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Cellular Jail in Port Blair

The Cellular Jail in Port Blair is a testimony to the steadfast conviction that men and women—political prisoners all—had in their nation’s destiny, and the hardships and sacrifices they readily gave for it.

When the Andaman colony was set up by Dr. James Pattison Walker, the British did not follow any consistent policy. It was in the suppression of thaggi and dacoit in India, that the genesis of the Cellular Jail can be traced. However, the jail became significant and grasped the imagination of the people of mainland India and abroad when, during the course of India’s freedom struggle, the British began to deport political prisoners to Port Blair. The Lyall Commission (headed by Charles James Lyall, Home Secretary to the Government of India) decided that to make the earlier stages of imprisonment more penal there was to be a ‘preliminary stage of separate confinement for a period of six months in cells’. And so for the ticket-of-leave convicts, or the self-supporters, the Cellular jail was built in the penal settlement that covered 1876 square kilometres of grazing and arable land, swamps, dense forests, harbours and inlets, and a few villages.

The construction of the jail was started in 1896 and took 14 years to complete. Located at Aberdeen, it stands on a promontory that overlooks Sessostris Bay, facing Ross Island. The original building was a seven pronged, puce-coloured brick building, with a central tower as the fulcrum. Each wing was four-storeyed, with cells on the first three and a watchtower on the fourth. These spanned out in straight lines from the central tower, rather like the spokes of a bicycle. The tower used to house a bell which tolled the hour, but which was also sent into a frantic, frenzied alarm during a crisis. On each storey, near the fulcrum, was posted a guard who had to merely walk around like the hand of a clock to get a clear, unobstructed view of the verandas which faced the cells and from which he was protected by iron grilled doors. When completed in 1910, the Cellular Jail had 698 cells. Each cell was 4.5 metres by 2.7 metres with a solitary ventilator located three metres off the ground. Thus a prisoner could neither see anything nor communicate with other inmates. And to make it just a little harder for the prisoners, each wing faced the rear of the other. Even now, as you wander around the Jail Complex, the execution room where prisoners were hanged, the shed where they worked at the oil press, the eerie silence in the long corridors and the walls with hooks from which the prisoners were tied as punishment, will send a tremor of fear in you. After independence in 1947, the government of India demolished four of the seven wings to make way for a hospital. Of the three that remained, two house some offices while only one wing is used as a jail for both men and women prisoners. And as if prophesying the future, the lower of even this wing, tumbled down during the great Andaman earthquake of 1941. This new tower is wooden and no bells toll for anyone.

As to the quality of life offered to convicts, it is better described by Sir Richard Temple who says, “The life term convicts are received in the Cellular Jail for six months, where discipline is severest, they are then transferred to Associate Jails for 18 months where work is hard, and so on until the convict has spent 20 to 25 years at the settlement. Women convicts were meted out the same treatment and an obvious fall-out of the fact that men far out-numbered women was that there was rampant prostitution. In any case the dehumanizing treatment, harsh living conditions and the utter cruelty of officers towards convicts, failed to achieve the avowed aim of the British in the Penal Settlement: to provide a long education to useful citizenship.”

The outbreak of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 motivated the British to re-establish the penal colony, though it was subsequently abandoned in 1796. The increasing tempo of the Indian freedom movement in the closing years of the last century and the early years of the present one led the British to confine separately prominent rebels who were too dangerous to be allowed to mix with ordinary convicts. The Andamans offered a natural answer and henceforth political prisoners were deported to the island and kept in solitary confinement. The prisoners included not just those actively involved in the freedom movement, but also journalists convicted for seditious writing. Such men and women were nearly all sentenced to life imprisonment.

During the years 1910 to 1916, when these crusaders and many others were imprisoned in the Cellular Jail, an English man called Barry was the Jail Superintendent. This man was so utterly cruel that some prisoners became insane, while others committed suicide in a bid to escape malnutrition, the denial of hygiene, callous medical facilities, hard labour and a prohibition to communicate with family members and friends. The worst degradation was when political prisoners were sent out for hard labour everyday, their feet shackled and fettered in chains. Read the memoirs of Savarkar and you will conclude that in this penal settlement there were ‘no men’, just ‘convicts’. Notwithstanding the degradation and the deprivation of his existence, Savarkar wrote, “The island ornamented the sea like a palace built in the land of fairies… It was so picturesque and compact that it could not fail to ravish the mind of even a prisoner in chains like me.”

Barry’s cruelty resulted in the prisoners going on two successive strikes. At last the government of India was forced to admit that something was very wrong in the penal settlement and Sir Reginad Craddock visited the Andamans in 1913. After concerted deliberations it was decided that political prisoners would be repatriated from the Cellular Jail from May to September of 1914. But before this could accomplished World War I broke out, enmeshing every part of the world in it. In India the war resulted in renewed revolutionary activity. By the 1920s the British had definitely decided to abandon the settlement and it was decided that a self-supporting community of ticket-to-leave convicts be encouraged. This was because the government of India understood the strategic importance of the Andamans to enable the control of the seas and the abundant natural wealth it offered.

During World War II, on March 23, 1942, ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy gained control of Ross and Chatham, blew up the wireless station at Port Blair and by six the next morning had established control of the Andamans. Colonel Bucho, the Japanese Civil Governor, immediately arrested Chief Commissioner Waterfall and released all prisoners from the Cellular Jail. While they sentenced many British to death, they pardoned the Indians whom they vowed to liberate. However, their occupation of these islands was not without its tales of horror and brutality.

Finally, on August 15, 1947, when India became independent the penal settlement was closed down. On Public demand the central tower of the Cellular Jail has been declared a protected monument, with plaques put up to commemorate the famous occupants of these dreadful cells. Not surprisingly then, to many the Andaman Islands stand haloed by the sacrifices of martyred freedom fighters. For them it is a place of pilgrimage.

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