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The Revolutionary who turned Assassin

Robert William d’Escourt Ashe, of Anglo-Irish lineage, was a civil service officer of India’s colonial regime, serving as the collector of Tirunelveli, the southernmost district of the Madras Presidency in 1911. On the 17th of June that year the thirty-eight-year-old Ashe, along with his wife Mary Lillian Patterson, boarded his exclusive first-class coach of the Maniachi Mail at Tirunelveli Junction at 9.30 a.m. The couple was on their way to visit their four children who lived in Kodaikanal. On arrival of the train at Maniachi Junction at 10.38 a.m., the coach was detached, to be attached to the Ceylon Boat Mail Express due to arrive from Tuticorin in another ten minutes.

As the couple sat chatting in the stationary coach, a smartly attired young man, with neatly groomed hair, approached it along with a dhoti-clad companion. He boarded the coach, leaving his companion behind, and pulling out a Belgian-made Browning automatic pistol, shot Ashe point-blank in the chest. Ashe collapsed instantaneously, and the crowd which had gathered on the platform to catch a glimpse of “Collector Dorai” (the local term for British collectors) didn’t hear the sound of the shot because of a howling wind. Stepping out of the coach, the shooter bolted across to the lavatory on one end of the platform, while his companion disappeared into the crowd. The assassin was later found dead, having shot himself through the mouth. His pistol was found empty, meaning that he had loaded the weapon with just two rounds, one for Ashe and one for himself.

A note found on his person identified him as R. Vanchinatha Iyer, aged 25, hailing from Shenkottai. The contents of the note made it amply clear that the individual was no criminal, but a dedicated revolutionary, who had deliberately chosen to act the way he did, killing Ashe and taking his own life. He asserted through the note that he alone was responsible for his acts and was dedicating his life as a ‘small contribution’ to his ‘Motherland’. He invoked the wickedness of the British in enslaving India and trampling over the ‘Sanathana Dharma’ of the land and stressed the need for every Indian to try and drive out the British to attain ‘Swarajyam’. The note went on to state:

“Three thousand Madrasees 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.

Vande Mataram. Vande Mataram. Vande Mataram.”

Vanchinatha Iyer or Vanchinathan, as he is popularly referred to, was the son of Raghupathy Iyer, a former employee of the Travancore Temple Board, and Rukmani Ammal. After his schooling in Shenkottai, he took up employment as a forest guard. He was married to Ponnammal and had a girl child that died in infancy. Since his suicide note indicated explicitly that he was politically motivated to kill Ashe, the police were convinced that there had to have been a conspiracy behind the act. The search of Vanchinathan’s house revealed incriminating documents that pointed to a plot masterminded by Neelakanta Iyer, who had been recruiting cadres for extremist action against the British in the Madras Presidency since 1910. Vanchinathan’s brother-in-law, Shankar Krishna Iyer, who was a close associate of Neelakanta Iyer in his activities, helped him draw Vanchinathan into their fold. The trio, inspired by the ideals of revolutionary nationalism professed by leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Veer Savarkar, founded an organization called “Bharatha Matha Sangam”, with the objective of assassinating influential Britons. They collaborated in their mission with a similar Pondicherry-based organization called “New India Society”, a branch of Veer Savarkar’s “Abhinav Bharat Society” that was banned in Madras Presidency, championed by diehard revolutionaries like V.V.S. Aiyar and Subramania Bharati. V.V.S. Aiyar, a scholarly revolutionary, who was also shrewd in planning and executing assassination plots, is believed to have actually trained Vanchinathan for the mission.

The investigators surmised that the motive for the murder was linked to the political upheavals that shook Tirunelveli District three years ago, during 1908. Tirunelveli was one district in the Madras Presidency where nationalist sentiments ran high, ever since the Swadeshi movement began drawing popular support within the Presidency, following the partition of Bengal by the colonial regime to stem the tide of rising nationalism in 1905 that invited the wrath of nationalists all over India. Spearheading the unrest there was the firebrand nationalist and freedom fighter V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, popularly known as VOC. Unlike many nationalists who chose to challenge the British hegemony through symbolic means, VOC went at it the big way, challenging the monopoly of the British in shipping by launching the “Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company” that successfully competed with the “British India Steam Navigation Company”. Unable to digest it, the authorities played dirty, economically manipulating the closure of the Indian company. Robert Ashe, as the principal official involved, had a lot to answer for that deceitful act. In late 1907, VOC organized political meetings in Tuticorin and elsewhere in Tirunelveli District, aided by a fiery orator Subramania Siva, raising the pitch of the anti-colonial fervour in the region to a new high. February 1908 saw around 1000 workers of the Coral Mills of Tuticorin go on a strike. The government retaliated, enforcing a ban on assembly of people through Section 144 of CrPC, while reinforcing its police force. With no sign of the strikers relenting, Ashe, as the official in charge, called a meeting with VOC. In the face of the unyielding stand by the workers and their leaders, he was forced to meet their demands. In all probability, Ashe considered it a personal affront. As the nationalist meetings continued and while a ‘Swarajya Day’ was being planned by the organizers to celebrate the release of Bengali freedom fighter Bipin Chandra Pal from prison, Ashe found the right opportunity to exact revenge. VOC, along with his associates Subramania Siva and Padmanabha Iyengar, was arrested, charged with sedition and convicted. (The 1961 movie, “Kappalottiya Thamizhan”, with thespian Sivaji Ganesan in the lead role, based on the biography of VOC written by M. P. Sivagnanam, celebrates the life and times of this great patriot.)

Robert Ashe’s involvement in all these misdeeds as the District Collector did not go well with the New India Society in Pondicherry and they assigned the task of killing him to Vanchinathan, who was fired up with revolutionary zeal and was an earnest volunteer for any such mission. The conspiracy theory identified 16 individuals involved and issued arrest warrants against them. Two of these warrants, for V.V.S. Aiyar and Subramania Bharati, could not be served because they lived in Pondicherry, which was French territory. Nevertheless, in later years, the British had a sizeable posse of spies and policemen deployed in Pondicherry. Apart from the remaining 14, two others, Dharmaraja Aiyar and Venkateswara Aiyar, afraid of being betrayed and caught, committed suicide, the former by taking poison and the latter by slitting his own throat. Vanchinathan’s companion on the fateful day, who escaped after the shooting, believed to have been an individual named Madasamy, was never found. The 14, which included Vanchinathan’s original mentor Neelakanta Iyer, were charged with conspiracy to murder and waging war against the King Emperor. The trial, which lasted 93 days and examined over 100 witnesses, was held at the Madras High Court by a three-judge bench presided by the Chief Justice. The principal counsels for the defence were J.C. Adam (a leading British barrister), T. Prakasamm (a future Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh), T.M. Krishnaswami Iyer (a future Chief Justice of the Travancore High Court), and M.B. Devadoss (later a Justice of the Madras High Court). Although the conspiracy theory was never fully established to the absolute satisfaction of the bench, all 14 were convicted and sentenced to terms ranging from a couple of years to seven years. A five-judge bench later heard their appeal and confirmed the sentences.

The verdict of the three-judge bench was not unanimous. Justice C. Sankaran Nair differed from the rest and found none of the accused guilty of murder and only a few guilty of waging war against the King Emperor. He even quoted Subramania Bharati, “When will this thirst for liberty and freedom be quenched….?” Similarly, in the five-judge bench, while the British judges wanted to dismiss the appeal, Justice Abdul Rahim wanted all appellants released and Justice Sundara Iyer expressed doubts about the conviction.

Vanchinathan’s father, an orthodox Brahmin, refused to collect the body of his son, citing the sacrilege of his committing suicide and no Hindu rites were performed by the family. The Government of Tamil Nadu has built a memorial for this zealous nationalist at his native town of Shenkottai, in commemoration of the centenary of his death, and the Maniachi Railway Station, where he shot and killed Ashe, has been renamed “Vanchi Maniachi Junction” in his memory. Yet, he remains less remembered than some of his contemporary revolutionaries like VOC or Subramania Bharati, maybe because, in his far-too-short life, all he could accomplish was the singular act that became the cause celebre of the time. Sadly, casteist aspersions have been cast on his legacy from some quarters in recent times, which is unfair and unwarranted, because notwithstanding the religious overtone of his suicide note, no one can deny that Vanchinathan was a highly motivated nationalist, who readily sacrificed his life in the cause of India’s freedom; a legend in his own way, long before the names of Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh entered the country’s patriotic lore.

The fellow officers of Robert Ashe erected a tombstone for him at the English Church, Palayamkottai, where he was buried. A memorial for him, in the form of an octagonal mandapam set in a garden, was built by the Tuticorin Municipality at the eastern end of the Great Cotton Road. The funding for creating this memorial at a cost of roughly three thousand rupees was realized entirely through forced subscriptions from Indians.

Mary, Ashe’s wife, returned to Ireland with her four children, Molly, Arthur, Sheila and Herbert, aged 12, 10, 8 and 6 respectively, to live in her hometown Exeter, on pension. She never remarried. Arthur was commissioned in the Indian Army and retired as a colonel in 1947. Herbert was killed in action during the Second World War, serving with either of the two armies, British or Indian. The two girls, Molly and Sheila, remained spinsters for life, probably overshadowed by the trauma their mother could never really get over, of having seen her husband being murdered right in front of her eyes. Mary passed away in 1954. Arthur, the only one of her four children to have got married, named his son ‘Robert’ after his father.

Interestingly, noted historian, Prof. A. R. Venkatachalapathy, writing in the Frontline Magazine of his meeting with Robert Ashe (the grandson) in Ireland in 2006, speaks of how he found the latter in a reconciliatory mindset and ‘how time can erase historical bitterness if only people choose to.’ In a laudable gesture, he even reached out to Vanchinathan’s family on the 95th anniversary of his grandfather’s killing, through an email that read: “On this day of sad but proud remembrance, we, the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Robert William Ashe would like to extend to the family of Vanchi Iyer, a message of reconciliation and friendship. Vanchi was an idealist political campaigner whose zeal for the freedom of his beloved India sent Robert to his early grave. Moments later, he took his own young life. All who act fervently in the political arena, both ruler and oppressed, risk making mortal mistakes, and we who are fortunate enough to live on, must forgive and live in peace together.”

Vanchinathan’s nephew, Harihara Subramanian, responded to the email with equal warmth. This is how he expressed his thoughts to a publication: “This is both of their Death Anniversary. There was no personal enmity between them. Fate has tied them like this. Both of them did their duties. I want to shake hands with the family of Ashe. I welcome them to my home any day”.

There couldn’t be a more humane closure to a tragic episode.

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Brig V A Subramanyam
Brig V A Subramanyam
1 year ago

Extremely well written. It is an unbiased account of the exploits of the oppressed Indians, who took a long time to respond violently to the enslavement that had been enforced on them. Thank you for the enlightening article.

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