The trip to Kalapani used to begin from here and illustrious guests have included Subhash Chandra Bose,Jayalalithaa and Velupillai Prabhakaran. But having witnessed three centuries,the historic Madras Central Prison will now make way for the Chennai Metro Rail and an annexe of the Government General Hospital,taking with it a rich,if somewhat notorious,heritage.
Thousands have flocked to explore the dingy recesses of the prison ever since the State Prisons Department declared it open to visitors until it is demolished. As vendors mill about selling snacks and cigarettes,the morbidly curious have a field day. Digital cameras and cellphones click constantly,as men,women and children capture pictures of the cells that once held some of the most revered as well as the most feared personalities in the country.
A look at the jails diary since 1837 reads like a whos who of the famous and infamous. During the early days of the struggle for independence,it housed freedom fighters such as Subhash Chandra Bose and Veer Savarkar. Post-independence,when identity became an issue,Dravidian icon CN Annadurai was an inmate of this jail for leading the anti-Hindi imposition agitation.
For these leaders,perhaps,prison was a place of inspiration despite the physical confinement. It is said that Netaji used to demand the most expensive tea,not because he was a connoisseur but to make the British Government pay. Annadurai,who went on to become the first Chief Minister from a Dravidian party,famously said prison was a place to hone ones intellect.
More contemporarily,the jail housed Opposition leader J Jayalalithaa for one of the many corruption charges she faced soon after her maiden tenure as chief minister in 1991-96. During her second stint in 2001,she returned the favour,sending present Chief Minister M Karunanidhi in the jail for a fly-over construction scam charge. Sources said that she ensured that he was held in the same cell that she had been lodged in.
Among the international figures to cool their heels here was the ever-elusive LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran,who had been arrested for a shootout case in Chennai. Maoist leader of Nepal,Chandra Prakash Gajurel,was also confined within the dank walls of the prison for passport forgery.
Another notorious inmate was Auto Shankar,known as Tamil Nadus Charles Sobhraj,who was on death row for serial murders and rape. He scaled its tall walls and escaped,before being finally caught and executed.
The jail was first opened in 1837 as a transit camp to take prisoners to various Central Prisons,including the notorious Kalapani in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It was refurbished in 1855 and elevated to the status of a Central Prison that could house almost 1,500 prisoners. Decades later,when the independence struggle became intense,many freedom fighters found place inside the prison. The call for independence found its echo more in the Madras Presidency than elsewhere in the princely States. Many of those freedom fighters were arrested and lodged here; it is said a few of them died in custody, said DGP (Prisons) R Nataraj.
But as the number of inmates swelled,the authorities decided to construct a new prison outside the city. Their decision was also prompted by a riot in 1999,when a group of violent prisoners murdered jailor Jayakumar and warden Natarajan,throwing them alive into a fire. In all,16 people were killed during the incident,which began when an inmate died in custody. When the more modern Puzhal Prison Complex started functioning in 2006,the old jail was closed down.
As the jail approaches its final days,graffiti artists have left behind their own kind of eulogy,with messages such as Bad Boys 2009 and I love Central Jail adorning the walls. There are treasure hunters,too,trying to salvage scraps of history. The pages of what is left of the moth-eaten jail records are now coveted souvenirs,especially remnants from the pre- independence and Emergency eras.
Now,heritage lovers are hoping that the renewed public interest in the jail could be used to save the structure. After all,death is an irreversible sentence that should be awarded in the rarest of rare cases.