A tribute to the inmates of Cellular Jail, Andaman.

When I entered the Cellular Jail complex, I missed to notice the Peepal tree, which stands tall inside the Cellular Jail, very close to its entrance.

I later came to know that this tree has been present all through, from the time the jail was built; when political prisoners were herded in; when they were tied to a pole and whipped mercilessly; when they were forced to do manual work; when screams pierced through the gallows; when the revolutionaries rebelled, and now, it has lived to whisper the tenacious anecdotes to us.

Cellular Jail was conceptualised by the British to punish the revolutionaries of freedom struggle by isolating them from the community, for forever. Convicts were sealed in special metallic chain structures, which locked their feet with their hands, at the same time allowed movement of arms and limbs with which they were forced to do hard labour including cutting of trees and constructing bridges, roads, harbour facilities, bridges etc. It is chilling to hear that the entire Cellular Jail was constructed by such prisoners! Many prisoners died in this enterprise. Several prisoners who attempted to escape were caught and had to face the gallows. Anyways, by design, a sentence at Cellular Jail was a one-way ticket.

An intimidating view of the Jail

The Jail had seven wings, at the centre of which is a watch-tower to keep watch on the inmates; this format was based on the idea of the Panopticon. The wings radiated from the tower in straight lines, much like the spokes of a wheel. Each of the seven wings had three stories, with a total of 696 cells. Each cell is 4.5 m by 2.7 m in size with a window located at a height of about 3 m. The wings were placed one behind another to prevent any prisoner from communicating with any other. This Jail is considered an engineering marvel and pioneer for many other prisons and other mass accommodations, like hostels.

Writing on the wall of the jail routine

Jailors who manned the jail were notorious for their cruelty. The hard labour sheds, chain-structure and oil extraction units are in display, just few metres away from the gallows and the Peepal tree. ‘Hardcore’, ‘more-rebellious’ prisoners, like Mr. Veer Savarkar were placed in cells that are very close to the gallows shed, to ensure that death-cries haunt them, in addition to other atrocities meted to them. Every piece of brick and manoeuvre at the jail were designed and executed to break the spirits and resolve of revolutionaries.

Solitary cells, with only a beam of light as a companion.

At the gallows, 3 nooses hang around, reminding us of the efficiency of the gallows-factory, wherein 3 prisoners could be executed at a time! The savage valued time more than lives that were at their mercy. Once hung, mortal remains of the patriots dropped in a dark room underneath, from where they were ‘efficiently’ and literally ‘flushed’ to the sea; a decent cremation was out of question, forget about a memorial by the prime beach-side. Peak of perfection, at savagery.

Triple execution at a time

Three wings of the jail appear to have been demolished during Japanese occupation in World War II.  After independence, one more wing of the jail was demolished; however, further demolition was stopped as many former prisoners and political leaders protested erasing of physical evidence of their persecution.

Later, the remaining three wings and the central tower were converted into a National Memorial on 11 February 1979 by Mr. Morarji Desai, the then Prime Minister of India.

The light and sound show, in the evening, provides us with an opportunity to learn about unnerving chronicles. The Peepal tree, which had witnessed all the atrocities and agonies, leads the way in whispering to us the times, travails and struggles at the Jail, in a very well-choreographed show. It is truly moving.

It is beyond ones’ imagination, how our freedom fighters defied the powers and brutality of an establishment, out of sight of the world-at-large, with their only weapon, resolve.

Amar Jyothi inside the Jail Complex

With a deep sigh and moisty eyes, as I stepped out of the Cellular Shrine, life’s synonym, the breath, the air, free-air, felt forever more precious.

I realise the price of liberty and who paid for it, thanks to the whispers of truth.

I salute the resolve of the brave souls.

My free-breath, every molecule of it, owes it to them.

DISCLAIMER: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The author carries the responsibility for citing and/or licensing of images utilized within the text.