Andaman recaptured
R. L. Singal

The Heroes of Cellular Jail S. N. Aggarwal. Rupa. Pages 352. Rs 595.

This book is a graphic, but ruthless account of the tortures and humiliation meted out to India’s great revolutionary freedom fighters, who underwent indescribable privations so that their nation might live a life of honour and dignity. The Cellular Jail in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, notoriously known as Kala Pani, was the most dreaded prison; only the most "dangerous" political prisoners were sent there, so that the others following in their footsteps could be forewarned of the tortures awaiting them in this forsaken Archipelago, at least a thousand miles from the mainland India, in the Bay of Bengal. This is a group of 321 islands, stretching over 700 km and 8,249 sq km.

The Government of Bengal asked Henry Hopkins, Commissioner of Arakon, to submit a report on the outrages committed by the inhabitants of these Islands on the shipwrecked seamen and the measures that should be taken for protecting British subjects. On February 8, 1856, Hopkins submitted his report and recommended that the British should raise settlements there.

Soon after, the War of 1857 broke out. Cruel and heartless Dr James Pattison Valker was made the first superintendent of the settlement. His brief was to break the convicts’ spirit of rebellion. The convicts were forced to clear jungles and given only one anna and nine pence for food, clothing and other necessities in Kala Pani (black water), which meant that they’d be subjected to cruelty till death.

Though innumerable heroes of the freedom struggle suffered all sorts of tortures from hard labour and flogging to starvation in Kala Pani, a few names are indelibly etched in our memory. The most important name is that of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and his equally valorous brother, Ganesh Damodar Savarkar from Maharshastra. Savarkar was not only allotted the excruciating work of rope making, but also yoked into milking oil like a bullock. He was forced to produce 10 pounds of mustard oil or 30 pounds of coconut oil every day, a large amount for anyone.

Savarkar wrote a near-epic on the walls of his solitary cell, giving an account of the tortures that the prisoners suffered: "`85 in an hour our limbs were almost paralysed`85 when we all got down at 10 o’ clock to take our meals`85 our hands were bruised, our brains shattered." The torture of working on the oil-milk, the wretched punishment that followed and the pitiable conditions of the political prisoners have all been described by Savarkar in his book, The Story of My Transportation For Life. The British were determined to break their spirits.

They who talk disparagingly of Savarkar today have hardly any inkling of the indomitable spirit he had. Such commentators are not only ignorant fools but also cowards and unpatriotic rogues. Veer Savarkar narrates the woes of his fellow inmates: "Out of a hundred, only one with a callous body could barely complete his daily chore of milking thirty pounds of coconut oil. The rest took two days, at the least, to crush so much oil out of dried coconut. The simpletons, the inexperienced and the honest were the greatest sufferers`85 when they poured out before him the oil he had crushed from the substance, they all went back to their cells with tears in their eyes and groaning with pain. I see their weeping faces even today."

Abdullah Mohiuddin, Syed Manlvi Alauddin, Jumma Khan, Dadabhai Prabhudas, Fakira Ganesh Maharaj, Bhikaji Ganesh Gokhale, Loney Singh, Mirza Wilayat Khan, Niaz Mohd. Khan, Khushal Govind Patel, Narayan Shinde, Raghu Tendulkar, Abadul Gaffur, Jodh Singh, Sher Ali, Abinash Chandra Bhattacharjee, Bhupendra Nath Gosh, Nadir Ali Shah, Prithvi Singh Azad, Udham Singh, Wasakha Sind, Bibhuti Bhushan Bannerjee, Khudi Ram Bhattacharjee, Bankim Chander Chakraborty, Bimal Kumar Dasgupta, Siraj-ul-Haq: men of almost all communities and regions of India participated in this valorous struggle.

Justice B. N. Aggarwal, the author, has done a commendable job collecting the material. He has revealed vividly to the misled present generation and prejudiced politicians the great sacrifices made by our valorous forefathers so that our nation could live on liberated.