The Ashe Murder case
Sir CP’s role in it……
The eminent historian Sreedhara Menon in his books on Sir CP mentions that he was unable to find the exact connection that Sir CP had with the Ashe murder case. I assumed, but naturally that Sir CP as a barrister was involved with the pleading of the case and many ‘knowledgeable’ sites and people nodded in agreement. But the official record is cryptic, it says - It is worthy of note that Travancore was the first State in all India which requisitioned his (Sir CP’s) services. That was in connection with an off-shoot of the Ashe murder case. His services were retained when a very important side issue was engaging the attention of the Madras High Court. While some persons know about the Ashe case, especially Tamilians, what connection would it have with Travancore? Don’t you think we should find out?
While I started out on this article considering it to be relatively straightforward, I found a number of twists and turns in the story, which kept me fully engaged. So let me now take you along, to those days when the Indians were staging a feeble revolt against British tyranny. Interestingly you will find that every single person connected to this story had violent events impacting their own lives. While one was stabbed, two others were killed by bullets; a third was stuck by a temple elephant. As we can see, their stars were crossed during that period and it was so fated. Curiously all of them except one Irishman were Brahmins, not otherwise associated with violence. But in the end this research turned out to be a bigger mystery than it was when I started out.
So what were the events occurring in Tuticorin? The country was stirring in revolt against the British and the seeds were taking root at any place the British became autocratic. In the 1890s and 1900s India’s independence movement and the Swadeshi movement, initiated by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai of Indian National Congress (INC), were at their peak.Many a young soul joined in this outcry against the white man who ruled him and took away his grains while he was struggling for food. There was a specific thorn in the British flesh , a lawyer named VO Chidambaram Pillai a.k.a VOC or Kappalottiya Tamizhan, he was the champion for the oppressed. Soon he started the Swadeshi steamship navigation company flouting the monopoly of the British. VOC had great difficult in starting up the company and leasing ships, but finally he had two and went head to head with the BISNC offering cutthroat fares. Even though free tickets with umbrellas were offered, people used the Sawdeshi ship plying the Sri Lanka route. The British tried to buy him out, but VOC would not agree. Next he incited a strike at the Coral mill. VOC was later convicted by Pinhe and sent to Coimbatore, imprisoned for life. An appeal resulted in reduction of the sentence. He was later moved to Cannanore. The shipping company went bankrupt and the ships were taken over by BISNC. The people of the South were angrier with all these rapidly evolving events.
VVS Aiyer enters the scene around this time – then in Britain, V.V.S. Aiyar came into contact with VD Savarkar, an Indian revolutionary, at the India House. Under Savarkar's influence Aiyar began to take an active role in the militant struggle for Indian independence. Aiyar's militant attitude prompted the British Government in 1910 to issue a warrant for his arrest for his alleged involvement in an anarchist conspiracy in London and Paris. Aiyar resigned from the Lincoln's Inn and escaped to Paris. Aiyar landed in Pondicherry, the hotbed for such anti British revolutionaries around December 1910 disguised as a Muslim to escape arrest and remained there as exile. Poinditry or Pondicherry, North of Madras, was then a French colony. This was where a number of Anti British revolutionaries were holed up, acting with impunity and living under French political asylum. Aiyar remained in Pondicherry for over ten years. Aiyer started revolver practice for young Indians in certain gardens and preached the necessity of violence and assignations to free the country. As later events were to show, he trained them well and was also involved in hatching the plot to murder Ashe.
Meanwhile a conspiracy against the British Government was being worked up in the Madras Presidency by Nilakanta Brahmachari (the first accused in the Tinnevelly conspiracy case of 1911). He had been going round Southern India both in 1910 and in previous years in company with Shankar Krishna Aiyar, preaching swadeshi and sedition, and induced various persons in the Presidency to take a blood oath of association for the purpose of obtaining swaraj. In June 1910 Shankar introduced Nilakanta to his brother-in-law, Vanchi Aiyar. Vanchinathan was born in 1886 in Shenkottai to Raghupathy Iyer and Rukmani Ammal. Raghupathy Iyer worked with the Travancore dewaswom. Vanchi’s 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 later obtained clerkship in the Travancore forest department.
Chalapathy adds - In a sense, Ashe was an unlikely target of the conspiracy. There were no casualties in Tuticorin, while four persons were shot dead in Tirunelveli. In any case, Wynch, as the Collector of the district, was in charge. Even in the press it was Wynch rather than Ashe who was the target of criticism. Ashe was criticized in the press but not so much as Wynch. Another railed figure in the whole affair was A.F. Pinhey, who sentenced VOC to two terms of life imprisonment. But was there another reason? Perhaps… read on…
On June 17, 1911, Ashe boarded the 9-30 a.m. Maniyachi Mail at Tirunelveli junction. With him was his wife, Mary Lillian Patterson, who had arrived from Ireland only a few days earlier. They had married on April 6, 1898, in Berhampore; Mary was about a year older than Ashe. They were on their way to Kodaikanal where their four children, Molly, Arthur, Sheila, and Herbert, lived in a rented bungalow. The whistle blew after they were seated in their first class compartment. Just then a skeletally thin man, later identified as Vanchi Iyer dressed in a green jacket, white dhoti and forehead smeared with vibhuti jumped into the compartment and shot Ashe point blank with a Belgian made browning. Ashe died soon after in the lap of his wife. Chased out by bystanders and police, the young man shot and killed himself in the platform lavatory. The police found a note in his pocket.
The mlechas of England having captured our country, tread over the sanathana dharma of the Hindus and destroy them. Every Indian is trying to drive out the English and get swarajyam and restore sanathana dharma. Our Raman, Sivaji, Krishnan, Guru Govindan, Arjuna ruled our land protecting all dharmas and in this land they are making arrangements to crown George V, a mlecha, and one who eats the flesh of cows. Three thousand Madrasees have taken a vow to kill George V as soon as he lands in our country. In order to make others know our intention, I who am the least in the company, have done this deed this day. This is what everyone in Hindustan should consider it as his duty.sd/- R. Vanchi Aiyar, Shencottah
Quoting Chalapathy again - A massive manhunt followed the assassination, this being yet another collector’s assassination after Arthur Conolly at Calicut many decades ago ( there were a few more). Raghupathy Iyer even refused to perform his last rites. The investigation showed that Vanchi had been a forest guard in Punalur and had been to Baroda (now Vadodara) and Pondicherry (now Puducherry) in the recent past. In Senkottai, Ottapidaram and Tuticorin, seized correspondence indicated the existence of a secret society, complete with blood oath and Kali puja. Also found was extremist literature, especially two pamphlets printed in the Feringhee Destroyer Press, calling on Indians to kill Europeans. Investigations also indicated that the assassination had a direct link (did it?) with the political events in the district in 1908. Madasamy, widely believed to be Vanchi's accomplice and who was seen running away after the assassination, was never traced.
In the April number of Madame Cama's paper called Bande Mataram which was published in Paris about the end of May, there was some indication in one of the articles that a crime of this nature was in contemplation. It concluded with these words: "In a meeting or in a bungalow, on the railway or in a carriage, in a shop or in a church, in a garden or at a fair, wherever an opportunity comes. Englishmen ought to be killed. No distinction should be made between officers and private people. This article and the letter found on the murderer seem to show that the murder was designed to take place on the day of the Royal Coronation ceremonies. Madame Cama and V.V.S. Aiyar correspond regularly, and she would have no difficulty in sending him the automatic pistols which she is rumored to have done on two occasions in the last two years.
Fourteen persons were arrested and charged with conspiracy to murder Ashe. Two others committed suicide - Dharmaraja Aiyar took poison, while Venkateswara Aiyar slit his own throat.
Because an Englishman was killed, a three-judge bench, led by the Chief Justice, conducted the trial. White, Ayling, and Sankaran nair were the judges. Anyway the case went on for many months and while Ayling and white delivered an unanimous judgment against all accused, Sankaran Nair set himself apart with a brilliant brief which is used by students even today and considered a masterpiece. Justice Nair came to the conclusion that the charge of murder had not been legally proved against the accused, but he held that the charges of waging war against the King were proved against Nilakanta and another but not the rest. Finally, the Court, by a majority decision, awarded Nilakanta seven years’ rigorous imprisonment and Sankar¬a¬krishnan four years. The remaining accuseds were sentenced to varying terms of lesser imprisonment.
The Travancore kingdom had unwittingly entered into the high profile case. The plotters and killers were from Travancore. Vanchi Iyer worked for the Travancore forestry department, his father worked for the temple Dewaswom. The ruling family wanted to be sure that they were not sullied or implicated in anyway, I suppose. Anyway the high court deployed barrister CP to Shenkota, I presume to find out some of the details and exonerated any involvement of the state in the sordid affair. The trip is still a mystery. How did Shankaran Nair confirm in his judgement that…. The murder of Mr Ashe was a direct consequence of this bitter hostility. [T]hat Mr Ashe's conduct at Tuticorin with reference to the conviction of Subramania Siva and Chidambaram Pillai and with reference to the [Swadeshi] Steam Navigation Co. was one of the main causes of the murder". Did something else happen in Shenkottai? Anyway the judgment had connected Vanchi to the events of Tinnevelly and patriotic fervor. And with the excellent fashion in which CP handled the issue, he became a trusted fellow in the eyes of the Travancore Raja Moolam Tirunal. His future was set in Travancore….and how… we will see in forthcoming articles.
The French police report stated - Lettres du C.I.D.I.F. - Lettre n°37 - In 1911, shortly before the murder of Mr Ashe on 17th June, two seditions pamphlets entitled ‘ A word of advice to the Aryans’ and ‘oath of administration into the New Bharata Association’ were distributed in the Tinnevelly and Madras district, and it has since been ascertained that they were published and printed by Subramania Bharathi in Pondicherry. He also issued about the same time two other seditious tamil pamphlets entitled “Kanavu“and “Aliropangu“. All four pamphlets have been proscribed by Government. He is one of the principal members of the anarchist gang and is a constant companion of V.V.S. Aiyar.
Arron Raman states it well - Deprived of an outlet for his political writings, Bharati turned inwards. The years of exile in Pondicherry from 1908-1918 that constituted the third main phase of his life define Bharati for posterity; when his genius burst forth in song, poetry and prose. Some of the greatest works to flow from his pen happened between 1911 and 1913. …Despite days filled with activity, it seems likely that his confinement within Pondicherry, the ever-present surveillance by British agents, gnawing poverty and also ostracism from the orthodox sections of his own community combined to place enormous psychological stress on Bharati. He had always possessed a latent ascetic streak, and he now began to keep company with local siddhars—mendicants. From them he took to the habit of using psychotropic substances that weakened his already frail constitution.
In November 1918, in an act of final desperation, he broke exile and entered British India at Cuddalore. He was promptly arrested and lodged in Cuddalore jail from where he wrote to Lord Pentland, the Governor of Madras, seeking his release: “I once again assure your Excellency that I have renounced every form of politics and I shall ever be loyal to British Government and law abiding.” He was imprisoned in the Central prison in Cuddalore in custody for three weeks from 20 November to 14 December.
It is at this juncture that CP Ramaswamy Iyer intervened together with A Rangaswamy Iyer and Annie Besant and got Bharatiyar released from jail on 14th December. He had spent less than a month in custody, but the collective events of the previous decade had impacted the poet. He returned to Tirunelveli and spent his next years in Kadayam. From a letter that he wrote to Iyengar soon after his arrival, it is clear that Mrs. Annie Besant, Dr. Subramania Iyer, and CP Ramaswamy Iyer had helped to secure Bharati's release. It was a few days after the end of the First World War.
And that was how the Swadeshi movement affected the people we talked about. But a look at the entire story still does not show why Ashe was selected as the target. A Christian reverend Dr Ravikumar Stephen provides this interesting but ‘rumored’ tidbit and I have no idea if it is the truth, for it does seem a bit farfetched to be a motive for a capital crime.
Ashe's wife Mary was a social worker. One day during her visit to Shencottai, along with her husband, spotted a Dalit (socially marginalized) women suffering in labor pain. She arranged a bullock-cart for this dalit lady and the bullock-cart carried her through the Agraharam (street where Brahmins alone can reside), the shortest route to the hospital. The Brahmins demanded an apology from Ashe for supporting his wife in sending the dalit woman in a bullock-cart through the Agraharam and the Brahmins believed that the act of Mrs Ashe brought sacrilege to them. Ashe refused to apology and justified the act of his wife. This infuriated the Brahmins and led to the plan to assassinate Ashe.
The new Indian express article adds - Vanchinathan was peeved by the collector's interference in the local affairs. Ashe expressed his dismay over people of a dominant caste refusing to let a pregnant woman, belonging to a lower caste, being taken through their street for medical treatment, said Josephine Jeyashanthi, Professor in the Department of Tamil, Loyola College.
Was that what Sir CP went to investigate at Shenkottai? What was his report? Nothing is known about the trip, all we know that it was a sensitive and secret issue being investigated by the High court. It is unlikely that the above angle warranted it, but then again, they may have wanted to crush the Swadeshi movement and get rid of minor issues like caste rivalry. Anyway we do know that Sir CP was instrumental in getting Bharatiyar quickly released from a British jail.
And so, Ashe died from the bullet; Vanchi died from another bullet from the same gun that Madame Cama perhaps sent from Paris, Bharatiyar died some years in Triplicane, Sir CP was stabbed by another Iyer Mani after the Punnapra Vaylar episode. VVS Iyer died mysteriously while saving his daughter from drowning at the Papanasam falls. Madame Cama lived in Paris until 19355 and after a stroke, returned to Bombay and died soon after. All tragedies that befell people who should have been leading peaceful lives…
Chalapathy concludes - Mary and her children returned to Exeter, her hometown, in April 1912 on a decent government pension. She never remarried. Their four children were aged 12, 10, eight and six at the time of Ashe's death. Arthur went on to become a colonel in the Indian Army and retired in 1947. It is curious that he should have chosen to work in a country that had claimed his father's life. Robert said his father had a deep love for India even though he or his family never visited Maniyachi or Tirunelveli. Herbert died in combat during the Second World War. The girls remained unmarried. Janet thought that their spinsterhood had much to do with Mary. Apparently, Mary, who died in 1954, never let people forget the tragedy she had suffered, of seeing her husband being shot at point-blank range right in front of her eyes.
Ex Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi renamed the Maniyachi junction after Vanchinathan. But railway tickets apparently do not bear the name of Vanchi and not many trains halt at the station
As for me, I used to live for a couple of years not far from where Bharatiyar lived, in Triplicane on Pycroft’s road or Bharatiyar salai, but now sit back and enjoy some of Bharatiyar’s poetry – like the simple one below…
theertha karayinile therku moolayin..shenbaga thotathilee..paarthirunthaal varuven vennilavilor..
paangiyodendru sonnaall..vaarthai thavari vittai adi kannamma..maarbu thudikkuthadi..paartha idathilellam unnai polave…paavai theriyuthadi
and extend a small thanks to Sir CP for getting him released from jail..
All too human at the core – Aroon Raman in Hindu
Frontline – An Irish link – AR Venkatachalapathy
Vanchi Assassinates Ashe –Bharatiya vidya bhavan
Aurbindo ashram documents – The political situation in Pondicherry 1910-1915
The press in Tamil Nadu and the struggle for freedom, 1917-1937 - By A. Ganesan
pics - Hindu,Deccan Herald - thanks