The Cellular Jail – Cruelty and suffering under the British Raj

The Cellular Jail


If there is one symbol that encapsulates the horrors and brutality of colonial rule in India, then it is undoubtedly the notorious Cellular Jail in Port Blair, Andaman Islands.

This is also the shrine where brave sons of India, its freedom fighters, sacrificed their lives while suffering unspeakable horrors inflicted by prison authorities to break their morals and crush their souls.
The Cellular Jail was Britain’s version of Auschwitz (minus the gas chambers) or the Bastille for its subjects… those they considered to be against the Raj!

It wasn’t until decades later in 1893, after the number of banished prisoners became unmanageable, that the decision was taken to build a high-security jail to house them at Port Blair.

Surrounded by hundreds of miles of ocean in every direction, incarceration in the Cellular jail was infamously known as ‘Kalapani ki Saza’.

It was designed with the sole purpose of keeping the men in isolation and provided no hope of escape.

At the center of this massive three-storey structure stood a tall watch tower, out of which shot seven long concrete wings, like spokes on a wheel.

Each wing had rows of single iron-gated cells – 693 in total.

Many a young life was snuffed out as a result of torture, hanging or by suicide (as prisoners could not take the torment anymore).

The red of every sunset casting its colors on the waters of the Indian ocean is symbolic of the blood that the prison spilled everyday, of the Indian freedom fighters.

These are some stories of the suffering inside Cellular Jail, in the words of its erstwhile inmates.

Sushil Dasgupta’s story.

The Independent Newspaper interviewed the son of Sushil Dasgupta who described in graphic details the inhuman torture that his father had to undergo during his tenure at the jail.

Sushil was 26 years old when he was arrested and shipped out to the Andaman Islands on 17 August 1932.

Like many other Bengali men at the time, he was a member of a political activist group called the Jugantar party in Calcutta.

Its cause was an independent India, free of British rule.

With little other choice to raise funds for their political activities, Sushil, along with four other Jugantar members, robbed a bus at gunpoint.

As they fled, police intercepted them and a shoot-out ensued, during which Sushil was shot and eventually caught.

His punishment was to be sent 800 miles away – out of sight and mind – to the Cellular Jail at Port Blair, capital of the Andaman Island, where he would join many of other exiled political activists.

Like hundreds of other men on that island, years of Sushil’s life here would be filled with torture, hunger and loneliness.

They would work like slaves.

Some would go mad, others would be driven to suicide.

After six hours of tortuous work under the fierce tropical sun, Sushil Dasguputa’s hands would be covered in his own blood; his throat was bone dry; his body exhausted from the relentless and monotonous motion of pounding coconuts to produce a backbreaking quota of fiber.

If he stopped to ask the guard on duty for a cup of water, the overseer raised his whip, bringing it down over and over with a torrent of abuse.

No matter how fatigued the inmates became, resting was not an option.

Sinister punishments awaited those who showed any sign of slowing with even their toilet breaks strictly regimented.

Any prisoner who had the need, would have to hold it for hours until they were permitted by the guards.

When he was not laboring, Sushil was locked up in the small cell, measuring only 4.5m by 2.7m in size.

To the back was a small iron vent.

On the front, all he could see was a brick wall compromising the rear of another wing.

No other prisoners were in sight.

Such solitary confinement was how the Cellular Jail got its name.

Another freedom fighter Barindra Kumar Ghosh, who was incarcerated at the jail wrote in his autobiography – “The most difficult work was coir-pounding and oil-grinding………… Each one was given the dry husk of twenty coconuts.

The husk had first to be placed on a piece of wood and then to be beaten with a wooden hammer till it became soft.

Then the outer skin had to be removed.

Then it was dipped in water and moistened and then again one had to pound it.

By sheer pounding the entire husk inside dropped off, only the fibers remaining.

These fibers had then to be dried in the sun and cleaned.

Each one was expected to prepare daily a roll of such fibers weighing one seer.”

Daily life became so dire for Sushil and his inmates that they decided to protest in the only way possible and during 1932-1937 many of them took part in a series of hunger strikes.

On 3 January 1933, he and seven other men stopped eating and outlined demands for proper toilets and better food after being fed for months on a meager diet of rice, bread and vegetables, which often contained small stones and inedible wild grass.

But things were about to get worse.

On the sixth day of the hunger strike, the guards came for some of the men.

A decision had been made among some of the British officials to start the long and brutal procedure of force-feeding the prisoners.

An Indian Medical Committee report confirms this story.

“Recommendation, 24/1629/1: A rubber catheter should be inserted through the nostril and into the gullet and so to the stomach.

A solution of milk, eggs and sugar should be poured via a funnel.

In certain cases rectal feeding should be tried.

“This was following a Home Department secret notification that stated, Regarding security prisoners who go on hunger strike, every effort should be made to prevent the incidents from being reported, no concessions to be given to the prisoners who must be kept alive.

Manual methods of restraint are best, then mechanical when the patient resists.”

Taken forcefully from his cell, an inmate would be made to lie down on a bed, his head propped up with a pillow, his limbs held down by several attendants.

A doctor would then insert a rubber tube into his nose and push it down his throat to pump a mixture of milk, sugar and eggs into his stomach.

Prisoners, of course, fought the feeding – some by coughing heavily to dislodge the tube – which meant the whole, tortuous process took several hours.

For some other prisoners like Mahavir Singh, Mohan Kishore Namadas and Mohit Moitra – resistance came at a cost.

They all died from force-feeding after milk seeped into their lungs, resulting in pneumonia.

“Their bodies were thrown in the sea with stones weighing down the bags.”


Savarkar’s Story

Between 1911-1921, the jail incarcerated the famous freedom fighter Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.

While studying in England, Savarkar had become involved in an Indian nationalist group called India House, which he went on to lead.

He was arrested and jailed in 1910 for his connection to the group but it wasn’t until the following year, after escaping from prison, that he was shipped out to Port Blair.

Following his release, he wrote extensively of the awful conditions that he had faced, including the particularly harsh treatment by the cruel Irish jailor David Barrie, the self-declared “God of Port Blair”.

Savarkar wrote that as the gates of the prison shut behind him, he felt he had “entered the jaws of death”.

Says Savarkar “We were to be yoked like animals to the handle that turned the wheel.

Hardly out of bed, we were ordered to wear a strip of cloth, were shut up in our cell and made to turn the wheel of the oil mill.

The door was opened only when the meal was announced.

The man came in and served the meal in the pan and went away and the door was shut.

If after washing his hands, one were to wipe away the perspiration of his body, the jamadar who was the worst of gangsters in the whole lot, would go at him with loud abuse.

There was no water for washing hands.

Drinking water was to be had only by propitiating the jamadar, while you were at kolu; you felt very thirsty.

The waterman gave no water except for a consideration, which was to palm off to him some tobacco in exchange.

They recalled how every day, from 6 am, David Barry would sit puffing on a cigar, watching them yoke to a press that they turned, until they had produced 30lbs of mustard oil.

And if the boys fell sick, there was no sanctuary in the prison hospital, where a new recruit, Dr FA Barker, certified patients fit for flogging.

At another point, the government approved secret pharmaceutical trials: “From the Secretary to the Government of India, Simla, June 24th 1880, despatch 197, to Dr J Reid, Senior Medical Officer, Port Blair: Regarding a new drug, cinchona alkaloid, the experimental use is very desirable and should be confined to 1,000 convicts.

“Dr Reid’s sample group was force-fed “three grains a day” until they started to sicken.

“Convict 25276. Observed on 22 March 1881.In a weak state.Bloodless. Tongue large, pale and flabby.Diarrhea.Dead in two days.”

Cinchona was a tree imported to Asia from Peru whose bark would later be distilled to make quinine, an effective and natural anti-malarial.

But the rough preparation and dosage experimented with…by the prison doctors caused acute side effects: nausea and diarrhea.

It was also a depressant.

In monthly reports for the period of the test, the chief commissioner, Lieutenant-Colonel T Cadell, observed “a remarkable increase in suicides”.

Convicts “weary of life” were literally hacking each other to pieces, hoping to secure the death penalty.

But Cadell had a solution: “Flogging and a reduced diet.

Everyone under the age of 22 was now required to sleep in “a sort of trellis-work cage”.

People on mainland India heard the stories too, but it wasn’t until four years later that Mahatma Gandhi – who underwent 17 fasts during India’s freedom struggle – successfully managed to intervene.

In 1937, he and Rabindranath Tagore, made an agreement with the head of the British administration in India, Lord Linlithgow, which paved the way for the prisoners to be released.

Two years later, the Japanese seized the islands, transforming the penal settlement into a prisoner of war camp.

In 1945 the Andamans would become the first piece of India to be declared independent.

That same year the prisoners began to be repatriated to their respective states in India and the process of closing down the Cellular Jail began.

Sushil was returned to a local jail in West Bengal on 18 January 1938 and the following year the Cellular Jail shipped out its last few prisoners.

The story of the Cellular Jail remains etched in the minds of the few survivors and their families as an epitome of the dehumanizing brutality of colonial rule.

Our freedom struggle came at a huge cost of blood, sweat and tears that makes freedom priceless.

While the country looks at the next few years to reach its centenary as an independent nation, the current and future generations should do well to remember these stories – tales of courage, patriotism and sacrifice that helped shine a light of hope in the darkness of subservience.

Each horrifying moment suffering the cruel torture, the agony of scribbling messages with their fingernails on the stone walls of boxy and dark iron clad cells and the sorrow when a fellow freedom fighter died of exhaustion or on the gallows, should motivate us to build on this hard-earned freedom to become a nation of the dreams of the sons of India whose merged with the darkness of death behind the iron bars of the Cellular Jail.

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