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Page 39 of 120
Biography of Babarao Sa
One of the murkiest chapters in the history of the colonial
rule in India is the kaala paani. The Andamans were
then known as the Devil’s Islands of the British Raj. The
Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal are
over 1200 km south of Kolkata and east of Chennai. The
British chose them in order to isolate political prisoners
physically, socially and politically. Conditions in these
islands were most unhealthy and led to high rate of
mortality. The prisoners were put to the hardest labour
possible such as clearing jungles, cutting wood, preparing
bricks and lime. They were treated worse than criminals.
Boden Kloss, an English observer has recorded with
intense feeling of sadness, “Prisoners were set free on
nearby Viper Island - to make friends, one supposes, with poisonous snakes. Who
knows how many lived?” To be sent there was considered to be a living death and
hence it came to be known as Kaala Paani (lit: black waters). During the First War
of Independence of 1857, the British resolved to ship out freedom fighters, whom
they called ‘mutineers’ from the soil of the mainland to distant islands and isolate
them. A noting in Home Judicial, OC No. 21 dated 15 January 1858 states, “It has
been determined by the Right Hon’ble the Governor-General in Council to establish a
penal settlement on the Andaman Islands, for reception of the first instance of
convicts sentenced to imprisonment, and to transportation for the crimes of mutiny
and rebellion and for other offences connected therewith.” The first batch of
freedom-fighters reached Port Blair on 10 March 1858 from Calcutta. Their number
was 200. About the first batch, it is reported that four Punjab mutineers died on the
way before reaching Andamans and within three months of their arrival 64 of them
died in hospital. Some of them were executed. The second batch of 171 convicts
from Karachi came by the ships, the ‘Roman empire’ and ‘Edward’ in April 1858. By
May 1864, the number of convicts grew to 3294. As the number of prisoners
deported from the mainland started increasing to the staggering figure of 9603 by
1874, it became difficult to check their ‘patriotic indiscipline’. An Order No. 423 dated
30 September 1893 was issued by the British administration for the construction of a
bigger and well secured jail as a ‘matter of great urgency’ to dehumanize these
freedom-fighters. The Jail was sanctioned at an estimated cost of Rs. 517352 (1893
prices!). Some 600 half-starved prisoners were used as forced labour for the
construction of the Jail that was meant to imprison themselves and their fellow
countrymen. Constant vigil was kept on these labour prisoners during the
construction work so that no revolt was organized by them. It was for this reason
that the target of three years took thirteen years for the completion of its
construction. The Cellular Jail was thus completed in 1906 and the number of
prisoners it housed had swelled to 14086! Situated on the sea coast in the north-
eastern portion of Port Blair, the Cellular Jail was the first hair-raising sight for the
deported prisoners arriving in ships coming to Port Blair.
Like an octopus having eight arms to catch its prey, the Cellular Jail had seven
protruding arms or wings from the central watchtower. The Jail was constructed
with seven wings, spreading out like a seven-petal flower. In its centre it had a tower
with a turret. Connected to this were the three storey high seven wings with 698
isolated cells. That is why it was called the Cellular Jail.
Each wing had three floors with 698 cells. Each cell measured 4.1
by 1.9 metres, just enough for one convict. These small cells gave
the Cellular Jail its name. All the seven wings of the Cellular Jail
had a meeting point at the central watchtower for entry and exit.
Each cell had separate iron bolts and locking devices outside,
beyond the reach of the prisoner’s hand. Though there was no
chance of an escape, there was constant vigil by 21 wardens;
seven on each floor facing their respective wings. There were
sentries in the central watchtower.
The prisoners would be made to walk through the well guarded first iron-bar
entrance. As the gate would be unlocked and pulled, it would make a terrible sound
like the jaws of death ready to swallow a new arrival. After this first gate was a
second one. Between the two gates was a thick wall. It was covered with gruesome
Biography of Babarao Savarkar
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instruments nailed to the wall. These were the terrible instruments of punishment
and torture. Some of these instruments were as follows:
1. Handcuffs - to be used on the wrists in front or behind; the prisoners would
also be made to remain standing for hours at a stretch with their hands tied
to handcuffs hooked to a wall above his height(standing handcuffs
punishment). The prisoners were kept in this position from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.
and from 12 noon to 5 p.m. They were not allowed to answer nature’s call
while undergoing this punishment. Many would pass urine and stools when it
became impossible to control their urge. They would then be punished for
soiling their clothes and the prison!
2. Link fetters- composed of a chain and ankle rings;
the length of the chain being two feet and the total
weight being 3 pounds. The bars were stiff and
unbending; riveted to the prisoner’s feet and hung up
to his waist. As the bars were stiff, the prisoner
could not bend his legs throughout the period of
punishment which could extend for months.
3. Cross bar fetters - composed of single bar for the
purpose of keeping the legs apart and ankle rings;
length of the bar being 16 inches and the total
weight being two and a half pounds. Under this
sentence, the prisoner could not bring his feet or legs close to each other.
He had to walk, sit, work and sleep with feet and legs stretched out. This
punishment could continue at a stretch for weeks!
4. Canes, thick and long
8. Thick long ropes
9. Leather whips fastened to a stiff handle
10. Oil mill or kolu; the prisoners would be
yoked like bullocks to the metal bar and
made to push it around in a circle so that
dried coconut pieces or mustard seeds
kept in a central receptacle would get crushed and oil would drip; total oil
required to be thus extracted would be thirty pounds.
To minimize the chances of communication between
the convicts and to isolate them from each other, the
construction of the Cellular Jail was made such that
the front portion of each wing faced the back side of
the other wing at a sufficient distance. There were
no dormitories in the Cellular Jail. On arrival in the
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Cellular Jail, convicts would be placed in solitary confinement for six months. This
helped to tone down their vigour and vitality and demoralize them. Thus the Cellular
Jail was a prison within a prison!
From the early period of the 20th
century onwards, jails in India were packed with
young revolutionaries. The most feared among them were sent for Kaala paani to
the Cellular Jail. Among those who served time here were revolutionaries of:
- The Alipore Bomb Case
- The Chittagong Armoury Case
- The Nashik Conspiracy Case
- The Lahore Conspiracy Case
- The Nadia Conspiracy Case
- The Gadar Party heroes
- The Khulna Conspiracy Case
- The Rumpa Peasants’ Revolt
Most of them were charged under section 121 of the Indian Penal Code (1860),
namely “waging of War against the King of the British Empire”.
The 1941 earthquake caused considerable damage to the Cellular Jail. During the
Japanese occupation, further damagae was caused to the building which resulted in
demolition of four wings of the Cellular Jail. Presently, there are only three wings
that stand as a silent monument to those unheard and unlisted heroes who perished
in its soil and made the land fertile for the freedom of our motherland!
After Independence, there was a proposal by Pandit Nehru to turn the Cellular Jail
into a hospital. One suspects that Nehru had a deep-seated animus against the
revolutionaries. His daughter Prime Minister Shrimati Indira Gandhi however proved
worthy in this regard. When a proposal to beautify the Cellular jail reached her, she
made the following observation, “The main point of the preservation of the Jail is to
maintain its gaunt severity. This should be the most effective and poignant
memorial of all. New memorials, statues, gardens and youth camps will detract from
the atmosphere of the original Jail, which we seek to preserve, and will obviously
have an artificial look. These proposals should therefore be dropped. Instead of all
this paraphernalia, roll call of freedom-fighters, inscribed on metal plaques might be
put up at an appropriate place. We are in no position to incur the additional
expenditure which the expert team’s recommendations would necessitate. The
matter should be re-examined so that construction of new buildings is avoided”
(Letter no. 30/130/69, ANL dated 12 December 1971).
From 1896 the construction of Cellular Jail was started and it was completed in 1906.
It was in such a fearsome Jail that Babarao now found himself.
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