would tell the truth even in the face of death. One day after the deadline set by Pillai, Hitler expressed his regret for his comments; the rift between the two leaders thus developed into a complete breakdown of relations that would never be mended. In January 1933, Hitler became chancellor and in June he became an autocrat usurping power and establishing his unquestioned influence over Germany.
Nazis soon raided and arrogated Pillai’s house in Berlin. He was also manhandled and bundled out from his dwelling. He moved to Italy for treatment where it was found that blood had clotted in his brain. By that time, he did not have the financial means to afford good treatment required for his cure. His end came on May 28, 1934, in an ordinary nursing home in Italy. His wife lamented that a man who was brave enough to defy Hitler in his own land had died, unceremoniously, a broken man.
A patriot forgotten
In his autobiography, Bhagat Singh’s uncle and freedom fighter Sardar Ajith Singh had written that when Subhash Chandra Bose visited Vienna, he had visited Raman Pillai. Chempaka Raman Pillai was instrumental in inspiring Netaji to start an army and had even founded the INV before the INA was formed. However, nothing remains as a token of respect to that patriot in his own motherland. There is a statue of Netaji at Thiruvananthapuram near University Stadium. The ‘Jai Hind’ inscribed on the statue, a term coined by Raman Pillai, is all that remains that may remind us of this man who died for his nation. The clarion call that inspired many to take up arms against the British now ironically echoes the level of ingratitude his own people have for him.
The tragic death of Pillai’s widow
Lakshmibhai returned to Mumbai in 1935 with the ashes of her husband. His last wish was to return to India in a warship that flew the Indian flag. Lakshmibhai had to wait for another 32 years for that wish to be fulfilled. On September 17, 1966, INS Delhi set sail from Mumbai with Pillai’s ashes and reached Kochi on the 19th. From there it went to Thiruvananthapuram and Kanyakumari where Lakshmibhai met with her husband’s family and stayed with them for some time and then returned to Mumbai. She died in 1972. How her end came was reported by acclaimed journalist P.K. Ravindranath.
According to Ravindranath’s account, Lakshmibhai met him in 1969 and told him that she had a set of documents related to Pillai. She demanded Rs 1.5 lakh for the papers, using which he proposed to write a biography. Since he did not have the money, the plan was shelved.
Lakshmibhai was from Satara in Maharashtra and was taken to Russia by a missionary who was her stepfather. During the Russian revolution, he sought refuge in Berlin with her and that is where she met Pillai. After Pillai’s death, she ensured that Pillai’s documents did not fall in the hands of the Nazis and brought them home. She lived in constant fear that she would be jailed by the British. After Indian independence, she was allotted a flat by Morarji Desai at Church Gate in Mumbai. She lived there alone with none to help her. One day, Ravindranath was summoned by Lakshmibhai. She was weak and unwell, and said that she could not move about, but did not care to have the fruits and food that he had brought for her. She also rejected Ravindranath’s offer to arrange food three times a day.
On December 1972, Ravindranath was called by the staff of St George Hospital to identify a dead body; Lakshmibhai had died mainly due to starvation. Ravindranath identified the frail body of the wife of India’s unsung revolutionary. Her famished fingers still clenched 17 keys; she had protected her husband’s documents to her last breath.
Ravindranath immediately requested the Maharashtra CM to transfer the documents to the National Archives. Her house was soon cordoned off and in January 1973, the documents were safely transferred to the National Archives. Let us hope someone would study the documents and come out with more information throwing light on the life of Chempaka Raman Pillai.
Most of the Keralite comrades of Pillai in Berlin had returned to India during the war in order to lead an uprising against the British rule. A.R. Pillai could set foot in India only 12 years after the start of the war. He, however, was under the constant surveillance of the British secret services.
Padmanabha Pillai, who reached Thiruvananthapuram, secured a job as a curator using his contacts with the royal family. He, however, continued his political activities and his scientific pursuits. On one of his official tours, he went to the University of Bern to present a paper on his studies on frogs. On his way back, he disappeared and only his coat was retrieved from the beaches of Thailand. His belongings were later collected by his relatives from Colombo. After his father-in-law burned all his papers fearing retribution from the British, Padmanabha Pillai ceased to exist in the annals of the Indian revolutionary movement.