Port Blair: Vignettes From The Cellular Jail

June 13, 2006
Shantanu Dutta

Recently on a visit, I had the opportunity to visit a monument which is part of the myth of the Indian freedom struggle- the Cellular Jail at Port Blair. It is said that no one ever escaped alive from this jail. Cellular Jail, located at Port Blair, is a mute witness to the tortures meted out to the freedom fighters, who were incarcerated in this Jail. The Jail, completed in the year 1908 acquired the name, 'cellular' because it is entirely made up of individual cells for the solitary confinement of the prisoners. It was home to hundreds of freedom fighters whose names are now engraved on the walls of its watch tower, the Cellular Jail stands as a symbol of colonial oppression, cruelty and untold suffering.

Daily work routines for the prisoners included the crushing of thirty pounds of coconut and mustard oil; being unable to meet the quota would result in severe punishment shackling and flogging. There are no records of how many died or were executed. The Jail now a place of pilgrimage for all freedom loving people has been declared a National Memorial.

Construction of the Cellular Jail started in 1896 and was completed in 1906. It is a massive three-storied structure, shaped like a starfish, seven wings radiating from a central watchtower, the standard design of most British jails, a facility where 698 souls could be kept in solitary confinement. The plaques bearing the names of those incarcerated in the Jail reads like a "who's who" of the freedom movement.

Prominent among them are the names of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Barindra Kumar Ghosh (brother of Shri Aurobindo), Bhai Parmanand of the Ghadr Party, and many more, convicted in various 'conspiracy cases.' A 'must' on the itinerary of all tourists is the 'Sound & Light Show' every evening, which brings to life a dark chapter in the history of the Islands as a penal settlement.

While it is easy to condemn the British for the treatment meted out to those whom they saw as terrorists and whom we see as freedom fighters, it is not possible for the serious thinker to reflect on whether the state has become a gentler and kinder entity since the colonial times and whether the kind of persecution and torture has ceased in free India. Unfortunately it has not - not in the least.

The British tortured, killed and maimed but they kept adequate records and were fair and transparent in whom they tried and imprisoned and hanged. They are damned by the evidence and transparency that they themselves provided. We in free India however have taken recourse to encounter killings and such without any records being kept or any trials being carried out.

The British carried out Jalianwala Bagh but they also tried and court-martialed General Dyer its architect but we make heroes of people like K.P.S.Gill , who was responsible for crushing terrorism yes, but also for numerous extra - judicial killings and encounters. It is great to declare the Cellular Jail at Andamans a National Monument and honor all those incarcerated in its walls but a greater tribute still would be to create a society where the spirit of British colonialists which still permeates the Indian state is really history.

Shantanu Dutta is a medical doctor by training and a development professional by vocation. His writings mostly deal with change, complexity and conversion and tries to look at a changing world through heaven's eyes.
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Port Blair: Vignettes From The Cellular Jail


Author: Shantanu Dutta


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June 14, 2006
05:25 AM

How was your cell reception? (lame joke:) )

If I understand your point correctly, you are suggesting that police brutality or hardline policies are somehow a colonial hangover and best put to rest. How do you propose to address the seeping rot in so many areas of the country if the protective forces are emasculated to the point of making nice with the enemies of the open society?

Shantanu Dutta
June 14, 2006
06:07 AM

I would say that the all rot in society is a matter of collapse in values and morality in society and such a matter certainly can not be addressed by mere policing. It needs a renaissance kind of movement that happened in the 18th century - what we read in history books as the Indian renaissance - a 21st century equivalent of that. How can a bunch of policemen probably corrupt themselves and controlled by political masters who are also in many instances corrupt protect any one legitimately? In the North East and Kashmir , they have only caused alienation even among apolitical people who simply want to get on with their lives.

June 14, 2006
11:22 AM

while a renaissance is needed, some structural reforms might help.

for example, part time policing by citizens. decentralizing the police force. i believe wd increase accountability to local communities who need to cower today without any easy access to redressal of grievances.

possibly, electing the local police chief.

and making police independent of the government. with specific goals of maintaining law an order etc. a separate institution, so that the coercive capability of the police is not under the control of any government, directly. for furthering their own agendas. with of course, check and balances.

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