Over the Choppy Sea to the Andaman Archipelago
Every year, our small group of veterans and ladies meet up and travel mostly to places where we were not posted during the service. Selection of destinations is also guided by the importance of natural beauty and its historic significance. For the year 2018 the chosen destination was Andaman & Nicobar Islands. This time around it was a small group of two couples, Brig Prakash Shivpuri (Retd,) Mrs Veena Shivpuri, Col Rama Krishna Jadhav (Retd), Mrs Savita Jadhav and the single me. Both the veterans had been my commanding officers and being the youngest, I was unanimously tasked to be the co-ordinator for the trip. In military parlance appointed as the Adjutantonce again, four decades down the line. I was overcome by a sense of de-ja-vu albeit with much leg pulling and humour this time. Shivpuris from Jaipur, Jadhavs from Belgaum and I from Siliguri, decided to fly in and rendezvous in Port Blaire on 6thand 7thof December 2018. So it was, the plan was set and we flew in. We were luckily able to connect with our military friends at Port Blaire who provided us with accommodation as also organised a comfortable and reliable taxi service for the period of stay.
Flying at about 25000 feet over the deep, dark and wavy waters of the Bay of Bengal towards Andaman Sea, the plane approached a string of 500 plus islands of dense tropical jungle ringed by pearly white beaches. As per ancient Hindu scriptures, the name Andaman, is believed to have been taken from Lord Hanuman, who was called Handuman by the Malay people. On the other hand, Nicobar is a distorted version of the Tamil word, Nakkavaram,meaning the land of the naked people. This explanation was found in the Tanjore inscription of circa 1050.
After takeoff from Netaji Subash Chandra Airport, Kolkata at 1220 hours on 6thDec 2018 the Spice jet soon nosed due south towards the Andaman archipelago located half way to Myanmar with its southernmost tip almost touching Sumatra. A little over two hours of flying, when the pilot announced that we were approaching Port Blaire, I looked down through the double glass window. Far below, in the middle of the sea, I saw a string of islands in an elongated form as if stretching out to connect the mainland India to Myanmar. The thick, dark green and seemingly impenetrable canopy of the islands was ringed by shiny white beaches that looked like pearl necklaces from the sky. A hovering eagle with its penetrating laser like eyes scanning the beaches would sees abundant sea food along the shores of the islands. The shining beaches gently sloped down from the circumference of green jungle to meet up with the blue sea that sent its choppy waves towards the shore at clockwork regular intervals. Inside the rings of pearl white beaches were the impenetrable labyrinthine mazes of thick tropical jungles, which, I was sure were concealing multitude of life forms, hostile and not so hostile. It seems these islands have history as ancient as the history of the world, both in terms of geographic evolution and anthropological habitation. The archipelago looked very beautiful, serene and peaceful from the sky – a perfect façade that hid the violent and murky past which its sands and trees had witnessed not so long ago. In the run-up to the visit, my quest to know more about the chosen destination got me to browse relevant books and the internet that revealed some interesting facts. The archipelago has 572 islands covering an area of 8,249 square kms of which just about 38 are permanently inhabited. The Island group is approximately 150 km North of Indonesia where the Andaman Sea separates the archipelago from Thailand and Myanmar. The island group primarily comprises of two island sub groups, the Andaman Islands tothe North and the Nicobar to the south separated by about 179 km of sea. In terms of distance by sea, Port Blaire, the capital is 1255 km from Kolkata, 1490 km from Chennai and 1200 km from Vizagapatam. Out of the total area of 8249 square kilometres, the recorded forest area is 7171 square kilometres with an additional 671 square kilometres of mangrove forests that lie on the periphery; an incredible forest cover of over 95%. 3279 kilometres of the land mass is exclusively reserved for the tribal people. The state tree is Andaman Padauk or Andaman Red wood that reaches a height of approximately 30 to 50 meters and a diameter of 1.5 to 2 meters. The state flower is Andaman Pyinma which is locally called Jarul or Pabda. It is flowering tree about 10-20 meters in height that gives beautiful violet flowers almost like the rhododendrons of the Himalayan foothills. The tropical jungle is teeming with avian life but the state bird is the Andaman Wood Pigeon that thrives in the deep forests. Although there is an array of animals in the Andaman Nicobar jungles, not surprisingly, the state animal is the endangered sea cow called Dugong.It is a 300 kg gentle marine mammal that looks as if it is from Seal family and lives on sea grasses found in the sea bed.
Anthropologically, the Andaman Islands are home to the Sentinelese people, besides few other indigenous people, the only human beings on earth who are not supposed to have developed beyond the Palaeolithic level. They are thought to have directly descended from the first human populations to emerge from Africa, and have probably lived in the Andaman Islands for the last 60,000 years. These pre historic people live in North Sentinel Island, located east of Port Blair and their population is approximately 100. Recently they were in the news the world over for killing an American missionary who stealthily tried to approach them in-spite of government prohibition. It is believed that the 26 years old Chinese American wanted to bring these primitive people into the fold of Christianity. TN Pandit, a renowned anthropologist, who had taken several exploratory missions to the North Sentinel Island, explains in no uncertain terms, The Sentinelese is a unique community, no government exists there and they have lived off the island for at least 2000 years. The Greek astronomer, Ptolemy had also mentioned in his writings about the Island of Cannibals somewhere in the Bay of Bengal. The famous traveller, Marco Polo, had in circa 1290, described the people of the islands as brutish and savage, who would kill and eat any foreigner who happens to set foot there. Upon occupation of the islands the British did manage to subdue most tribes but the Jarawas retreated deep into the jungle and fought for their survival. However, now, the Jarawas are slowly communicating with the outside world, such as making use of the health centres set up by the government and reluctantly mixing with outside people. On the other hand, the Sentinelese people have been able to stay behind the natural defence of dangerous coral reefs that are extremely difficult to approach. Sadly, the dwindling population of these original inhabitants was recorded to be just 100 in Feb 2014. As per this record, the population of other indigenous people is no better, where in the Andamanese are just 57, Onges are 112 and Jarawas are slightly improved figure of 425. For the remaining two tribes of Nicobarese and Shompens, a 2011 census has recorded a population of 27686 and 219 respectively. So far the government of India has not gone all out to bring them into the main stream of the so-called civilised world and that is a blessing. The best way to help this vanishing race is to leave them alone.
The airliner landed at Veer Savarkar International Airport smoothly, wheeled in and came to rest opposite the small airport building. The doors opened for the typically impatient Indian passengers jostling for space to exit before the one ahead! When my turn came to step out of the aircraft I felt the thick and humid tropical air hit me square on the face. Setting foot on the soil of the island was like walking into a steamy ecosystem through an invisible door. I felt the pores of my body opening up to let droplets of perspiration trickle out to the surface of not so brown skin. Coming as I was from the winter of the Himalayan Foothills to the tropical island with a temperature of 31 degree Celsius and 80% humidity, it was like entering an alien world of another time and space. December being the ideal time to visit the islands, the arrival lounge was full of freshly arrived tourists from mainland India and a few from the West and Far East.
Immediately after my flight another flight landed and I did not have to wait much to see Col & Mrs Jadhav entering the arrival lounge. Wheeling the small suitcase and shouldering the backpack I walked out of the exit gate to face the usual line of drivers holding placards to receive their passengers. As we stepped out of the exit gate, much to my relief, there was this smiling pleasant looking young man holding my name board. Guided by Pramod, we got into the Xylo SUV and the amiable driver expertly negotiated out of the crowded airport traffic. The vehicle tore through the streets of Port Blair and we soon found ourselves climbing a narrow and wavy road as it passed through small houses and shops as also hotels, resorts and lodges along the way. I noticed the reddish soil while the foliage all around was typically tropical, huge trees with dark green leaves, something like what I had observed while travelling by land from Singapore to Malaysia. Breathing the tropical island air through the open windows I could feel the humidity of high temperature environment on the skin. Upon reaching the officer’s mess building located in the middle of the forested area and adjacent to a beach, we were received and shown to our rooms which would be our base for the next 7 days.
The room was comfortable with an AC and well furnished with basic amenities such as a double bed, study table, chairs, an open cupboard and a shoe rack. The room also had a small flat wall TV but I never watch TV, while travelling or otherwise, and used the TV power socket to charge my cell phone and power bank. Having travelled from Fort William Kolkata after an early but hearty breakfast I decided to skip that unreasonably priced lunch on board. I was hungry by the time we settled in our rooms since it was past lunch time, I requested the mess for a double omelette and two slices of bread with butter. I did not have to wait for too long and wolfed down the hot snack washing it down with hot cup of instant coffee. The impromptu emergency meal filled me up nice and proper and I was ready to take on the tropical jungle and beaches of the Andaman Islands. Early morning the next day, as a good adjutant, I took the hired cab to the airport to receive Brig & Mrs Shivpuri who had flown in from Jaipur. We had decided to commence our island exploration the same afternoon starting with the Cellular jail which was about 40 minutes’ drive from Port Blaire. Waiting for the gang to rendezvous at the mess lawns, I was walking around the mess garden when I noticed a strange nest of a bird on a mango tree. Unlike any other bird’s nest I had chanced upon earlier, this one was woven out of mango leaves that were curled up into a cylindrical shape. The leaves had dried up giving the nest a unique reddish-brown colour. This was a harbinger of the shape of things to come our way on the island.
Kala Pani, the Infamous Cellular Jail
Located within the capital Port Blaire, our first port of call on 7thDec afternoon was the Cellular Jail built by the British occupiers to primarily incarcerate the freedom fighters of India during the early 19thcentury. Our SUV drove through a network of roads meandering through sparsely built up areas and the seafront through a mild traffic. The city was small with smaller buildings and I did not notice high rise buildings or sprawling downtown areas. Finally the SUV brought us in front of a long monolithic, elongated two storey building with two prominent towers as the centre piece. Pramod, the driver told us that it was the front side and main administrative building of the Cellular Jail. The entire first floor facing the outer world had a long veranda with a light blue painted wooden railing running across the length of the building. The ground floor had small, also blue coloured wooden windows on its stone walls. At the centre of the building, between the two towers was a floor to ceiling heavy cast iron grill gate that was flanked by a window on each side. We bought the entry tickets at a counter towards the left side of the building and approached the grill gate. The security guards checked the tickets; head counted and waved us into what I had only heard as the Kala Pani(Black Waters) Jail. By the looks of it I visualised that this very gate, the front portal of the jail, would have been the original gate through which it was easy to get in for the prisoners but extremely difficult to get out. It was the same gate through which thousands of doomed prisoners had entered this notorious jail, many never to come out, many to be hanged in the gallows inside, some to die of lashings, some to die of hard labour and many to die of hunger, malnutrition and sickness. Few who dared and managed to escape with the intention to reach Burma, had died either in the impenetrable tropical jungle or killed by the jungle tribes while others were caught or returned back to face more torture, trial and death in the gallows. As a student of 2ndWW history, I did not see much difference between the fate of the prisoners in this jail and that of the Jews in Nazi concentration camps such as Auschwitz or Treblinka. Entering the main gate, we passed an old wizened tree. Adjacent to it was a circular memorial with a burning flame that symbolically keeps memories of the martyred prisoners alive to this day. As we moved forward into the compound the first thing that greeted us was the triangular vastness of the arena flanked by two main buildings of the cellular jail that converged eventually to a watch tower. The triangular area in between housed a red tiled platform in the centre and a long barrack like structure at the base of the jail building towards the right. Our first sight was a statuette of a dark skinned naked man wearing only a white loin cloth and tied, spread-eagled to an easel like wooden stand. There were ugly blood lashing marks on his back that depicted oozing blood from numerous whip-lashings. It seems the artist had done a good job as I could see the painful face of the man looking upward and crying in agony as if asking God to save him or liberate his soul from the cruel British. This was only a small symbol of the torture and extreme cruelty meted out to the Indian prisoners by the British colonisers who had sailed from a far away land and entered India in the name of trade and commerce.
The angularly designed prison buildings made an angle of about 30 degree converging at the watch tower further away. We moved on closer to the jail building, climbed the narrow stone stairs and stepped into the long veranda of the first floor that housed multiple solitary cells. These buildings and the cells were designed in such a manner that no prisoner could see another inmate within the same building or in the opposite building. The cells were arranged next to each other along a long corridor while every building faced the back side of the front building that had no windows but only covered ventilation through which nothing was visible. In other words, it was a solitary confinement for every prisoner. We walked along the long and cold stone veranda checked some cells and ran our hands over the strong cast iron bar grills only to visualise the agony of the long-gone prisoners. The grill doors were bolted and locked through a hole in the wall which the prisoners could not see. We learnt that initially there were 7 such buildings, all shooting off from the single watch tower just like the 7 spokes of a wheel. Each building formed an acute angle with the adjacent one at the watch tower. The cells are 13.5 feet long and 7.5 feet wide with a small grilled ventilator on the back wall, 9 feet above the floor, so as to let in natural light inside. In the entire jail building there was no toilet. Prisoners were allowed to visit the toilets before they were shut for the night at 6 pm, only to be let out of their cells at 6 am the next morning. I could not imagine how the prisoners would have spent 12 hours without visiting the lavatory. Many would have been sick and suffering from stomach ailments necessitating urgent visits to the toilet. It was British cruelty at its best.
It was an eerie and cold feeling when I entered the corner cell on the third floor where Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (Veer Savarkar) was condemned to 10 years of solitary confinement. I could see that Veer Savarkar had to pass through the first grill door at the end of the corridor that led to a small enclosure from where he had to get into to this cell through the regular grill door. There was a low cemented platform for a bed, an old blanket and an earthen pitcher of water for the prisoner. It was a high security cell to keep the famous freedom fighter in solitary confinement. There is a photograph of Savarkar in chain fetters with iron rings around the neck, waist and two ankles. While in the Jail, in spite of massive torture, indignities and meagre ration he wrote a book, Hindutva, which explained the concept of political and cultural identification and unification of all Hindus. The book was smuggled out and published by his supporters. This masterpiece was to inspire many Hindus to come together for the cause of freedom. Savarkar regularly spent time teaching other inmates to read and write as also forced the British government to open a small library in the jail.
In all, there were 696 cells in 7 buildings. Some buildings were destroyed during the Second World War while few more had been demolished by the Japanese when they occupied the island after capturing it. Thereafter, the Indian Government further demolished few more buildings to make room for a government hospital that stands adjacent to the jail, keeping only two buildings as a heritage site.
We moved up the wooden staircase of the watch tower to get to the top and take a look around. The tower was narrow as most towers are and there were marble plaques embedded on the tower wall memorialising the names of the prisoners incarcerated in the jail from early nineteenth century up to the time of independence of the country. After taking a few pictures, we climbed down and walked into a ground level shed attached to the jail building. It was a refurbished replica of the original workshop that had a red tiled roof, cemented floor, cross grilled walls and compartments for different types of hard labour for the prisoners. Portraying the history of torture, were life size statues of prisoners at forced labour or undergoing punishments. There were also statues of prisoners in chains and rod fetters connected to the iron rings on their legs and waist in order to restrict their movements. The worst of the forced labour, as depicted, was the grinding of an oil machine. The unfortunate prisoners were yoked to the handle of the heavy cast iron grinder and lashed to push it throughout the day in order to extract oil from coconuts. It was the most difficult hard labour and many had died undergoing this torturous work. It is written on the explanatory board placed nearby that a prisoner who could not push the handle anymore was tied to the handle and dragged while another one was made to push it. This labour was specially reserved for the political prisoners. Quite a few of them died in harness and this extreme cruelty triggered strikes in the jail, drawing yet more ire of the British keepers.
History of the Cellular Jail
Although exact dates are not available, it is generally believed that it took 10 years to build the jail commencing in 1896 and finishing by 1906. The British colonisers seemed to be in a hurry to use the jail as they started deporting a few prisoners as early as 1897 when the jail was still under construction with only few cells ready. The labour force for construction was initially 600 ordinary convict labourers collected from all parts of Andaman & Nicobar Islands. For the raw material these convict labourers were pushed to hammer out 20,000 cubic feet of stone chips while corals were dug out from the sea and burnt to obtain lime to be used for the mortar. As much as 30, 00,000 bricks were prepared on the island while 80,000 bricks and other building materials were shipped from Burma, now Myanmar. When the jail got ready with all the seven wings, it looked like a star fish in a bird’s view. The colonisers had primarily designed the jail to incarcerate prisoners condemned after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. After suppressing the rebellion the British executed many soldiers of the mutiny and exiled the remaining for life in this jail, also infamously known as Kala Pani, (Black Water) taking its name from the hostile and dark waters of Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea through which escape is next to impossible.
Initially a batch of 200 soldiers connected with the mutiny was transported to the island which was followed by a second batch of 733 brought from Karachi jail in April 1868. As a smoke screen for the rest of the world, the colonisers called the cellular jail a welfare institution by naming it Andamanese Home which actually was a repressive institution in the guise of a charitable establishment. As the jail grew in size and capacity, more prisoners were shipped in from mainland India and Burma. The British also brought prisoners from the Mughal Royal families and people who had been in communication with the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafarin connection with the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. By late 19thCentury as the Indian freedom struggle started snowballing towards a bigger movement, a pressing need was felt for a large high security prison. As such the final construction had 7 wings with 696 cells to imprison the freedom fighters.
It may not have dawned on the British or even the world at large, but just when the British 11thArmoured Division was liberating the Bergen-Belsen Nazi Concentration Camp on15th April 1945 as part of Allied victory over Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the same British colonisers were running an equally notorious concentration camp at this cellular jail. It was a case of British double standards at its best. This Jail was primarily meant to imprison Indian freedom fighters or the rebellious political workers fighting overtly or covertly for India’s independence from British occupation. The colonial government labelled freedom fighters as the enemy of the British Empire and deported them to this hell hole between circa 1909 and 1938. Among the first batch were those convicted in the Alipore bomb blast case, such as Barindra Kumar Ghosh, brother of Rishi Aurobindo Ghosh, Upendra Nath Bandhopadhyay, Hemchandra Kanungo Das, Ullaskar Dutta, Sudhir Kumar Sarkar, Abinash Chandra Bhattacharya, Birendra Chandra Sen and many more. In circa 1911 the famous freedom fighter from Maharashtra, Vinyak Damodar Savarkar nicknamed Veer Savarkarand his elder brother, Ganesh Damodar Savarkar were imprisoned in this jail. Not surprisingly, because of solitary confinements in different wings, the two Savarkar brothers did not know of each other’s presence in the same jail for two years. These brave men who fought to free India from British colonisers at the risk of their lives and limbs were to confront the notorious British jailor, David Berry. This monster of a man used barbaric methods to suppress the prisoners such as torture by flogging on the triangular frame, iron chain fetters, cross bar fetters, neck, ankle and waist iron ring shackles, hard labour, gunny bag uniform, continuous vile abuse with the additional torment of meagre dosages of poor quality food coupled with pathetic standards of sanitation. Veer Savarkar later recalled the arrogant and cruel address of the Jailor Berry to the prisoners as they arrived, quote, “Listen ye prisoners, in the universe there is one God and he lives in heaven above but in Port Blair there are two, one is the God of heaven and the second is the God of the Earth that is myself. The God of Heaven will reward you when you go above but this God of Port Blaire will reward you here and now, so ye prisoners behave well. You may complain to anybody, but my word shall prevail; I hold my own”. Due to the utmost agony of hard and impossible labour, whenever the prisoners went on a hunger strike, they were forced fed with rubber pipes inserted through their nose. In three cases the pipes were pushed into the lungs and milk was forced through them. Resultantly the prisoners died of suffocation while few died later suffering from pneumonia. Another prisoner was put to hard labour and beaten up so badly that he went insane and died in a mental hospital years later. It was in May 1933 when 33 prisoners took to a hunger strike in protest against cruel and inhuman treatment by the jail authorities. During this hunger strike Mahavir Singh, an associate of Bhagat Singhin the Lahore conspiracy case, Mohan Kishore Namadasand Mohit Moitra, both convicted in Arms Act Case, died due to force-feeding.
Moving around the jail complex, we also saw a well-kept gallery of photographs documenting the arrival of prisoners in the jail. The photographs were a poignant exhibition of their arrival by ship from mainland India and entry into the jail across the high security grilled Iron Gate flanked by the two imposing watch towers. They were herded like cattle into the courtyard to stand for hours listening to the cruel jailor’s address in the first roll call. We moved on slowly, examining the triangular courtyard, and entered the first wing building. We climbed up the cold cemented stairs to the first floor, walked along the long cemented corridor and entered few cells checking the strong grill doors and the locking system. My ears were ringing to a vivid visualisation of the sound of the fetters as the doomed and undernourished prisoners trudged into and out of their cells in silence. They were as much human as their captors; they had their families back home, parents, wives, children waiting for them to come back into their arms. Only few would have got back to their homes while many were killed in the gallows by hanging or by extreme torture or had died of sickness and malnutrition. The place was no better than a Nazi concentration camp. Jolted back to the present, I noticed that the jail premises, the watch tower and cells were impeccably clean and well maintained perhaps because the Jail was a big tourist attraction now.
Later that evening, while witnessing the Sound & Light show of the jail, the voice over of Savarkar boomed through the premises telling of the Jailor, “Mr Barry, you may have the power over my body but my soul belongs to me and you have no power over it”. Savarkar’s name is famous all over India and the world. A life size painting of this great revolutionary was installed in the Indian Parliament House in 2013. He was a radical young man inspired by freedom fighters and political leaders such as Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and Bipin Chandra Pal. He graduated from Fergusson Collegein Pune and joined Gray’s Inn law Collegein London on scholarship. As a student, Veer Savarkar took no time to plunge into the freedom movement as he formed the Free India Society, which encouraged Indians to fight for freedom of the country. Believing in guerrilla warfare and revolt on the lines of 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, he wrote a book, History of the War of Indian Independencethat inspired many Indians to fight for freedom. Though the book was banned by the British, it attained great circulation and popularity in many countries. Savarkar also printed a manual on making bombs and guidelines for waging guerrilla warfare that received a wide underground distribution. In circa 1909, Savarkar stated that he would provide full legal defense to his friend Madan Lal Dhingra, who was accused of assassinating a British Indian army officer, William Hutt Curzon Wyllie in London. In the meantime, back in India, Vinayak’s elder brother, Ganesh Savarkar had organised a protest against Minto-Morley Reforms Act. Vinayak was accused of plotting the protest and was arrested in a hiding place in Paris. Daring as he was, while being transported to India by ship, Veer Savarkar jumped into the ocean and swam to the French shore. Unfortunately, French Police arrested and handed him over to British. In a one-sided trial Veer Savarkar was sentenced to 50 years imprisonment and transported to the cellular jail where he was confined for 10 long years. He was transported back to Indian mainland in 1921 and imprisoned in a jail in Nasik. In 1937 when 7 states came under the Congress ministry, he was finally set free. Immediately thereafter he became the president of Hindu Mahasabha. A self-declared atheist, Savarkar’s political philosophy was based on humanism, rationalism, universalism, positivism, utilitarianism and realism. He was against untouchability and caste discrimination, the greatest evils of Indian society. He authored many books most of which were stimulated by his 10 years of imprisonment in the Cellular Jail. Surprisingly, he believed that one should be allowed to end his life after attaining the main objectives one set out to achieve; he fasted unto death and died on 26 Feb 1966 in his Bombay residence.
The sound and light show that evening was a brief but realistic peek into the sordid life of prisoners during their fateful days in the jail. The eye witness to the repugnant affairs was a speaking tree in the courtyard of the jail that had seen everything, every shriek and agony of flogging, clanking of prisoner’s chains as they passed under its shade, the hanging in the gallows just 50 meters away and the booming voices of the jailor and lashings of prisoners by his henchmen. The visit opened our eyes to the extreme hardships, torture and even death that our freedom fighters endured so that India could be free. The word Kaala Pani(Black Water) vividly captures the essence of what lay in store for the prisoners most of whom never returned to their families and the warmth of their homes and loved ones. Finally, the audience rose to sing the National Anthem in tune with the sound and light audio. It was an emotional journey for each of the 300 plus spectators as they went into pin-drop silence with tears in their eyes and a heavy lump in the throat. That said it all. Never again should any human being experience such a torturous life anywhere in the world. The lesson for every Indian should be to never ever forget the indomitable spirit, the struggle and sacrifice of those who fought for the freedom of our motherland.