कर चले हम फ़िदा,
अब तुम्हारे हवाले वतन साथियों…
Sung thus the freedom fighters before embracing the sentence for life- “Kaala-Paani”. The name stuck because all communication with near and dear ones was severed off once the prisoners were sent to Andaman Islands. The punishment, on the islands surrounded by water as far as the eye could see, was as black as death . More over there was no assurance that the prisoner would return ever.
But, relaxing on the sun deck of a five-star hotel, snorkelling in the deepest blue-green ocean with uncountable fish and variety of corals and the white sands dotted with numerous sea shells, it is hard to imagine the hardships which prisoners of bygone days, must have faced. It was not as easy and comfortable to reach Andaman Islands as it is now (it takes two hours to reach Port Blair from Chennai by flight).
The East India Company had been using the Islands for deporting prisoners as early as the first mutiny( its ironic that we still use this term which was coined by the Britishers ) in 1857, the first war for independence. In fact any person petitioning to last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar against East India Company was also sent to the islands. Once the revolt spread through the whole of India and the number of prisoners increased, the need for a jail was felt and the Cellular Jail rose(construction started in 1896 and was completed in 1906) at Port Blair reddening its earth with the blood of prisoner-labourers who were shot or hanged if they were found slackening their speed.
The plan(aerial view) of the jail is similar to a wheel with spokes. Wings radiated from a central watch tower which has a huge bell that was used to raise alarm during emergency. There used to be seven wings. Few wings were damaged during the second world war by Japanese and a few by the Indian Government post independence till the few survivors intervened and requested it to be preserved and turn into national memorial. As of now only two or three wings exist of which one wing has been converted into a hospital.
The jail had around 698 cells and hence the name ‘cellular jail’. Each wing had three floors and all cells were around 8 ft x 15 ft and had only a small ventilator and a heavy grill gate. None of the prisoners could communicate with each other. Even the wings were so designed that each wing faced the rear of the other. Isolation was so strict that the celebrated prisoner Vir Damodar Savarkar was not aware of the presence of his brother in cell of other wing for about three years.
Each wing had an iron grill gate which increased the isolation as nobody except the warden of each floor could enter in the passage. Savarkar was considered a notorious and dangerous prisoner and hence his cell had extra grill gate. He was brought out of his cell in the extra gated area and made to watch all hangings in hope that he would break down and admit his acts.
The prisoners were flogged at the slightest of provocation.They were ill-fed and made to take out oil manually from coconut and mustard. If a specific amount of oil was not produced the prisoner would be kept hungry or hanged if he showed no improvement in his activities. The prisoners would be made to wear clothes made of coconut fibre which would make their bodies bleed due to its abrasive quality.
The atrocities of East India Company made the prisoners go on hunger strike finally and the leaders like Mahatma Gandhi took up the matter forcing the Britishers to relax their behaviour. The surviving prisoners could at last make it to the mainland when the second world war broke out.
As of present times a light and sound show is organised for the tourists every evening to make people aware of the hard way that we got our freedom.
All of us misuse our freedom and people from all walks of life have become corrupt. What a waste!! The power shifted from cruel officers of the Company to scam infested politicians. We should honour the sacrifices and be thankful that our condition today is not like Libya or Afghanistan.