Chembaka Raman Pillai: forerunner of Rash Behari Bose and Subhas Chandra Bose

Unsung hero of freedom struggle who was brave enough to defy Hitler in his own land

This story is the story of that unsung hero of the Indian freedom struggle who stood at the forefront to fight for Indian Independence, even before Gandhiji, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose (NSC Bose), and many other dignitaries who got their place in the recorded popular history. He was first to coin and chant the term ‘Jai Hind’, was the forerunner of leaders like Rash Behari Bose and Subhas Chandra Bose in organizing an Indian Army abroad to wage war against the British enemies in his motherland India, and the one who had even founded the INV (Indian National Volunteers) much before the INA (Indian National Army) was formed, He is Chembaka Raman Pillai, brave enough to defy Hitler in his own land. He led a mysterious journey, during phases of world war 1 and 2, and like NSC Bose using multiple identities and locations, and hardly lasting in any location or identity. The story of Pillai’s life is an extraordinary tale that deserves to be retold, not only to bring those facts which slipped from being a part of popular history but also to portray a brave soul and an interesting personality, who left his motherland to fight for its independence in foreign land.

Early life

Chembaka Raman Pillai was born on Sept 15th, 1891 to a Tamil family in Tiruvananthapuram to Chinnasamy Pillai and Nagammal. From his adolescence, he was inspired by Lokmanya Tilak and followed his journal, Kesari, which made him thirsting for the freedom of India. Later, he vowed lifelong commitment to the cause of India’s liberation. Spirit of revolution was in his blood got evident at a very young age when he became the first to coin the term ‘Jai Hind’ and chanted it against British rule in his school campus, that of Maharaja’s college in 1907. This was the same slogan which Subhash Chandra Bose later adopted for INA.

The young Pillai came into contact with Sir Walter Strickland. He approached Chempakaraman and the two became friends. Walter was a spy to Germany who was staying in Trivandrum to collect data about the British Troops movement. He encouraged Chempakaraman to move towards Germany to fight for Indian Independence, thereby influencing and uniting the Indian and Indian warriors in Germany for the cause. Believing in his words Chempakaraman entered in NLG York, a German ship set sail to Germany on 22nd Sept 1908. He first reached Italy and where he got an opportunity to study at the Berlin School of Languages. Thereafter, he continued his education in Switzerland and ended it in Germany. He earned two doctorates in Engineering and Economics. He became proficient not just in English, French, and German but in 12 different languages.  From his student life, he began to speak and address Indians through various stages. His speeches were against the British Empire through which people clearly began to understand what the British have been doing in India. These speeches gradually made him a leader among the promising Indians who loved to listen to his speeches. During his student days in Berlin, he founded India International Committee that campaigned for India’s liberation. He was also able to secure employment in the German foreign office.

Anti-British and Revolutionary Activities

Pillai came into prominence when in 1914, Europe entered the first world war. It is believed that at this time he was a part of the German navy and was appointed on a German light cruiser “Emden”. Taking advantage, he launched a direct attack on the British by using a navy vessel. For this purpose, he came to Chennai in a disguise to collect secret information about the oil depots, explosive depots, and the naval base of the British navy. It  helped to attack the British naval base and its oil tanks in Chennai on 24th September 1914.During the World War I (1914-1918) phase, he intensified his activities and founded the Indian Independence Committee and the Indian Voluntary Corps. He also established an army camp in Mesopotamia from where he aimed to form secret contacts with Indian nationalist leaders. Verinder Grover in his book Europe and India’s Foreign Policy (1992), praised Chempakaraman Pillai as one of the prominent young south Indian among those Indian revolutionaries who in the foreign land attempted to seize the opportunity to enlist the German support for India’s fight for Independence. He established contact with the German Embassy in Zurich. In 1914, the International Pro-India Committee came into existence, with Pillai as the president and Zurich as headquarters. The aim was to guide and control all pro-Indian revolutionary activities in Europe. Pillai also began to run a monthly magazine Pro-India, in English and German language which aimed to highlight the glorious past of India and put forward the Indian view of the world to the German people. He and Virendranath Chatopadhyay, Brother of Sarojini Naidu also founded Chatto-Chempak Berlin Committee, which later combined to form the Indian Independence Committee. His organization played a key role during The Hindu-German conspiracy which involved India’s revolutionary exiles in the US and Europe. His ultimate goal to urge war against Britishers led to the birth of the Indian National Voluntary Corps. He called all groups of Indians Sikhs, Muslims to fight against Britishers. He also encouraged Indian recruits in the British Indian army to turn their guns against Britishers and raise a revolt. He sent representatives to Japan and China to forge alliances for the cause of Indian Independence, such as Bhupendranath Dutta (Swami Vivekananda’s brother) was sent to Russia and two other leaders were sent to US leaders to secure their support. He succeeded to secure the support of rebel forces in Turkey and highly placed officials under the Emir of Afghanistan. Military camp started in Mesopotamia and the provisional government in Kabul became key to look after Indian affairs when the revolution would spark. It was during the war phase when Germany was looking for allies and succeeded in their efforts with the establishment of the provisional government of India in Kabul in December 1915. Here, Maulana Barkatullah became the prime minister, Obaidullah Sindhi, and Chempakaraman Pillai had to look after the home and foreign portfolios respectively. The plan was to bring 20,000 Turkish and German soldiers to Afghanistan and assist Kabul and then along with the Indian Army launch an upsurge against the British Raj Northwest Frontier. German King wanted Chempakaraman to be the First prime Minister of free India. However, all hopes of Indian revolutionaries got shattered with the German defeat in World War1. During the postwar period, Pillai worked for different positions in German companies but kept his efforts for Indian independence alive. He also supported the idea of Swadeshi and directed an exhibition of Indian products at the International fair in 1924, held at Leipzig in Germany. He became a representative of the Indian Chamber of Commerce in 1930 in Berlin. During this phase he tried his best to promote the trade of India swadeshi goods with Germany, thus playing a significant role in Indian industrial development.

He was also known to print and drop pamphlets from airplanes among the Indian soldiers in France, encouraging them to turn against “Fourteen Points” proposed by Woodrow Wilson, then President of the United States. He came up with his own Eight Point proposal for Indian independence where he demanded even the French and the Portuguese to leave the country. In the year 1919, he with American author Edwin Emerson founded the League of Oppressed People favoring the right and freedom of every individual to shape his own domestic institutions and determine their relations with others. All the marginalised, including the slaves and those suffering from racist attacks were supposed to receive help from the oppressed people’s Association. This cause led him to Batavia, Burma, China Egypt, Turkey, America, and South Africa and gaves speeches on people’s oppression due to Colour, religion or ethnicity. Wherever he went, he tried his best to secure the support of leaders from different countries for the Indian struggle for Independence. He was awarded for his services to the world, but popularity brought him more Enemies who were always trying hard to catch him. It was to escape being attacked by enemies that he had to change his identity and passport and travel to California in America and then to South Africa where he conducted various debates and gave speeches to people there. When the British reached South Africa to catch him, he left and went back to Germany again. His revolutionary activities caused great headaches to the Britishers who announced a reward of 1 Lakh Pounds for whoever brings them Chempakaraman Dead or alive. Spies were continually following him.

On the foreign land, he met many famous and infamous personalities, including Gandhiji, Nehru, ACN Nambiar, Motilal, and Jawaharlal Nehru, MN Roy, Chatto, NSC Bose, Kaiser, Hindenberg, Hitler, and many others in the Nazi party. Indian Leaders who visited Germany generally dined with him at his house which became a platform to discuss and plan the Indian struggle for Independence. Freedom fighter Sardar Ajith Singh in his autobiography mentioned the meet of Subhash Chandra Bose and Chempaka Raman Pillai which became instrumental in foundation INA by NSC Bose. Sreedhara Menon, also mention: A Survey of Kerala History (2007), that Subhash Chandra Bose met Chempaka Raman Pillai in 1933, and presented the idea of Indian National Army in case of outbreak of another World War.

Clashes with Hitler and mysterious death in Berlin

After the close of world war1, Pillai established working relations with Hitler in the hope of securing military assistance from him against the British Raj in India. He was the only non-white man in the Pan-German Nationalist party, who had an honorable and respectable position despite possessing his shiny black complexion. He had a close friendship with important Generals named Hindenberg and Ludendorf. Pillai was then active in the German Fatherland Party. And even when he died in Berlin, he remained one of the very few Indians in Germany. However, his friendship with Hitler did not last long, by the 1930’s he got disturbed with Hitler’s derogatory remarks against Indians and his statements over colour in his books and speeches. Hitler opinionated that Indians deserved to be ruled by the British as they were non-Aryans due to their brown Skin. During one of his press meets on August 10, 1931, Hitler said that “if non-Aryan Indians were ruled by the British, it is their fate”. On the same year on 4th December at another occasion, Hitler said, “Britain losing India would not augur well for any nation, including Germany.” This irritated Pillai, he was offended by the derogatory remarks on Indians and finally chose to protest. Annoyed at Hitler taking sides with the British, Pillai wrote to him thus,  “You seem to attribute more importance to the colour of the skin than blood. Our skins may be dark; not our hearts.”. Pillai gave Hitler a deadline to withdraw his statement and apologize. He received Hitler after a Day he fixed as a deadline. Though Hitler apologized, but also expresses his irritation over being attributed with a black heart. Following this incident, the rift between the two turned into a complete breakdown of relations forever. Soon after Hitler became chancellor in 1933, Nazis raided Pillai’s house in Berlin, manhandled and bundled him out from his house to confiscate his property. This incident hurt Pillai deeply and probably caused his tragic death as per the fantastic legend surrounding his death. According to the legend Pillai was given slow poison by Nazis. Though this story could not be substantiated, but this fact remained intact that he died in Nazi Berlin in 1934, and we also have the details of his last journey. Immediately before his death, Pillai discloses his wish to his wife Lakshmi that his ashes should be sprinkled in his own motherland at “Nanjilnadu” (Kanyakumari district) and the Karamana River in Thiruvananthapuram. Muthiah writes in his book Madras Miscellany (1992) that His wife brought his ashes to India and in 1966 she immersed them in the river Karamani during a Government-sponsored event held with full state honors. His wish was fulfilled after three decades of his mysterious death in Berlin on May 28th, 1934. Chempakaraman’s brother, Padmanabhan Pillai, was also in Germany but disappeared without leaving a trace. In 1991, the Tamil Nadu government promised to erect a memorial to Pillai which finally filled 2008, the then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi unveiled the Pillai statue at the Gandhi Mandapam in Adyar, in present-day Chennai.


Author biographical note

Vaishali is a PhD scholar at the Department of History, University of Delhi. She has received a Post-graduate degree in Modern History from Jawahar Lal Nehru University. She is the member of the Board of Trustees of Save The Heritage Foundation (STHF).


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