Cellular Jail, The Kala Paani of Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Till very recently, Andaman and Nicobar Islands were mainly known for Cellular jail, an infamous historical monument that saw the struggle of many of its freedom fighters along with the various atrocities that the British and the even more horrific Japanese did on the prisoners.
Cellular Jail, Port Blair
Cellular Jail, Port Blair, Andaman and Nicobar Island
The foremost thing that makes the jail unique is its structure. It was built as a seven wing prison that spread like seven spokes of a wheel. Each wing was three storied. The building had a total of 663 cells with one prisoner in each cell, though 30 more cells were built later on in 1909. A central tower was built at the center of the seven wings. The idea was to make solitary confinement for prisoners. The prisoners were either the culprits who committed crimes in mainland and some political prisoners who were mainly freedom fighters.
Cellular Jail, Port Blair

One guard could keep an eye on all the seven wings and another peculiar feature of the jail was the that each wing was confined into its own. There could not be any communication possible between the wings as the front of one wing faced the back of the other.

This is place where the prisoners used to get punished. Sadly, utter solitary confinement was not the only thing that the prisoners were faced with. The brutal beatings, excruciating labor and lack of food was enough to break the health and spirit of these prisoners.
The cells were just 13′ by 7′ in size. The back wall had a 3’ x 2’ high ventillator with a sill height of 10’.
Cellular Jail, Port Blair

The sloped awning covering it was so deep only a sliver of light was visible at the bottom.

A wide (7’ or 8’, perhaps) passage ran in front of the cells. On watching the light and sound shows of the jail and reading the historical documents, we come to know that the prisoners had daily quotas of labor – to produce 30 pounds of coconut oil and 10 pounds of mustard oil, a target that was impossible to achieve even if they all worked together. If the targets were not achieves, which was very usual, there were very barbaric punishments for the prisoners. They were made to wear sack cloth uniforms with handcuffs, neck ring shackles, bar fetters as shown in the picture.

In the crowded, filthy, damp environment of the Cellular Jail, facing the brutalities of the Jail officials, and the soul shattering labour , political prisoners continued their struggle for survival. The bleak desolation of prison life, the stifling atmosphere of cells, resounding with the clank of chains, curses and abusive epithets of the warders was enough to unnerve even the hardiest of them. This is the cell where Vir Savarkar was locked up.

Freedom fighter Vir Savarkar wrote – “We were to be yoked like animals to the handle that turned the wheel .Hardly out of bed, we were ordered to wear a strip of cloth, were shut up in our cell and made to turn the wheel of the oil mill. ……….. . The door was opened only when meal was announced. The man came in and served the meal in the pan and went away and the door was shut. If after washing his hands one were to wipe away the perspiration of his body,the jamadar who was the worst of gangsters in the whole lot would go at him with loud abuse. There was no water for washing hands. Drinking water was to be had only by propitiating the jamadar, while you were at kolu; you felt very thirsty. The waterman gave no water except for a consideration which was to palm off to him some tobacco in exchange. If one spoke to jamadar his retort was,” A prisoner is given only two cups of water and you have already consumed three. Whence can I bring you more water? From your father?” we have put down the retort of the jamadar in the most decent language possible. If water could not be had for wash and drink what can be said of water for bathing?” The picture below depicts the oil mill in Cellular jail.

While describing the prison life Ullaskar Dutt narrates- “In our village only oxen are harnessed to the oil presses and even they can not extract more than 16 pounds of mustard –oil in one day. Here, in the Cellular Jail, I was harnessed to the oil mill with two other prisoners and were required to produce eighty pounds of coconut oil by evening. The Jamadars would make us gallop and if our pace slackened, we were beaten mercilessly. We would stumble and fall, and be beaten senseless everyday.” This is shown in this picture below:

One day the political prisoners decided to fight for the right. In 1933, three political prisoners went on hunger strike. This excerpt is from the autobiography of Bijoy Kumar SInha – “On the fixed day, thirty-three of them (Political Prisoners) started the hunger-strike. It was May 1933……The officers were running to and fro, looking perplexed at the concerted attack. The first thing that they did was to get all the strikers locked up in the first and second floors of yard No.5. ……………Over and above, heavy fetters were imposed on them.

………. “The settlement doctors were completely unnerved. They had no previous experience of hunger-strike and were at their wits’ end. But the Senior Medical Officer, a European gentleman, moved about with an air of indifference and nonchalance. He remarked that he wanted to ‘teach a lesson’ to the political prisoners. Forced feeding in Indian jails usually begins late, when the hunger-striker becomes weak and is physically disabled to offer stiff resistance. …….They started feeding on the sixth day. “Two doctors and a gang entered the cells of comrade Mahabir Singh. …..….. They started the feeding process in a crude manner. When the rubber tube for feeding was inserted in the nose, Mahabir resisted vigorously and coughed hard. The tube was thus transferred into the windpipe from the gullet. Pouring of milk began downright and it went straight into the lungs. …… “The struggle now became grimmer. After Mahabir’s death everyday the strikers had additions to their ranks. New comrades joined the hunger-strike. The number went up from day to day till it reached over fifty. The last hunger strike began on 24th July 1937.

One hundred and eighty three political prisoners went on hunger strike and others who were persuaded not the join the strike on health ground. The hunger strike created unprecedented scene all over the country .Hundreds of political prisoners interned in different parts of India began sympathetic strike. A number of leaders sent messages to the prisoners to abandon the hunger strike. On 28th August 1937, Mahatma Gandhi sent a telegram to the prisoners advising them on behalf of not only of himself but also of Rabindra Nath Tagore and the Congress Working Committee to abandon the hunger strike. The appeal of Gandhiji and other leaders was considered and the strike was called off after forty five days and the Government promised to repatriate the political prisoners. The first batch was sent back in September 1937 .By January 1938 almost all political prisoners of the Cellular Jail were repatriated to Jails in mainland India.

Today, the jail has just three wings. Others were damaged and destroyed at various times. The jail today stands as mute testimony of the barbarous treatment Indians underwent when they were fighting for their rights. Finally, the place called Faansi Ghar where the prisoners were hanged.

I can assure you that if you watch the show in the jail, it would send a chill down your spine and you may even swear to never visit the small, arrogant island of the Europe that is known as The United Kingdom!

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