Colour of India

Colour of India

Wednesday, June 22, 2011



History presents the pleasantest features of poetry and fiction—the majesty of the epic, the moving accidents of the drama, and the surprises and moral of the romance”----Willmott


During the last five days all the English and Tamil newspapers and magazines have been full of news relating to the Centenary Anniversary of the great revolutionary Vanchinatha Iyer who assassinated the then Tirunelveli Collector and District Magistrate Robert William D' Escourt Ashe, a member of the Indian Civil Service (ICS, also known as the ‘Steel Frame’ of British India) at Maniachi Junction on June 17, 1911. On that day Ashe and his wife Mary were on their way to Kodaikanal when their train halted at Maniachi Junction, Vanchinatha Iyer along with his accomplice Madasamy entered The First-Class Coach in which the English couple were travelling and fired a few shots from his Belgian-made Browning Pistol, killing Collector Ashe on the spot. The time was 10.38 am on June 17, 1911. Immediately thereafter Vanchinatha Iyer ran out of the Railway Coach and hid himself in a public toilet and shot himself dead. Madasamy absconded from the spot and could not be traced ever thereafter.

The police found a letter on Vanchinatha Iyer’s body, which suggested a political conspiracy behind the murder. It read as follows, '' Every Indian is at the present time endeavoring to drive out the Englishman who is the enemy of [our] country and to establish ‘Dharma ' and liberty... we 3000 Madrasis have taken a vow. To make it known, I, the least of them did this day commit this act. ''

The Madras Police had charged 14 persons for Criminal Conspiracy and waging war against the King and Emperor.

Vanchinatha Iyer, was a Brahmin who hailed from Shencottah which was then a part of Travancore State. The Police search of his residence brought out more letters which threw more light on the conspiracy. Those letters referred to one Arumugham Pillai who had been in close touch with Vanchinatha Iyer. He was traced and the British Indian Police got out of this weak-kneed man loads of information. Later he was taken as approver. Another close associate Somasundaram was also traced and taken as approver.

The 14 persons criminally charged by the Police in the Ashe Murder Case were

1) Neelakanta, alias Brahmachari, a Brahmin youth of twenty one, a journalist, fiery patriot and person of considerable persuasive skills and charm, and the leader of a conspiracy to murder Ashe.
2) Sankarakrishna Iyer, a young farmer ...
3) Madathukadai Chidambaram Pillai (no relation of VOC), a green-grocer ...
4) Muthukumarasami Pillai, a pot vendor in his forties…
5) Subbaiah Pillai, a lawyer’s clerk...
6) Jagannatha Ayyangar, a young cook...
7) Harihara Iyer, a young merchant
8) Bapu Pillai, a farmer... .
9) V. Desikachari, a merchant...
10) Vembu Iyer, a cook…
11) Savadi Arunachalam Pillai, a farmer...
12) Alagappa Pillai, a teen-aged farmer...
13) ‘Vande Matharam’ Subramania Iyer, a schoolmaster, and
14) Pichumani Iyer, a cook.

The above 14 persons were a motely crowd of young men in their twenties who were aflame with the fire of unquenchable patriotism who wanted to drive the English from the shores of India in order to liberate Bharath Mata from the British yoke.

In the normal course this criminal case would have been tried by the District and Sessions Judge at Tinnevelly. But in view of the great political importance of this case involving the assassination of an ICS English Collector, the then Madras Government ordered the case to be transferred to the High Court of Madras. I acknowledge my debt to my friend Mr. Randor Guy and very distinguished film critic and historian for the following details relating to the Ashe Murder Case which he narrated in a brilliant article 2 years ago.

In the Madras High Court A Full Bench of three judges consisting of Sir Arnold White, then the Chief Justice of Madras, Mr. . Justice Ayling, and Mr. Justice C. Sankaran Nair (later Sir C. Sankaran Nair) tried it as a special case. The case not surprisingly attracted both national and international attention.

C. F. Napier, Public Prosecutor assisted by T. Richmond and A. Sundara Sastrigal appeared for the Crown.  Neelakanta the first accused was defended by a British Barrister, J.C. Adam. Another Barrister, a brilliant and mercurial Indian, a great patriot and future leader who gave away his wealth and all for his native land, Tanguturi Prakasam appeared for Sankarakrishna and three other accused.

The Prosecution case was that the conspiracy was initiated by Nilakanta as early as April 1910 when he toured places like Thenkasi and conducted meetings in secret. Here he exhorted people to take cudgels against the alien rulers and strain every nerve, sinew, and cell to drive away the Englishman out of Bharat Varsha. During such meetings he met and made friends with Vanchinatha Iyer who felt drawn to Nilakanta at once.

The meetings held were understandably in secret and had all the characteristics of a secret society with its own rituals and rites. One witness Arumugam Pillai who had turned approver described it thus... '' There was a picture of Goddess Kali. There were red powder (kunkum), sacred ash (vibhuthi), and flowers. On the floor sat four or five people in a line. Nilakanta sat a little away and wrote on sheets of paper. We put that red powder into water and made a solution of it and each of us applied it on the paper. Now it was the white man's blood... on the top of the paper ‘Vande Matharam’ was written... We should kill all white men…. We must sacrifice our lives, person, and property for this society. But whoever reveals the affairs of this society, he shall go to hell and he will be killed.... As we drink the red powder solution, now to us it is the white man’s blood.... ''

The Ashe Murder trial was a prolonged affair and the hearing at Madras High Court went on for nearly five months from September 1911 to January 1912. It was a unique trial indeed in many ways. The Final Judgment of the Full bench of the Madras High Court was not unanimous. The two English Judges Justice Sir. Arnold White and Justice Ayling delivered a joint judgment while Justice Sankaran Nair delivered his own.
Justice Sankaran Nair was a fervent nationalist who wanted India to be a free country. To quote the words of Randor Guy in this context : “He wrote a brilliant judgement, which serves as an excellent resource material for the history of the Indian Freedom Movement of the period. Justice Nair even translated into excellent English the famous patriotic song written by Subramania Bharathiyar, '' Endru thaniyum intha suthanthira dhaagam…” - ' “When will this thirst for liberty and freedom be quenched...” So wrote the Judge whom in later years would he fight for the country's freedom! The song was banned by the British but musicians and such continued to sing it in public with the fear of arrest lurking in their bosoms!”
Justice Nair came to the conclusion that the charge of murder had not been legally proved against the accused while he held the charges of waging war against the King proved against Nilakanta and another accused Sankarakrishnan but not the rest.

Finally the Court by a majority decision awarded Nilakanta seven years rigorous imprisonment and Sankarakrishnan was given four years. The remaining accused was sentenced to varying terms of lesser imprisonment.

Vanchi came to be hailed as a martyr and found a place in the Roll Call of Honor of the Indian Freedom Movement. Many years after India became free an agitation was put up successfully by locals to name the MANIYACHI RAILWAY JUNCTION after Vanchi as homage and tribute to his revered memory.

As Randor Guy has brilliantly and succinctly observed: “Those were the days when the seeds of the struggle for freedom sown during what was miscalled ‘the Indian Sepoy Mutiny’ of 1857, had begun sprout glowingly all over the sprawling British- ruled India. Many young men fired by the blaze of national spirit burst on the horizon spreading the message of freedom in secret, and also openly, committing acts of protest to tell the world what they sought. Some called them ' misguided youth ', and some branded them as ' traitors’ but they were neither. Indeed they were the heroes of the Indian Freedom Movement. They laid down their precious young lives at the altar of their motherland, Bharatha Matha. The stirring story of one such group of noble patriotic sons of Mother India, which spun round the murder of a British civilian officer, came to be known as ‘ Ashe Murder Case’. It occupies a place of honour in the history of the Indian Freedom Movement.”

The man who trained and inspired Vanchinatha Iyer to assassinate Collector Ashe on June 17, 1911 was Neelakantan. Neelakantan who came subsequently known as Nilakanta Bramhachari, and later became Sadguru Omkar was born at Erukoor in Thanjavur District on 4th December 1889. Right from the days of his youth he was drawn towards revolutionaries like Aurobindo Ghosh who had become the ideal of the Indian youth between 1900 and 1910. It was he who trained the revolutionaries like Vanchinatha Iyer to take to the path of armed struggle to throw the English out of India. After the murder of English Collector Ashe at Maniachi Junction in 1911, Nilakanta Bramhachari was arrested by the Police and brought to trial. He was sentenced to 7 years rigorous imprisonment by the Madras High Court in 1912 and he was released from prison only in 1919. He was re-arrested and put in prison in 1922 for continuing his seditious and treasonable activities. He was released from prison in 1930 and thereafter he quit politics and devoted the rest of his life to spiritual self-realization.

Nilakanta Bramhachari alias

Sadguru Omkar
(1889 – 1978)
Picture courtesy:Akshaya Prakashan.

After wandering over different parts of India as an itinerant monk, Nilakanta Bramhachari came to lower Nandi Hills in 1936 and settled there for the rest of his life. He renovated a dilapidated Shiva temple in that hilly area and made it the centre of his ashram. From this place he carried on his spiritual activities, helping poor people around and teaching seekers. After 1936, Sadguru Omkar devoted his life to spread the message of Atma Vidya of which he became a Supreme Master. During this period, prominent persons like Mahatma Gandhi, Justice Nittoor Srinivas Rao, Sitaram Goel etc., met him and discussed with him many issues of spiritual import. Sadguru Omkar died of heart attack on Mar 4, 1978 at the ripe age of 89. It is a tragedy of India’s public life today that such a fearless patriot and freedom fighter as Nilakanta Bramhachari has been forgotten and consigned to oblivion.

I am presenting below a very rare picture of Collector Ashe and his wife below (left to right in the picture below). We can also see the picture of his grandson Robert Ashe (third from the left in the picture below).


Collector Ashe was murdered by Vanchinatha iyer on June 17, 1911. Hundred years have gone by after that fateful day. Immediately after that tragedy, Mrs.Ashe went back to her country with her 4 children—2 daughters and 2 sons. Thanks to the initiative, enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity of Prof. A R Venkatachalapathy---a very perceptive historian--- we have come to know that Robert Ashe, a grandson of Collector ashe of Tirunelveli and Maniachi fame now lives in Ireland. Robert Ashe has sent a letter through email to Prof. A R Venkatachalapathy which states as follows:

"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." 

The mail also makes it clear that the above message was proof-read by one grandson, one granddaughter, the wife of one grandson and one great-grand-daughter, who were all present at the residence of grandson Robert Ashe on the evening of, 15 June, 2011.

The other relevant and related facts presented by Prof. A R Venkatachalapathy are that Robert Ashe's mother (daughter of Tirunelveli Collector Ashe) died three months back. A Memorial meeting dedicated to her memory was held at the residence of Robert Ashe in Ireland on the evening of 15th June 2011. At that meeting all the members of the family who were present on that day, jointly decided to send an email proclaiming the message of peace, fraternal friendship and reconciliation to Prof. A R Venkatachalapathy.

1886-1911                                                                                      1778-1803
    ROBERT EMMET OF INDIA                                                         VANCHINATHA IYER OF IRELAND

I was seized by a sudden spasm of emotional enthusiasm when I saw that Robert Ashe, the grandson of Collector Ashe, has sent his email to Prof. A R Venkatachalapathy from Ireland. Vanchinatha Iyer(1886-1911) laid down his life for the sacred and lofty cause of India’s Freedom at the age of 25 in 1911. Likewise, exactly 108 years earlier, a great Irish revolutionary called Robert Emmet (4 March 1778 – 20 September 1803) laid down his life for the cause of Irish Freedom from British yoke. Robert Emmet was an Irish nationalist, orator and rebel leader born in Dublin, Ireland. He led an abortive rebellion against British rule in 1803 and was captured, tried and executed for high treason. Before he was executed on 20 September 1803, Robert Emmet declared for all time: “Let no man write my epitaph; for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance, asperse them. Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain un-inscribed, and my memory in oblivion, until other times and other men can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done. “

When I see the email radiating the message of peace and goodwill sent by the grandson of the assassinated Collector Ashe to Prof. A R Venkatachalapathy last week, I am reminded of what Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (AD 56 – AD 117)  had to say about the CHIEF OFFICE OF HISTORY. Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories—examine the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors. These two works span the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Augustus in AD 14 to (presumably) the death of Emperor Domitian in AD 96. The following quotation of Tacitus is absolutely relevant to this context: “This I hold to be the Chief Office of History, to rescue virtuous action from the oblivion to which a want of records could consign them, and that men should feel a dread of being considered infamous in the opinions of posterity, from their depraved expressions and base actions”.

The email sent by the grandson of the assassinated Collector Ashe to Prof. A R Venkatachalapathy clearly brings out the cardinal truth contained in the following timeless quotation from the writings of George Bancroft (1800-1891)
“Each generation gathers together the imperishable children of the past, and increases them by new sons of light, alike radiant with immortality.”

1 comment:

J.P Josephine Baba said...

A new information. whether I got Robert Ashe email address Sir?