Dr. Diwan Singh was a medical officer in the Indian Army, under the British. Although transferred to Port Blair in April 1927 as a punishment for his nationalistic views and his good-hearted attitude to the freedom fighters while in India, he utilised his time in noble activities here as well. He found the local population of these islands, which mainly consisted of convicts, ex-convicts or their descendants, living in despondent conditions. They were disregarded and discriminated against in all spheres of life. The administration never thought of bettering their living conditions. It was then that Dr. Diwan Singh decided to further their cause.
He resolved to construct a gurdwara, not as a place of worship for the Sikhs alone, but also as a place for people of all religions, castes and creed for holding of social functions. Dr. Diwan Singh prevailed upon the government and had a plot of land allotted for this purpose. The foundation stone of the gurdwara was laid on 1st August 1937, in the presence of an enthusiastic gathering. The construction work was started and Dr. Diwan Singh worked day and night to tap all the possible avenues to meet its construction expenses. The local population participated whole-heartedly in the construction of the gurdwara, which was completed within a year. Dr Singh entrusted its management to a committee consisting of people drawn from all faiths. The gurdwara, besides being a place of worship, was also instrumental in bringing about a social, cultural and educational revolution in the lives of local people.
Dr. Diwan Singh next undertook to spread literacy among the people and set up a school. A hostel was also made available for students coming from far off places. Vocational education was also started for young girls to enable them to be self-dependent. Adult education was also popularised and a library was set up. His creative and welfare activities brought him closer to the local population and they looked up to him as their leader, defender and protector. By the year 1941, he was a household name in the island. Dr. Diwan Singh became a part of the islanders, and the suffix 'Kalepani' got appended to his name.
During the War, apprehending attacks by the Japanese, the British authorities ordered general evacuation of these islands. Only a few local people left the islands. Dr. Diwan Singh also opted to stay back with his people to swim and sink with them. He was there to guide them when they needed him the most.
On 23rd March 1942, the ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy swooped on the islands of Ross and Chatham, which were the entry points to Port Blair. They occupied the territory and established their Administration. It is no surprise then that the local people elected Dr. Diwan Singh as their spokesman. The Japanese authorities assured them of getting India liberated and asked for their cooperation, which Dr. Singh assured them of. During mid April 1942, the branch of Indian Independence League was formed in the island by the local people with Dr. Diwan Singh as its president. The Indian National Army was also raised in the Andamans in June 1942.
Dr. Diwan Singh was promoted as chief medical officer by the Japanese. He was also appointed as chairman of the Peace Committee which dealt with the inconveniences of the local population. This arrangement continued for a while.
The period of Japanese occupation of the islands was unmitigatingly malevolent and devoid of all human values. The occasional misbehaviour played by the Japanese in the beginning became their routine. They barged into the homes of the islanders without prior notice. They used to steal or burn the property of the islanders just for fun. Protests were lodged with the authorities, but no action was taken.
Immediately after their arrival on 24th March 1942 a young twenty-year-old boy, Zulfiquar Ali alias Sunny tried to resist the actions of the Japanese soldiers, but on 25th March 1942 he was killed by them most brutally in the presence of the public in Browing Club Grounds (renamed as Netaji Club). His tomb in Netaji Grounds now speaks of this story in silence. The Japanese started beefing up their positions by constructing bunkers at all the strategic points. They also started constructing the airstrip at Lamba Line the work of which was started by the British before they were made to leave the islands in March 1942. For this purpose, the Japanese had forced the islanders including the Nicobarese, to work as labourers. Any kind of resistance was met with all kinds of torture and gunshots.
A few months after their arrival on the islands, the Japanese started behaving like conquerors. A kind of affinity between the Japanese and the islanders fighting against the common antagonist i.e. the British, ceased to exist, and the Japanese started treating the islanders as their slaves. There was a lot of resentment among the local population and Dr. Diwan Singh lodged a protest with the Japanese. At the same time, he continued organising national, religious and social functions in the gurdwara for the local population to boost up their flagging morale.
The Japanese brought a shipload of Korean women called 'comfort girls'. They asked Dr. Diwan Singh to vacate the gurdwara building to accommodate them. He was also directed to keep medicines and drug stock reserved only for the Japanese, and the 'comfort girls'. Dr. Singh refused to oblige the authorities as he could not deprive the local population of the medicines meant for them nor he could deprive them of the gurdwara building meant for their social and religious functions. The Japanese, quite naturally, turned hostile towards him. Since the islands, Japanese war-ships and their supply lines were frequently rammed down by the Allied planes, the Japanese suspected the hand of Indian spies. It gave rise to a situation of conflict between the islanders and the Japanese, who let lose a reign of terror on the natives.
In January 1943, the Japanese implicated some islanders in a sham case known as the first spy case. They were arrested indiscriminately and thrown in a wing of Cellular Jail. Some of them were put to third degree torture. In March 1943, seven of them including Narayan Rao, an eminent individual, was taken to Dugnabad and shot dead. Even Dr. Diwan Singh was called a spy of the British on the basis of false information and was arrested on 23rd October 1943 and was imprisoned in the Cellular Jail in a case known as the second spy case. What followed next was unremitting agony, most brutal and inhuman. Dr. Diwan Singh was hung upside down. His hair and beard were pulled out with forceps. He was subjected to electric shocks. He was told to 'confess' that he was a British spy. But he did not compromise with his principles. He was made to sit on a steel chair and a fire was lit under it. His ribs were broken with merciless beatings, but there was nothing to confess for him. The torture continued and he suffered every pain in silence. The only words that escaped his lips were, Waheguru-Waheguru. He was racked for a long period of eighty-two days and he breathed his last on 14th January 1944.
Dr. Diwan Singh Kalepani was a man of culture, a rebel and an idealist. He was a poet and an essayist who experimented in Punjabi poetry and prose. He was a social worker of unconquerable spirit. He suffered torture for his principles and attained martyrdom for his people.
Numerous other islanders were also arrested in this case and were thrown in a wing of Cellular Jail. They were also tortured and some of them like Dr. Diwan Singh Kalepani succumbed to it. On 30th January 1944, forty-four of them were taken to a place known as Hamfraygunj and were shot dead. They were all members of the liberating organisations. 30th January 1944 is thus, a black day in the history of the Andamans when every house in the islands was in mourning. A memorial raised in his or her honoured memory reminds every visitor of this catastrophic story.
Things did not stop here. Starving conditions resulted on these islands as the frequent bombing by the Allied forces cut off the supply line. The Japanese thought of a most tragic scheme. On 4th August 1945, hundreds of Islanders were taken in boats to Havelock, a far off island and were thrown in the sea where they received a watery grave. Two or three people, including Saudagar Singh swam across and reached the seashore to narrate this tearful story to their brethren. The Nicobarese were no less sufferers; they also faced the volley of cruelties and barbarisms committed on them by the Japanese. Many of them were tortured to death.
But the islanders were fearless people. They faced the onslaught courageously, although the atrocities of the British paled into insignificance in the face of ruthlessness committed by the Japanese.
(Last Updated on : 31-01-2009)
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