The jail economy
With its full-fledged management apparatus, led by Eurasians and sustained by incentivised ‘convict settlers’, Andaman Islands had developed a ‘revenue-neutral’ economy of its own
Lest an impression is created that the penal settlement housed only political prisoners, it must be placed on record that as per the study of Clare Andersen, between 1858 and 1937, there were over 80,000 convicts, but the political prisoners did not exceed a thousand. In order to make the islands 'revenue-neutral', convict labour was used for all kinds of productive purposes. 'Nationalist prisoners', on the other hand, were subject to a very different penal regime. They were isolated from the mass of convicts, and after the Cellular Jail became operational from 1910, they were confined there for the whole term of their sentence and put to non-productive (penal) forms of labour like oakum picking and grinding thirty pounds of oil every day — yoked like a pair of oxen to the oil press.
Of the 16,000 odd residents counted in the census of 1901, there were 12,000 convicts, 2,000 free residents (ex-convicts and their descendants), about 300 Europeans and over a thousand Eurasians (Anglo Indians). While the Europeans lived on the Ross Islands 'with its grand colonial residences, swimming baths, tennis courts, clubs and bazaars', the Anglo Indians lived in Port Blair and socialised in the Temple Club. The relatively large number of Eurasians living in the Andamans at the start of the 20th century reflected the extent to which the British relied on them to run the penal settlement. They occupied almost all the senior positions in the management and operation of jails, telegraph, forest, and wireless services. The Eurasians, though not at the helm, lived a 'resplendent life' with their weekly dances, piano lessons, and convict- servants.
Even though the administrative apparatus to manage the islands was in place, what it needed was 'settlers' — people who would ensure self-sufficiency, at least in terms of cereals, milk, poultry, fish, betel, coconut plantations and basic services. Prisoners across the mainland were offered remissions and incentives to settle in the islands with their families. It was different for the political detenus, for the purpose was to 'humiliate them, and break their spirit forever' or make them subservient — as in the case of 'approvers' like Thanesari.
The mindset which guided the authorities in the penal settlement is best illustrated by the words of Richard Carnac Temple, the chief commissioner of the Andamans, during a lecture delivered at London's Imperial Institute on February 24, 1899. 'Political prisoners would no longer live in barracks scattered across the malarial islands. Instead, a 698-cell panopticon was being established on mangrove swamps on a promontory called Atlanta Point, overlooking the main town of Port Blair. From its Central Tower, radiated seven 150-yard wings that rose to three levels, each level fitted with 52 cells, 13.5ft by 7.5ft, each supplied with a 6ft by 3ft wooden slat bed and ventilated by a barred 3ft by 1ft grate'. Here was a 'huge, practical reformatory' that would carry the work of the Andaman Islands' authorities into a new age. Every arrival would be forced 'to bend his rebellious nature to the yoke'; Carnac Temple promised them a fate 'even more dreadful than the hangman's noose'. This was the place where the political prisoners were to be held, and they were the ones for whom the most humiliating forms of punishments were proposed. (Guardian)
Manmath Nath Gupta, a revolutionary himself, writes about the place: 'The cells were of the worst type prevalent, there was no provision for lavatories; an earthen pot smeared with coal tar in a corner of the cell served the purpose. There was no cover of any sort, so in time, a prisoner slept in a sort of open lavatory'.
It was to this 'facility' that 149 revolutionaries were sent from prisons across the country in 1909. In 1910, the convicts of the Khulna, Alipore and Nasik conspiracy cases were also sent to the Cellular Jail. Among them was Damodar Vinayak Sarvarkar who wrote 'Story of Transportation of My Life' about his lived experiences. As the news about the treatment meted out in the prison came to be published, there was universal opprobrium, and by 1919-20, the Indian Jails Committee recommended the general abolition of transportation to the Islands. The announcement was made by Sir William Vincent, ICS, Vice President of the Indian Legislative Council on March 21, 1921. The process of phased repatriation to jails in the mainland was initiated as there were 12,000 to 15,000 prisoners at that time. However, as provincial governments were unable to cope with the resultant prison overcrowding, the practice of transportation of male non-political convicts was renewed in 1922. Normal convicts perhaps had a 'tolerable time', for they were encouraged to take to agriculture and other productive works, marry with the female inmates if both parties agreed and get their families from the mainland after their prison term was over. They were also given regular remissions from time to time.
After the mass convictions of the Malabar rebellion in 1922, they were offered the status of 'self-supporters' and encouraged to move to the islands with their families. Another two thousand Moplah rebels were also transferred to the islands, and the government even paid the passage money for their families. The government then invited applications for land grants, and some Anglo-Indian families took the plunge. However, as they had not worked on the land earlier, and were men of professions — station masters, police sergeants and wireless operators, the experiment was a failure. Another attempt was undertaken by the Salvation Army to rehabilitate 300 families of Bhantus (classified by the British as a criminal tribe). Thus in 1926, Salvation Army captain Edwin Sheard (known in India as Fauj Singh) settled them in Ferrargunj, Cadle Gunj and Anikhet. While the community became self-supporting in a few years' time, the conversion project was not quite successful, as only 66 of the 295 Bhantu adults had become Christians. In 1929, another 200 families of the so-called criminal tribe — the Karwals – were packed off to the Andamans.
Views expressed are personal