In the long history of the Indian freedom struggle, there were many individuals and organisations, who fought the British in their own way in the path they thought best suited them.
While there are questions raised on the path chosen by those illustrious warriors, there is hardly any doubt about their ultimate goal, which is freedom of their motherland.
However, in the case of revolutionary Vanchinathan, who killed a British tax collector, the aim of his act is questioned and insults are hurled at him.
At a very young age, Vanchi killed Tirunelveli collector Robert William d'Escourt Ashe on this day (17 June) 109 years ago, and sacrificed his life for the cause of the freedom movement. He could not have imagined that his very motive will be questioned today, and people will cast aspersions on such a daring act.
The incident happened in Maniyachi Junction (now Vanchi Maniyachi). Ashe along with his family was resting on the Tirunelveli-Maniyachi Mail, which was stationed on platform number 2. They were waiting for the Indo-Ceylon Boat Mail, which comes from Tuticorin (Thoothukudi) en route to Madras (Chennai). Ashe and family were travelling to Kodaikanal.
Two young Indians, who were on the same train, moved from the second class compartment towards the first class compartment, where the collector and his family were.
One of them was standing near the door and the other went in. Ashe realised something was wrong and threw his hat at the person, who had entered the compartment. But the man took out his pistol and shot him on his chest. He then jumped onto platform number 2 and ran towards its end, his accomplice following suit.
Ashe’s peon Kadharbadsha jumped on him and both of them were seen fighting. He then pushed Kadharbadsha down and ran towards the lavatory. By that time, his accomplice had run away through the fields adjacent to the railway station. Some of the railway policemen surrounded the lavatory. One of them with a gun went inside. There he saw the young man had shot himself dead. A letter recovered from his pocket mentioned his name as Vanchi Iyer from Sengotttai.
The letter goes like this:
I dedicate my life as a small contribution to my motherland. I am alone responsible for this.
The mlechas of England having captured our country, tread over the sanathana dharma of the Hindus and destroy them. Every Indian is trying to drive out the English and get swarajyam and restore sanathana dharma. Our Raman, Sivaji, Krishnan, Guru Govindan, Arjuna ruled our land protecting all dharmas, but in this land, they are making arrangements to crown George V, a mlecha, and one who eats the flesh of cows.
Three thousand Madrasis have taken a vow to kill George V as soon as he lands in our country. In order to make others know our intention, I who am the least in the company, have done this deed this day. This is what everyone in Hindustan should consider it as his duty.
I will kill Ashe, whose arrival here is to celebrate the crowning of cow-eater King George V in this glorious land which was once ruled by great samrats. This I do to make them understand the fate of those who cherish the thought of enslaving this sacred land.
I, as the least of them, wish to warn George by killing Ashe.
VandeMataram. VandeMataram. VandeMataram
R. Vanchi Aiyar, Shencottah
The police traced out Vanchi’s family, his friends and those who were part of the revolutionary movement. Based on the information collected, they charge sheeted 13 people including one Neelakanta Brahmachari, who was said to be spearheading the movement.
What was this movement and what was their objective?
In the Tuticorin of 1900s — Tirunelveli region was the hotbed of the freedom movement. Subramanya Bharathi, V O Chidambaram Pillai (VOC), Subramanya Siva were the leading lights of the movement.
VOC started the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company and was running it successfully. He also owned a few of the swadeshi mills and other organsiations.
He was also leading the labour movement against the British. This had angered the British government who unleashed a series of actions against him. Ashe was the collector in Tuticorin then. He was ruthless in crushing the swadeshi movement and created lot of trouble for Bharathi and VOC. He was instrumental in arresting them and putting them in jail, citing anti-government activities.
When people started protesting against the arrest of these leaders, he even ordered shooting of peaceful protesters. One of his targets was VOC’s shipping company.
In one instance, Ashe apparently visited VOC’s steam navigation company at their closing time of 6pm and demanded some documents. When he was told that the senior officer’s approval is required, he threatened the staff with dire consequences including closure of the company.
Eventually, due to this continued pressure and absence of VOC who was in jail, the company had to be closed down. VOC himself mentioned in his autobiography that Ashe was one of the reasons for the closure of his shipping company.
When the junior sub-assistant in Jail asked me if you know Ashe, I told him that I know Ashe very well. He asked me how. ‘He is the reason for me being here and death of my shipping company in Tuticorin’ was the answer given by me.
When the young freedom fighters of the region were agitated due to these arrests and crushing of the swadeshi movement, Neelakanta Brahmachari visited Tenkasi in 1910. He was from Puducherry and a major participant of the revolutionary freedom movement.
He stayed in the house of ‘Madathukadai Chidambaram Pillai’. Brahmachari was also friends with Sankarakrishna Iyer (who was later found by the police as the accomplice of Vanchi in Maniyachi).
Through both of them, he managed to get a sizable number of people to join his revolutionary ‘Bharatha Matha Sangam’. They met multiple times during Brahmachari’s visit and vowed to kill the British officials.
Police collected a number of letters, pamphlets from those who participated in the movement in Tirunelveli region and apprehended most of them. Two of them, Dharmaraja Iyer and Venkateswara Iyer, committed suicide when police tried to capture them.
One of them Madasamy Pillai, escaped to Puducherry and from there he was helped by Bharathidasan to take a ship to Malaya. The rest were all arrested including Neelakanta Brahamchari, who surrendered to the police in Calcutta (Kolkata).
During the investigation it was revealed by the confession of Somasundram Pillai, who was part of the movement, that Vanchinathan killed Ashe to avenge the arrest and torture of VOC and Subramanya Siva.
Based on the statement, the court concluded the Bharatha Matha Sangam was responsible for the assassination of Ashe. As the leader of the movement, Neelakanta Brahmachari was handed down seven years of rigorous imprisonment. Apart from him, Sankarakrishna Iyer who accompanied Vanchi, Harihara Iyer and Madathukadai Chidambaram Pillai were also convicted and sentenced. Rest were all acquitted.
However, the killing of Ashe is not an isolated incident that happened in a corner of the country. It had links with the national revolutionary movement.
Abhinav Bharati Samiti, which was a revolutionary movement founded by Veer Savarkar, was determined to attain freedom through the means of armed rebellion. Va Ve SuIyer joined the movement in 1907 in London and became its vice-president.
When Savarkar was arrested in 1910, Iyer escaped from London and reached Puducherry. From there, he continued his activities and was in constant touch with the revolutionaries. This included Paris Indian Society. Madam Cama, who was a founding member of the society, sent lot of communications to spread the revolutionary movement in India, and also sent weapons to carry out their activities.
One particular event that irked these activists was the coronation of George V in India. Madam Cama in particular had written a number of letters asking the young Indians to launch a series of protests during the event.
During this time, Vanchinathan travelled to Puducherry to meet Neelakanta Brahmachari. However, Brahmachari was away at that time, so he met Va Ve SuIyer, who gave him shelter. As he found Vanchi a courageous man, he trained him in shooting, gave him one of the guns sent by Madam Cama and incited him to kill one of the British officials.
Vanchi, who was already trying to avenge the troubles VOC had undergone and faced the shutting down of his shipping company, used this opportunity to kill Ashe.
It was in this connection his letter mentioned the coronation of George V as an unacceptable act which triggered the killing.
In fact, killing of Ashe was praised by Madam Cama later, who mentioned “while the slaves of the country are procrastinating (sic) before the England king, two courageous youth of the country showed their valour in Maniyachi & Mymen Singh”.
This clearly points out that the killing of Ashe had broader links with the national revolutionary movement.
In spite of all these, there are sections in Tamil Nadu who criticise Vanchinathan as casteist and attribute the killing of Ashe to “his acting against Brahmins”. There is a section who does ‘veera vanakkam’ in Ashe’s memorial overlooking his role in crushing the swadeshi movement.
They even claim that the murder was religious in nature. Nothing was farther from the truth. If one goes by most of the revolutionary communication during that time, it invariably mentioned about Sanatana Dharma and how the British were trying to destroy our culture and religion.
Vanchi’s letter was no different from this. It also must be noted that Ashe being a friend of oppressed castes was just a fable and had no backing whatsoever. Some point out to the word ‘panchaman’ in the letter and say it is casteist.
The word denotes ‘five’ (George V) which was a common dialect during those days to call out the numbers. It is laughable that some find such reasons, of which not a word was found by British during their investigation and in the case history.
While one may criticise Vanchinathan for the way he had chosen to fight the British, there is absolutely no doubt about the goal. This was a political assassination as corroborated by evidence and the communications found in relation to that.
Hence it is important to recognise the revolutionary freedom fighter in Vanchinathan. The least we can do is not to ridicule the sacrifice which was made with a noble intention.
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