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The long-awaited ferry service between India and Sri Lanka started on October 14, 2023. It is after four decades that the regular ferry service has resumed from India to Sri Lanka. The journey will be completed in three hours under favorable conditions. The Shipping Corporation of India (SCI) will operate the ferry service. It provides an opportunity for the people of Sri Lanka to travel to Jaffna and Tamil Nadu at a low cost. The vessel used as for the service is called Cheriyapani. The ferry can accommodate 150 passengers who can carry luggage weighing up to 40 kg for free. The one-way ticket price is Rs 7670 inclusive of taxes.
The maritime relations of the early 1900s have been restored through this initiative. The Indo-Ceylon Express, which operated between Chennai and Colombo via the 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 was followed by the resumption of ferry services. Before the Sri Lankan Civil War, one of the most successful ferry services operated between Dhanushkodi in Rameswaram and Talaimannar. Travellers from Chennai boarded the Boat Mail Express at Egmore Railway Station to Rameswaram and then boarded the ferry from there to Thalaimannar, which took about two hours.
The ferry service between India and Sri Lanka, popularly known as ‘Kappalotiya Tamilan’, is the nickname of one of the greatest symbols of Tamil self-esteem, VO Chidambaram Pillai. VOC Street is a name found in every nook and corner of Tamil Nadu. There are VOC streets in the city of Chennai, and even in the hamlets of Tamil Nadu V.O.C streets are named after Chidambaram Pillai. VOC challenged the British monopoly by forming his own cargo shipping company. Chidambaram Pillai was nicknamed the “Sailing Tamil” 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 5th September 1872 at Ottapidaram in present-day Thoothukudi District. During the partition of Bengal in 1905, Valliappan Ulaganathan Chidambaram Pillai became known as VOC after joining the national freedom movement. Having completed his education in Thoothukudi, Tirunelveli, and Tiruchirappalli, VOC also acquired knowledge of the English language. After passing the barrister examination, he established close ties with the stalwarts of the national movement. Mahakavi Subrahmanyam Bharati was one of his mentors.
From the beginning, Chidambaram Pillai’s orientation was towards the radical position of the Indian National Congress. Attracted by Balagangadhara Tilak’s radical ideas and the Swadeshi movement, VOC formed the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company and went around the country raising resources to buy ships. Finally, a French ship was acquired and the ship service started from Tuticorin to Colombo at a low cost. This posed a serious challenge to the British Indian Steam Navigation Company’s international shipping business.
Although the British launched a cheaper service to Virali Punta more passengers chose the VOC’s ships. Eventually the British were able to capture the VOC’s company by declaring this sea travel route free.
The story of the destruction of the VOC company is one of the examples of the imperialist policy to monopolize the market by crushing the local companies. The VOC charged only half that of the cruise fare which the British company had set at one rupee a head. As passengers continued to flock to the VOC company, the first privately-owned shipping company in Indian history was declared free of charge and umbrellas. The VOC soon became anti-national in the eyes of the British after breaking up the British Indian Stream Navigation Company’s monopoly on shipping. They then tried, in a number of ways, to choke it and to press charges of treason against its founder.
In 1908, a British court sentenced VOC to a double life sentence of 40 years for sedition. His shipping company was closed and the ships were auctioned off. Chidambaram Pillai, who was imprisoned in Coimbatore Jail, was transferred to Kannur Central Jail on parole. He faced brutal physical torture until his release from prison in December 1912. The VOC staff were assigned to forced labor, including turning the wheel like oxen in an oil tanker. The VOC was released as a chronically ill person in poor health. Meanwhile, the British government had declared the heavily indebted Swadeshi shipping company bankrupt. The British did not allow the released VOC to return to Tirunelveli or to his hometown. He spent the rest of his life in Madras with his two children. Even after his release from prison, he participated in the freedom struggle and organized mill workers. On November 18, 1936, at the age of 64, VOC died in the Congress Party office in Tuticorin. Tuticorin, one of the largest ports in the country, was named after the VOC in memory of the sailing Tamil.
It can be said that the VOC was perhaps the first Indian to demonstrate indigenous resistance to monopoly in all sectors of the British Empire. This nationalist traveled the country on behalf of his own company and received deep support from Sri Aurobindo, Subrahmanya Bharati, and Mahatma Gandhi. The VOC is an icon of Tamil pride.