The Cellular Jail in Andaman is witness to the immense suffering and torture that some of our bravest freedom fighters underwent. Spending 15 August here is a tribute to our history and their spirits.
There are many places sanctified by the blood of our martyrs and tears of their families. Revolutionary Vanchinathan killed the tyrannical Tirunelveli district collector Robert William Escourt Ashe, following which there was an upheaval against the British. Vanchinathan’s father refused to collect his son’s body for performing the last rites. He would perform the rituals in strict secrecy.
Yashoda Vahini, the wife of Ganesh Savarkar and sister-in-law of Veer Savarkar, had to live in a cemetery as none would give her shelter when her husband was arrested by the British. V O Chidambaram Pillai, leading freedom fighter from the south, was yoked to an oil press in a Coimbatore jail. In Jallianwala Bagh, we still have the bullet-ridden walls and the well into which terrified women and children jumped, watering the tree of freedom with their lifeblood.
There are places throughout India that have been thus immortalised by the sacrifices of our freedom fighters. However, if there is one place the heart of every Indian goes out to, especially when the word ‘freedom’ is uttered, it is the Andaman Islands.
The current generation that is spellbound by a strong dose of Harry Potter may well relate to Andaman by imagining it to be a real life historic prototype of the fantasy-filled Azkaban. Here our freedom fighters were tortured. The human love for freedom was tested to its limits and beyond. Human dignity was crushed in every unimaginable way. Our freedom fighters, some of the finest minds of that time, became insane and were driven to commit suicide, and those who survived carried the scars forever.
It is extremely difficult to imagine the kind of torture that happened in Andaman Islands. Inside Andaman, there was no distinction between leaders and workers. At the least, those who were considered as leaders, like Savarkar, were given a collar with letter ‘D’ meaning ‘dangerous’.
Contrast this with the resort-like British jails that came up in the 1940s for political leaders where tennis was played and roses were grown. At the same time, the ordinary workers of the party that fought for freedom experienced rough treatment — even that would have been ‘heaven’ compared to the inhuman sufferings our freedom fighters of the 1910s underwent in Andaman.
That is the reason why an Independence Day spent in the Cellular Jail of Andaman is like observing Mahashivaratri in Varanasi.
In the Cellular Jail, one may feel the presence of the spirit of Indubushan, driven to suicide due to the inhuman conditions, whispering the sacrifices of the freedom fighters so that we are free today. What if the spirit of Indubushan asked if we are making them proud by being worthy of their sacrifices?
It was here in the islands, the tyranny of British imperialism made Ullaskar Dutt go insane. Insane at one level, yes, but the real insanity was the insane love for the freedom of his motherland. Here, in this island, he gave his best for our children to be free.
The walls of the Cellular Jail are now painted. But one wishes that the nail-scribbling of Savarkar is recreated. It was here that the greatest literary monument to liberty was sculpted in the mind of Savarkar — handcuffed and with cross bar fetters. It is easy to imagine and venerate the goddess of liberty in the fair sunshine and freedom — as did the French sculptor, and can be made a wonderful tourist attraction in the United States.
But to feel the vital importance of liberty and to sing of her with a heart rendering cry — when all human dignity has been crushed under the military boots of an empire — or cry her fame — not in a defeated tone of lamentation but in joy and in the spirit of victory right from the dark dungeons of the Cellular Jail — is the greatest tribute humanity ever paid to liberty. That happened in the Cellular Jail of Andaman. Yes.
Savarkar scribbled with his fingernails, and whatever was available to him, the song hailing the goddess of liberty — victory to her to die for whom is life and to life without whom is death.
The convicts would not be allowed to be in the same cell for prolonged periods. For anyone who was in a depressed state of mind in the Cellular Jail, if moved to the cell where Savarkar was previously confined in, the walls would make him feel invigorated.
As Bhai Paramanand toiled in the Cellular Jail, his wife back home with no money, not even utensils, was holding their dear daughter in her hands — the daughter was dying after a prolonged battle with sickness, for want of good medical attention.
Every cell in the Andaman jail tells tales of sacrifices and heroic struggles. When presented with an option of either rotting in the darkness of Andaman or somehow securing the freedom to fight in the mainland — there were those, who like Galileo tried diplomacy. Then, there were those who decided to burn like Bruno at stake.
Here, too, Savarkar struck a very different path. After nearly four years in Andaman, during which he underwent his most oppressive jail life and punishments, his ‘mercy petition’ is titled “Petition from V. D. Savarkar, a convict in the Andamans, offering his services to Government during the present war and praying for a general release for all persons convicted of political offenses” – yes, not for him, but “a general release for all persons convicted of political offenses”.
The petition ends saying: “If the Government suspect that my real intention in writing all this is only to secure my own release then I beg to submit let me not be released at all, with my exception let all the rest be released...”.
It is hard to imagine how anyone could even call this a mercy petition. It is almost signing one’s own ‘torture to death’ warrant. Yet the calumny goes on purely for sectarian political purposes — increasing our indebtedness to the great sufferings our freedom fighters underwent.
Then there is the Viper Island cellular prison, where freedom fighters such as Nani Gopal, who earned more punishments, were sent. Here, the conditions were even more severe. This, too, is a hallowed monument for our freedom struggle.
Standing here on the eve of our Independence Day, within the very walls that witnessed the torture and martyrdom our freedom fighters underwent, is actually presenting ourselves to history. Here, asking the walls a question: how do the walls judge us, we, who are enjoying the fruits of their suffering — are we really worthy of their sacrifices?