Indo-Lanka Voyages: Revisiting VOC’s great legacy

On 14 October 2023, the long awaited ferry service between India and Sri Lanka was green-flagged. It is after four decades that the regular ferry service is being restarted.

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[ Photo: iStock]

by Santosh Mathew

On 14 October 2023, the long awaited ferry service between India and Sri Lanka was green-flagged. It is after four decades that the regular ferry service is being restarted. The journey will involve three hours of sailing under favourable conditions. The Shipping Corporation of India (SCI) will be operating the ferry service. The service presents an opportunity for coastal Sri Lankans and inhabitants of Tamil Nadu to travel between at a low cost. It invites cross-country tourism as well. The vessel is named ‘Cheriyapani,’ and it can accommodate 150 passengers.

Each passenger is allowed to carry luggage of up to 40 kg, included in the ticket. The one-way ticket costs about Rs.7,670 inclusive of taxes. With secure and open transit being established, the maritime relations that the regions had in the early 1900s are also rejuvenated. The IndoCeylon Express, which operated between Chennai and Colombo via Tuticorin port, was suspended in 1982 due to the civil war in Sri Lanka. In 2011, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on passenger transport by sea.

This momentous step has led to the resumption of ferry services. Before the Sri Lankan Civil War, one of the most successful ferry services was between Dhanushkodi in Rameswaram and Thalaimannar. Those from Chennai had to catch the Boat Mail Express at Egmore Railway Station to Rameswaram Jn. and then board the ferry to Thalaimannar which took about two hours to reach its destination.

The ferry service between India and Sri Lanka mandates a throwback to the popular icon amongst the Tamilians known as ‘Kappalotiya Tamilan.’ Literally translated as ‘the Tamil Helmsman,’ this was the affectionate name given to one of the greatest symbols of Tamil esteem, VO Chidambaram Pillai. VOC Street is a name found in every nook and corner of Tamil Nadu. There are VOC streets right up to the city of Chennai and even in the hamlets of rural Tamil Nadu. VOC’s history pans from his courage to question authority and by implementing the will of the people. He had challenged the British monopoly by forming his own shipping company in the field of cargo shipping.

Chidambaram Pillai was nicknamed the ‘the Tamil Helmsman’ because he was at the helm of a native ship service from Tuticorin to Colombo in what was then Ceylon. Chidambaram Pillai was born on 5 September 1872 at Ottapitarat in present-day Thoothukudi district. During the partition of Bengal in 1905, Vallinayagam Olaganathan Chidambaram Pillai came to be known by the acronym VOC after joining the national freedom movement. Having completed his education in Thoothukudi, Tirunalveli and Tiruchirappalli, VOC also acquired knowledge of the English language.

After passing the law examination, he established close ties with the stalwarts of the nationalist movement. Mahakavi Subrahmanya Bharati was one of the mentors of the VOC, whose teachings remained imbibed in VOC’s core, especially during his days of struggle. From the beginning, Chidambaram Pillai’s orientation was towards the radical position of the Indian National Congress. Attracted by Bal Gangadhara Tilak’s radical ideas and the Swadeshi movement, VOC formed the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company and went around the country collecting resources to buy ships.

At last a French ship was acquired and the ship service was commissioned to start from Tuticorin to Colombo at a negligible cost. This posed a serious challenge to the British India Steam Navigation Company’s international shipping business. Even though the British decided to operate a cheaper service, they couldn’t contain the flow of passengers towards VOC’s ships. VOC had already taken the ownership of S.S. Galia and S.S. Lao. Eventually, the British were able to capture VOC’s company, but only after compromising the cost of the travel, making it absolutely free.

The story of the destruction of the VOC Company is the greatest example of the imperialist policy – of monopolising the market and crushing local businesses through whatever means available, even if it meant giving away freebies. The charges that VOC had levied for the voyage were a mere half of the one rupee British sail. As passengers continued to flock to the VOC Company, the first privatelyowned shipping company in Indian history had to be made a pauper, by crooked giveaway tactics.

The moment VOC challenged the British India Steam Navigation Company’s monopoly in shipping, it was termed anti-national. The British then tried, in a number of ways, to choke VOC, including stripping him off of his legal liaisons, on charges of treason. In 1908, the British judiciary sentenced him to a double life sentence, 40 years all, for committing sedition. His shipping company was sealed and the ships were auctioned off. Chidambaram Pillai, who was imprisoned in Coimbatore Jail, was transferred to Kannur Central Jail on parole.

VOC faced brutal physical torture until his release from prison in December 1912. He was assigned to forced labour, including replacing oxen in an oil mill. By the time VOC was released, he had become chronically ill. Meanwhile, the British government had declared bankruptcy on the heavily indebted Swadeshi shipping company. The British did not allow the released VOC to come to Tirunalveli or to his hometown.

He had to spend the rest of his life in Madras with his two children. Nevertheless, he was a devoted nationalist for the cause of the freedom struggle and played a significant role in uniting and organising the fishermen community. On 18 November 1936, at the age of 64, VOC, the pride of the Tamils, died in the Congress office in Tuticorin. Tuticorin, one of the largest ports in the country, is named after VOC in memory of the Tamil Helmsman. VOC’s cause was above all economical in its nature, and his fight was against economic monopolisation.

He demonstrated a type of indigenous resistance that bore all the qualities of a healthy business rivalry, except that his competitors were also masters. VOC showcased a strong case of politico-economic resistance to the Raj, and his long correspondences with Aurobindo, Subramanya Bharati and Gandhi are enough proof of this.

Source: The Statesman

(The writer is an Associate Professor Centre For South Asian Studies, Pondicherry Central University, India.)

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