Vanchinathan Iyer, popularly known as Vanchi, was born at Sengottai in 1886 to Ragupathy Iyer and Rukmani Ammal. He is said to be one of the first and most prominent Tamilians who participated in the fight for freedom. He believed that freedom could be achieved only through an armed struggle.
It was while he was working in Travancore, that he encountered V O Chidambaram Pillai (VOC), Neelakanta Brahmachari, Subramaniya Siva and Subramaniya Bharathi. In due course, they became his mentors and were a part of the Bharatha Matha Sangam, an organisation that was founded with the aim to get rid of the overbearing Britishers and fostering the spirit of nationalism amongst the locals. Here Vanchinathan got associated with Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s accomplice VVS Aiyar, another revolutionary who believed in achieving freedom through the use of arms. Pondicherry, at that time, was a French colony and hence was a safe haven for freedom fighters, as it was free from British rule. Vanchi received arms training from Savarkar’s company at Pondicherry.
Meanwhile, the British were trying to strengthen their hold over India. They tried to suppress the popular Swadeshi Movement by incarcerating its activists. Robert William Ashe was the Collector and District Magistrate of Tirunelveli District in the year 1911. He engaged in activities that favoured the Britishers and ignored the interests of the locals. He even charged freedom fighters like VOC and Subramaniya Siva with sedition and was the man who instigated the closure of VOC’s shipping company, Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, the first such venture by an Indian during the British Raj. VOC and Subramaniya Siva were subjected to torture in prison, and the latter contracted leprosy due to the inhumane conditions prevalent there. This infuriated Vanchinathan, and he decided to kill Ashe because of his atrocious activities.
On 17th June 1911, the Maniyachi Mail left Tirunulvelli Junction for Maniyachi with Robert Ashe and his family aboard, who were on their way to Kodaikanal. At Maniyachi Junction, a neatly dressed man boarded the carriage, pulled out a pistol and shot Ashe at point blank range in the chest. Though after killing Ashe, Vanchi ran and took cover, later, he was found dead, having pulled the trigger in his mouth. The pistol was found to be empty, clearly indicating his intention to shoot only Ashe and himself and nobody else. This was the first major political assassination of a British official in South India during the British Raj. Vanchinathan’s suicide letter, read out after his death, stated that he wanted to restore ‘Sanatana Dharma’ (eternal righteousness), and had only done his duty in assassinating a British official.
This brave and selfless act of Vanchinathan Iyer rattled the British and gave impetus to the freedom movement. Though the real motive behind the murder still remains disputed, the Government of India honoured Vanchinathan by renaming the railway station at Maniyachi as ‘Vanchi Maniyachi’. In his memory, the Tamil Nadu government erected a memorial in his honour at Shencottah in Tirunelveli District.