''The night is aflush with the dawn of the morrow.'' So sang the Nightingale of India Sarojini Naidu, during the struggle for Independence. Even as the drama surrounding the freedom movement unfolded itself, Bellary played a poignant role.
The establishment of the British army cantonment in Bellary, then in the Madras presidency, a cantonment next in size to the one in Madras provided them with infantry, cavalry and artillery segments. There were magazines to supply huge quantities of ammunition to the entire British army in the southern plateau, as Bellary was the mid-point of the peninsula.
From barracks to military jail
The cantonment had golf links, race course, a large military hospital and barracks for all segments of the army. The Duke of Wellington and Edward Williams (who later became chief of the British army) served as officers in this cantonment which was set up on the advice of Sir Thomas Munroe.
A part of the cantonment’s infantry barracks was converted into a military jail, called the Alipore jail, towards the fag-end of the 19th century. The jail was basically to lodge prisoners of war drawn from the various theaters of the First World War. Prisoners of war from France, Denmark and Turkey were imprisoned in the Alipore jail. Even the crown prince of Turkey was an inmate of the jail. When he died, his body was buried in Bellary’s Turkish martyrs’ cemetery.
This jail was to become the prison for stalwarts of our freedom struggle during the Quit India Movement. In 1920, for the first time, over 2,000 mapulahs from Travancore state were brought to the jail as civilian prisoners. The military jail became a new civilian prison in addition to the long-standing ‘Central Jail’ in Bellary.
From then onwards, national leaders who participated in the freedom struggle including Rajaji, Kamaraj Nadar, Potti Sri Ramulu, Sanjiva Reddy, Bezwada Gopal Reddy, E V Ramaswamy Naikar (the founder of the Dravidian Movement), O V Alagesan, Tekur Subramanyam of Bellary, Bulusu Samba Murthy, Gantasala Venkateshwara Rao and many others were imprisoned in this historic Alipore jail.
After Independence, the jail was closed. In fact, the Alipore jail is the only jail in the sub-continent that was closed by the authorities apart from the cellular jail at Port Blair, which has now become the National Heritage Museum that continues to attract tourists from all over the word.
The entire Alipore jail with over 14 jail blocks was not similarly considered for the status of National Heritage Museum. The records pertaining to this historic jail in Madras Presidency were sent to the National Archives in Chennai. The jail blocks were assigned to the Govt Medical College. All the blocks except one were converted into laboratories and hostels.
Whither jail records?
Most of the records concerning national leaders imprisoned in the Alipore jail are either lost or are in the Madras Archives. Some records with the signatures of Rajaji and Tekur Subramayam have been found in the Central Jail records here. (The jail is older, established in 1866.)
The lone jail barrack still standing amidst the newly constructed Medical College structures was also about to be demolished recently, but the sentiments of people like Tekur Ramnath (son of freedom fighter Tekur Subramanyam and close associate of Rajaji and Nehru) and Bahadur Seshagiri Rao, national award winning teacher and associate of Gandhi Bhavan were respected, and the jail block was “saved”.
The present director of VIMS (Vijaynagar Institute of Medical Sciences) Dr Devanand has mooted the idea of preserving the portion of the barrack as a ‘Freedom Fighters’ Museum,’ in fact as a National Heritage Centre, naming it the ‘Swatantra Samara Soudha’.
Devanand even got the State Tourism Minister Janardhana Reddy interested in the project and brought him to visit the crumbling jail block.