The dark secret of Dagshai
Malvika K. Singh

The little-known cantonment town has a cellular jail and museum where Gandhi spent a night

The main entrance of Dagshai cellular jail The Andaman Islands may house the most popular cellular jail in India but there is a second lesser-known cellular jail in North India. Sixty km from Chandigarh, the Dagshai cellular jail is situated in the little-known and hardly visited cantonment town of Dagshai.

The building and adjoining areas were used as a storage yard until it was identified. After it was cleaned up with the help of the Army, a well-designed and strongly built structure emerged. It needed little or no repairs and the spruced-up building has been converted into a museum.

The Dagshai jail was constructed in 1849 at a cost of Rs 72,873. It has 54 maximum security cells. These cells are 8'x12' with 20-foot high ceilings and heavily barricaded windows and doors.

Of the 54 cells, 16 were for solitary confinement. These cells had no ventilation and no access to natural light. These were for prisoners guilty of severe indiscipline, who were subjected to harsh punishment.

There was one cell for those who were to be meted out exceptionally harsh punishment for daring the British Empire.

A view of the prison cells.
A view of the prison cells. Photos by the writer

This special cell has two doors which are barely three feet apart. The prisoner was made to stand against one door and the front door was closed. The prisoner could only stand and being sandwiched between steel grills made the movement very restricted.

The records of the jail were kept immaculately and other than the building itself, its history which makes it a unique museum. It houses an interesting collection of archival photographs relating to the history of the occupants.

The first important residents of the jail came in 1857. These were Gorkha soldiers of the Nasiri Regiment who had revolted against the British during the uprising. They were incarcerated in the Dagshai jail.

In 1914, a wealthy Sikh, Baba Gurdit Singh from Singapore, chartered a Japanese ship, Komagatamaru, to take some 350 Sikhs to Canada. They were all ex-Army men seeking re-settlement in British-ruled Canada. They were refused disembarkation. The ship had to return to Calcutta where 20 "ring leaders" were arrested on arrival and sent to the Dagshai jail. Four of them were hanged.

On May 13, 1915, the Sikh soldiers of 23 Risala (Cavalry) were being shipped from Nagaon Cantonment in Uttar Pradesh to the war front. At the railway station a piece of luggage belonging to Dafedar Wadhawa Singh fell down and a grenade kept in it exploded. When other bags were searched more grenades were found. He, along with others, was arrested and their links to the Ghadar Party were discovered. All soldiers of the regiment were arrested and a court marshal was held in Dagshai. Twelve were sentenced to death and executed by a firing squad.

In 1920, the Irish Catholic soldiers of the 1st Battalion of the Connaught Rangers mutinied against their officers. The mutineers were brought to the Dagshai jail, including their leader, James Daly.

On the morning of November 2, 1920, 22-year-old Private James Daly was led out into the prison yard and was executed by a firing squad.

"It is all for Ireland. I am not afraid to die!" he wrote in his last letter to his mother. Apart from dying for his country, Daly also made history by becoming the last member of the British army to be executed for a military offence.

He was buried at the Dagshai Cemetery until 1970, when his remains were repatriated to Ireland and given a funeral with full military honours.

His sympathies with Irish soldiers prompted Mahatama Gandhi to rush to Dagshai and make an assessment. Gandhi was a friend and admirer of the Irish leader Eamon de Valera. The Indian Independence movement took inspiration from the Irish struggle against British rule. The visit of the Mahatama to Dagshai was not liked by Winston Churchill, who was the Defence Secretary. Hence, the strong action against the Irish mutineers was taken to set an example for any Indians who were so inclined.

To provide moral support and show his solidarity to the Irish cause, Gandhiji voluntarily spent a night in the jail.

Though the British-kept records are accurate, the Indian records are a bit hazy. There are unconfirmed reports that Nathuram Godse, too, spent some time in the Dagshai jail.

He was being transferred from Delhi to Simla to face the judges at the High Court. His transfer records show that he was kept in a jail "near Solan". In 1949, there was no jail in Solan and "near Solan" may mean Dagshai.

Possibly the "hazy" record is on purpose for security reasons. Godse did have de-tractors who would have gladly taken the law into their own hands.

Godse was sentenced to death by hanging on November 8, 1949, and was executed in the Ambala jail on November 15, 1949.

The museum has been established with the help of the Brigade Commander of the area and Himachal Tourism Department. Dr Anand Sethi, an international banker and a local resident, who is the curator, has contributed some of the exhibits.