Murdered British officer's kin send reconciliation message

Murdered British officer's kin send reconciliation message

Collector Robert Ashe with his wife Mary and their children.

On June 17, 1911, Robert William D’ Escourte Ashe, an Indian Civil Service official and then Acting District Collector of Tirunelveli in South Tamil Nadu, part of the erstwhile Madras Presidency, was killed by an Indian patriot R Vanchi Aiyar, in a daring act that shook the British rulers.

That day, Ashe and his wife Mary were on their way to the hill-station of Kodaikanal. They were on a train compartment at Maniyachi Railway Junction, between Tirunelveli and the famous port-town of Tuticorin, waiting to take another train, when a “neatly dressed man with tufted hair and another young man wearing a ‘dhoti’ approached Ashe’s carriage”.
Then, the “man in the coat boarded the carriage and pulled out a Belgian-made browning automatic pistol,” writes culture-historian A R Venkatachalapathy of the Madras Institute of Development Studies.

With a self-consuming passion to vehemently fight the then British rulers whom Vanchi Iyer, an ex-forest guard of Sencottah, thought were ruining Indian culture, he shot at Ashe who collapsed in the train and shortly later died in Mary’s arms.

After “shooting the Collector”, Aiyar ran along the platform, hid himself in a toilet and soon later was “found dead, having shot himself in the mouth.” This sensational case was a turning point in the nationalists struggle in south India forcing the British to take tougher repressive measures. “Ashe was the first and, as subsequent history showed, the last British official to be assassinated during the course of the freedom struggle in South India ,” underscores Venkatachalapathy, sharing some insights from his Monograph, ‘In Search of Ashe’, with Deccan Herald here.

But time can erase even the worst “historical bitterness”, the scholar argued who as a Cambridge Fellow who some years back had stumbled on the ‘Ashe Papers’ in one of the richest Archives on South Asia In England. And tracing the source of those Family Papers took Venkatachalapathy to the Irish capital Dublin where Robert Ashe was born in 1872.

As the Centenary of Ashe’s assassination approached, just two days back, Ashe’s living descendants have sent a message of peace and reconciliation to Vanchi Aiyar’s family through Prof Venkatachalapathy. The e-mail message to the Professor reads: “On this day of sad but proud remembrance, we the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Robert William Ashe would like to extend to the family of Vanchi Aiyar, a message of reconciliation and friendship.”

 Janet, the daughter-in-law of the officer, was “very forthcoming in sharing all details about the family”. She died at 92 earlier in February 2011, said Venkatachalapathy.

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