A memorial to the freedom fighters
Photo: S. Thanthoni
The Cellular Jail, constructed during 1896-1906 to house freedom fighters from the mainland, is now a national memorial.
The forbiddingly high walls conjure up fearsome visions of a by-gone era. Any mention of the Andamans brings to the mind the infamous Cellular Jail, where Indian freedom fighters underwent unspeakable brutalities. And for many, many years.
Today, the jail exists in a truncated form but even this is sufficient for anyone to imagine how those who fought against the British would have suffered. In one respect, it is a symbol of the cruelty of the Britishers, while, in another, it is a symbol of the sacrifices for the cause of Independence.
Standing on the seacoast in the north-eastern part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Cellular Jail has a unique architecture. In its original form, it had seven wings, much like the spokes of a bicycle. A three-storeyed structure, it had 698 cells and no dormitories. The central tower was used by its sentries to keep a watch and control the cells.
Built with bricks brought from Myanmar, the jail was constructed during 1896-1906 at a cost of Rs. 5,17,352. The purpose of the jail was to condemn the largest number of revolutionary elements to long terms of imprisonment at the minimum cost. It was so designed that the front of each wing faced the back of the other.
The first batch of prisoners was brought here in 1909 and repatriated in 1921. This went on till 1937-38, when the British Government decided to stop sending freedom fighters to this place. Among those imprisoned here were Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Vaman Rao Joshi, Sohan Singh, Bhai Paramanand and Nand Gopal.
The freedom fighters resorted to different methods of defiance and resistance to protest the British tyranny. Ultimately, a hunger strike was declared on May 12, 1933. The agitation lasted 46 hours. Three precious lives of Mahavir Singh, Mohit Mohitra and Mohan Kishore Namadas were lost. They died after being force-fed by the jail authorities.
The strike was called off on June 26, 1933 and political prisoners were allowed to mix among themselves and provided with study materials, newspapers and books.
Four years later, the second mass hunger strike began and this time, the prisoners demanded immediate repatriation to the mainland. The support for their demand grew countrywide and political prisoners at Alipore and Behrampur jails too went on hunger strike. As the strike went on for more than a month, the nation was worried about the health of the freedom fighters. Several Congress leaders appealed to them to give up the strike.
Finally, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi urged them to suspend the agitation. On August 28, 1937, the strike was called off. A month later, repatriation began.
When the islands were under the control of the Japanese during 1942-45, the Cellular Jail again became a wanted place. The then regime imprisoned numerous persons here on the pretext that they were British agents. It was then that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose visited the jail in December 1943.
During the Japanese occupation, two wings of the jail were demolished. Two more were pulled down after Independence. Once the country won freedom, political prisoners and several public figures demanded that the jail be declared a national memorial. In May 1969, the Union Government announced that the three wings and the Central Tower would be preserved as a national memorial. Ten years later, Morarji Desai, the then Prime Minister, made the formal declaration by visiting the jail and placing a wreath at the memorial. At that time, he said, "I want every Indian to be as strong and bold as those freedom fighters who had suffered in this jail."
Today, the jail has a number of galleries, devoted to different phases of the freedom struggle. On the walls of the hexagonal brick-built structure of the Central Tower are inscribed the names of the freedom fighters. A martyrs' column was declared open in September 1985 by the then President, Zail Singh. About five years ago, a park outside the jail was opened by the then President, K.R. Narayanan, and it was named after Savarkar.
The memorial is open on all days except Mondays and the entry fee is Rs. 5. A sound and light show on the freedom struggle is conducted every evening.
By Our Special Correspondent
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