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A Monument to Martyrs

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August 2002
A Monument to Martyrs

Commemorating India?s Independence Day (August, 15th), here?s a look at one of the most telling monuments from the saga of the independence movement - the Cellular Jail of Andaman & Nicobar Islands, popularly known as Kala Pani.

By SRILEKHA CHAKRAVARTY

The freedom struggle came to one of the most remote places in India via a jail that had become notorious. The Cellular Jail, which housed many freedom fighters in inhuman conditions, has now been turned into a national monument. However, its history is part of our legacy, the legacy of the freedom struggle.

The Andamans, the group of islands near Burma, first came to the notice of the British in 1789 but were deserted soon after in 1796 because of the difficult living conditions. But after 1857 the British returned and they realized that these islands would be an ideal place for a high security prison, where criminals and imprisoned Indian soldiers would be unable to escape because of the surrounding shark-infested ocean waters. So dreaded was the reputation of the penal colony established in the Andamans that it became known as kaala paani (the black waters).

The British first landed in the Andamans on Ross Island, the capital city before Port

Blair was built with the labor of the Indian prisoners. The remains of the palace that was built for the ruling Commissioner can still be seen. One can also see the remnants of the facilities of purifying water for drinking purposes, ice machine, bakery, tennis court, ammunition building, graveyard, church etc. Even after Port Blair became the main seat of administrative activities, some British Government agents were stationed there till 1941 to oversee the Indian prisoners.

In Port Blair, where the capital city later moved, the British Government imprisoned the Indian rebels of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. By 1874, the number of the Indian freedom fighters swelled from seven hundred nearly eight thousand. Murderers and other hard-core criminals were also sent there for life-imprisonment.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the British government began to send Indian freedom fighters to Port Blair in large numbers for life sentences. They lived along with hard-core criminals who were sentenced to death. Due to an enormous increase in the number of freedom fighters, a new jail was built. That jail building was completed in 1906. By that time the number of prisoners rose to nearly 15,000, most of whom were freedom fighters. The jail was called a cellular jail because each prisoner was confined to a single room, a 'cell'.���

The jail building is three-storied. It consists of seven wings connected to the center like a starfish. The structure of most of the wings in the building has decayed over the years. Only three wings are in fair condition. Each floor of the wing has a long corridor and each prison cell is connected to it. Each cell is 9 feet long and 6 feet wide. The cell has no windows. On one side, it is connected to the corridor by tall iron bars with a giant lock in the center. On the opposite side of the wall near the ceiling, there is a tiny grill through which the sun's rays steal in. In the evening, the whole place is in pitch darkness. Anyone who tried to raise a voice against this arrangement, whether arguing with the jailor or disobeying his orders, was brought to the open space in the corridor. There the prisoner was chained to the iron bars and flogged. That particular site of physical torture has now been enshrined.

Each prisoner was given an aluminum plate and a bowl for eating his meals. In addition, each prisoner was given two blankets. In the extreme hot weather of Port Blair the prisoners got 'cooked' inside the cell. There was not enough drinking water around.

Many freedom fighters came from well-off families, some even belonged to the zaminder class. In family and educational background they were at the top levels of society. The so-called 'crime' of the freedom fighters was that they were accused of being ?conspirators? against the British Raj. In some cases, the charge sheets could not even be documented! They were arrested simply because the rulers suspected them of fighting against the British rule over India! Female prisoners were kept in the adjoining relatively smaller Viper Island

As one visits these cells, one cannot escape thinking of the thousands of unknown shaheeds and the miserable fate that they encountered. These young people who gave up the pleasures of daily life and selflessly accepted the harsh life of a prisoner with all its cruelty had the single goal of freeing India from British subjugation. On the wall of the infamous corridor is written the name of each of the prisoners, the freedom fighters. Many of these names are known to us, some are even unknown. To each one of them, our thousands of salutations and our gratitude forever! This jail is a National Museum of Free India and is a must-see place for everyone.

(Translated by Mukul Banerjee)


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