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Friday, 6 April 2012


The Cellular Jail, Port Blair
Ever since I was in the school and had read about the freedom-fighters being sent to Kala Pani, I had conjured up visions of how it would be, what it would look like and how life must be for the convicts who were sent there for life-time away from the mainland India. It was now time to actually see what it was all about. We first went to see the jail and the museum followed by a very touching Sound & Light show in the precincts of the jail.

One of the seven wings of the main building
The need for a big jail like this was felt by the British especially after the first War of Independence in the year 1857. As the struggle for freedom started gaining momentum, the British realised that the available capacity of the jails was not adequate. 
There were not many big jails in India at that time except probably the Lahore Central Jail. The number of convicts was increasing and the only way to handle so many dedicated freedom fighters was to deport them to some faraway island away from the mainland India. The survey of the area had already been done by Lt. Archibald Blair in the year 1688 and availability of these islands was in the know of the British. So even before the jail was ready, the freedom fighters were sent here and used as labour for construction purposes for the jail as well as for the buildings in Ross Island which was established as the administrative headquarter of the British in this area (more about Ross Island in my subsequent blogs).

It was not possible for the prisoners to run away from here due to the presence of sea all around. Still in the year1868, 238 of them tried to escape. Unfortunately, they were all caught and 87 of them were sentenced to death. Viper Island is a live testimony to these brutalities of the British where the convicts were prosecuted as well as executed. Sick!

The prototype of the building
The Cellular Jail is called so as it has 693 cells each one measuring 13.5’ X 7.5’ spread over seven wings of three floors each. Each cell has solid iron doors with strong handles which could be locked. The jail has been designed in such a way that one person, sitting in the central control tower, could keep an eye on all the prisoners. Also care has been taken, at the time of designing, to ensure that two prisoners are not able to see or talk to each other. All 693 cells are indeed solitary chambers. 

A corridor of the jail
The construction of the jail was started in the year 1893 and completed by the year 1906. The cost of construction even in those days was as high as Rs. 5,17,352.00. Later, as a mark of respect to the freedom fighters, the building was declared a national monument in the year 1979 by Govt. of India and now it is the most important tourist attractions of Port Blair.

Gallows in the Cellular Jail were capable of hanging three convicts at a time. I saw the lower portion of the room from where the wooden board was pulled from under the feet of the convicts. Made me feel sick! I felt as if hundreds of spirits of those hanged here were still crying out of sheer desperation and helplessness.

The type of fetters bar fetters, chain fetters, cross fetters
Also saw the hall where the convicts were required to replace the bullocks for taking out oil from the coconuts. And if they could not perform as per the unrealistic expectations, they were awarded brutal punishments. These could be more work, lashes on the back or special punishment dress made of jute bags. In the hot and humid climate of Andaman, wearing jute bags must be absolutely torturous. 

Another favourite punishment was a ban on regular food which was replaced by salt less kanji (water drained from rice after cooking) which must be absolutely insipid and tasteless apart from being bereft of any nutrition thus leaving the convicts drained and unhealthy. The convicts were given measured quantities of water which used to stink and was often not potable. Bar fetters, Chain fetters and Cross bar fetters were another way of British attempt to tame these highly dedicated freedom fighters.

Trying to empathise with the prisoners
However, the most painful part in the entire process was that all these punishments were meted out by the Indian servants of the British. Had it not been for a large number of unfaithful selfish Indians, a handful of British could not have been able to rule over our country for over 200 years. Going through the names of those who sacrificed their lives in the freedom struggle, one interesting observation was that the maximum convicts in Cellular Jail were from Bengal, followed by Sikhs from Punjab and some from Uttar Pradesh. Here and there, some names appeared to be from Maharashtra also. Other states went almost unrepresented. Perhaps their freedom-fighters were sent to some other jails.

Another dichotomy here took place during the Second  World War when the Japanese attacked and occupied the  islands. British prisoners were kept in the Cellular Jail during this period. During the Japanese bombardments, two of the seven arms of the jail were destroyed. Japanese bunkers exist in Ross Island also. However, in 1945, the British regained the area.
Going through the photographs, exhibition, models displayed and the description of the barbaric torture which the convicts had to undergo in the jail at the hands of the British rulers of India, gave me goose-pimples. 

Atop the Cellular Jail. But for the sacrifice of these freedom-fighters, we would not have been breathing
in the free air in our country.
Ma tujhe salaam!

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