April 5 is celebrated as the National Maritime Day of India since 1964. On this day in 1919 navigation
history was created when SS Loyalty, the first ship of the Scindia Steam Navigation Company, journeyed to the United Kingdom. Our national maritime legacy and icons should be cherished to commemorate this day
Maritime dimension of India’s history has largely been
neglected. This probably stems from the enormous distance between India’s coasts and New Delhi, the seat of power. Consequently, despite possessing a rich maritime heritage, which is envied by the globe, most of India’s citizens are unfortunately, ignorant of this dimension. Similarly, consequent to India’s early skirmishes with Pakistan and China across its land frontiers, the maritime dimension of India’s security has remained largely ignored. It also needs to be appreciated that any country’s status in the comity of nations today is largely dependent on its capacity to influence events far away from its frontiers. This capacity primarily stems from its
maritime strength. Hence India has to look for its rightful place in the global arena, it has to reorient its focus towards the oceans and for that nothing better than recalling our rich maritime heritage.
Indians are by and large personality- oriented and we tend to look at the history through the prism of individuals rather than events and hence it is essential that we recognise our maritime icons and acquaint our citizens with them. It is not that we need to invent them, we already have individuals, who but for our
maritime oversight should have been household names.
It is ironic that the oldest civilisation with maritime links and sea-going vessels was the Indus Valley Civilisation. The oldest dry dock in the world exists in Lothal in Gujarat, which is well designed dock with complete arrangements for ingress and egress of water from the dock. This indicates our linkages with the oceans. Of course, Vedas are full of references to the oceans. Lord Varuna has numerous invocations in his name.
In recorded history, both Kautilya in his Arthashastra and Megasthenes clearly talk about a full-fledged department of shipping under the Mauryas as early as 321 BC. Indian traders were trading with Egypt, Syria and Rome through ships. Emperor Ashoka sent his son Prince Mahendra by ship to spread Buddhism in Sri Lanka. However, the farthest expanse of Indian political influence was achieved under Chola dynasty. Its greatest ruler Rajendra Chola 1 is undoubtedly one of India’s earliest maritime icons. He built a very strong navy and captured Sri Lanka, parts of Burma, Thailand and almost entire Malayan peninsula and present day Indonesia. It permanently established Indian influence in these parts of South East Asia. It is therefore ironical that many Indians outside Tamil Nadu know very little about this great warrior.
Similarly Kunajali Marakkars, admirals of Zamorin of Calicut in sixteenth century comprehensively defeated Portuguese, the then dominant maritime power in the Arabian Sea, in numerous maritime battles off the West coast of India and Sri Lanka. They are significant icons in their own right, as they were the first defenders of Indian coast from European colonial powers. However, hardly any Indians outside Kerala know these valiant warriors.
After Kunjali Marakkars, it took two centuries for any Indian to emerge as the defender of Indian coast against the European colonial powers. It was another maritime icon Saradar Kanhoji Angre, the famous Maratha admiral, who
recognised the significance of maritime power and built a strong navy, to counter the Europeans. He defeated not only the British, but also the Dutch and the Portuguese. He built a modern navy, employing many European mariners. However, his contribution has not
adequately been highlighted by Indian historians. Similarly, Siddis of Murud Janjira, who remained invincible in their unique impregnable citadel till the very end, despite numerous attempts by British, Portuguese and even Marathas to subdue them, are maritime icons.
However, India’s maritime icons
cannot only be admirals or warriors. Shipbuilding is an important component of maritime power and India had a rich tradition of shipbuilding, especially those with wooden hull. The Indian ship
building industry was systematically destroyed by the British by imposing penalties on Indian ships and their builders. However, despite all the
impediments, Wadia shipyard alone built over 355 ships for the East India Company in 150 years, including many warships. The founder of Wadia Shipyard in Bombay Lovji Nusserwanjee Wadia is undoubtedly a major maritime icon of India. The oldest warship afloat was built in Wadia Shipyard. If this expertise had not been systematically destroyed by the British, India would have been a major maritime power. After the British had successfully destroyed Indian shipping and shipbuilding industry, another
maritime icon Hirachand Walchand, a great nationalist, established an Indian shipping company Scindia Steam Navigation Company. He went on to set up a modern Indian shipyard in Visakhapatnam, whose foundation stone was laid by Dr Rajendra Prasad in 1941. His endeavours to re-establish Indian shipping on the world map have been noteworthy. The first ship acquired by the company was on April 5, 1919 and this day is therefore commemorated as National Maritime Day.
After independence, Indian attempts to regain its position as preeminent
maritime power has created new icons. Vice Admiral RD Katari, the first Indian Naval Chief, Admiral SM Nanda under whose stewardship the daring attack on Karachi by missile boats was launched and Admiral SN Kohli, who laid the foundation of a modern Navy by
acquiring ship from Soviet Union are maritime icons in their own right. Similarly, Admiral RD Pereira, who is widely adored for his impeccable
standards of financial probity and moral integrity, is an icon for having set norms and code of conduct for a fledgling navy. Commodore A Paulraj, who designed the first indigenous sonar in the face of extreme adversity, is an icon in the field of maritime technology and innovation. He has subsequently been recognised globally for his revolutionary contribution in the field of wireless technology.
Similarly, CP Shrivastava, the first Chief Executive of Shipping Corporation of India, who went on to serve as the Secretary General of International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and established International Maritime Academy and International Maritime Law Institute, is an icon of modern India. Commander Dilip Donde, who circumnavigated the world solo and Lieutenant Commander Abhilash Tomy, who achieved the same feat nonstop, a rare achievement, are
maritime icons for today’s youth
This list is by no means comprehensive and many more deserving heroes may have been left out, but it highlights the all-pervasive ignorance about our icons. It is essential to educate our populace about their immense contribution, so as to increase our maritime awareness.
(The writer is Director India Foundation and Adjunct Professor at NDIM)