miscellany - From revolutionary to ascetic

miscellany - From revolutionary to ascetic

miscellany - From revolutionary to ascetic

On a recent train journey, one of my fellow passengers had overheard that I live in Nandi Hills and that I conduct heritage walks. Immediately, he asked if I knew about Shri Omkar Swami and his ashram. Although I was not enthusiastic about talking about a ‘godman’, he insisted and narrated details about him. While he spoke, whatever doubts I had disappeared and was enthralled by the story. I was grateful to him narrating it. Upon further research at home, I found that there was much more to the story.

In 1919, an ascetic calling himself Shri Omkar Swami set up a small ashram in the foothills of Nandi Hills. Nestled on a scraggy outcrop under Nandi Hills, the Swamy’s ashram overlooked Nandi Valley and the village of Sultanpet. The ashram  paints a pretty picture: well-maintained and a welcoming sight. Today, a simple grave lies in front of the ashram. Its headstone, in Kannada, reads: ‘Revolutionary who fought for Indian independence, Shri Omkar Swamiji, Death: 4th March 1978, Sultanpete’. A revolutionary swami who fought for Indian independence and lived in Nandi Hills, away from all the political centres?

The story begins on June 17, 1911 in Tirunelveli (then known as Tinnevelly), Tamil Nadu, a major administrative town in the Madras Presidency. The collector and district magistrate, Robert William d’Escourt Ashe, was shot dead at Maniyachi train junction by Vanchinathan Aiyar. Minutes later, he committed suicide in a railway station lavatory. The event shocked many Britishers and the town as well. This was because it was the first violent act of resistance against the British in South India in the 20th century.

A letter that was found with Vanchinathan had spoken about a political conspiracy. This gave the British ammunition to capture the conspirators. Fourteen men were charged with various offences ranging from murder to waging war against the king and criminal conspiracy. This group was a crew of people from various fields, ranging from farming to cooking and even a pot vendor. The chief conspirator was a Tanjore youngster called Neelakanta alias Brahmachari, a journalist and a fiery patriot.

The Madras High Court tried this important case, which was dubbed the Tinnevelly Conspiracy or Ashe Murder Case. Numerous senior counsels appeared for the case. Of particular interest was Tanguturi Prakasam, who later came to be Andra Pradesh’s first chief minister in 1956, who cut his teeth as a defence lawyer on this case.After a long-drawn trial, numerous witnesses and several documentary evidence, the High Court delivered its verdict.

The 2 English judges in majority found the conspirators guilty while, the sole Indian justice, Sir C Sankaran Nair, held that the charge of waging war only against the king had been established against the chief conspirator, Neelakanta, who was sentenced to 7 years of imprisonment. An appeal was dismissed; the outcome of guilt largely expected in such a high-profile case.

During the trial, Neelakanta became friends with one of the presiding judges, Alfred McGowan Tampoe and they were often seen sipping on tea together outside the court. In prison, he changed and committed himself to a life of non-violence as a way to salvation. Upon his release, Neelakanta became an ascetic and called himself Shri Omkar Swami and sought solace in the foothills of Nandi Hills. 

While Vanchichanthan is a martyr with Maniyachi railway station named after him and even Collector Ashe’s memorial still stands in Tuticorin, Neelakanta is all but forgotten. As T S Elliot says in The Little Gidding, “Ash on an old man’s sleeve/ Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.”

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