Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Special Report: 'Cellular Jail' Or 'Kala Pani' - The Historical Indian Bastille Is Still On The Andaman Islands

The picturesque city of Port Blair in the Andaman islands, attracts many tourists during the months of January to March. However, a trip to the Andaman islands would be incomplete without a visit to Port Blair’s monumental structure, the Cellular Jail or Kala Pani.

As closing time draws n ear, the security personnel inside the Cellular Jail at Port Blair begin to signal visitors to leave the jail before the gates close.
Visitors are quick to heed to this signal as nobody would want to be left behind in the jail to spend the night without food, water and a bed to sleep on.

What would be more agonizing is to be left behind within the jail premises with haunting thoughts of the gruesome treatment that thousands of Indian freedom fighters were subjected to, while they were imprisoned in this jail during the early 20th century.

The Cellular Jail in Port Blair stands as a mute witness to the untold sufferings and the undaunted spirit of India’s firebrand revolutionaries. This jail which is located in the heart of Port Blair is listed as a national monument of India. 

The jail was constructed under the British rule. It was built over a span of 10 years at a cost of Rupees 5,17,352. The construction work began in 1896. The jail was completed in 1906. The name “Cellular” is because of its unique feature of having cells which were built in such a manner that each prisoner would live in total isolation without any communication with other prisoners.

The jail was built with seven wings laid out in the form of spokes around a central tower. Ebrick-wallach wing had three floors with 693 cells in each wing. What remains today of the Cellular Jail are only three wings. It is said that some of the wings had to be demolished as they were damaged during an earthquake in 1941.

The Cellular Jail is also referred to as Kala Pani (Black waters). Many visitors at the jail ask the question “why the name Kala Pani?”. This name has nothing to with the colour of the water. When political prisoners were sent to the jail to be imprisoned for life, there was no hope of returning home. The prisoners would be subjected to the brutalities of the British. It was a dead end for the prisoners. For this reason the jail was known as “Kala Pani.”

The museum which is housed within the jail premises shows a pictorial depiction of the brutalities of the British. For the initial six months, each prisoner would be confined to his cell and there was no communication with anybody. The work given to each prisoner included extracting a certain quantity of coconut fiber each day or working in the oil crushing mill. 

If they did not fulfill what was expected of them, the prisoners would be handcuffed against the wall for several days. If anybody complained, they would be made to wear coarse cloth such as gunny, so that their skin would hurt. Prisoners would also be made to wear leg iron chains.

Severe punishments included flogging of prisoners and the most ghastly of all punishments; the gallows, where prisoners would be hanged. Even today, visitors can visit the gallows. There are three nooses and one can only imagine how agonizing it would have been for prisoners to be hanged here and for the other inmates to see their comrades heading towards the gallows.

Some of the prisoners imprisoned here were those involved in the Alipore Bomb case, the Lahore conspiracy, the Nashik conspiracy among others. One of the famous freedom fighter who was imprisoned here was Veer Savarkar. His involvement in the Nashik conspiracy led to his arrest and exile to the jail. 

Presently, the cell of Savarkar has been marked with a sign board. It was in this cell that Savarkar would write on the walls about the things that he would hear from other cells. Some of the other political prisoners imprisoned in this jail were Yogendra Shukla, Babarao Savarkar, Bhatukeshwar Dutta. The list is endless.

The British barbarism towards prisoners in the jail continued until 1938. In 1938, political prisoners were released from the jail owing to pressures from various quarters. During World War II, the Japanese Army was known to have invaded the island for a brief period from 1942 to 1945. Following this came Independence in 1947, when the jail ceased to be a place for imprisonment.

In 1979, the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai dedicated the jail to the nation as a mark of respect to the freedom fighters. Now, the jail stands as a national memorial of great historical importance.

The jail today is well painted with a green garden surrounding it. The top of the watch tower presents an excellent view of the blue waters, swaying palms and the nearby islands. The trip to the Cellular Jail is worth a visit and a reminder of the sacrifices made by great Indian revolutionaries and freedom fighters, who made it possible for us to experience freedom.

The jail is open to visitors from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm. The museum is an excellent place to learn about the prison and its history.

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