History & Culture

Centenary of a historical assassination today

The memorial for Vanchinathan, being built at Shenkottai is still in the nascent stage. Photo: A. Shaikmohideen  

Friday (June 17) marks the centenary of the assassination of the then Tirunelveli Collector and District Magistrate Robert William D' Escourt Ashe, an event that fuelled the freedom struggle in this part of the country.

On June 17, 1911, Ashe and his wife Mary were on their way to Kodaikanal when their train made a halt at Maniyachi Railway Junction. Their first-class coach was to be attached to the Boat Mail that was to arrive 10 minutes later for their onward journey. The time was 10.38 a.m.

Two young men, one of whom was neatly dressed with tufted hair, entered the compartment where Ashe and his wife were seated. Ashe, in a relaxed mood, was conversing with his wife. One of the men fired at him from an automatic Belgian-made Browning pistol, according to a publication of the Crime Branch - Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID) released early this year.

A Tamil monograph authored by A. Sivasubramanian of Tuticorin on the Ashe murder states that after the shooting, the train started going back to Tirunelveli. Around 11.30 a.m., the Collector died of internal haemorrhage, as he lay on the shoulder of his wife.

The CB-CID publication says that having accomplished their mission, one of the men escaped and the other, chased by a crowd, got into a lavatory and shot himself dead.

The person who killed himself was the assassin - R. Vanchinathan Aiyar of Shencottah. The accomplice, Madasamy, could never be traced.

The police had charged 14 persons for conspiracy and waging war against the King Emperor.

Two of the accused committed suicide. Nine of them were convicted for various terms, the highest being seven years' rigorous imprisonment. T. Prakasam, who later became Chief Minister of the Madras Presidency and Andhra Pradesh, was one of the lawyers who defended the accused.

Pension to his widow

Even after Independence, the widow of Vanchinathan was not covered under the State Government's pension scheme for freedom fighters or their immediate dependents till 1967. It was C.N. Annadurai who, as Chief Minister, had decided to grant pension to her in June 1967, overruling objections.

The assassination took place at a time when the country was in the midst of a political upheaval. During 1908-1910, revolutionary activity was gaining ground in many parts of the country and attempts were made on the lives of Governor-General, Lieutenant Governors and government officers. The British government had followed a policy of repression.

In Tamil Nadu, the quest for freedom was becoming more and more vigorous. Three years before the assassination, Tirunelveli witnessed violent scenes following the arrest of V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, popularly known as VOC, and Subramania Siva.

The police document states that Vanchi and other revolutionaries bore a grudge against Ashe for his role in scuttling the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, established by VOC in 1906.

Renaming of junction

Kumari Anandan, former Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president, who led a campaign in the 1980s for naming the Maniyachi junction after Vanchinathan, recalls that during his visit to the State in October 1988, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi announced the renaming of the junction. Still, railway tickets do not bear the name of Vanchi. Not many trains halt at the station.

Rs.50 lakh sanctioned

A senior government official says that a memorial for Vanchinathan, announced by the previous Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam regime, is coming up at Shencottah. A sum of Rs.50 lakh has been sanctioned.

P. Ramanathan, founder president of ‘Vaanchi Iyakkam,' which is organising a function at Shencottah on Friday, complains over the slow progress of the construction of the memorial.

In an e-mail message to A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Professor of the Madras Institute of Development Studies who has carried out research in the subject, the British Collector's grandson Robert Ashe says “on this day of sad but proud remembrance,” his family would like to extend a “message of reconciliation and friendship” to the Vanchi family.

“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.”

(with inputs from P. Sudhakar in Tirunelveli)

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