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Andaman’s prison demonstrates the futility of jailing freedom fighters

Cellular Jail is a reminder that the world will be better off without building prisons for freedom fighters, writes Hari Chand Aneja
The Cellular Jail, constructed in 1906, was used by the British to sentence Indian freedom fighters. Gautam Singh / AP Photo
The Cellular Jail, constructed in 1906, was used by the British to sentence Indian freedom fighters. Gautam Singh / AP Photo

‘In this tiny and dark cubicle, Veer Savarkar spent 10 years of his life in isolation,” remarked Soodesh, the Port Blair prison tourist guide. We were staggered. How could any human being be isolated day and night for 10 years in a concrete cell of 4.1 metres by 2.3 metres. A small grilled ventilator punctured the wall at a height of three metres let in stray beams of light.

We were attending an audit conference in 1988 in the Andaman Islands, located in the Bay of Bengal, and were visiting the Cellular Jail. Hundreds of participants in the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 had been exiled for life to the island. The jail was constructed in 1906 to ensure solitary confinement for dangerous prisoners.

The name, Cellular Jail, derives from the architecture of the 693 solitary cells in seven wings, which prevented prisoners from communicating with each other. The chances of escape were minimal. Indian freedom fighters were often imprisoned there.

Veer Savarkar was an ardent freedom fighter. He defied the British rulers many times. After graduation in 1906, he went to London where he qualified as a barrister. He also started the Free India Society to seek the independence. He helped galvanise Indian students into a cogent group.

Savarkar was arrested in London for his fiery speeches and sent to India by the SS Moren for trial. However, near the coast of Marseilles he jumped off of the ship. He was fired upon but managed to reach shore, where he was arrested again. He arrived in India in July 1910 handcuffed and in chains. He was tried and sentenced to transportation for life in the Andamans. Everything he owned was confiscated.

In prison he was subjected to torture. He was yoked to the shank of an oil mill and forced to rotate around the mill like a bullock. He chopped the barks of coconuts with a heavy wooden mallet. His hands bled. The mats that he wove with coconut coir were often coloured red with blood from his hands.

Savarkar’s passion was writing, but he was denied paper and a pen. Nevertheless, he etched his thoughts on the walls of his prison cell using thorns and quills. “The soul that suffers gets stronger. The aim is the freedom of the mother land,” he proclaimed. On the ground floor was a spooky room called “phansi” (which means death by hanging). This is the room where revolutionaries were hanged. There was another “phansi” room for women on a hillock, outside the jail.

The prison is now a national museum, highlighting the sacrifices of those martyred in the freedom struggle. We saw a range of metal chains, handcuffs, fetters, guns and bayonets used to contain the prisoners in the 1930s.

As we meandered though the prison, I ruminated why many leaders spend long years in prisons. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years incarcerated in a damp 2.4 by 2.1m concrete cell, with a straw sleeping mat, on Robben Island and later in Pollsmoor Prison. Mahatma Gandhi was jailed 13 times between 1917 and 1942. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru spent nine years in prisons between 1921 and 1945.

In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest or in prison for 15 years. Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto was a political prisoner for four years.

Czechoslovakia’s president Vaclav Havel, a prominent playwright, essayist and poet, was imprisoned for his writings that satirised communism and for his involvement in the 1968 Prague Spring movement. Antonio Gramsci, a leftist Italian writer and political activist, spent eight years in prison. Bertrand Russell was incarcerated by the British government for six months for opposing the First World War. Now, the Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel laureate, is serving an 11-year sentence for criticising the Chinese government.

I admire the fortitude of these leaders. Isolated from their families, friends and colleagues, they had the iron will power to assimilate torture, loneliness, pain and agony for their cause. Instead of giving in to hopelessness, many used their time to enrich the world. Nehru wrote letters to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, which were compiled into the book, Glimpses of World History.

It may be idealistic to expect a prison-free world. There will always be some individuals who have to be segregated for violence and crime. But hopefully those seeking freedom of thought and speech will not be imprisoned.

So it is heartening that in Brazilian towns like Fortaleza and Recife, jail cells have been transformed into “mercatos”. In Fortaleza’s “Casa de Cultura”, former jail cells have been converted into small shops selling regional crafts and wood sculptures. Recife’s “Centro de Turismo” is an old prison, which has metamorphosed into a handicrafts market. Smiling, young Brazilian girls embroider colourful table covers, pillows covers, bedsheets, frocks, T-shirts and sell them to tourists. Now, that is the way the world should move.

Hari Chand Aneja is a 92-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work

Updated: September 3, 2014 04:00 AM

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