Reflections from "Kalapani"
Cellular Jail still echoes the voices of India’s bravest freedom fighters.
It is intriguing to note that the Cellular Jail in Port Blair, one of our most enduring and painful symbols of subjection and exploitation, was not declared a national memorial till 1979, when then Prime Minister Morarji Desai, on a visit to the place, had declared it thus. It was in the early sixties that groups of freedom fighters whose members were transported to the Cellular Jail, came together to demand the place be preserved for posterity as a memorial to those who sacrificed themselves within its precincts, clinging to their conviction and unassailable goal of seeing India free. The Jail premises, though preserved with great effort and dedication by the local administration and the team looking after the memorial, need greater support and recognition. It is the duty – Lok-Kartavya – of all generations of Indians to ensure that the Cellular Jail, the memories of Kalapani, is passed on to the next without rupture, without dilution.
An acute apathy was displayed towards the Cellular Jail and its legacy by the powers that be and who could have, had they so wished, declared and preserved it as a national memorial right from the early years of independence. Was the apathy perhaps because of the fact that those revolutionary nationalists who were incarcerated in the Cellular Jail took a different path to achieve India's independence? Was it because preserving the Cellular Jail would preserve the memory of their sacrifice and exploits, and of their unbreakable spirit of dedication to the dream of liberating India, was it because preserving these barracks would also preserve and perpetuate the legacy and thought of one of the most well-known prisoners of the Cellular Jail, Veer Savarkar? The aim of the colonial masters was to crush his spirit and dissolve his determination to free India – two life terms consecutive, "You are sentenced to fifty years transportation" – the aim of some of the rulers of free India was to continue to fetter him, leash his free mind, his vision and blanket his uncompromising and unconditional love for Bharat and his lifelong sacrifices in trying to sing her glory.
A Savarkar preserved, a Savarkar perpetuated, a Savarkar passed on to posterity would have dealt a decisive blow to a number of pseudo-political conglomerates and leaders. But that is another tale, the tale of Savarkar in London has been told, the tale of Savarkar in his transportation for life has been recounted, the tale of Savarkar in the politics of preserving India has somewhat been narrated, but an exclusive tale of the vindictiveness of some of free India's leaders towards Savarkar is yet to be narrated in detail. Mentally and physically rotund and intellectually calcified family retainers like Mani Shankar Aiyar have always tried to prevent such narratives from being effectively told.
Interestingly, some of the later political prisoners in the Cellular Jail, incarcerated in the 1930s went on to adopt Communism as their political creed, yet it would have perhaps shocked them to see their political progenies today call for India's disintegration, support disruptive and divisive forces and extend their support to those who, colluding with enemies of all hues, wish to see India disintegrated.
A meditative walk through the corridors of the Cellular Jail generates echoes of the extreme suffering of the political inmates and also reveals the barbarity of the concept of penal settlements and cellular confinement. In an earlier column, I had mentioned some of the revolutionaries who were confined to Kalapani. Their memoirs which were written in the 1920s after they were released – being imprisoned for a decade in the Cellular hell-hole with broken health and standing on the threshold of death itself – is a genre of literature that ought to have been included in some detail in our educational curriculum. Tied to the "Kolu" – iron oil pressing machine – like bullocks and whipped into pressing out 30-pounds oil per day, subjected to the most degrading treatment for years, these revolutionaries held out and resisted.
The 'Tale of My Exile" by Barindra Kumar Ghose, Upendranath Banerjee's "Nirbasiter Atmakatha" (Memoirs of A Revolutionary) a classic in Bengali literature which had moved Gurudev so profoundly that he not only recommended it to people but also wanted to meet the writer himself, Ullaskar Dutt's "Twelve Years of Prison Life" are not only worth republishing but also need to be mainstreamed in our narrative of India's freedom struggle.
Ullaskar, for example, one of the most dynamic, determined and high-souled among the early revolutionaries, transported to the Cellular in 1909 after being convicted in the Alipore Bomb Case, was pushed to madness with torture and humiliation. His protest on the behaviour of the jailor and wardens, led Ullaskar to be manacled and chained to the barrack wall for seven days; suffering from a very high fever and condemned to stand without respite, he lost his mental balance, and was then subjected to electric shock to ensure that he was not feigning madness.
Savarkar recounts the heart-rending cries of Ullaskar when given the shock, "If a young man of this jovial mood, ever smiling, ever witty, one whom the sentence of death could not repress, the fearless Ullaskar, could go mad, then what of us who were passing through a similar ordeal of prison-life?...We were hoping against hope...that other Officers in the jail would yet look after him, and nurse him back to sanity and health. The morning came and what did we find? We found that the cries had grown more frequent and harsher in sound. Ama, Ama – mother, mother – that was the sound we heard repeatedly. It wrung our hearts and deafened our ears. What was really the matter? None would tell us. Some said they were giving him shocks from an electric battery to discover if he was really mad or was only feigning madness..." Ullaskar himself described that experience, "I felt as though my whole physical frame was being shaken to its very roots, the currents of electricity, that passed through my body, seemed to cut asunder all nerves and sinews, most mercilessly."
The Cellular Jail has borne witness to such sagas of fearlessness and of resistance, it continues to stand, for the discerning and the perceptive, as a lighthouse, reminding us of the preciousness of our freedom, shedding light on the vision that had inspired countless young lives to adopt deprivation and sacrifice, a reminder that the saga of our struggle for freedom was not limited to a few families or to a few leaders.
(The author is Director, Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi. Views are personal.)