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Friday, October 2, 2015

"Siraichalai" ~ the cruelties faced by patriots at Andhaman Cellular Jail

This film was released in 1996 and when I saw it on First day of its release in Kakinada, the theatre was not exactly crowded.  It was a film set in British India in the year 1915. The story is about a young doctor, GovardhanMenon (Mohanlal), wrongly accused of bombing a train carrying 55 people including British officials.  He is sentenced to serve punishment in  cellular jail at Port Blair, Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The film moved me – recently seeing it on television choked me with emotions.

‘Kaalapani’ shows the sufferings of hundreds of Indian prisoners in the cellular jail – the  extremely inhumane conditions faced by the prisoners in the jail are accurately depicted.Alex Draper plays the sadistic jailor David Berry, who is of Irish descent, while John Kolvenbach plays the kind-hearted English doctor, Len Hutton. Annu Kapoor plays the role of Veer Savarkar who is incarcerated and tries his best to keep the spirit of the prisoners going despite unbelievable torture. Tabu plays Mohanlal's lover who keeps waiting for him to come back.

Though the British Doctor Len Hutton takes great efforts, the film ends in an anti-climax – the Govt decides to investigate the torture meted – 14 persons are ordered to be released and that includes Mukundan [Prabhu] and Govardhan. The wily warden Mirza Khan (AmrishPuri), hatches a plan and shoots down 13 prisoners while they are escaping. Mukundanwho  refuses to escapeis forcibly taken on the pretext of meeting the Chief Commissioner and is shot and killed. Seeing the dead body of his friend, Govardhan is angered to the greatest extent and throws down jailor Berry from one of the towers, kills Mirza Khan by strangling him and even as the British Doctor comes with the release order, Govardhan is hanged to death.

Kaalapani  portrayed the lives of Indian freedom fighters kept in prison during the British Raj. The film was co-wriiten and directed by Priyadarshan - originally a Malayalam film, it was dubbed into Hindi (Saza-E-Kala Pani),Tamil (Siraichalai) and Telugu (KaalaPani).  Cinematography was by Santosh Sivan, the music of Illayaraja was stirring.  The film won three National Film Awards including the awards for Best Art Direction (Sabu Cyril), Best Special Effects (S. T. Venky) and Best Cinematography (Santosh Sivan). Along with that it won six Kerala State Film Awards.

The Cellular Jail, also known as Ka-la- Pa-ani (Black Water), was a colonial prison in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.  The prison was used by the British especially to exile political prisoners to the remote archipelago. Many notable dissidents such as BatukeshwarDutt and Veer Savarkar, among others, were imprisoned here during the struggle for India's independence. Today, the complex serves as a national memorial monument.  By some accounts, although, the prison complex itself was constructed between 1896 and 1906, the British had been using the Andaman islands as a prison since the days in the immediate aftermath of the 1857 War of Independence.  Those prisoners underwent torture, cruel treatments many a times, leading to death. 

Guardian had once reported of some survivors and the tortures that they underwent during British rule.  Living in an apartment with no bell, in a house with no number, down a lane in Calcutta that had no name, 95-year-old Dhirendra Chowdhury was one of them, concealed among tens of thousands of logs and reports, all long forgotten, in a New Delhi vault. It was the start of a paper trail assiduously covered over by the British authorities.Chowdhury is one of the last survivors of a British penal experiment inflicted upon more than 80,000 political prisoners. He joined the Indian freedom struggle against the Raj at 19, like many others recruited into AnushilanSamiti, a covert Bengali organisation. On October 2, 1931, he had taken part in a robbery to raise funds for bombs and guns, and the CID had intercepted his getaway car. At the age of 24, he received an unusual sentence.Prisoner 147 was shipped to the British version of Devil's Island. Like tens of thousands of political prisoners before him, Dhirendra was manacled in the hold of a liner and carried to a remote archipelago in the middle of the Bay of Bengal.Over the past three-quarters of a century, hundreds had tried to escape from the Andaman Islands. Those who remained were routinely tortured and experimented upon by British army doctors who administered the colony, in which thousands died.

"We are forgotten victims," says Dhirendra. "Back then, all we wanted was food, and you gave us gruel that was riddled with white threads of worms. We demanded an end to work gangs, and we ended up chained like bullocks to oil mills, grinding mustard seed, around and around. We wanted medical aid for our fevers, and your doctors signed papers stating we were fit enough to flog. That's why 28 of us went on hunger strike."Among the records of the Government of India's Home Department, we found the Empire's response in its Orders to Provincial Governors and Chief Commissioners. "Very Secret: Regarding security prisoners who hunger strike, every effort should be made to prevent the incidents from being reported, no concessions to be given to the prisoners who must be kept alive. Manual methods of restraint are best, then mechanical when the patient resists."

Escape from kalapani was surely on all the inmates' mind, but was close to impossible.  It was not just the prisoners who suffered. From the inception of the project, the indigenous inhabitants of the islands, who had migrated on the trade winds from Africa at least 30,000 years before, acted out "a pantomime of defiance", emerging from the impenetrable jungle only to rain down arrows on British settlers.VinayakSavarkar was aboard the SS Maharaja which docked on July 4, 1911, bringing prisoners to the brand new Cellular Jail. The wooden ticket around his neck declared that he was there to serve a 50-year double life sentence. Five years previously, in 1906, Savarkar had been admitted to chambers in London. The 50th anniversary of the Lucknow massacre loomed and Lord Curzon's decision to partition Bengal was threatening to destabilise the province. Savarkar, aged 23, took digs in a student hostel in Hampstead; he found it had become the headquarters for the newly-formed Free India Society. He turned his hand to translating Russian bomb manuals, and hollowing out copies of The Pickwick Papers to be filled with guns for India.VinayakSavarkar,  was accused of sending arms to the Bengali student revolutionaries, deported to India and then transported to the new Cellular Jail.

Every day, the Jail warden would sit puffing on a cigar, watching the prisoners yoked to a press that they turned until they had produced 30lbs of mustard oil. And if the college boys fell sick, there was no sanctuary in the prison hospital, where a new recruit, Dr FA Barker, certified patients fit for flogging. Ullaskar Dutta was another who was brutalised.  Not sure whether one of the characters who sees many deaths and threatened ends up insane is a depiction of him.

In Dec 1997, 68 of them in their twilight years, basked in their moment of glory outside the infamous Cellular Jail.  Physically infirm, but their spirits still soaring, those freedom fighters and the widows of those who were incarcerated in the Cellular Jail had assembled there to receive felicitations at the hands of the President of India  in a ceremony marking the Golden Jubilee of Indian  Independence.    The idea was conceived and organised by the Lt.Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Shri Iswari Prasad Gupta, to invite and honour all the freedom fighters who were locked up in the Cellular Jail from different parts of the country. It gave an opportunity to those worthy sons of India to revisit the very jail where they spent years of their youth, suffering untold inhuman tortures for the sake of their motherland. The history of Cellular Jail is replete with such charismatic personalities like great Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and his brother Ganesh Damodar Savarkar, NaniGopal Mukherjee, Nand Kumar, Putin Das, Bhai Paramanand, Prithvi Singh Azad, TrailakyaMaharaj, Anata Singh and a host of other revolutionary fighters. The list is long and distinguished.     These great men, convicted for trying to free their country from the British yoke, found themselves confronted among others by the notorious, cruel jailer David Barry who posed as if he was destined to suppress these enemies of British rule in India with vile abuse and crude violence.  The prisoners were cruelly beaten, abused and subjected to all types of torture. 

Prime Minister of India, Shri Morarji Desai in Feb 1979,  declared the Cellular Jail as a memorial to the nation.  The Indian Bastile stands today as a mute witness to the hallowed memory of those gallant revolutionaries who made supreme sacrifices for the sake of their country.  As a small poetic justice, David Barry, too had to pay for his sins. Terminally ill, he was sent to Calcutta somewhere in mid-1920s, never to reach England. The airport at Port Blair, Andaman and Nicobar's capital, has been named Veer Savarkar International Airport.  The commemorative blue plaque on India House fixed by the Historic Building and Monuments Commission for England reads "Vinayak Damodar Savarkar 1883-1966 Indian patriot and philosopher lived here".

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

25th Sept. 2015.

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