Gandhi Account

S Balakrishnan
In Tamil there is this sarcastic phrase “Gandhi Account (Kanakku)” that links the sacrosanct name of Gandhi to irrecoverable amount/bad debt. There are two versions for this negative connotation, though the origin was well meant.
The first version is that during the Salt Satyagraha march in 1930, the eateries on the way provided free food to the participating satyagrahis; they had to only say “To Gandhi account” and it was understood and the food was given free. Thus the eatery owners also had the satisfaction of indirectly participating in / supporting the Salt Satyagraha.  However, as always, some elements misused this free offer, hence the negative connotation of bad debt to this phrase.  While Gandhi led the salt Satyagraha (Dandi March), down south in Tamil Nadu C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji, who later became the Governor General of independent India) led it from Trichy to Vedaranyam.
The second version involves two personalities - Gandhi and V.O. Chidambaram Pillai (5 September 1872 – 18 November 1936). Popularly known as VOC in short, he was a staunch freedom fighter from Tamil Nadu and disciple of Bal Gangadhar Tilak.  A lawyer by profession, VOC launched the first Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company in 1907 to contain British monopoly and to compete against it. Hence VOC is remembered for this pioneering effort as Kappalottiya Tamizhan, ”The Tamil Helmsman”.  Will the British watch this silently! They charged VOC with sedition, divested him of his barrister licence and imprisoned him (March 1908 to Dec. 1912). The most inhuman and cruel thing during imprisonment was VOC was yoked to the oil press. Because of this great sacrifice VOC is gratefully hailed as “Chekku (Oil press) Izhutha (Pulled) Chemmal (Great Person)”.
Hearing about VOC’s plight, the Tamils in South Africa pooled together some money and sent it through Gandhi when he left South Africa’s Cape Town on 19 July 1914 for England en route to India after 21 years of stay there. He reached Bombay (now Mumbai) six months later on 9 January 1915 on board SS Arabia from London. Earlier, on 5th May 1914, it seems Gandhi wrote a brief reply to VOC that though he sympathized with VOC’s plight, he was unable to raise a helpful amount of fund in South Africa for VOC. So it is presumed that VOC wrote to Gandhi seeking financial help from the Tamils there through Gandhi.  But when Gandhi at last reached Madras on Saturday the 17 April 1915, he did not handover the amount to VOC.
Though VOC was at the railway station on 17th April 1915 when the Gandhis arrived from Bombay, he could not meet Gandhi at the station. So VOC wrote a letter seeking appointment with Gandhi for a private meeting before Gandhi moved on from Madras. To this Gandhi replied on 20th April that if VOC could come at 6 AM on Friday (23th), he could spare a few minutes. Offended by the “few minutes” allotment, VOC sent a curt reply, ‘… my discussion may take more than a few minutes. I do not want to inconvenience you by my visit. Sorry to have intruded into your precious time.’  This must have pricked Gandhi’s conscience; so he replied courteously that if VOC was not interested in meeting him, he himself would like to meet VOC instead. Could VOC allot a few minutes on Friday or Saturday morning, Gandhi asked. ‘Daily between 3 and 4 PM when I meet anyone, you can as well come. Because you wanted a private meeting I allotted the morning time when I have such private meetings’, Gandhi explained. Touched by Gandhi’s explanation, Chidambaram decided to meet him at 6.30 AM on Saturday. The reason was that VOC, the swadeshi shipping pioneer, could now afford only the public tram transport that started at 5.30 AM. VOC was in such a poor financial condition! Though they met, the South Africa-raised fund was not handed over by Gandhi to VOC. This led to prolonged correspondence between them for almost one year before VOC succeeded in receiving the fund.
In one letter Gandhi enquired whether VOC had received the amount raised in South Africa and given to him (Gandhi), as he was unable to find any proof of it being sent to VOC.  Though in dire situation, VOC wrote back to Gandhi not to worry about it now as it might have been used up only for some other good cause.  But Gandhi did not accept it. ‘I do not know the name of the donors but the amount was given to me through a friend of mine and I believed till now it had been sent to you. I will enquire into it and also find the name of donors.’  VOC’s heart-breaking reply on 22nd May 1915 goes likes this- ‘…now that I know that the amount is still with you, I do not have any reason to deny it. As already explained to you in person, it is the help of a few friends in South Africa that sustains me and my family. In the present situation if I deny the amount I would be committing a wrong to myself and my family. So, whenever convenient, send the amount and help me’. VOC literally pleaded.
Now that it was confirmed that Gandhi had that amount and VOC was also ready to accept it, but yet the issue was dragging on for further several months. In response to VOC’s pleading letters, Gandhi wrote, in his usual manner, very brief replies in postcards.  Chidambaram requested for at least part of the amount which would be of great help to him. But Gandhi, a stickler for rules, was adamant in getting from Natal (South Africa) details of the exact amount, the names of donors and amount given by each of them; and Gandhi even advised VOC to be patient! In one of his replies Gandhi very sharply wrote just these two words “Not yet”! Was Gandhi in a hurry or had lost his patience? In August 1915 Gandhi conveys the same negative information in Tamil in his own handwriting.  On seeing this, the innocent Chidambaram forgot all his financial problems and wrote back in gusto that he would send his Tamil books to Gandhi if he could read them. At last the suspense ended on 20 January 1916 with a letter from Gandhi announcing ‘Information received from Natal’. The fund raised was Rs.347 and 12 annas. Out of this amount VOC paid Rs. 100 to a printing press and the rest was used to repay his loans except one of Rs. 50. In one of his books published with this fund, VO Chidambaram had gratefully listed the names of each and every South African donor for four full pages.
It was because of Gandhi’s delaying tactics the term Gandhi Kanakku (Gandhi account) is prevalent even to this day in Tamil Nadu. Gandhi Kanakku is widely used throughout South India for irrecoverable debts because people believed that Gandhi used excuses to skip it altogether, when the amount was desperately needed by VOC who endured such disgrace for the Swadeshi movement and consequentially suffered in his personal / family life.  Barred from practicing law, he moved to Chennai with his family and set up a provisional store and also sold kerosene. When his license was later restored, he moved to the southern part of Tamil Nadu to practice there. A great scholar, Chidambaram wrote many books. He was involved in labour union activities also. He was in & out of INC and finally left it once for all.
While JRD Tata is hailed as the aviation pioneer in India, the shipping pioneer VOC is almost a forgotten figure except in Tamil Nadu, as is the case in general with the hoary South Indian history which is always sidelined. Some believe that VOC was one more victim of the subtle purge of Tilak supporters in Congress to establish Gandhian authority.
While quite a few letters have been exchanged between these two personalities, not one finds its mention in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi! Not even fragments of this correspondence as in several other cases. If these letters came to light only recently, then at least the on-line version could be updated. Is someone feeling that Gandhi would squirm in his Raj Ghat Samadhi?
The writer can be reached at [email protected] / 9840917608 Whatsapp