Prisons of freedom

Jails from the British Raj era are crucial witnesses to the struggles and sacrifices that earned us our independence, write Mukul & Shilpa Gupta

Cellular Jail, Port Blair

Representing a long saga of brutal punishments, acute discrimination, hard labour and complete isolation, it was meant to evoke shudders and quell rebellion. Supervised ruthlessly by Irish jailor David Barrie, the self-styled ‘God of Port Blair’, it signified a life term that was the most dreaded. Some inmates became abnormal, others were driven to suicide. Veer Vinayak Savarkar called it the “jaws of death”. That is the infamy with which the Cellular Jail of Port Blair has gone down in the annals of history.

When we celebrate August 15 each year, how many of us pause to reflect on the price we had to pay to become an independent democracy. On the sacrifices that needed to be made. On the unceasing resilience of our freedom fighters. It all happened so many years ago that most of us have no idea what it took for our nation to become independent. One of the things our revolutionaries had to endure was long and multiple incarcerations, sometimes with no human contact, no respite, and in abysmal, inhuman conditions. Some of those prisons no longer exist, a few are on the brink of atrophy, a handful continue to stand tall. In revisiting them, we are paying a humble tribute to our heroes.

Ahmednagar Fort Jail
Ahmednagar Fort Jail

Tough life

Opened in 1906, the Cellular Jail is designed like spokes on a wheel with seven wings emerging out of a watch tower. Each of its 693 cells is tiny and even the toilet breaks were said to be supervised and regimented. Those imprisoned were made to do hard manual labour with no rest and hardly enough food. Even the most fundamental rights of a political prisoner — proper food, clothing, toiletries — were denied. Today, of course, the Cellular Jail is one of the top tourist draws of the Andamans. A sound-and-light show brings alive the plight of our indefatigable freedom fighters.

Cellular Jail
Cellular Jail

There’s another Andaman island associated with our freedom saga that hasn’t pervaded public consciousness the way Cellular Jail has. Bearing the sinister sobriquet of “the gallows of Viper Islands”, the secluded jail was made by the British during 1864-67 to punish and torture any Indian who spoke out against the angrez. With the construction of Cellular Jail, the gallows were abandoned. Time — and the tsunami of 2004 — have all but obliterated this testament to the trauma and travails of the Indians incarcerated and hanged there. All that remains is a red building that was the courtroom and the deadly gallows looking down a hillock.

The brutal sazaa-e-kaala pani actually began from the mainland. Madras Central Jail was used as a transit camp. It had the distinction of housing freedom fighters like Subhash Chandra Bose and Veer Savarkar, and many others perished within its walls. Opened in 1837, it was counted among the country’s oldest before its demolition in 2009. Like Madras Central Jail, another era has also ended with the closing down of the high-security Alipore Central Correctional Home in Kolkata. Sri Aurobindo, whose book Tales of Prison Life was a result of his experiences here, Bose and K Kamraj were some of our freedom fighters who had been imprisoned in the prison over its 100-year history. The Alipore Jail Press — India’s oldest printing press — is inside the jail. It employs the inmates and is run by the government of West Bengal. All profits go to the Prisoners’ Welfare Fund.

Ahmednagar Fort Jail
Ahmednagar Fort Jail

Literature bloomed

Decades before the high-security Yerwada Central Jail became synonymous with a Bollywood superstar (TADA-accused Sanjay Dutt was imprisoned here) and an international terrorist (Ajmal Kasab was hanged), it was a literary setting: Mahatma Gandhi wrote his magnum opus My Experiments with Truth during one of his several detentions here.

Nehru, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Subhash Chandra Bose were the other high-profile detainees of the sprawling Yerwada, made in 1851 by the British. It has earned repute for a well-stocked retail shop which sells products — furniture, textiles, lamps, biscuits, shoes and more — made by the inmates. Not only that, the inmates are also taught Gandhian philosophy.

Another Pune institution which was converted into a detention camp for our freedom fighters was the 1892-built Aga Khan Palace, now renamed the Gandhi National Memorial owing to its close association with the Mahatma. During the Quit India Movement of 1942, several freedom fighters, including Gandhi, his wife Kasturba, and Sarojini Naidu, were detained at the Palace. It was here that Kasturba died, as did Gandhi’s secretary (their samadhis, built by celebrated architect Charles Correa to honour their memory; Gandhi’s ashes are also entombed here). The rooms where Gandhi and the others were lodged is now a museum.

If Kolkata’s Alipore Jail was iconic, not far was another detention camp that harboured our revolutionaries. Hijli Detention Camp in Midnapore district has merited a slot in history for a ruthless act: The infamous ‘Hijli Firing’ of 1931, the only known incident of police firing on unarmed prisoners inside an Indian jail. Now rechristened and refashioned into the Nehru Museum of Science and Technology, the prison falls within the campus of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. The walls and cells of the jail remain intact.

Fort Kochi Jail
Fort Kochi Jail

A legacy

In Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar, a town with a rich legacy in the form of historic palaces, tombs and mosques, is the Ahmednagar Fort, an imposing oval structure with 24 citadels and 18-metre-high walls.

Counted among the most impregnable and well-designed forts of India with a 30-metre-wide moat, it has come to be synonymous with India’s freedom struggle.

In perpetuating the existence of these heritage prisons, we ensure that the valiant efforts of our freedom fighters are never forgotten. We owe it to them.

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