Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Remembering the great patriot and his valour at Maniyachi Jn



வீர சுதந்திரம் வேண்டி, தம் இன்னுயிர் ஈந்தார் தமை போற்றுவோம்

The King-Emperor vs Nilakanta Alias Brahmachari  and others was a sensational case before the Madras High Court  on 15 February, 1912.  In this case fourteen persons were tried by a Special Bench of this Court, constituted under Section 6(6) of the Indian Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1908, for an offence, and the arguments centered around ‘Evidence Act’  "competent to investigate the fact". It is unfortunate that there was no adequate inquiry before the Special Bench as to how far Inspector was an authority legally competent to investigate the facts relating to the murder of Mr. Ashe. The Deputy Inspector-General of his Department,  was a witness, but he was never asked any question at all as to the Inspector's competency to investigate. The result the Bench recorded that – ‘we are obliged to deal with the case on very imperfect information as to the facts’.  Fourteen persons were tried on charges under Section 121 A, Indian Penal Code, and Section 302, Indian Penal Code, read with Sections 109 and 111, by a Special Bench of three learned Judges (the Chief Justice, Sankaran Nair and Ayling, JJ.) constituted under the provisions of the Indian Criminal Law Amendment Act (XIV of 1908) which provides for the speedy trial of certain offences. The trial was held without a jury and the Bench unanimously found that the charge under the latter sections of abetment of murder was not proved against any of the prisoners and acquitted them all under that head of the indictment. But upon the remaining count, viz., the charge of conspiring to wage war against the King-Emperor, the learned Judges did not agree with respect to the case against all the accused : the Chief Justice and Ayling, J. came to the conclusion that the charge was substantiated against 9 out of the 14 persons tried but not against the rest  while Sankaran Nair, J. was of opinion that the Crown failed to establish the case not only against the five persons acquitted by the majority of the Bench but also against four other accused persons. 


How often do you visit Mumbai – ever wondered the architecture of the Gateway of India and learnt its history.   This monument at Apollo Bunder was erected to commemorate the landing in Dec 1911 of King-Emperor George V and Queen-Empress Mary, the first British monarch to visit India. At the time of the royal visit, the gateway was not yet built, and a cardboard structure greeted the monarch.

The coronation of George V and his wife Mary as king and queen of the United Kingdom and the British Empire took place at Westminster Abbey, London, on 22 June 1911. The Director of Music, as in 1902, was Sir Frederick Bridge. As at the previous event, Bridge aimed to produce a celebration of four hundred years of English music,  including work by Thomas Tallis, John Merbecke and George Frederick Handel. Bridge himself wrote a new anthem, Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous, the tenor solo for which was performed by Edward Lloyd.

The debates after celebrating ‘Quit India movement’ –  brought to fore – what we should be learning in Schools as History and whom we should  rever ? – the freedom at midnight was gotten not free or easily but due to sacrifices of those martyrs who underwent untold sufferings and yet remained without ever getting in the limelight.  The Nation should be learning the lives of such great people.

                                           The name District Collector evokes awe even among the senior officers. The person on the street looks at the post as a saviour and the administration is diffident in the presence of the Collector. The post was created in  1772 by the East India Company.  Up to 1853, the Directors of the British East India Company made appointments of covenanted civil servants by nominations. This nomination system was abolished in 1861 by the Parliament in England and it was decided that the induction would be through competitive examinations of all British subjects, without distinction of race.

Nandi Hills,  is an ancient hill fortress in southern India, in the Chikkaballapur district of Karnataka state. It is 10 km from Chickballapur town and approximately 60 km from the city of Bengaluru.  There is some important  connect between this place, a Godman and ... .. .. our freedom struggle !!  almost a century ago, in 1919, an ascetic by name  Shri Omkar Swami set up a small ashram in the foothills of Nandi Hills. He was none other than Neelakanda Brahmachari [born on 4th Dec 1889] – the man who was listed as accused no. 1 in the Maniyachi railway station killing 1911.  This revolutionary founded - Abinava Bharat Samiti, was on the run for the most of his life, living in exile in Pakistan, Burma and more.  He ran a magazine called ‘Suryodhayam’ too.

As you travel down south and as the train winds its way to a small station – perhaps you might get down to free your legs, take a stroll or enjoy a cup of tea – unlikely that you will bow down to touch the land ! – after Madurai, it would be Virudunagar, Sattur, Kovilpatti and 624 km away from Chennai Egmore it is Maniyachi station – now named ‘Vanchi Maniyachi Junction’. 109 years ago, at 10.30 in the morning pistol sounded – there was commotion as the only killing of British Official in South India occurred – few minutes later – there were sounds of pistol again – this time the martyrdom of a youth – hardly 25 years of age did the supreme sacrifice of his life for the motherland.

This is not to eulogise the killing but the martyrdom needs to be extolled. Inspired by the Surat Congress in Dec 1907 the man who pioneered shipping – VO Chidambaram Pillai organised political meetings in Tuticorin and Tirunelveli.  There were fiery speeches by Subramania Siva.  The Freedom struggle spread and on Feb 1908, around 1000 workers struck work in the Coral Mills of Tuticorin.  The collector Robert William Escourt Ashe had imposed restriction by Sec 144 and the union of workers was not to his liking.  When the patriotic leaders planned to celebrate release of Bipin Chanda Pal as Swarajya day – violence was unleashed by the Dist Admn.  VOC, Siva, Padmanabha Iyengar were arested in Mar 1908. There were riots in Tuticorin and Tirunelveli termed as incendiarism.    Perhaps all these made Ashe.  The downfall of the VOC’s Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company was also linked to Ashe.

Robert Ashe had been born in 1872 in Ireland.  In 1895, he arrived in India, where he began his career as an Assistant Collector and rose up to be District Magistrate and Collector.   In 1907 he had his posting in Tirunelveli.  For two months he officiated at Tuticorin during which period much occurred.   A few years later, on 17th June 1911 -  Ashe was travelling along with his wife Mary Lillian Patterson.  At 10.38 the train halted at small Maniyachi, a neatly dressed man with tufted hair alongwith another in a dhoti approached the carriage and shot Ashe on the chest from point blank range with a belgian made pistol.  The assailant ran towards the latrine and shot himself in the mouth.  He belonged to Bharatha Matha Association.

---- and that Man  of unflinching courage was Vanchinathan.  He was  born in 1886 to Raghupathy Iyer and Rukmani Ammal. His actual name was Shankaran. He did his schooling in Shenkottai and graduated in M.A. from Moolam Thirunal Maharaja College in Thiruvananthapuram. Even while in college, he married Ponnammal and got into a lucrative Government job. After Vanchi shot Ashe and himself, a letter was recovered which purportedly indicated that the murder was political and caused great apprehension. The timing of the assassination indicated a protest against the impending coronation.  A massive manhunt followed the assassination.  Sadly, it was reported that even his last rites were not performed.  14 persons were arrested and charged with conspiracy.  More deaths were to follow as two committed suicide - Dharmaraja Aiyar took poison, while Venkateswara Aiyar slit his own throat. Madasamy, widely believed to be Vanchi's accomplice and who was seen running away after the assassination, was never traced.

In a Court of Justice in the colonial context there were testimony of approvers who perhaps were threatened and there was panic amongst the freedom fighters as they feared strict action.  What happened to the family of Veera Vanchinathan is not documented but there cannot be any doubt that his lineage would have suffered chill penury and were left uncared for – they would have been hounded by the British and after India obtained freedom, nobody ever cared for them.  Indians exhibited their loyalty immediately after the killing by erecting two memorials – one at the place where Ashe was interred and another  a mantap at Great Cotton Road in Tuticorin - the subscription of Rs.3002/- being raised from the Indians !!.

The life history of the Great Patriot Vanchinathan is not found in any great detail  in the history books and not many remember him.  In his birthplace Sengottai [Shencottah] in the foothills of Western Ghats closer to Tenkasi / Courtallam, a statue was erected during the regime of CM MGR.  In the movie Kappalottiya Tamizhan, Actor Balaji played the role of Vanchinathan.

The British Police after the murder  rounded up 14 men and charged with various offences under the Indian Penal Code like murder, waging war against the King-Emperor of India, and criminal conspiracy. The accused were: 1) Neelakanta, alias Brahmachari, a Brahmin youth of 21 (a journalist, a fiery patriot and person of considerable persuasive skills and charm, and the leader of a conspiracy to murder Ashe, according to the  police); 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. Most of them were in their twenties.

In the ordinary course, the case would have been tried by the District and Sessions Judge at Tinnevelly. But in view of its political importance and the murder victim being British and an ICS officer at that, the case was sent up to the High Court in Madras. Here 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   tried it as a special case. The case, not surprisingly, attracted attention all over India and beyond.

As can be expected in conspiracy cases in the colonial context, testimony of approvers formed the backbone of the prosecution's case, which revealed the intent of the crime. O. Somasundaram Pillai, one such approver, testified that in a conversation Vanchi had stated that "English rule was ruining the country and that it could only be removed if all white men were killed, [and] went on to suggest that Mr Ashe should be first killed as he was the head of the district and an officer who had taken a leading part in the suppressing of the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company [founded by the freedom fighter V.O. Chidambaram Pillai;  Madasamy was one of his staunch supporters] and the events of 1908".

Though the conspiracy aspect of the case could not be proved to the satisfaction of the High Court bench, nine of the 14 accused were convicted and sentenced. The Ashe murder case did not end with the trial and conviction. The government strongly suspected that the Indian nationalists who had sought refuge in the French enclave of Pondicherry were directly connected with the murder. A huge posse of policemen, spies and informers was stationed in Pondicherry. The Ashe murder remained, in the official mind, a spectacular example of what could go wrong.  The freedom party – Congress -  moderates and the government-fearing intelligentsia, who thought that the events of 1908 were an aberration, panicked. A spectacular show of loyalty followed.
Years later, India got freedom – without bloodshed and Congress party assumed power – the life history of most martyrs were forgotten !  Sad !!

With tears thinking of the Great son of India
-           S. Sampathkumar.
17.6.2020.


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