Cellular Jail, located at Port Blair, stood mute witness to the tortures meted out to the freedom fighters, who were incarcerated in this jail. The jail, completed in the year 1906 acquired the name ‘Cellular’ because it is entirely made up of individual cells for the solitary confinement. It originally was a seven prolonged, puce-coloured building with central-tower acting as its fulcrum and a massive structure comprising honeycomb like corridors. The building was subsequently damaged and presently three out of the seven prongs are intact. The Jail, now a place of pilgrimage for all freedom loving people, has been declared a National Memorial. The jail museum here draws your memories back to those years of freedom struggle. Isolated from the mainland, this jail, also referred as Kala Pani (where Kala means death or time and Pani means water in Sanskrit) witnessed the most atrocious punishments imposed on prisoners. India’s struggle for independence saw imminent freedom fighters like Batukeshwar Dutt and Veer Savarkar being incarcerated in this jail.
The British constructed the Cellular Jail. The idea to construct it came to them in the wake of the First War of Indian Independence (1857) which the British chose to call the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’. To deport and imprison the so-called mutineers, deserters and rebels, the far-off Andamans was chosen. On 10th March 1858, the first batch of 200 ‘grievous political offenders’ touched the shores of Chatham Island within Port Blair harbour in South Andaman. The second batch was of 216 from Punjab province. Fearing that political prisoners would spread revolutionary ideas among other prisoners and also mingle within their group, the British rulers decided on solitary cells in a far off place. Thus was completed the notorious Cellular Jail in 1906 whose solitary cells finally rose to a total of 693! As the freedom movement picked up, 80 revolutionaries from Poona were deported in 1889. As the freedom struggle saw a resurge, 132 were deported (1909- 1921), followed by 379 (1932-38). Political prisoners involved in various conspiracy cases were deported to Cellular Jail. Some of such cases include Alipur Bomb Case (also known as Maniktola Conspiracy Case), Nasik Conspiracy Case, Lahore Conspiracy Case (Ghaddar party revolutionaries), Banaras Conspiracy Case, Chittagong Armoury Case, Dacca Conspiracy Case, Inter-Provincial Conspiracy Case, Gaya Conspiracy Case and Burma Conspiracy Case, etc.
Life in the Cellular Jail was most inhuman and barbaric, especially for the early prisoners. With little food and clothing, the political prisoners were compelled to do gruelling manual work. Unused to such hard manual labour, they failed in their daily work quota resulting in further severe punishments. The intention was to humiliate them and shatter their will power. They were set upon to manually press oil, dehusk coconuts, pound coir, make rope, cut hills, fill up swamps, clear forests, lay roads, etc. The most feared was ‘picking oakum’, the ‘art of rope making’ out of Ramban grass with high acidity content that caused continuous itching, scratching and bleeding!
After Independence in 1947, many of the erstwhile Political Prisoners visited the islands. Their association-“Ex-Andaman Political Prisoner’s Fraternity Circle” took up issue with the Government of India, who accepting this proposal agreed to preserve it as National Memorial without making any substantial charge. The Memorial was dedicated to the nation by the then Prime Minister of India on 11th February 1979. Today the entrance block of the National Memorial houses, Freedom Fighters Photo and Exhibition Gallery in the Ground Floor. The first floor of the building has an Art Gallery, Netaji Gallery and a Library on Freedom Movement. Gallery on First War of Independence and on Old Photographs Gallery have also been set up in the premises of the National Memorial. An eternal flame of Freedom–Swatantrya Jyot–has been erected in the vicinity of the Cellular Jail in memory of all freedom fighters and martyrs.
By Uday India Bureau