Those were the days when the seeds of the struggle for freedom were sown, the days after the Rebellion of 1857. Many young men fired by the blaze of national spirit spread the message of freedom in secret, others openly committed acts of protest. Some called them ‘misguided youth’, others branded them ‘traitors’, but they were the heroes of Indian freedom movement. The stirring story of one such group of patriotic young Indians was spun around the murder of a British Civilian.
Robert W.D.E. Ashe, a member of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), was then the Sub-Collector at the small seaport of Tuticorin, in the southernmost reaches of the Madras Presidency. He hated Indians who dared to ask him ‘why’ and the man he hated most in that town famed for pearl fishing was the celebrated V.O. Chidambaram Pillai.
VOC (‘Va. Vu. Si’ in Tamil) was a small town lawyer. Born in Otthapidaram, the town of Kattabomman, VOC had imbibed the same freedom-seeking spirit.
VOC, in time, emerged as the champion of the underdog, oppressed, and depressed in and around Tuticorin. VOC advocated that the Indians should boycott foreign goods, especially British goods, and buy local products or ‘swadeshi’ goods. Besides speaking in public on ‘Swarajya’ and ‘Swadeshi’, VOC floated The Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company. This was indeed a daring move for the time. The steam navigation business was then the monopoly of the British and when this ‘native’ company attracted a good deal of the sea traffic between Tuticorin and Colombo, a business dominated by the British India Steam Navigation Company, VOC was considered an opponent of the British.
VOC’s political work, his clout with the public, his shipping business enterprise, all these and more did not please the ruling class. Sub-Collector Ashe took it into his head to crush this “cheeky, impudent native lawyer.” He had VOC arrested on sedition charges and made several moves to sink the local shipping company. Ashe received pats and praise from his superiors and was promoted as Collector and District Magistrate of Tinnevelly (now Tirunelveli). No wonder he, in turn, became increasingly hated by the Indians. Someone to be removed from the scene. Fast!
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June 17, 1911... Ashe was travelling by train in a first class compartment. When the train stopped at Maniyachi junction, a young man made his way into Ashe’s compartment, whipped out an automatic Browning revolver and shot Ashe dead at point blank range. In the chaos that followed, he fled down the un-paved gritty gravelly platform, with the police in chase. He ran into a lavatory on the platform and shot himself in the mouth using the same weapon. His name was Vanchinatha Iyer, from Shencottah, which was then in princely Travancore. The police found a letter on his body, which suggested a political conspiracy behind the murder. It read as follows: “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. To make it known, I, the least of them, did this day commit this act.”
In a search of the dead assailant’s residence, more letters were found and they threw more light on the conspiracy. Those mentioned were an Arumugham Pillai who had been in touch with Vanchi. He was traced and police got out of this weak-kneed man loads of information. Later, they made him an approver. Another man, Somasundaram, was also traced and he too cracked. He too turned approver.
More searches were made all over South India and the roots of the conspiracy appeared to have been sunk in French Pondicherry. The Public Prosecutor of the Madras High Court, C.F. Napier, was to comment during the trial on “the extraordinary way in which the town of Pondicherry seemed to permeate this case.”
Pondicherry being French territory was a haven for Indian revolutionaries hounded and hunted by the British Indian police. The town had given political asylum to great freedom fighters like Aurobindo Ghosh, V.V.S. Iyer, a lawyer-turned- rebel who trained men in armed combat and guerrilla warfare, and Mahakavi Subramania Bharatiyar, the great rebel poet of India whose works in Tamil were banned by the British Indian Government. Many anti-British publications in English and Tamil were produced here and circulated secretly in British Indian territory in spite of the ban on such publications. Indeed, Pondicherry was a veritable factory for Indian patriotic fervour.
Before long, the police 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 (later Sir C. Sankaran Nair) tried it as a special case. The case, not surprisingly, attracted attention all over India and beyond.
Napier, the Public Prosecutor, was assisted by T. Richmond and A. Sundara Sastrigal. Neelakanta was defended by a British barrister, J.C. Adam. Another barrister, a brilliant and mercurial Indian, in time to become a prominent political leader known as ‘Andhra Kesari’, the Lion of Andhra, Tanguturi Prakasam, appeared for Sankarakrishna and three other accused.
M. D. Devadoss (later Mr. Justice Devadoss), J. L. Rozario, B. Narasimha Rao, T.M. Krishnaswami Iyer (a future leader of the Madras Bar and, later, Chief Justice of the Travancore High Court), L.A. Govindaraghava Iyer, S.T. Srinivasagopalachari (a high-ranking Freemason, an eminent epigraphist and numismatist with a fabulous collection of ancient coins of solid gold!), and V. Ryru Nambiar held the brief for the other accused.
Who was Nilakanta Bramhachari, as he came to be known? A person of some education, born in Erukkoor in Tanjore District, he had from his late teens been in journalism and was drawn to revolutionaries like Aurobindo Ghosh, then the idol of Indian youth. Soon he moved to Pondicherry where he published a Tamil magazine, Suryodaya. The British Indian Government proscribed it in March 1910. He ran other publications too which were also banned, but he managed to circulate copies in British India with the help of friends, some of whom were accused in the case. He also worked on other plans and methods to promote his cause, ideals and ideas.
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The Ashe Murder trial was a prolonged affair and the hearing in Madras went on for 93 days, from September 1911 to January 1912. Over a hundred witnesses gave evidence on both sides and a mass of the documentary evidence like letters, diaries, publications, records and reports was filed in the case. It was quite a task for the three judges who sat and heard the case without the benefit of a jury.
The Prosecution stated that the conspiracy was initiated by Nilakanta as early as April 1910 when he toured places like Tenkasi and conducted meetings in secret, exhorting people to drive the English out. During such meetings he met and made friends with Vanchi. The meetings in secret had all the characteristics of an esoteric secret society with its own rituals and rites. Arumugham Pillai described a meeting thus: “There was a picture of Goddess Kali. There were red powder (kumkum), sacred ash (vibhuthi), and flowers. On the floor sat four or five people in a line. Nilakanta sat a little away and wrote on sheets of paper. We put the red powder into water and made a solution of it and each of us applied it on the paper. Now it was the white man’s blood... on the top of the paper ‘Vande Matharam’ was written... We should kill all white men… We must sacrifice our lives, person and property for this society. But whoever reveals the affairs of this society, he shall go to hell and he will be killed... As we drank the red powder solution, now to us it was the white man’s blood....”.
When they corresponded among themselves, Nilakanta, Vanchi and the others used false names to avoid detection. These names were written on a sheet of paper and against each name, the man whose pseudonym it was pricked his finger with a knife and affixed his thumb impression in blood!
Vanchi was inspired by his guru and the other members of the Pondicherry band. He was drawn to VOC, a victim of Ashe.
With Vanchi dead, much of the Crown’s evidence came from the approvers who were, in other words, accomplices.
According to the Indian Evidence Act, the position or the reliability of an approver’s evidence is not clear-cut and precise. Section 133 of the Indian Evidence Act states that “a conviction is not illegal merely because it proceeds upon the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice.” Whereas Section 114 states by way of illustration that “the court may presume that an accomplice is unworthy of credit unless he is corroborated in material particulars,” this has exceptions too! There is a mass of case laws on this point in India and indeed it figures almost in every other case of murder and other crimes.
J.C. Adam, T. Prakasam and the other defence lawyers raised this point and argued it hotly and also subjected the approvers to severe cross-examinations. Many witnesses were also attacked on the ground that they were testifying against the accused because of the pressure of the police. On behalf of Nilakanta, an ‘alibi’ was offered and witnesses were summoned to state on oath that he was not present at places like Shencottah, where he met Vanchi and others, as charged by the Prosecution.
Prakasam rose to rare heights of forensic eloquence, displaying his abundant talents and skills. With this trial, his name became synonymous with the Ashe Murder Case. His reputation as criminal lawyer rose placing him among the front rankers of the Madras High Court Bar.
Eventually, the decision of the full Bench was not unanimous. Sir Arnold White and Ayling delivered a joint judgment while Sankaran Nair delivered his own. He wrote a brilliant judgment, which serves as excellent resource material for the history of the Indian freedom movement of the period. Justice Nair even translated into excellent English the famous patriotic song written by Subramania Bharatiyar, “Endru thaniyum intha suthanthira dhaagam…?” – “When will this thirst for liberty and freedom be quenched...?” So wrote the Judge who in later years would fight for the country’s freedom!
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 Sankarakrishnan four years. The remaining accused were sentenced to varying terms of lesser imprisonment.
Appeals were filed against the judgment and a Bench of five judges comprising Sir Ralph Benson, John Wallace, Miller, Abdul Rahim and P.R. Sundara Iyer heard them. Napier, now the Advocate-General, appeared for the Crown assisted by T. Richmond, while the accused were defended by T. Prakasam and others.
The appeals were argued on the legal grounds, which were the only issues allowed to be raised in such an appeal. It focussed on the value and reliability of the approvers’ evidence and legal admissibility of some of the prosecution witnesses.
Three judges, Benson, Wallis and Miller, held that the appeals could not be sustained while Rahim differed and opined that the appellants should be acquitted in toto. Sundara Iyer expressed doubts about the conviction and left it at that. The full Bench finally dismissed the appeals and confirmed the sentences. The final decision of the Ashe Murder Case was as expected, because of its political nature.
Vanchi came to be hailed as a martyr and found a place in the Roll Call of Honour of the Indian freedom movement. Many years after India became free, the Maniyachi railway junction was named after Vanchi. Sadly, Nilakanta Brahmachari is hardly remembered today except by some enthusiastic historians of the Indian freedom movement. In his later years, he gave up politics, perhaps being disillusioned, and took to spiritualism. He called himself Omkarnath Swami and sought solace in the world of religion and philosophy.
You cannot but wonder how Nilakanta would have thought and reacted had he been alive in the India of today!