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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

tears of the Nation ~ the cruel walls of Cellular Andamans (Port Blair prison)


WE are all set to celebrate the 72nd INDEPENDENCE DAY of the Nation ~ the great day of 15th August when BHARAT was liberated from foreign rule. .. .. often described in a terse statement, India achieved freedom ‘without battle or shedding blood’ – Indian freedom struggle was far different perhaps – thousands sacrificed and more number underwent innumerable difficulties for that magic freedom, which we happily enjoy .. .. .. and, Indian History does not have much written about those great martyrs. 

Before Collector Ash was assassinated by Veera Vanchinathan – there was this murder of a British officer in Indian civil service - Arthur Mason Tippetts Jackson,  Magistrate of Nasik, assassinated by a young 17 year old student.   Anant Laxman Kanhere, student of Aurangabad, shot Jackson on 21 Dec 1909 at a theater where a drama was tobe staged in his honour on the eve of his transfer.  The lesser known of the Savarkars – Mr Ganesh Savarkar elder brother of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was implicated and sent  to trial.


Never a great movie buff, I cried seeing this film in Kakinada – ‘Kalapani (Chiraichalai)’ in Telugu.  Mohanlal as hero it was on the  lives of prisoners in British India sentenced to Kālā Pānī, the Cellular Jail in Port Blair, Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Illayaraja’s music was lifting, yet I felt very gloomy towards the climax. So I was looking forward to the opportunity of visiting this historic place and when it occurred in June 2018, I was overwhelmed.  The imposing cellular jails, to which  the British exiled  political prisoners and treated them cruelly.  It housed many great freedom fighters including Batukeshwar Dutt, Yogendra Shukla and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, among others.

In the dark hours of  April 29, 1912, an alarm went up on the ‘yard three’ wing of the Cellular Jail in Port Blair. Warden Gulmir, stationed at the jail’s central tower, rushed to the wing and shined a hurricane lamp through the iron-barred door of cell 82. He found the bed empty. The prisoner, a young Bengali revolutionary called Indu Bhushan Roy, who had completed two years of his ten years’ rigorous imprisonment, was dead. His body hung from the window, a strand of torn kurta wound around his neck.  The newspapers wrote : Kalapani  had claimed one more tortured soul. Three suicides a month had become the norm in Andaman.  Roy’s death drove fellow Bengali prisoner Ullaskar Dutt to madness. For the British, Dutt was a “known troublemaker”: as a student in Calcutta, he stole chemicals from the university laboratory to make bombs. One of his homemade bombs killed two British citizens—an act that landed him in Andaman. Roy’s suicide had so angered him that he accused the jail’s medical superintendent Dr F.A. Barker of aiding it.

At Kalapani, it was madness to accuse a jail officer of anything, let alone of killing an inmate. Dutt got the punishment of ‘standing handcuffs’: for seven days, he hung by his wrists from a peg hammered into the wall. On the eighth day, Barker ran a test on the prisoner. “I could feel the metal clips on my body. The electric current passed through me with a force of lightning,” Dutt would write in his memoirs years later. He was transferred to the island’s lunatic ward at Haddo, where he was kept for 14 years.  Both Roy and Dutt had been incarcerated alongside a Marathi prisoner, a Chitpawan Brahmin from Nashik, described by a British official as “a small man with an intelligent face and a nervous manner”. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar had set foot on Andaman on July 4, 1911, but his reputation had preceded him. His arrest in London in 1910, his subsequent deportation to India and his attempt to escape to Marseille while being transported on a ship had become a cause célèbre in Europe. It was said that Savarkar had slipped through a porthole, leapt into the sea and swam ashore.

The “architectural monstrosity” was a 698-cell jail—a massive, three-storey structure with seven wings, or yards, of unequal lengths, radiating from a central watch tower. The jail’s design was ‘panoptical’—all (pan) could be observed (optical) from the central tower, without the prisoners being able to see anyone. The buildings rose out of mangrove swamps on a promontory called Atlanta Point in Port Blair. The cells, measuring 13.5x7.5ft each, had tiny, iron-barred windows and wooden beds measuring 6x3ft. “I felt that I had entered the jaws of death,” Savarkar wrote later. “The high wall was adorned with a festoon of manacles, and several similar instruments of torture were hanging down from it.”

The origins of this torture cell could be traced to that communication of Jan 1858, the most faithful humble servants, Canning, Low, Peacock wrote to the Hon’ble Court of directors of the East India Company, our rulers at that point of time (shortly after the rebellion ~ the first freedom struggle of India) .. they wrote :

WE have the honour to acknowledge receipt of ycur letter, No. 2436, dated the 20th November, 1857, intimating that the Right Hon'ble the Governor General in Council had been pleased to appoint us to be a Committee to examine the shores of the Andaman group of islands (for finalizing a prison in that forbidden land !) ~ they were mention among many important things instrumental in raising the prison - The only vegetable food found in their canoes or habitations was the fruit of the mangrove, a large leguminous bean and some wild spinach.  We  did not ascertain whether they were eaten cooked or raw. The inhabitants of the islands were all entirely naked; top of head and anterior part of chest were clay which was found hardened in large shells.  Their bodies were found scarred in lines by a cutting instrument and savage form of tattooing.

The natives like many parts of the global found that globalization only meant that their habitats taken away, they called barbaric, enslaved and subjected to harsh punishments .. .. sad for those inhabitants of Andaman – in fact a chain of many islands stretching from Cape Negrais in Burma to Achin Head in Sumatra.  This line of islands forms a single geographical system, as it were a submarine range of mountains, the highest points rising here and there above the surface of the ocean. Some 80 miles or so from Cape Negrais lies the first of the islands in the chain, Preparis Island, between which and the mainland the sea depth does not exceed 100 fathoms. Southwards of this the submarine ridge sinks to a depth of about 150 fathoms, rising again to form the small group of islands known as the Cocos, some 50 miles from Preparis.  The Andaman Group itself consists of the Great and Little Andaman with their outlying islets, and occupies a distance approximately north and south of about 210 miles. Eighty miles to the south of the Andamans lie the Nicobar Islands, a scattered archipelago occupying a distance of about 160 miles from north to south. The sea between the Andamans and the Nicobars is over 700 fathoms deep. Deep sea also divides the Nicobars from Sumatra, which is about no miles distant from the most southerly point of Great Nicobar. On the west the Andamans are separated from the coast of Madras, 700 miles distant, by the Sea of Bengal. On the east the Andaman Sea, a depression with a depth of over 1000 fathoms, separates the Andamans and Nicobars from the Malay Isthmus and Peninsula.  Until the nineteenth century the Cocos Islands were uninhabited. The Andamans and the Nicobars have for many centuries been inhabited by two entirely different races.

Getting back to that letter of the committee to the East India Company in 1858 – with advertence to the   6th  paragraph of your  Honorable Coures Despatch No. 24 of 1857,  we have the honor to state for your Honorable Court's information, that on the 20th  Nov  last we appointed a Committee, composed of Dr. F. 1. Mouat, the Inspector of Jails in the Lower Provinces, Assistant Surgeon G. R. Playfair, Lieutenant J. A. Heathcote of the Indian Navy, to examine the Andaman Group of Islands~ with a view to the selection of a site for the establishment of a Penal Settlement for the reception, in the first instance, of Mutineers, Deserters, and Rebels, sentenced to imprisonment in banishment, and eventually for the reception of all Convicts under sentence of transportation whom for any reason it may not be thought expedient to send to the Straits Settlements. 

The committee upon returning to Kolkatta, communicated that  Old Harbour, henceforward to be distinguished by  the name of "Port Blair," as the locality of the proposed Penal Settlement; and they had  directed Captain H. Man, the Executive Engineer and Superintendent of Convicts at Moulmein, to proceed at once to the spot with all the means necessary for cleaning a site, and otherwise preparing it for the reception of the Convicts.   For housing the convicts, the built-up too was done by engaging the convicts, grouping them in to  gangs of twenty five, named a section, under a convict gangsman; four sections constituting a sub-division finally a convict division and a free Overseer, accoompanied by a native doctor. Such convict groups were to work together in hundreds to enable resist any attack by  aboriginal savages.  The aggressors were kind to allow a fair day’s labour as wges which was multiplied by food, cooking utensils, working implements, medicines and necessaries supplied by the Govt.  when any convict worker suffered sick or was maimed by an accident, incapacitated from actively employed – the supervisor had the power to either  permanently or for a long time, transfer them to invalid gang or dispose of otherwise (! What !) and draft another healthy prisoner in lieu.

Port Blair Cellulars rekindles the memories of Savarkar.  .. .. before leaving for England to study law, Savarkar had been a member of a secret society, Mitra Mela, which was subsequently renamed Abhinav Bharat. Its goal was to overthrow the British through violent methods.  Savarkar’s older brother, Ganesh, alias Babarao, was an Abhinav Bharat member too. The police nabbed Ganesh Savarkar and stumbled upon a stockpile of bombs. Ganesh Savarkar was sentenced to transportation for life on June 8, 1909. His comrades decided to retaliate. On December 29, 1909, Anant Kanhere shot dead AMT Jackson, district magistrate of Nasik.  Jackson had committed Ganesh Savarkar to trial,  and another Judge  had banished him to the Andamans.
the cell where Savarkar was confined solitarily for 10 years +

The accusation was that group mentored by Savarkar had started manufacture of bombs on a small factory scale. “ Reliable members were called from different districts to learn the preparation of Picric and fulminate, and the teaching was mainly done in specially hired  rooms in mill area by Karve and Nagpurkar  ~ and this had started the next day of Tilakar’s arrest in 1908.  This group manufactured bombs and distributed them to their workers. After the Jackson murder, the bombs and the  factory were removed or destroyed before they were arrested 33 Browning pistols were sent to India in an appreciable number in  1909 by V. D. Savarkar. Jackson murder was planned and executed by Karve group.   The Nasik murder shocked Government  and practically all the underground activities were traced and  suppressed.

Veer Savarkar made that bid  to escape from the ship at Marseilles through port hole.  Savarkar was chased and rearrested and brought back to his cabin.  The extracts on Savarkar’ s case show how the Governments of Bombay and India were anxious to punish him as early as possible without coming in  conflict with their International obligations. However, the Hague Tribunal was in favour of the British Government. The Judgment stated “H. M. Britanica is not required to restore the said. V. D. Savarkar to the Government of French Republic”. The French evidence shows that Savarkar was arrested by the French gendarme ….

(will conclude this lengthy post on : Savarkar, &  more on the cellular prison of Port Blair – Andaman with heavy heart now – this is perhaps only part 1 – desirous of writing more !)
Most prisoners of the dark cruel  Cellular Jail were independence activists. Some famous inmates of the Cellular Jail were Diwan Singh Kalepani, Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi, Yogendra Shukla, Batukeshwar Dutt, Maulana Ahmadullah, Babarao Savarkar, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Sachindra Nath Sanyal, Bhai Parmanand, Shadan Chandra Chatterjee, Sohan Singh, Subodh Roy, Vaman Rao Joshi and Nand Gopal.  Several revolutionaries tried in the Alipore Case (1908) such as Barindra Kumar Ghose, Upendra Nath Banerjee, Birendra Chandra Sen too were lodged there. It is written that though Savarkar brothers Babarao and Vinayak were lodged there for two years at the same time, they would not know of each other’s presence.   
the gallows of Andamans

In March 1868, 238 prisoners tried to escape. By April they were all caught. One committed suicide and of the remainder Superintendent Walker ordered 87 to be hanged ~ a visit over here would haunt you for those patriotic souls, who were tortured, grieved to chill penury, and died when cruelty in its worst form was meted out. .. .. now honestly think, have we ever read of a Anant Kanhere, Yogendra Shukla, Batukeshwar Dutt, Savarkars, Sachindranath Sanyal and innumerable others !! ~ and we studied history in schools !!!

With heavy heart –S. Sampathkumar
Eve of Indian Independence day 2018.
            Inspired by the movie  Chiraisalai ~ moved to tears during my  visit to the Cellular jails .. biblio :
o    History of Indian freedom movement vol 11 – 1885 – 1920 – Govt records, Bombay
o    Andaman islanders – Anthropology – A Brown
o   Selections from the records of Govt of India (Home Department) no. XXV – Andaman Islands, Calcutta 1859

o   Tale of my exile – Barindrakumar Ghose.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice sir ji. From bottom of my heart I salute to all freedom fighters. Sir today I have posted in FB. Gandhi done fasting and neharu family looting Hindustan

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