(Last Updated on : 29-02-2012)
Administering physical and mental torture to the political prisoners was the premeditated plan of the British, with the idea that such severe punishment would keep them in check. However, they misapprehended the magnitude of the national spirit. These revolutionary patriots were built up quite in a different mould. Even after a year, authorities did not change their atrocious behaviour towards them. The year was 1911.
The voice of resistance was first raised by a Punjabi prisoner, Nand Gopal, sentenced to expatriation for ten years for writing 'seditious' articles in his Urdu weekly Swaraj, Allahabad, which he edited. He staged non-violent resistance against working on the oil mill. Nand Gopal silent, yet defiant attitude shook David Barrie, the dreaded jailor, and for perhaps for the very first time he felt humiliated and left the place in a huff. The erosion and nervousness of the authority was witnessed in a new light.
This extraordinary incident filled the political prisoners with resilience. Nand Gopal was punished. He was given a reduced diet, but it did not deter him. He was determined to resist the inhuman treatment meted out by the jail authorities. The resistance displayed by Nand Gopal adversely affected the 'discipline' of the jail. But after a few days, he was again assigned work at the kohlu. He challenged the authorities that he would not do the kohlu work as he was a human being and not a bullock. It was an open defiance. Nand Gopal was put in chains and fetters. He was given a reduced diet and was confined. Also, a general order was issued that everybody would have to work on the oil-mill for three days. This created a stir and instigated a combative urge in the other prisoners to fight for their rights. They refused to work on the mill. Thus the strike began. Rigorous measures were adopted by the authorities to punish the strikers. Karyi, powdered rice in water, which could not be given for more than four days was served to all the strikers, but Ullaskar, Nand Gopal and Hoti Lai were fed on this abominable gruel for two weeks continuously. The strikers were handcuffed. Several forms of punishment was inflicted on them one after the other. They were kept in solitary confinement and were not allowed to communicate with each other. But they did not veer off. They held out against all odds. The authorities gave in and assured them work outside the jail with no work on the oil mills. It was the first major victory of the political prisoners in the whole epic resistance.
The patriots stood united like a rock and succeeded in defeating plans of the British, although it was at the price of numerous penalties and physical sufferings. VD. Savarkar was also brought to the Andamans about this time to undergo his fifty years' sentence.
The second spectacular victory for these strong-willed revolutionaries was their success in informing their countrymen about the nightmarish conditions in the Andaman jail where they were lodged and the cruel treatment meted out to them. The prisoners frustrated the British plans of withholding from the world all information regarding the cellular administration of political prisoners. Hoti Lai of Haryana, editor of Swaraj, undergoing his sentence in the Cellular Jail and listed as 'incorrigible', wrote a three page letter covering all the aspects of distressing life of the political prisoners in the jail. He signed the letter mentioning the number of his cell. He took an ordinary prisoner in confidence, gave him the letter and ensured that it reached Surendranath Banerjee, the renowned nationalist and editor of Bengalee in Calcutta. The plan was successful and Surendranath published the full account of the horrible life of political prisoners in the Andamans on 4, 8 and 20 September 1911 in his paper. Among other things, the articles exposed the authorities for, (i) giving inedible diet on the slightest pretext, (ii) forcing the prisoners to work in jungles involving hard labour, (iii) forcing them to work in spite of ill-health and (iv) consequential loss of weight by many of them who were virtually reduced to skeletons. The convicts learnt of the whole affair only when one day Barrie holding a stick in his hands, in full fury stood near Hoti Lai Verma's cell and fiercely reprimanded the warders in expletive terms. He abused the prisoners and also asked Hoti Lai to stand up and called him a 'liar'. The other political prisoners were aghast at his behaviour but Hoti Lai could clearly make out that his plan had succeeded. When the others learnt of this, they were wonderstruck. This stirred the Indians and the British authorities had to act with their backs to the wall to defend themselves. By this time Nani Gopal of Chinsura, Pulin Behari Das of Dacca and some other patriots had also arrived in the Cellular Jail.
The next resistance was the second general and hunger strike by some of them, leading to the acceptance of their demands. The suicide by Indubhusan Roy and Ullaskar's insanity led to the second general strike.
The political prisoners prepared a charter of demands which included - (i) proper food, (ii) release from hard labour, and (iii) freedom to associate with each other. It was sent to the authorities. Since the prisoners were aware that the authorities would not yield to any of the demands, therefore, the next course of action was also already planned by them. The plan of general strike was brought into action, A few political prisoners joined in the beginning but the others continued joining it, day by day.
The political prisoners were nonetheless, a determined lot. They refused to stand up as a mark of respect on the arrival of Barrie. They violated the jail rules by talking to each other loudly so as to be audible to the co-prisoners, who were locked in cells at a distance. The abusive language used by the jail officials was replied by more forceful language. When the warders assaulted one or two of them, the political prisoners cautioned them with dire consequences.
During the general strike, although none of the political prisoners conceded to the penalties and pressures of the jail authorities, Nani Gopal, a young man, proved to be the toughest fighter in the wake of pressures and blatant physical torture.
The news about Indubhusan's suicide, Ullaskar's insanity and Nani Gopal's hunger strike reached the country. The press started a vigorous campaign. The government was compelled to send Dr. (Percy) Lukis, director of the Indian Medical Services to make an inquiry. But his report was not published, although as a consequence, Ullaskar was sent over to the asylum in Madras and the others also heaved a sigh of relief for some time at least. Nani Gopal, after considerable difficulty, was also persuaded by his friends to eat. A little after this, the prisoners from outside were sent out again as their term expired. Nani Gopal was on a hunger strike for seventy-two days and the strike came to an end on 6th December 1912.
In this long-drawn struggle, the political prisoners were able to get some concessions. They got the permission of the jail superintendent to get books into the prison. They got the complete works of Herbert Spenser, Shakespeare, Mill, Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, Gibbon, Emerson, Macaulay and the famous books like Republic by Plato, Utopia by Sir Thomas More, and works of well-known Maratha and Bengali poets. At the time of Savarkar's departure, there were 2000 books in the jail library. Satyarth Parkash in Hindi by Swami Dayanand Saraswati was read by many. The jail authorities even permitted the political prisoners to sit together, read books or hold discussions, but their duties continued and they were asked not to resort to strikes or agitations.
The British authorities were highly aware of the capabilities of the political prisoners and were so apprehensive of their activities that they were alarmed at the information given to them in August 1913 by one Lai Mohan, a Bengali prisoner that a bomb factory was started in the island by the political prisoners working in the settlement. Rumours were set afloat that a bomb was found in an adjoining brook; that there was a plan for destroying the whole settlement of Port Blair and engaging the boats to take the prisoners across the sea. The authorities became alert. Searches were made at all possible places of slight suspicion. A special police officer was called from Calcutta to investigate. Explosive experts also reached the Andamans. The political prisoners working outside were locked in their cells. They were not too happy with their freedom being curtailed and they made representations to the Government of India that either they be prosecuted on the charges against them, or they be sent outside for work.
Lieutenant Colonel Douglas was the superintendent in Port Blair during that time. After the rumours of the alleged conspiracy of bomb making, two successive strikes of the political prisoners, publication of letters from them in newspapers, newspaper reports about their dreadful adversities and agonies, subsequent public agitation and questions asked in the Imperial Legislative Council, and lastly, the suspected conspiracy to prepare bombs, at last convinced the Government of India that there was something very nasty going on in the settlement at Port Blair. So an official of high rank, the Home Member of the Governor General's Council, Sir Reginald Craddock, visited the Andamans in October 1913 to see things for himself. Although his visit was kept secret from the political prisoners, they still learnt about it. Birendra Chandra Sen, Upendra Nath Banerjee, Nand Gopal, Hoti Lai Verma and Pulin Behari Das appeared before him and without caring for the resulting punishments, they openly impeached the jail authorities regarding the deprivation of their rights. YD. Savarkar had detailed discussion with Craddock. YD. Savarkar, Hrishi Kesh Kanjilal, Barindra Kumar Ghose, Nand Gopal and Sudhir Kumar Sarkar, each of them also handed over petitions to him for the government's consideration. These were noticed and discussed by the Home member in his report dated 23rd November 1913, written by him on board S.S.Maharaja on the return journey. These petitions were also appended with the report, which contained first-hand information of the political prisoners about their life in the Cellular Jail. The prisoners again decided to fight when even after Craddock's visit things did not alter in their favour.
In the manifesto submitted to the jail authorities the prisoners made three principal demands:
As political prisoners, they should have all the privileges of the first class;
That they should, otherwise, be put in the category of ordinary prisoners, given all the facilities allotted to them and the periodical visit to this jail be permitted to the members of their families; or
They should be sent back to serve their term in the jails of India, so that they may get all the facilities of that jail life including reduction in the period of the sentence after a certificate of good behaviour.
Obviously the authorities were in no mood to acknowledge any of these demands. They then resorted to another strike in March 1914, the only available weapon with the political prisoners.
Almost all of them struck work. Punishments of standing handcuffs, fetters, bar-fetters and reduced diet, one after the other were inflicted on the political prisoners. YD. Savarkar also joined the strike. Even he was not spared from the rigour of harsh punishments. However, in spite of these punishments, the strike continued. Nani Gopal again resorted to a hunger strike.
Savarkar persuaded the hunger strikers to discontinue their strike. They agreed but Nani was unrelenting. His health was getting dangerously affected and was a cause of concern to the other prisoners. When the fellow-prisoners failed to influence him, VD. Savarkar went on hunger strike to persuade him. It proved successful and Nani resumed eating.
Due to this strike, the prisoners were unable to communicate with each other for co-ordinating their activities. The authorities not only lodged them in cells at a distance but guards were also posted to restrict the prisoners from speaking to each other. So the political prisoners hit upon a device to communicate with one another in invented coded language and in signals.
The general strike was in full swing. Just about all versions of punishments were exhausted. They were hauled up before the magistrate. Some got two months, some four, while Nani Gopal was given one year's rigorous punishment. But the strike was not withdrawn. Ultimately the Government of India took a final decision on the fate of political prisoners in Andamans in April 1914 and when the orders to that effect reached Andamans in May 1914, the strike resorted to by these prisoners was still going on. The authorities came to terms with the political prisoners and the strike came to an end.
Notification was issued by the authorities to the following effect:
All the prisoners who were sentenced to a specific period of time, short of life-sentence, shall be sent back to their respective prisons in India, where the reduction of their sentence will be accordingly considered and followed.
Prisoners for life-sentence shall be detained in the prison for a continuous period of fourteen years, whereafter they will be set free for some labour of light character. This shall operate only in the case of those prisoners who give proof of good behaviour during their period of captivity.
During the period of fourteen years, the prisoner shall be given decent food to eat, and decent clothes to wear. After five years, he shall be allowed to cook his own food and given from twelve annas to a rupee per month as his pocket allowance.
The following concessions were also offered to the political prisoners:
The substitution of simple imprisonment in place of rigorous imprisonment as a reward for the good behaviour of the political prisoners;
light work in place of demanding and degrading type-of work (like grinding of oil);
supply of books approved by the government;
grant of occasional holidays (from work);
grant of same privileges as enjoyed by the ordinary convicts in respect of dress and the writing and receiving letters;
treatment like ordinary convicts in regard to punishments deluding whipping; and
release of life-term political prisoners of good behaviour from the Cellular Jail after 14 years.
Other political prisoners who were to continue their sentence in Port Blair were extended the following facilities:
The prisoners were allowed in lots to cook their own food.
Some of them were given work in the printing press, in the library and on map drawing, each earning about Rs. 10 a month from the work. However, VD. Savarkar and Ganesh Savarkar were not given any of these concessions in the beginning.
The British, ultimately could not cripple the fortitude of the revolutionaries, who braved the agonizing situation with great courage.