Violent revolutionary incidents, although not widely talked about in South India or South Asia during the British rule, often occurred and provided revolutionary support for the liberation of South Asians. One such incident was the political assasination of Robert William d’Escourt Ashe I.C.S, who was the acting Collector and District Magistrate of the Tirunelveli District during the British Colonial rule, by Vanchinathan Iyer. Fondly called “Vanchi” by his coterie, Vanchinathan was a Tamil Indian revolutionary who fought for India’s independence from the colonial rule.
Born in 1886, Vanchi hailed from Sengottai, a small town in Tamil Nadu, a South Indian state. Vanchinathan completed his education there and later on took up a government job. He got acquainted with V.O. Chidambaram Pillai (VOC) and the duo were with the same mindset to fight against the colonial rule.
In 1906, VOC launched India’s first shipping enterprise and named it Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company in order to challenge the colonial rule that imposed strict rules to suppress the domestic shipping and forwarding industry in the region. Unable to bear the low wages paid to the laborers by a management firm A&F Harvey, which was wittingly backed up by Ashe, a non-cooperation movement was organized by VOC and as a result, VOC was arrested for creating an agitation. He was further slapped with a strenuous punishment of forty years imprisonment and jailed in Palayamkottai.
Without an iota of doubt, it was likely this whole arrest drama was orchestrated by Ashe. Further, not only did Ashe destabilize the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company but issued a shoot-at-sight order on the anti-colonial protestors if there were any protests against VOC’s arrest. While imprisoned, VOC was beaten black and blue and experienced torture for his anti-colonial activities.
The arrest of VOC created fury among freedom fighters since VOC wanted to help Indian labourers and drive the British out, and this prompted Vanchi to take action. By holding secret meetings among his peers within Tamil Nadu, Vanchi promised to take out Ashe. The assassination was not only planned by Vanchi himself; it also involved Nilakanta Brahmachari and Shankara Krishna Iyer (Vanchi’s brother-in-law). Together, these three formed the “Bharatha Matha Sangam” to suppress the powerful British colonizers.
Ashe was appointed as the Collector of Tirunelveli and played a significant part in closing the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, which was an anti-colonial enterprise that economically uplifted Indians. He was also an essential figure in trying to crown King George V, which further enraged anti-colonial activists, including Vanchi.
This rage led to the assassination of Ashe on June 17, 1911. On this day, Robert Ashe and his whole family boarded the 9:30 AM Maniyachi Mail at Tirunelveli Junction where they were on their way to Kodaikanal. Approximately at 10:40 AM, the train stopped at Maniyachi, and Vanchi boarded the train. He later shot Ashe point blank on the forehead. Moments later, Vanchi rushed into a bathroom in the train station and committed suicide, leaving the following letter that explained his motive to kill Ashe:
“I dedicate my life as a small contribution to my motherland. I am alone responsible for this. The mlecchas [foreigners] of England having captured our country, tread over the Sanatana Dharma of the Hindus and destroy them. Every Indian is trying to drive out the English and get swarajyam and restore sanatana 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 mleccha (barbarian), and one who eats the flesh of cows.
Three thousand Madrasis [South Indians] 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”
The plot to assassinate Robert Ashe was done with the help of Varahaneri Venkatesa Subramaniam Aiyar. Aiyar, a law graduate, was also involved in activities to fight against the British rule in India. From escaping to Paris and returning to Pondicherry in disguise, Aiyar was fighting against the British Rule for India to gain independence. Vanchi and Aiyar worked closely to kill Ashe. The murder of Ashe was a warning to the British who planned to crown and celebrate George V.
The aftermath investigation consisted of finding letters at Vanchi’s house where it was revealed that 14 other men were also behind the killing of Ashe. The Ashe Murder trial went on for nearly five months from September 1911 to January 1912. Two English Judges, Justice Sir. Arnold White and Justice Ayling, delivered a joint judgment on the case while Justice Sankaran Nair delivered his own judgement. Justice Nair delivered an eye-catching statement where he translated a famous patriotic song into English; “Endru thaniyum intha suthanthira dhaagam…” – ‘ “When will this thirst for liberty and freedom be quenched.” Dead at 25, Vanchi Iyer came to be hailed as a martyr, and he was one of the first freedom fighter in South India to assassinate a British figure. Maniyachi Railway Junction was named after him to honor his life.
Image Credit: Parivel / Note: The artist is not in anyway affiliated with SAHF or this article.