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. Mere thinking about it is so horrible and our freedom fighters suffered from this harsh punishment. It was not possible for the prisoners to run away from here as the jail was surrounded by sea.
Yes! , I am talking about the Cellular jail situated on South Andaman Island, one of 572 islands forming Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India. The idea of establishing a permanent penal settlement in these islands was germinated in the minds of the British Rulers in 1857 to curb India’s First War of Independence.
First and foremost thing that makes the jail unique is its structure. It was built as a seven wing stretching from Central tower prison that spread like star-fish or seven spokes of a wheel. Each wing was three storied. There was also an entrance block to the jail. It has 696 cells, one for each person. The name Cellular Jail is derived from its unique feature as it has only cell and no dormitories. Each cell measures 13 1/2 ‘x 7’, secured by a heavy iron grill door with specially designed latch system. Confinement in the small cells gave this facility its name ‘Cellular Jail’. A 3 feet by 1 feet ventilator, nearly 10 feet high from the door was provided to each cell. In order to minimize the chances of conversation possibility among the convict and to isolate them from each other, the construction of the Jail was so made that the front portion of each wing was to face the back side of the other wing.
Other than isolation, the work quotas given to these prisoners were frequently impossible to complete within the time limit and the dire punishment followed for those who failed to meet them. Often punishment were inhuman, it ranged from extra hours on the grinding mill to standing handcuffed for a week, to bar-fetters for six months, to confinement in solitary cells, to four days of starvation diet and to cross bars for ten days, a punishment which compelled the victim to keep his legs apart. Work on the oil grinding mill was all the more terrible and caused several deaths. Often the revolutionary patriots in the form of prisoners became breathless, with their tongues parched up; limbs numb, hands bruised and the brain reeled. And what was their crime? They loved their motherland. We may not be able to sustain the brutality but their mould was different.
Life was very dark and horrible in the prison. There were no toilets. Each inmate was provided with two metal bowls. One was meant for food and the other one was to be used as a toilet and was cleaned out by the prisoners when they were out next morning. The food that was given was not fit for human consumption. Water consisted of worm-infested rain water for drinking that also limited. Each prisoner was allowed only one pinch of salt per day. They were provided with ‘Kanji’, it means boiled rice churned in water once a day in a bowl of size of a coconut shell and wild grass was boiled and served in lieu of vegetables.
The prisoners were kept locked up in bar fetters, metal rods that ran from the elbows to the knees and cross bar fetters, rods that ran between the feet. The only time the fetters were unlocked was when they were let out to do work. Physical torture and flogging were common. Many lost their lives in the Cellular Jail. There were no lights, no reading material. Prisoners were not allowed to meet with each other. The guards carried out physical torture and flogging. Their behavior was insulting. Things were unbearable. Remoteness and terror of the facility gave it a name, ‘Kala Pani’ (Black water). People left hopes once they were inside.
‘Kala Pani’ or ‘Black Water’ virtually meant cruel and ruthless treatment to the prisoners till death. A sentence of deportation to ‘Kala Pani’ meant a warrant for throwing the prisoner in living hell to face heard or unheard trials and tribulations and to lead a life of a beast or even worse than that. Expatriation to ‘Kala Pani’ for life was worse than death penalty. The Indian revolutionaries were doomed to ‘Kala Pani’ to undergo these harsh punishments but they in turn immortalised these islands by their selfless sacrifices.
Although the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are among the world’s most beautiful islands and neither the soil, nor the water of these islands is black, but the British government had created a situation to call these islands as ‘Kala Pani’ because of the inhuman barbarisms inflicted on the patriot prisoners fighting for the liberation of their motherland who were transported from the mainland and gaoled in these islands. The term “Kala Pani” is interwoven with the trials and tribulations faced by the brave political prisoners in Cellular Jail and of those freedom fighters of the first war of independence who were brought to these islands to lead a ‘hell like life”. Every cell echoes the cruelty stories of British rulers and the hardships suffered by the prisoners. Every brick bore the testimony to the reality of horrors and begged question, does fighting for one’s human right deserve such treatment?
Cellular Jail is one of the darkest chapters in Indian history during the British colonial rules and should never be rewritten.