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Saturday, September 1, 2018

What an Irony!

The moment you think of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a picture of pristine beauty floating in the splendid isolation of Bay of Bengal flashes in your mind. Crystal clear blue water tinged with green, exotic and most beautiful sea beaches, lush green rain forests and innocent aboriginal tribes leading simple lives rooted to the surrounding mangroves—simply, a sylvan ambience engulfs your mind.    

But when it comes to people of my generation what is likely to strike our mind is: The Kaala Pani days—the cellular jail, the most dreaded and grueling colonial prison that the Bristish administration used to lodge India’s freedom fighters/political dissenters and the barbaric treatment that was meted out to them. Indeed, dark reminiscences of colonial rule at once swarm our mind. 

It is to keep the freedom fighters exiled from the nation in isolation that the cellular jail was designed with hundreds of miles of sea all around offering no scope for escape. This three-storeyed structure, shaped like a seven-spoke wheel with a tall watch tower at the centre built in Andaman island had rows of single iron-gated cells in each wing, totalling 693, for the solitary confinement of the prisoners.

It is in these small cells measuring 4.5 m x 2.7 m in size that the freedom-fighters were housed. Each cell had a small iron vent in the back, while all that an inmate could see in the front is the brick wall of the opposite wing. No other prisoner could be seen from these cells. It is because of this solitary confinement that it had got its name: ‘cellular jail’.

The prison witnessed the most atrocious punishments inflicted on the prisoners. The very thought of the inhuman and unimaginable tortures that the freedom fighters lodged in this jail were subjected to brings chills down the spine. All this came to the attention of the mainland only upon the hunger strike observed by the inmates in the early 1930s. 

The soul-destroying slave work that the prisoners were subjected to was narrated by the son of Sushil Dasgupta, one of the imprisoned freedom fighters of this jail, thus: After six hours of tortuous work of pounding coconuts relentlessly to produce the backbreaking quota of coconut fibre under the fierce Indian sun as his throat gone bone dry, when he [Sushil Dasgupta] stopped his work to ask the guard for a glass of water all that he could get was whipping over and over. 

Another gruelling task that the prisoners were to perform was: pulling of a large wheel manually to crush the coconuts for squeezing oil. They were expected to produce 30 pounds of oil per day, a huge amount that was difficult for a pair of animals even. Those, who refused to comply with, were whipped mercilessly and kept in hands-up fetter position for days together. 

Such were the working conditions that were awaiting at the Kala Pani for the political prisoners exiled from the mainland. And no matter how tired they were, resting was never an option for them, for sinister punishment awaited those who slowed down. Once the labouring was over, they were housed in the separate cells. Their toilet breaks too were strictly regimented. Even if one was in a hurry one had to hold on till the guard permitted. Such was the hell they were to undergo. No wonder, if some of the inmates were to resort to suicide! 

Dedicated freedom fighters like Veer Savarkar were incarcerated in this jail during 1911-1921. After his release from the jail he wrote extensively about the awful conditions that the inmates of this jail were subjected to. Savarkar wrote that as the prison gates were shut behind him, he felt he had “entered the jaws of death.” Talking about the cruelty of the Irish jailor, David Barrie, the self-declared ‘God of Port Blair’, Savarkar said that the very mention of his name sent chill waves among the prisoners, for they felt no one was more cruel and hard-hearted than he. 

Now moving forward from this ‘Kaala Pani-past’ to the present, we have something more funny, or should I say more disturbing news to hear: A British Court hearing the petition filed by the CBI for extradition of liquor baron, Vijay Mallya to face charges of money-laundering and fraud relating to the unpaid bank loans amounting to Rs. 9000 crore, had asked for a “step by step video” of Barrack 12 where Mallya is supposed to be lodged during pre-trial and also in the event of conviction, for “the avoidance of doubt” over the availability of natural light and ventilation in the cell. 

Oh Judiciary, what a transformation! And, what a concern for Indian citizens!


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