In the Indian territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Cellular Jail serves as a sombre reminder of British colonial authority in the Indian subcontinent. The British utilised this notorious and torturous colonial prison, which was located in a secluded archipelago, mostly to exile political prisoners from India. This jail, also known as Kala Pani (where Kala means death or time and Pani means water in Sanskrit), is located off the coast and has seen some of the most heinous punishments meted out to inmates. The most defining landmark of Port Blair the Andaman Islands, this heritage monument is a symbol of suffering and forbearing struggle for Indian Independence from British Rule, the amazing edifice stands is a silent tribute to the human spirits eternal quest for equality and freedom. Imminent liberation fighters like Batukeshwar Dutt and Veer Savarkar were detained in this prison during India’s struggle for independence. The jail is currently accessible to the public as a National Memorial, and its museum offers a look back at decades of India’s struggle for independence. The old saying was that if you came once to Kala Pani you never returned. Cut from the mainland by seas all around these virgin islands were an inescapable natural prison.
The foundation for this jail was laid in 1893, though the British utilised the Andaman Islands as a prison not long after the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (the Sepoy Mutiny). The outcome of what was regarded as India’s First War of Independence, however, favoured the British, who put an end to the uprising by killing many rebels and exiling the others to Andaman for all eternity. Hundreds of rebels were transported to the island, where they stayed in the care of Major James Pattison Walker, a military physician, and jailer David Barry. Inmates who attempted to escape the jail in March 1868 were apprehended in April, and 87 of them were executed. Increasing numbers of patriots who spoke out
against colonial rule were found guilty and deported here from British Controlled India and Burma.
The Andaman Islands were feared by the inmates, and since the islands were cut off from the mainland, they had no way to leave. The British used the island as a convenient location to punish the freedom fighters. In order to colonise Andaman for the British, the captives were shackled and forced to labour on the construction of buildings, prisons,
and harbour infrastructure. A higher security jail was required as a result of the increase in the Indian independence struggle in the late 19th century, which resulted in the sending of several inmates to Andaman. A. S. Lethbridge, a surgeon in the British administration, and Sir Charles James Lyall, the home secretary in the government of the
British Raj, proposed adding a “penal stage” to the transportation sentence handed to a prisoner so that the prisoner might participate in rehabilitation programmes. This led to the construction of the cellular jail, work of which commenced in 1896 and finished in 1906. It was here that some of the strongest voices of freedom were incarcerated by the British, perhaps it was because of the strict punishment and hostile environment across the mysterious waters that exile in the Andamans was called ‘sazai kala pani’ punishment to the Black Waters.
Dr Rashida Iqbal, the curator of the cellular jail tells that, “The basic idea behind the construction of the cellular jail was to make the penal character in initial confinement, more penal in nature, more difficult, more vigilant and disciplined.”
The Japanese drove the British out of the Andaman Islands in 1942 after overwhelming them there. At this time, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose travelled to the Andaman Islands. In 1945, after the “Second World War,” the British retook control of the islands.
The Cellular Jail was originally built with seven straight wings that were each connected to a tower in the middle, giving the entire structure the appearance of a bicycle wheel with each wing attached to the centre tower acting as a spoke. This design was inspired on English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon. Burmese bricks in the shade of puce were used to build the structure. The tower in the middle, which marked the confluence of all seven wings, acted as a watchtower for the jail’s guards to keep an eye on inmates. Its alarm system included a big bell. The three-story wings were built so that the front of one wing faced the back of the other and vice versa, preventing inmates in one wing from seeing or speaking with those in any of the others. Even the cells in a wing were lined up in a row, making it impossible for inmates in the same wing to interact or see one another. Because there was only one prisoner per cell, there was little ability for inmates to communicate with one another, isolating them from one another. The jail’s designation as “Cellular” comes from this feature of solitary confinement in private cells. There were 693 cells in total, each measuring 4.5 m by 2.7 m and equipped with a ventilator that was 3 m above the ground. In the jail, there were no dormitories.
When its inmates participated in hunger strikes in the early 1930s, the penitentiary gained notoriety. Mahavir Singh, a companion of Bhagat Singh in the freedom movement, went on a hunger strike to protest such inhumane treatment but passed away when officials attempted to force-feed him milk, which entered his lungs. His corpse was dumped
into the ocean. Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi’s influence in 1937–1938 led the government to decide to repatriate the independence fighters.