(Last Updated on : 31/01/2009)
Arduous manual labour in the form of oil-grinding, coir-making or rope-making was accompanied by regular beatings for inmates The tasks for which convicts confined in the Cellular Jail could be employed were: 1. Cane and bamboo work; 2. Coconut and mustard oil mills; 3. Husking and opening coconuts; 4. Drying copra; 5. Making hooka shells; 6. Coir pounding; 7. Sisal pounding; 8. Rope making; 9. Net making; 10. Carpet making; 11. Weaving towels; 12. Coir and sisal hemp mat making; 13. Cleaning mustard seeds; 14. Blanket mulling; 15. Gardening;
16. Hill cutting and swamp filling in (when necessary); 17. Miscellaneous, such as conservancy, cleaning drains etc. around the jail; 18. Miscellaneous lowly duties in connection with the jail like hospital ward coolies, sweeping etc. and, 19. Clerical work in the jail office.
There were, however rules and regulations for assignment of manual labour to the prisoners. Prisoners below twenty years of age could not be assigned arduous manual labour; literates were employed in the press and the work was assigned according to the physical fitness of the prisoners. Political prisoners were treated differently. They were assigned grueling manual labour and under the well-determined plan, abuses and humiliations were hurtled upon them deliberately to reduce them to mental and physical wrecks. The most torturous and backbreaking labour was assigned to these political prisoners. Many of them hailed from cultured and educated 'Bhadralok' (well-to-do) families. The coir-pounding, rope-making, oil grinding in the mills were some of the severest tasks to which they were employed. The specific quota of each job was fixed and anybody who could not complete it during the determined time had to dispense with his sleep in order to accomplish the task. Even illness was taken as 'feigning' in the case of these 'dangerous' convicts.
On arrival in the Andamans, the convicts were also given the rigorous labour of coir pounding. The beating of dry and hard remains of coconut shells daylong and day after day caused massive swelling on the palms. It led to injuries on the hands and bleeding. When he showed his injured hands to the superintendent of the jail and requested him to change his assignment he was deputed to the oil-mill, a still harder job. Once the fibres were ready, ropes were made by another batch, i.e. by those who were given the light labour. Each had to turn out 3 lbs. weight of ropes.
Letters and manuals also explain the rigor of the hard manual labour involved in rope-making, and how the degrading orders were passed by the warders. Although rope-making (technically called picking oakum) was also a difficult task, but the good thing was the company of prisoners working in the same chawl and this mode of working was a consolation to them. The coir-making groups, talking to each other during work, was looked upon as 'kindness of the jail authorities' and the political prisoners were isolated for such a duty after an officer from Calcutta visited the Andamans, and warned the authorities against such 'facilities' being given to the political prisoners. The work of picking oakum was also substituted by work on the oil-mill.
Oil-grinding was the hardest labour and was described in the memoirs of all the political prisoners who were sent to the Andamans as the cause of greatest misery. There were two processes of working the oil-grinding mill in the Cellular Jail. One was like the system followed by the oil men in India in which bullocks were yoked to the handle of the
mill and they moved round it continuously; only in this case, the political prisoners were substituted for the bullocks. In the other process, the handle was moved by the hand of the prisoner who had to run round and round the mill. In both the cases, the prisoners were to work until 30 lbs. of coconut oil or 10 lbs. of mustard oil was produced. In order to demoralize the spirit the cellular jail gave them hard work to do for two months continuously, then one month on picking oakum and again the grinding work on the mill.
The inmates had to sit down from sheer exhaustion and helplessness. Ordinarily, all work had to be stopped between ten and twelve. But this Kohlu, as the oil mill labour was referred to, had to continue throughout. The door was opened only when the meal was announced. The man came in and served the meal in the pan and went away and the door was shut. If after washing his hands one were to wipe away the perspiration of his body, the jamadar-the worst of gangsters in the whole lot-would go at him.
If the prisoners were unable to go through the stipulated labour, they were handcuffed for a week. This was the punishment for the first offence. For the second offence a week's handcuffs and four-day starvation diet. For the next offence, the punishment was fetters for a month or two, followed by cross-bars for ten days-punishment which compelled the victim to keep his legs apart - and for further repetition of the offence, fetters for six months or so and solitary confinement were awarded. All these penalties were inflicted upon the political prisoners very often.
According to the jail rules, the work of the prisoner was not to be checked in the first fifteen days of his arrival in the jail. This rule was however gladly violated in the case of the political prisoners. According to the rules, after the expiry of three months of continuous hard labour, the prisoners were to be deployed on light work for the next three months. But asking for light work was always denied. Ashutosh Lahiri, an inmate of the Cellular, was struck off the work. He was punished and was awarded thirty floggings with contemptible ill will. The convicts in the martial law cases on their arrival in Cellular Jail were allotted oil mill grinding which they refused in pursuance of the policy of satyagraha adopted by the political prisoners.
The abnormal rate of sickness and death among the prisoners was due to the severe weather of the islands. The poor and unhygienic food coupled with hard work could lead anyone to illness. The prisoners were not given medical aid and many of them contracted dangerous diseases and died due to the illness within a couple of months.
The severest punishment in jail was solitary confinement. The prisoner was confined twenty-four hours and taken only to the bathroom. It was tormenting even to spend seven days in this condition and after six months even the strongest of them broke down. Confinement in a cage was still worse. These cages were very small, hardly sufficient for a prisoner to lie down. He had to eat, answer the call of nature there and also sleep there. Many prisoners were confined in such cages twenty-four hours. Master Chattar Singh, Amar Singh, Jawala Singh and Lai Singh were confined in such cages each for years.