Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Shame : Andamans -2

I have often wondered what brought the British to the Andaman Islands. You don't decide on a whim to colonize something, smack in the middle of the ocean. But back in the days of the Opium trade with China, it is possible that these islands provided a berthing opportunity for British commercial ships moving around their colonies. And so, Andamans became part of the British empire.

Fond as they are of creating penal settlements in far flung islands, the British decided to have a jail built for all those considered enemies of the state. Natural resources on the islands were plenty, the wood was highly seasoned, and top class, and the "native prisoners" were considered appropriate labour for the purpose.

The Indian Rebellion of 1857, when the soldiers first rose against their British superiors, resulted in thousands of people being sent to hang, several hundreds blown through the mouths of cannons, and around 200 were banished to the Andamans for life. The uprisings continued , and it suited the British to keep transporting the prisoners. Not only were they prisoners, but they were considered cheap labour for constructing prisons, and were forced to work in chain gangs, under gun and bayonet happy British supervisors. You slogged to build your own prison, the harbour and the offices, as well as the rulers homes and offices. And the Cellular Jail in Port Blair, was started in 1896 and completed in 1906. This was one of the murkiest chapters during the rule of the British in India.

The Cellular Jail today holds no prisoners. But the various structures are witness to the atrocities committed on the prisoners. They were served low quality insufficient food, often given solitary confinement. Manual oil seed crushers normally powered by cattle, were installed and the prisoners made to run pushing the lever, with implausible targets of coconut oil to be produced everyday.

Failure to meet this resulted in whippings on racks, and worse abuse of the physical kind. Refusal to do anything meant inordinate mental and physical torture, often resulting in death and an ignominious end at sea. This punishment at the Andamans was considered the worst and was often referred to as Kala Pani or Black Water, signifying the traversing of the choppy black seas, never to return. One of Maharashtra's brilliant freedom fighters, Savarkar, was imprisoned there, along with hundreds of freedom fighters from all the states of India.

Those wishing to buy tickets for a wonderful Sound and Light show in the evening are supposed to get tickets around 5:15 pm. The lines started forming before 5 itself. Strangely, there was a pushy crowd of youths with currency notes at the locked counter door. People kept coming by with money, and passing these people notes. As usual, I was the last to find out what was happening. Along with some other ladies, I stood in line. And watched with growing horror as the crowd became unruly and pushy. Suddenly someone signalled to the ladies to form a separate line. And we promptly complied.

I looked around and spied the rules. There were no entry fees for the armed forces personnel and the disabled. For a jail, there certainly seemed to be a law and order problem developing here.

Suddenly , a fellow in an army Jawan's uniform comes by, breaks our line, and crosses over smilingly to the chaotic men's line. He uses his height to pass some money to someone and stands there like he owns the place.

And some angry neurons made their presence felt in my head.

"Excuse me, aap armywale hai ? (=are you army ?)" Me.

He looks at me and grins. No answer. My voice rises half an octave.

" You don't need tickets. Why are you here, and then , why not in the queue ?" Me. Then suddenly there is some pushing in the men's line, and some of them fall into our line. The army man still has no answer for me. The others are watching the fun. There are also some in the audience, being vastly entertained by this riveting episode of Old Lady vs the Army Jawan/Disobedient men.

Suddenly the ticket window in-charge appears. I ask him what this is all about. He says each of the guys can get ONLY 10 tickets. Officially. I can too, except we are 3. Something needs to be done.

Inspired, I suddenly feel taller than my 5' 5". In my best umbrella based-monsoon-bus-entry style, I hold out a hand with a huge purse , to stop some lawless desperate chaps on the left, from approaching the window, and the lady in front of me goes ahead towards the ticket window. Some guys yell at me in Tamil. I don't know what they say, but I warn them to behave, in Hindi. Lots of push-push-shove-shove.

All the Mumbai practice in trains and buses helps. The ladies behind me are supportive. Now they too have started yelling at the chaps.

"Is this the way they treat women in the islands ? Please move aside ." I look up at the stationary army man. He hasn't moved an inch. Maybe he is deaf. He is hell bent on buying tickets, possibly to sell them at a profit.

And then, sometimes, anger gives your voice a booming quality.

"Your rank and serial number please." Me doing my best imitation of God knows who. "I will report you to the C-in-C . " It is clear, that reading names and positions of fancy British bungalow occupants , while travelling in rickshaws across Port Blair, helps.

Its like thunder has struck. The man was never deaf. The army man slinks away. The path to the ticket window is now improved. But the fellows are wary. They let us ladies get our tickets, and I return, clutching mine, seeking some welcome fresh air, as I search for the worried family.

We go in and tour the barracks, see the amazing metal locks on each door that go through thick walls. The bare rooms, the high windows. If at all you managed, you just saw the open choppy grey sea. There were the gallows with rooms underground for the bodies to fall. We toured the oil seeds crushing set up, and tried to move the lever. We couldn't. And they were expected to run with it, and whipped if they didn't.

Some died from such sustained beatings, exhaustion and starvation. At one point the prisoners rebelled and went on a hunger strike to demand human level facilities.

Several prison staff would then be ordered to catch hold of and force feed the prisoner through a tube and he would often gag to death. There were whippings on the rack, as the sadistic supervisor watched from a special chair. The Savarkar Park outside the jail has statues of various prominent prisoners in fetters and hand cuffs who died like this, and sometimes went insane due to torture. The stories are inscribed in stone.

And this makes me think.

We just had a terrorist attack in Mumbai a year ago. A fellow was caught alive in action, in real time, and as befits a good democracy, was being given a court trial. The country provides him with a lawyer as per rules. In keeping with proper court procedure where there are always two sides to anything, he is questioned and asked.

This guy, Ajmal Kasab, demands Urdu newspapers, translators, fancy spicy food and cribs about the police. He tells lies in court complaining of his health. Makes a mockery of everything by claiming to be a star struck Pakistani, out to join Bollywood, and says he isn't who we think he is.

And the judge listens. Because the rules say that Ajmal gets to talk.

I am sure there is an element of coercion in all confessions, everywhere , across the world. Police tactics always play a part. They always have. But we are a democracy, and while most citizens must prove innocence at all times, Ajmal Kasab , the caught-on-film terrorist, is innocent until proven guilty. And the guy complains about torture, after gunning down innocents and patriotic officers, simply because someone fooled him into thinking this was the way to Paradise.

What a contrast.

Young freedom fighters, fired by a zeal, protesting against centuries of intolerant and cruel foreign rule, summarily banished to the Andamans on a life sentence, simply on a suspicion. Tortured, killed without reason on a whim, and thrown into the sea. No explanations. After making them slog for you. Building your facilities.

And a shameless, cunning, mind trained terrorist, exploiting the trappings of democracy, something his own country has been unable to achieve. His country became independent the same time we did, and was created by the British because it fitted in with their philosophy of divide and rule. Trials going on for a year, hundreds of witnesses examined. Special constructions outside the court for security reasons, all done by the government, as Ajmal Kasab lies in his room, smiling to himself.

History could have been different.

Freedom fighters escaping the gallows and avoiding being blown from the mouths of cannons, could have got a lengthy trial, with proper lawyers. After all, our laws are roughly based on British laws. (Neha ? comments ?). Some older parents would have seen their children again.

And Kasab , the terrorist, should have been sent to the Cellular Jail, and made to do the oil crushing and masonry work. After all, there doesn't appear to be a family waiting for him, or a country.

But such are the ironies of life.

At the end of the visit , I felt like apologizing to the souls of those killed at the Cellular Jail. They died horrible deaths, so we could be an independent nation one day.

More than 60 years of independence. Is it time to look at our laws once again ? Or do we continue to pamper the likes of Kasab, in the name of democracy ? While several innocents like Ruchika die young , because someone in power acted like the Cellular Jail bosses ?


  1. Those were different times indeed. Some of the occurances of that time send shivers through the spine !

    I am currently reading 'Vishnu's crowded temple' and some of the accounts there just make you want to cringe at the politicians that we have now !

    I am so glad that you stood up to the folks over there ! As you usually do ! :) The Mumbai training helps big time !!!!!

    Great to hear ! Thanks for sharing !

  2. I was so absorbed that did not realise that I was crying while reading this until a drop fell on the keyboard. I could completely relate to all your feelings and thoughts here.
    I guess we should send every elected representative on an all paid trip to Andamans. Movies should be shown of the price at which our independence has been gain and of the tales of sacrifices. That might make them pause a little before swindling public money or using their power for selfish ends.

  3. Have recently added your blog to my blog roll!
    Very thought provoking post. It took 13 years to bring justice to the victims of the bomb-blasts, no one knows if the july blasts victims will get any - there is no news of any trial on! Mumbai terror attack victims too will have to wait a decade where the murderer is being well fed at our expense!

  4. Hmm.. really history was different and so were the people !

    Law was always sleepy and it still is...

    I liked the bravery act that you conducted...it really needs the guts to also what we think and say !

  5. Nice lesson on history. And a really nice lesson you taught those insufferable worse-than-British officials.

  6. A wonderful sequal to the first post about your trip to the Andamans!

    The political prisoners imprisoned there bore so much suffering so that we could obtain independence. This fact has been forgotten by our politicians today.

    I remember how Mani Shankar Aiyar declared Veer Savarkar a traitor and has the plaque bearing his name taken down at the Cellular Jail.



  7. Thank you everyone for your insightful comments...

  8. Shame indeed!!
    The "India" that those freedom fighters had envisioned so passionalely never came into being.

    " At the end of the visit , I felt like apologizing to the souls of those killed at the Cellular Jail. They died horrible deaths, so we could be an independent nation one day."

    So did I!!!

  9. Shame indeed!!
    The "India" that those freedom fighters had envisioned so passionalely never came into being.

    " At the end of the visit , I felt like apologizing to the souls of those killed at the Cellular Jail. They died horrible deaths, so we could be an independent nation one day."

    So did I!!!