I visited Andaman Islands in the November of 2013.
Andaman and Nicobar islands is a group of tropical islands off the coast of India in Bay of Bengal. It takes approximately 2 hours to reach by flight. Andaman and Nicobar is a cluster of nearly 575 islands, most of them either uninhabited, or inhabited by primal adivasis (the ancient tribal residents of Andaman, untouched by modern civilization).
Andaman and Nicobar are extremely beautiful and teeming with exotic corals and wildlife. But Indian history has a very dark era, where these islands were used to destroy hope and lives of so many people.
During the British rule of India, near the start of 20th century, Indian struggle for independence from their British overlords was gaining momentum after the failed uprising of 1857. The Indian youth were demanding more rights. The British rulers were feeling the heat of organized peaceful political protests on one hand, and violent revolt of the revolutionists on the other.
The British realised that killing and punishing few would not serve to break the moral of others. So they devised a jail called ‘Çellular Jail’ in the Port Blair island of Andaman. Cellular jail was built from the slave labour of Indian prisoners over the course of 5 years.
Cellular jail is so named as it has 693 tiny cells, out of which 663 were built for solitary confinement of prisoners. From the beginning of 20th century till the Japanese occupation of the island during WW-II, the jail witnessed one of the blackest chapters of torture, misery and unbreakable human spirit of freedom.
The prison sentence imposed on the political prisoners being sent to Cellular Jail was termed ‘Kala Pani’ (Black water). The sentence consisted of solitary confinement of prisoners in their respective cells, very small rationing of food and water, just to keep them alive, constant humiliation, and slave labour, where they were forced to do inhuman tasks like producing 30 pounds of coconut oil etc. Failing to do these tasks invited further punishment like flogging, food deprivation and being bound in chains for days.
Many prisoners went insane due to this torture, many died. When prisoners went on hunger strike to demand better conditions, they were force fed milk to break their strike. Many died during this force feeding, because the milk entered their lungs. One of them was Mahaveer Singh, a close associate of Bhagat Singh. There’s a garden across the road from Cellular jail now, where statues of 6 martyrs are erected. Four of them have died due to such force feed.
Cellular jail is today a national monument to the sacrifice of innumerable people, who were unreasonable enough to denounce the foreign rulers, who were stubborn enough to sacrifice their today for others’ tomorrow, and brave enough to endure the relentless torture in this bleak prison.
Every day, a light and sound show is held twice in the Cellular jail premises to remind us of their sacrifices. I attended such show on 31st Oct last week.
I must admit that I was a bit sceptical about the quality of show when I entered the premises. It’s one thing to have a great subject material, it’s another thing to represent it correctly, effectively and by touching the viewers’ emotions.
When the show ended, I was extremely grateful to the organisers that they came up with this show!
The show has no live human characters, it has no moving statues. The whole show is based on light and sound effects emanating from various places in the jail premises, cells and walls.
The show takes us through a brief history of Andaman, and the conception and construction of cellular jail. There’s a solitary Banyan tree in the premises. It was there before the construction began, and it survived the logging and deforestation of the land where the jail now stands. It was a very nice and touching idea to tell the history of jail by this tree, as it has seen it all.
One of the greatest freedom fighters India has ever seen, Veer Sawarkar was given a sentence of 50 years of kala pani. When he entered the jail, the jailer met him and sarcastically asked him, “So Sawarkar, you are here for life now. Do you want to spend 50 years here, or go insane before that, so you can at least spend some time outside?”. Sawarkar replied, “Mr Jailer, do you seriously think the British rule will last for next 50 years in India?”. Sawarkar’s prophecy came true eventually.
The tales of suffering, torture, humiliation told were heart wrenching, and I am not ashamed to say that I cried during the show. Not once, but many times. However the tears were not borne of depression, but gratitude, towards those who gave their present for our future.
Today, we talk about globalization, and Indian tiger in the great game of global economics. We talk about getting to be a world superpower, and touching the Moon, and the Mars. We talk about Indians getting recognized and celebrated in the same vein as our European and American counterparts.
But all this started with the self respect which we earned by earning our independence. And these were the thousands of unnamed people who refused to let the circumstances break their spirits.
As I walked out at the end of the show, I was proud to be their fellow countryman.