History of Cellular Jail (Kalapani)

The historical importance that this place holds as said earlier is very traumatising but worth knowing. The Andaman islands were used to hold the political Indian activists as prisoners even before the Cellular jail was constructed. After the revolt of 1857 (Sepoy Mutiny) the Britishers were using these islands as prisons for such freedom fighters but the Cellular jail was built between 1896 and 1906. After that particular revolt many activists were executed then and there while two hundred of them were sent to these islands for life imprisonment under the charge of jailer David Barry and a military doctor, Major James Pattison Walker who had earlier served as a warden at the prison in Agra. These islands were selected for the punishment of life imprisonment because they were literally located in isolation that is far away from the main Indian subcontinent. Moreover the journey through the kaala paani was considered threatening by the prisoners as crossing seas seemed to lead them to the loss of caste leading them to drop out of their social constructs.

With time as the independence struggle grew stronger and patriotic activists gained enough confidence to provide a momentum to their fight, more and more activists were deported to these islands. The Penal settlement which said that Andaman would be used to hold the political rebels captive got a recommendation of inserting a ‘penal stage’ in the transportation sentence within the Penal settlement. This was suggested by Charles James Lyall, home secretary in the British government as he was appointed to review the settlement and A.S Lethbridge , a surgeon in the British administration. The penal stage was included because these people felt that the purpose for sending the prisoners there wasn’t getting fulfilled and hence the transported prisoners should be subjected to sessions of harsh treatment once they reached here. The result was the construction of the Cellular jail. The prisoners were chained to work for the construction of buildings, prisons and harbour facilities in order to help the British colonise the Andaman islands. The British soldiers were harsh towards the prisoners as they used to beat them up for getting tough labour chores done.

The architecture of the jail is just as amazing and unique as its history. The original building was puce coloured that is dark red brown-purple as the bricks that were brought from Burma were puce coloured. Talking about the basic structure this building had seven wings with three floors each. The seven wings radiated from a central tower in straight lines just like the spokes in a bicycle wheel. The central tower was used by the British guards to keep an eye on the inmates. Also there was a bell in this tower to raise alarm when required for everyone at once. The whole idea of such a construction was inspired by Jeremy Benthan’s idea of the Panopticon which basically means a structured building which was built in the 18th century by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham who had the intention to construct the prison in such a way that it was easier to guard all the inmates from a single source that is the central tower here. There were no dormitories and a total of 696 cells were constructed in these seven wings which were triple floored. Each cell had dimensions of 4.5 x 2.7 metres (14.8 feet x 8.9 feet) with a ventilator located at a height of 3 metres. The very nature of these cells and the vast number of them led to the naming of this prison as the Cellular jail. The goal was to make every prisoner experience solitary confinement and hence the design of the wings was in such a wave that the front side of it faced the back side of the adjacent wing to make sure zero communication between the prisoners.

Talking about the prisoner life here it is said that the British Raj got the Indian rebels and dissidents to this remote island in order to run the norms of torture, medical tests, forced labour and for many of them death. Out of 80,000 political prisoners that were held captive by the British there only few survived the tortuous blows. The independence activists held here as prisoners included Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi, Babarao Savarkar and Sachindra Nath Sanyal among others. The solitary confinement rules were so strict that the Savarakar brothers, Babarao and Vinayak didn’t even know that they were in two different cells together for 2 years in the Cellular jail. The prisoners still tried to revolt and hence 238 prisoners tried to escape in March 1868. They were caught by April. 87 of them were hanged. In attempt of another resistance, some prisoners went for hunger strikes in May 1933. The jail authorities did pay attention to the three prisoners who were protesting against the torturous treatments. The three of them namely, Mahavir Singh (an associate of Bhagat Singh), Mohan Kishore Namadas and Mohit Moitra were killed due to force-feeding.

In another turn of surprising events the Andaman islands were invaded by the Empire of Japan in March 1942. The Cellular jail was then used to capture the suspected British India supporters and members of the Indian Independence League. They were later tortured and killed. Suring this period the islands were under the control of Subhas Chandra Bose who hoisted the Indian flag on these islands for the first time. He announced the Azad Hind Government and freed the territory from the British rule. But the British got the islands under their control again on 7th October in 1945. The islands were surrendered to Brigadier J.A Salomons a month after the surrender of Japan, at the end of the World War II.After India got independence two wings of the cellular jail were demolished but it was followed by a lot of protests from former prisoners and leaders. This is because the demolition was seen as a way of removing and erasing the proof of evident black history of India’s struggle to freedom. There was a hospital constructed in the premises of the Cellular jail in 1963 named as the Govind Ballabh Pant hospital.

Significance of the term Kaala Paani

The significance of the term kaala paani when used it with the Cellular jail indicates that the prisoners were held captive at these islands which are surrounded by black waters. ‘Kaale paani ki saza’ was the phrase used for the act of putting the political activists in the cells. It was clear that even if they try to escape they won’t be able to do that because the island has black water all around. No matter how much they try they can’t run away from the torturous life in there. The beauty of these islands was used as the dark element to capture these independence rebels where all they knew was that they were far away from their homes with the kaala paani in between. ‘Kaale paani ki saza’ is as horrifying as it sounds because the prisoners faced the kind of atrocities which shake us to the core.