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Madras miscellany: The Ashe murder

Vanchinatha Iyer. Photo: Special Arrangement

Vanchinatha Iyer. Photo: Special Arrangement  

A little over a year ago, the then Government of Tamil Nadu stated that it would build memorials to honour three persons who had “heroically fought the British”. I don't know whether the memorials have come up or not, but if the memorial to Vanchinatha Iyer had come up by now in his native Shenkottai, Tirunelveli District, as promised, it would have been appropriate for this year is the centenary of his killing of Robert Ashe, the Collector of Tinnevelly District, a crime that was the cause célèbre of the time.

Ashe had played a significant part in bringing about the closure of the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, started by V.O. Chidambaram Pillai to take on the British India Steam Navigation Company that had for long monoplised trade in the southern part of the Bay of Bengal. He had also been responsible for charging VOC and a colleague Subramanya Siva with sedition — for which they were convicted.

The Pondicherry branch of V.D. Savarkar's Abhinav Bharat Society (New India Society), led by V.V.S. Aiyar — it could not function in the Madras Presidency being a banned organisation — decided to make Ashe pay a price for his actions. And Vanchinatha Iyer was its instrument.

On June 17, 1911, Ashe and his wife Mary were on their way to Kodaikanal on holiday. Their exclusive first class coach was detached at Maniyachi Junction in order to be attached to the Boat Mail which was expected a few minutes later. Suddenly, two men burst into their compartment and one of them fired from close range at Ashe, who was busy chatting with his wife, killing him on the spot. While his accomplice fled into the safety of the crowd that had gathered at the station to get a glimpse of the Collector Dorai (in those days, considered all-powerful in the district), the other ran into a lavatory on the platform and, when cornered, shot himself dead. He was identified as Vanchinatha Iyer of Shenkottai. The 25-year-old was the son of a forest guard.

Among the papers found on Vanchinatha Iyer's body was one which read: “Every Indian is at the present time endeavouring 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. Make it known, I, the least of them, did this day commit this act.”

The letter had the police suspecting a conspiracy and they searched Vanchinatha Iyer's house. Letters found there led to a trail of a plot that had been hatched by a Neelakanta Aiyar, from a village near Sirkali, in conjunction with members of the Abhinav Bharat Society in Pondicherry. Warrants against V.V.S. Aiyar, Subramania Bharati and others in Pondicherry, then French territory, could not be executed. Neelakanta Iyer and 13 others were charged with conspiracy to murder and waging war against the King Emperor.

Because an Englishman was killed, a three-judge bench, led by the Chief Justice, conducted the trial. The accused were defended by J.C. Adam, a leading British barrister, T. Prakasam, later to be Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, T.M. Krishnaswami Iyer, later to be Chief Justice of the Travancore High Court, M.B. Devadoss (later a Justice of the Madras High Court), and others. All 14 accused were found guilty and given sentences ranging from seven years to a couple of years. A five-judge bench heard the appeal and confirmed the sentences.

Justice C. Sankaran Nair, one of the three-judge Bench, delivered a different judgement from the others, even quoting Subramania Bharati in translation: “When will this thirst for liberty and freedom be quenched…. .” He found the accused not guilty of the charge of murder and only a couple of them guilty of waging war against the King. The five-judge bench included Justices Abdul Rahim and P.R. Sundara Iyer. While the three British judges were for dismissing the appeal, Justice Rahim wanted all the appellants released and Justice Sundara Iyer expressed doubts about the conviction but would not commit himself further.

Neelakanta Sastri, a journalist who had published several anti-British journals from Pondicherry and had had them smuggled into the Madras Presidency, was only 21 when the 93-day trial began. Over 100 witnesses were examined. After his release from prison, Neelakanta Sastri took himself into the wilderness and became an ascetic. Vanchinatha Iyer is remembered only in a railway station name-board — Vanchi Maniyachi Junction.

Madras or Chennai?

With Madras Week coming up, R. Somasundaram wants to know which came first, Madras or Chennai?

The earliest reference to Madras is in a document dated July (August?) 22, 1639. It begins by stating, “Firman granted by Demela Vintatedre Nague unto Mr. Francis Day, chief for the English in Armagon, in behalf of the Honble Company for the trading and fortifying of Medraspatam, to this effect as follows…”

The only earlier records available are those of the Portuguese who were in this area by the 1520s, and there is no mention of any such name in them. But from the firman it may be inferred that Medraspatam already existed by that date.

The first reference to Chinapatam is found in a firman of 1652. But in 1800, Indologist Col. Colin Mackenzie obtained a genealogy of the Damarla family which he titled ‘History of the Polygar of Calestry' (Kalahasti). And in it, Daumel Comar Chinapa Naidu (father of the ‘Vintatedre Nague' — Venkatadri Naik — mentioned above) is stated to have founded “the Village of Chinai(k)upom, now called Chinapatam or Madras.” Now that would mean Chinakupom, from which grew Chinapatam, existed before 1639. Here again the Portuguese records make no mention of Chinapatam or any variations of the name.

There is much more to add to the confusion, so it would be best if it was accepted that both names have been used for the same place from 1639. In fact, as I have often said before, even in British times official documents in Tamil referred to Chennai, which the English documents called Madras.

When the postman knocked…

*C. Venuprasad, a Past President of the Association of British Scholars writes to tell me that I was remiss in not remembering a couple of its contributions to mark ‘Madras 350' in which “you were one of the moving spirits”. Yes, time flies and with it memories of things past. Venuprasad, however, has not forgotten that the ABS organised two seminars that year, 1989, as its contribution to the commemoration. The seminars looked at Madras's contribution to various fields in India, such as Education, Engineering, Medicine, Law and Art. These seminars inspired the ABS's three-volume history of Madras, subject-wise, the first volume of which came out a couple of years ago, published by Palaniappa Brothers, and the second volume of which will be out in the next couple of months. The other ABS contribution in 1989 that Venuprasad reminded me of was a compilation titled Madras, Its Yesterdays, Todays and Tomorrows, which I had edited. Ever since, ABS has been a keen participant in Madras Day/Week celebrations. And this year will be no different.

*The rare family name Vakkusa (Miscellany, June 21) still survives in Madras in a variation, K. Niaz Ahmed tells me. His co-brother, he writes, is Vakkas Mohaideen Maraikkayar of Maraikkayarpattinam near Mandapam in Ramanathapuram District. Other members of the Vakkas family live in Madras — and claim to be the only family with the name Vakkas. Their ancestors, Niaz Ahmed was told, came from Arabia and were seafarers and shipbuilders. He promises more information about the Vakkas family who had once showed him newspaper clippings featuring the ship's bell in the Wellington Museum in New Zealand. That bell, given its size, must have been the bell used “to summon the sailors for the five times mandatory prayers,” writes Prof. M. Abdul Rahim. He adds that there used to be a prominent businessman called Habeeb ‘Arasar' (the ‘Arasar' being a title bestowed on him locally in recognition of his eminence) who carried on a lucrative trade with Southeast Asia. Habeeb Arasar, Prof. Rahim adds, owned a ship called Mohideen Bux that was wrecked on the high seas.

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Printable version | Aug 6, 2020 2:38:52 PM |

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