ver since I had heard about the freedom fighters being sent to the Cellular Jail in the Andaman Islands, I had conjured up visions of what it would be like, and how life must be for the convicts who were sent there for a lifetime away from the mainland India, as deportation to the Cellular Jail was one of the most feared sentences in the times of our freedom struggle.
The Jail, nay, the national monument, vouches that the joy of celebrating our independence carried the grief of sufferings hidden behind it. I felt a lump in my throat, and words fail me as I walk around the premises, listening to the agonising torture stories of the struggle era.
Primarily constructed by the Britishers to cage priority freedom fighters away from the mainland, the place provides you with a quick glimpse of the history, ordeal faced by prisoners. Situated in the central part of Port Blair, the masterpiece was constructed during 1893-1906 period at an estimated cost of about Rs 5 lakhs. Even the architectural niceties of the British intelligence get submerged in the barbaric colonialism, a sense of eeriness creeping on you.
The three-storied Jail was built in the form of a seven-spoke wheel that had “696 cells” in each story, separated from the others, by brick walls and metal doors. The construction was undertaken by the prisoners themselves, the edifice believed to be earthquake-resistant.
Hell on earth
Every day was a punishment day, the abuse varied from whipping to bar fetters to solitary confinement. With handcuffs, the prisoners had to eat and drink like animals. Bar fetters were long iron rods joined from handcuffs going down to the ankle cuffs. Some of them were fed boiled wild grass and their drinking water was collected from rainwater with worms in them. Chained together, kept without any basic amenities, many of them had lost their health and even lives by the time they reached the Jail.
Inmates were subjected to inhuman labour, indignities and impossible targets. At times there were reports of the outbreak of plagues or other epidemics. Treatment and basic human rights were denied. A work-shed showcased the oil extractions and rope-making where the prisoners had to toil.
As you walk from one cell to another, you read the heart-breaking stories. The gallows lie in a corner, dark and depressing, which was capable of executing three convicts at a time. My eyes welled up, particularly when I saw the lower portion of the room from where the wooden board was pulled from under the feet of the convicts. I felt as if the spirits of those hanged here were still crying out of desperation.
When you eventually head to the terrace, you see the beautiful landscape of the island embracing the blue-green waters. Also, you sight Ross Island with a lighthouse (the same that is printed on our 20-rupee note). Look around towards the sea, you will find this place ideally isolated from the mainland. The gentle breeze, the wafting of the clouds – all look so picturesque.
The irony is that the Andaman Islands with its turquoise waters was referred to as Kaala Pani. The beautiful sunlight and bright blue skies remain a stark contrast to the darkness experienced by the prisoners. How much we, in the mainland, take our freedom for granted!
The names of several freedom fighters have been engraved on the jail walls, including the most famous inmate – Veer Savarkar.
As the prisoners were kept in isolation, the Savarkar brothers did not know that they were in the same jail, for two years. Prisoners could not communicate with each other and the cells overlooked the sea, which instilled a sense of ‘no-escape’. The design ensured that one person sitting in the central control tower could keep an eye on all the prisoners. Still, in 1868, as revealed by the jail records, 238 of them made an escape bid, only to be caught and 87 of them executed.
You owe it to them
While coming out, you cannot escape ruminating that so many patriotic predecessors walked inside the same gate under very different circumstances and endured so much simply because they loved their country. The Pantheon stands as a mute witness to the untold sufferings and undaunted spirit of the freedom fighters against the British barbarism.
The light-and-sound show presented every evening in the premises outlines a chronology of events in the Jail till independence.
Every school should plan an educational trip to this national heritage. The visit will tell our kids that this freedom we presently enjoy is too precious.
Salute to all those brave hearts!