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Those old links

Connectivity appears to be purely geographical. But it can be made and unmade by the politics of the time. A highly-connected South Asia fell apart once the political lines were drawn

Udayan Das Published 27.02.24, 06:33 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. File Photo

In October 2023, a passenger ferry from India sailed the waters between Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu and Kankesanthurai in Jaffna after four decades. This route is one example of the historical routes and corridors that existed in South Asia irrespective of state borders.

South Asia was a remarkably connected space during the colonial period. In the absence of hard borders, the connections facilitated interaction among people, dialects and customs. Unfortunately, much of this connectivity was also a product of an insatiable colonial economy and unrestrained political authority. An interconnected South Asia thus evokes trauma for some and nostalgia for others.


Connectivity appears to be purely geographical. But it can be made and unmade by the politics of the time. A highly-connected South Asia fell apart once the political lines were drawn. Several connections were severed because the new states wanted to undo the colonial legacy. Some were deemed politically unviable because of new equations. Lastly, they suffered on account of political conflicts.

Take the case of the ferry service between India and Sri Lanka. The route between Chennai and Colombo goes back by more than 100 years. Trains would take passengers from Chennai to Tuticorin and then steamships would head towards Colombo. Once the Pamban bridge connected Rameswaram and Mandapam in 1914, the Boat Mail made its journey from Chennai to Dhanushkodi. A ferry from Dhanushkodi would take the passengers to Talaimannar. There was a Fortnight Mail that would make the journey from Talaimannar to Colombo.

The first dent on this busy route was during the Great Depression. This was follow­ed by the increasing demands in erstwhile colonies for nationalising land and resources. Indian emigrants, mainly plantation workers, were the central targets. The new
political order in South Asia after formal decolonisation meant that labour had to be domesticated for the cau­se of the national econo­my. In Ceylon, an Indian was a foreigner who took the share of jobs of Sri Lankans. In Burma, an Indian had disproportionate land assets that marginalised the native population. In and around South Asia, Indians also re­presented uniform-clad Bri­t­ish soldiers who were repressing nativist movements. With time, these connections died. Whatever remained were stubbed out by political conflicts.

The route between Chennai and Colombo continued to be operational till 1964 when a devastating cyclone destroyed the Dhanushkodi railway station. However, the death of this route was truly ensured by the civil war in Sri Lanka. The few trains that ran after the Partition across Bengal, the East Bengal Express and the Barishal Express, were stopped in the wake of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan. These trains connected Calcutta to Siliguri and Dibrugarh with the mighty Padma and Meghna rivers as the middle point. The connection between Chittagong and Dibrugarh via Lumding also ended. The western frontier was no different. The Sindh Mail, which connected Ahmedabad to Pakistan’s Hyderabad, was stopped after the 1965 conflict. The connection between Bombay and Karachi also ended in 1965 when the tracks were bombed.

The revival of these routes rests on two issues. First, they need to be economically and geographically viable. New connections would be sustainable if they catered to the existing ties of kinship, culture and religion in South Asia. However, they have to be logistically incentivised. It is not an adequate incentive that the present Nagapattinam-Kankesanthurai ferry is not priced any less than that of a Chennai-Jaffna flight. Second, such corridors should not be marred by bureaucratic excesses and overt military control. The waters between India and Sri Lanka remain a troubled zone of trespassing by fishers. Connectivity in modern South Asia risks being symbolic than instrumental unless the challenges are resolved.

Udayan Das is Assistant Professor, St Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Calcutta

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