(Last Updated on : 31/01/2009)
The freedom fighters had brought about a pioneering change in the course of life for the Britishers. Much as they wished to subdue the patriots, the undeterred heroes did fear for none. And with enlightened leaders, educated and level-headed to the limit that they could gauge every cunning move of the British, things at times turned worse for the ruling autocrats. They tried to enchain them in the hideous Cellular Jail, just to isolate them from the society and make a mockery of their daily life and radical activities. These revolutionaries were thus convicted for political offence, and Lord Minto, the governor-general of India, in his letter to the provincial governments had referred to these prisoners as 'political prisoners'. But they were never treated so and were denied the privileges as permissible to the political prisoners, as is evident from the government letter of 2nd August 1910, by which the chief commissioner, Andamans was directed not to call them political prisoners as it would 'tend to give them a spurious importance'. In turn, the commissioner in his letter of 9th September 1910 ensured its observance.
David Barrie, head overseer and jailor of the Cellular, took the precaution not to call them 'political prisoners', nor did he tolerate the use of this expression by any of his subordinates. "There is none here of that kind", he used to say and he termed them disdainfully as the 'despicable lot', 'vagrant wretches' and 'scum of the society'. They were treated as 'dangerous prisoners' and a badge with the letter 'D' used to hang round the neck of political prisoners.
This, however, did not daunt the political prisoners to fight for their due recognition. Hrishikesh Kanjilal and G.D. Savarkar wrote to the Government of India for treating them as political prisoners, but the government in November 1912 informed the superintendent of the jail that "the prisoners should be given clearly to understand that they were not to be considered as political prisoners". Nani Gopal Mukherjee continued a grim battle to get it conceded from the government. Some of the other independent, educated activists included - Dr. Diwan Singh Kalepani, Maulana Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi, Maulana Ahmadullah, Movli Abdul Rahim Sadiqpuri, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Ganesh Savarkar, Bhai Parmanand, Sohan Singh, Vaman Rao Joshi, Nand Gopal, Ullaskar Dutt, Indubhusan Roy and Barindra Kumar Ghosh.
Although according to the government's instructions, the political prisoners were to be considered as ordinary prisoners, they were actually treated worse than ordinary prisoners from every angle. These educated prisoners were assigned tough manual jobs, whereas ordinary prisoners with meagre knowledge of even the English alphabet were given the light work in the printing press or the work of a munshi (clerk). The ordinary convicts deployed on hard labour were released and promoted as warders and petty officials, which was not in the lot of political prisoners. Any ordinary convict below twenty years of age was not employed on the oil-mill, but a political prisoner of any age was so employed indiscriminately. The political inmates were treated differently even in the jail hospital. An ordinary convict was provided medical attention unlike political prisoners.
They had to walk a distance of five to ten miles, shivering all the while with fever and carrying beds and utensils over their shoulders. Ordinary convicts had the liberty to speak to each other, which was denied to the political prisoners. Ordinary convicts were released from the Cellular Jail after a period of six months and were sent outside for work. But the political prisoners were kept inside the Jail for years at a stretch. The privilege of earning remission was not allowed to them. They could never hope to become self-supporting convicts.
As life within the jail was quite macabre and unbearable, the political prisoners voiced their desire to work outside, because of comparative diverse facilities. The work was light and the food was better. There was freedom of company and speech. The admission in the hospital outside was much easier compared to the jail hospital. The political inmates fought for it and after the first general strike in the Cellular Jail, some of the political prisoners were sent outside to work. The working outside too became a suffering, as they were at work from 6 to 10 in the morning and 1 to 4.30 in the afternoon. They were harshly exposed to rain the scorching sun. The workers in the forests faced several other hardships. Their ration was stolen and sold in the villages and medical facilities were denied to them. The outside work proved a delusion and one by one they came back to the dungeon cells to be consumed inside the jail.
The political prisoners were not allowed to communicate with each other. All conversation was illegal and violative of the "Barrie principle" of administration. The stern Pathan-jamadar Khoyedad used to keep a check on the interaction between the prisoners. The only opportunity for them to inquire about the health of the co-accused by signal was at a common place, i.e., during the time of bathing at the tank or at mealtimes, but if any of them was found talking, he was punished with seven days standing handcuffs. The warder was transferred to another section if by civility he conveyed the good wishes of one prisoner to the other. Talking to the authorities about a co-prisoner was also considered an offence for political prisoners.
The medical facilities provided were severely inadequate. Common ailments like headache and stomachache were reprobated as 'feigning' problems. Political inmates with high temperature were treated while still-locked in their cells. Barrie never permitted the admission of a political prisoner in the jail hospital without his consent. Barrie rather used to threaten the doctor that since he was a Hindu, he should not believe these prisoners and only those persons be considered sick who were so declared by him (Barrie). The political prisoner was not admitted to the hospital till he was actually confined to bed and the doctor declared the prisoner as sick only when he was on his deathbed. If the matter was brought to the notice of higher authorities, Barrie used to label these complaints as 'false allegations' and the chief commissioner believed him and in turn threatened the prisoners with dire punishment if such false allegations were repeated. Nobody in the jail was concerned with the fate of the political prisoners.