Andamans: A Monument to the Spirit of the Anti-colonial Struggle

Uma Seth takes us on a journey across the seas over the dreaded Kala Paani to the Cellular Jail of the Andamans where thousands of our patriots were incarcerated.

Uma Seth takes us on a journey across the seas over the dreaded Kala Paani to the Cellular Jail of the Andamans where thousands of our patriots were incarcerated.

Cellular Jail – the name evokes both horror and awe; the first, for the inhuman torture that the prisoners were subject to on a remote island with no escape, and awe at the spirit of these prisoners, youth and matured alike, who extended the limits of human resilience and endurance. Just say the word Andamans and the first thought that comes to mind is kala paani and cellular jail. It was only later that the beaches – pristine and wild – became greater points of attraction for visitors.

When we decided to visit the islands for a brief 4-day sojourn, Cellular Jail was definitely on the list of places to visit. But my anticipation was tinged with doubt and the question: what is there to see in a jail, how can the horrors of Colonial rule be at all inspiring? Is the jail of architectural triumph? However, a tour of the jail premises and the “sound and light” show at dusk put paid to all these doubts. It is important that the tyranny of British rule be recorded for posterity. More importantly, we need to celebrate as a nation and transmit to younger generations the limitless defiance of our patriots in the face of such tyranny.

Even before the jail was constructed, the Andaman and Nicobar islands were a destination for “very troublesome natives”. The first 200 prisoners were brought to the island in 1858, and by 1864 there were 8875 prisoners in the island. They were mostly prisoners who had been awarded life terms for anti-colonial activities. Their labour was used to clear the forest area in the main island at Port Blair, where the jail was to be constructed. The construction of the 698 isolation cells across seven wings and 3 stories each began in 1896 and took 10 years to be completed.

The Cellular Jail acquired its name because it is entirely made up of individual cells for the solitary confinement of prisoners. A hundred and thirteen years later it stands there and one can feel the isolation that each cell mate must have felt, even as he knew that there were over 600 others like him. It was just him and the three walls around him, the bars in front and only a small window at a height of 10 ft. The cells were made so that they do not face each other, thereby ensuring that there was not a chance of meeting a fellow prisoner eye-to-eye.

They were forced to labour at the coconut oil press and husk pounders, they were flogged and tortured for the slightest show of dignity and self respect, they were denied food and water, and many were hanged after nearly being beaten to death. They were not criminals but political prisoners convicted for their patriotism and anti-imperialism.

The lists of prisoners that are inscribed on the walls that form the corner turrets of the seven jail buildings bear testimony to the country-wide spread of the anti-colonial revolt. Prisoners were brought here from across the country and for almost every anti-colonial uprising The list is endless some names more familiar and others less so: Alipur Conspiracy case, Ambala case, Bhusaval case, Burma Conspiracy, Kakori case, Lahore Conspiracy, Hardinge Bombing case, Chittagong Armoury raid, Maniklota Bomb case, Malda case and so on. Then there were fighters from the Moplah Rebellion, Babbar Akali movement, Kuka Rebellion, Pune Rebellion, Rampa Revolt, Rayya Rebellion, Wahabi Revolt etc. In every district and region, people rose up for their freedom and against the oppressive colonial rule.

The spirit of the prisoners is brought to life very well with the “sound and light” show. The bargad ka ped (banyan tree), which has witnessed history, acts as the narrator of the story as it unfolded in the jail. The tales are told with pathos of a prisoner as he is brought in from the ship, of every act of defiance against the despotic jailors and their superintendent despite punishment of 100 lashes, of impossible targets of husking or oil pressing that had to be completed in a day, of hard labour or sentencing to be hanged ….and then the slogan of Inquilab Zindabad raised with the last breath before the gallows claimed his life.

The cells come alive with light and sound, with the poetry and songs of the prisoners and their calls to each other keep each other’s spirits high. Amidst the many heroic tales, that of the 16-year old Nanda Gopal remains with you for a long time. Inspired by the first strike of the prisoners, this lad of 16 years continued his defiance in the face of every kind of inhuman torture. The response of the jail authorities to the strike had driven Indu Bhusan to suicide and Ullaskar Dutta to insanity, and deterred others from carrying on with the strike. But Nanda Gopal did not give up till the end.

Under pressure of the first of the two legendary strikes that lasted thirty-six days and the mass agitations in the mainland against the transportation of political prisoners to the Andaman jail, the British repatriated the prisoners in 1914. But with the widespread resurgence of the revolutionary movement, the British renewed the transporting of rebels to the islands again in 1932.

Then began another strike in 1933. Many inmates, including comrades of Bhagat Singh convicted in the Lahore Conspiracy case, were killed through brutal force-feeding. Eventually some of the demands of the prisoners were met but the concessions extracted by the strike were soon taken back. This led to another strike, this time a 45-day hunger strike for the restoration of civil liberties and the unconditional repatriation of all political prisoners. The strike gathered strength as more joined. The final repatriation of all political prisoners from the Cellular Jail was completed by 18 January 1938, as they were brought back to the mainland.

One walks away from this visit with the sentiment that these sacrifices should not go to waste.

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