Conviction for Political Offenses
The individuals imprisoned in Cellular Jail were primarily freedom fighters who had dedicated their lives to the struggle for India's independence. They were convicted on charges related to their political activities and beliefs. Lord Minto, the governor-general of India at the time, officially categorized them as 'political prisoners' in his correspondence with provincial governments. However, the treatment they received diverged significantly from the privileges typically accorded to political prisoners.
Denial of Political Prisoner Status
Despite Lord Minto's acknowledgment of these prisoners as 'political,' the British authorities hesitated to grant them the recognized status of political prisoners. On August 2, 1910, a government letter directed the chief commissioner of the Andamans not to refer to these inmates as political prisoners, citing concerns that such terminology would bestow upon them a perceived importance they wished to withhold. The chief commissioner subsequently enforced this directive through a letter dated September 9, 1910.
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.
Revolutionary Prisoners in Cellular Jail
Even after the denial of the prisoner status, political prisoners in cellular jail continued 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.
Life of Political Prisoners in Cellular Jail
Although the government officially categorized political prisoners as ordinary criminals, they endured far harsher conditions and a distinct form of mistreatment within the prison. This account sheds light on the life of political prisoners in Cellular Jail, highlighting the stark disparities in their treatment compared to ordinary inmates.
Assignment of Manual Labor: Political prisoners, who were often educated and well-informed individuals, were assigned arduous manual labor tasks. In contrast, ordinary inmates with minimal education were given lighter work, such as operating the printing press or serving as clerks. The political prisoners, however, were subjected to backbreaking labor.
Denial of Promotions: Ordinary convicts engaged in strenuous labor had the opportunity for release and promotion as warders and petty officials. This privilege was denied to political prisoners, who remained confined within the jail for extended periods without any prospect of promotion.
Discriminatory Medical Care: Even in the jail hospital, political prisoners received disparate treatment compared to ordinary inmates. While ordinary convicts were provided with medical attention when needed, political prisoners often went without proper medical care.
Physical Hardships: Political prisoners endured physical hardships that further differentiated their experience from that of ordinary convicts. They were compelled to walk considerable distances, often in ill health, while carrying beds and utensils on their shoulders. In contrast, ordinary inmates had the freedom to converse with each other, which was denied to political prisoners.
Extended Incarceration: Ordinary convicts were typically released from Cellular Jail after a six-month term and sent outside for work. In contrast, political prisoners remained confined within the jail for years on end, with no possibility of earning remission or becoming self-supporting convicts.
Struggle for Better Conditions: Recognizing the unbearable conditions within the jail, political prisoners expressed their desire to work outside, where conditions were comparatively better. They sought the benefits of lighter work, improved food, freedom of association and speech, and easier access to medical facilities.
Harsh Working Conditions: Some political prisoners were assigned to work outside the prison compound, which, contrary to expectations, brought about its own set of sufferings. They toiled from 6 to 10 in the morning and 1 to 4.30 in the afternoon, enduring exposure to relentless rain and the scorching sun. Those engaged in forest labor faced additional hardships, including the theft and sale of their rations and the denial of essential medical facilities. The initial allure of working outside soon gave way to disillusionment, leading many to return to the confines of the dungeon cells.
Communication Restrictions: One of the most stringent aspects of life in Cellular Jail for political prisoners was the strict prohibition on communication with fellow inmates. Any form of conversation was deemed illegal and violated what was known as the "Barrie principle" of administration. A vigilant Pathan-jamadar named Khoyedad closely monitored interactions between prisoners. The only opportunity for them to inquire about the well-being of their co-accused was at common locations, such as during bathing at the tank or mealtimes. However, even these limited exchanges were closely watched, and any inmate found talking faced severe punishment, including seven days of standing handcuffs.
Communication with Authorities: Political prisoners were also forbidden from communicating with the prison authorities about their fellow inmates. Even conveying good wishes from one prisoner to another in a civil manner could lead to the transfer of the warder to a different section of the jail. Any attempt to discuss a co-prisoner with the authorities was considered an offense, further isolating the inmates from both their comrades and the jail administration.
Hunger Strikes and Protest: In May 1933, a significant event unfolded when 33 political prisoners, including Mahavir Singh, Mohan Kishore Namadas, and Mohit Moitra, initiated hunger strikes to protest their treatment. Tragically, three prisoners lost their lives due to force-feeding, highlighting the extreme measures taken by authorities to suppress dissent.
Notable Political Prisoners:
A few notable prisoners were tortured mercilessly in the cellular jail for either rebelling against the disparity inside the jail or for being an ardent supporter of independent India. Some of those political prisoners are listed below.
Ullaskar Dutt: Imprisoned for his involvement in an explosion, he suffered torture and was declared insane due to malarial infection.
Barin Ghose: He was a prominent figure among political prisoners in the cellular jail and also in the independence India movement against the British Empire. He was one of the founding members of “Jugantar” Bengali weekly, a revolutionary outfit in Bengal.
Indu Bhushan Roy: His experience in the oil mill led to exhaustion and despair. He succumbed to inhuman torture in the Cellular Jail.
Chattar Singh: He is better known for the lead role he played during Second Anglo Sikh War. Chattar Singh endured suspension in an iron suit for three years.
Baba Bhan Singh: A former British horse-riding army turned a freedom fighter for independent India was arrested and brutally treated in the cellular jail. He died from beatings by prison personnel.
Ram Raksha: Protested for the removal of sacred Brahminical thread by starving himself to death in the jail.
Haripada Chowdhury: Convicted for attempted murder, later released in 1939.
Dhirendra Chowdhury: One of the few survivors of the notorious Kalapani.
Naringun Singh: Hanged himself in response to torture.
Sher Ali: Assassinated Lord Mayo, leading to his execution in 1872.
Mehtab and Choitun: Attempted a daring escape but were apprehended in London.
Medical Facilities at Cellular Jail
Within the walls of Cellular Jail in the Andaman Islands, the provision of medical care for inmates, especially political prisoners, was marred by severe inadequacies and troubling practices. Following are the challenges faced by prisoners suffering from common ailments and the prevailing lack of concern for the well-being of political prisoners in the jail.
Inadequate Medical Attention: The medical facilities available in Cellular Jail were far from sufficient. Even commonplace health issues like headaches and stomachaches were met with skepticism and reprimand. Many political prisoners who fell ill faced accusations of feigning their problems, resulting in delayed or denied medical assistance.
Treatment within Cells: In a disturbing practice, political inmates with high temperatures and illnesses were often treated while confined within their cells. This method not only hindered the proper diagnosis and treatment of ailments but also subjected prisoners to unnecessary suffering.
Consent and Control: The admission of a political prisoner to the jail hospital required the consent of the infamous James Pattison Walker, the jail's stringent overseer. Barrie, driven by prejudice, would threaten the doctors, suggesting that they should only consider inmates as sick if he, Barrie, endorsed their condition. This prejudiced approach based on religion led to further complications in the already dire medical situation.
Admission on the Verge of Death: A deeply troubling aspect of medical care in Cellular Jail was the delayed admission of political prisoners to the hospital. They were only granted entry when their condition had deteriorated to the point of being bedridden. This approach not only exacerbated their suffering but also reduced the chances of effective treatment.
Suppression of Complaints: Attempts to address the inadequacies of medical care were met with resistance from the authorities. James Pattison Walker dismissed complaints of poor medical treatment as 'false allegations.' Higher authorities, including the chief commissioner, often supported Barrie, further discouraging prisoners from raising concerns about their health.
Lack of Concern: Overall, the prevailing sentiment within the jail administration and among its personnel was a striking lack of concern for the fate and well-being of political prisoners. Their health issues were often disregarded, and their suffering was seemingly inconsequential in the larger scheme of the jail's operations.
The life of political prisoners in Cellular Jail was characterized by grueling labor, isolation, and strict communication restrictions. The harsh working conditions outside the prison, coupled with the complete prohibition on conversing with fellow inmates, compounded the already arduous existence within the confines of this notorious penitentiary. Despite these hardships, these political prisoners continued to persevere in their pursuit of India's independence, leaving a legacy of sacrifice.