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Friday, June 17, 2022

Hail the great martyr of Indian freedom struggle - Veera Vanchinathan - this day 111 years ago !

வீரசுதந்திரம் வேண்டி, தம் இன்னுயிர் ஈந்தார் தமை  போற்றுவோம்

This day 111 years ago !!


Padma river is one of the important rivers of Bangladesh and there is a century old steel railway truss bridge over the river at Ishwardi, Pabna and Bheramara, and Kushtia in Bangladesh. Those of us interested in history would have read about Delhi Conspiracy case too – the subject matter of the post preceded that too.     

In school days, History was no doubt interesting ! ~  what we read about Indian freedom struggle was often a terse statement of India getting freedom through non-violent (ahimsa) means advocated by Mahatma Gandhi.  The history as handed by Britishers and reviewed by commies neither portrayed the cruelty of the rulers nor the sacrifices of innumerable individuals. 

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 a British official.  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.

Before we proceed further – Tamil Nadu now has 38 districts – about a century ago districts in Madras Presidency would include :  Anantapur; Bellary, Chingleput, Coimbatore, Cuddapah, Ganjam, Godavari, Krishna, Kurnool,  Madura, Malabar, Nellore, Arcot, Canara, Trichinopoly, Vizag and Tinnevely !  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.

A century and a decade ago, a man made a speech at Thai PoosaMantapam in the bed of river Thamirabarani at Tirunelveli [on the night of 9th March 1907] and was convicted under sections 124A & 153A of Indian Penal Code by the Bench consisting of CA White & Miller.   After that speech in 1908, he was arrested on charges of sedition. MahakaviBharathiyar and Subramanya Siva appeared in the Court in the case and VOC was sentenced to double life imprisonment tantamount to 40 years ad confined to prison. He was treated badly as a convict and subjected to inhuman torture. That was Kappalottiyathamizhan – VO Chidambaranar.

The report of the sedition commission introduces “Republican or Parliamentary forms of government, as at present understood, were neither desired nor known in India till after the establishment of British rule”.  Infamous words of the President of Sedition Committee who was later was viewed synonymous with cruelty - the Hon'ble Mr. Justice S. A. T. Rowlatt. 

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 ‘VanchiManiyachi Junction’. 111 years ago, around 10.40 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.

Pic credit: Veera Vanchi by Rakami – Barathi Noolagam, KUmbakonam

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 DistAdmn.  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 RaghupathyIyer and Rukmani Ammal. His actual name was Shankaran. He did his schooling in Shenkottai and graduated in M.A. from MoolamThirunal 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  amantap 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 KappalottiyaTamizhan, Actor Balaji played the role of Vanchinathan.

The railway bridge mentioned in first para on Padma river is named Hardinge bridge, named after - Charles Hardinge, 1st Baron Hardinge of Penshurst, who served as Viceroy and Governor-General of India at the time of Ashe incident.  The Delhi Conspiracy case, also known as the Delhi-Lahore Conspiracy, refers to an attempt made in 1912 to assassinate the then Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge by throwing local bomb (a self-made), on the occasion of transferring the capital of British India from Calcutta to New Delhi. Hatched by the Indian revolutionary underground in Bengal and Punjab and headed by Rash Behari Bose, the conspiracy culminated in the attempted assassination on 23 December 1912, when a homemade bomb was thrown into the Viceroy's howdah as the ceremonial procession was moving through the Chandni Chowk suburb of Delhi.

Nation needs to remember all those martyrs and record their history in proper perspective – it is not Congress who alone fought for freedom and obtained it without bloodshed.  They only got lioness share of power once British left.

With  great regards – Salutes to all those martyrs and special pranams to Vanchinathan.

S. Sampathkumar
17th June 2022.