Adolf Hitler had expressed his strong admiration for the British Emperor’s supremacy in colonising large parts of the world to make Britain an “Empire where the sun never sets”. In planning to establish the colonial empire of the Greater Germanic Reich of the German Nation, he hoped that Germany would emulate the “ruthlessness” of the British and their “absence of moral scruples”. I better understood Hitler’s appreciation very recently while visiting the Cellular Jail in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It’s known as Kala Paani (black water) for the mental and physical nadir that Indian political prisoners were jettisoned into when exiled to darkness here.
Aside from other problems, the immediate trigger for India’s 1857 First War of Independence was the tallow grease cartridge for the new pattern 1853 Enfield rifle, in which Indian soldiers had to bite the cartridge to release the powder. The grease used was rumoured to be beef tallow (that offended Hindus) and lard derived from pork (that was offensive to Muslims). It could be argued that as there were 3,00,000 Indian sepoys — numerically higher than the British army of 50,000 soldiers — the British could quell this revolt only with the severe punishment of solitary confinement in Kala Paani. Although the prison was constructed between 1896 and 1906, revolting soldiers had been packed off to this penal colony since 1789.
The political prisoners who opposed the British with violence throughout India’s freedom struggle suffered life imprisonment at the Cellular Jail. They suffered degrading conditions, compounded by torturous hard labour. Many were sent to the gallows. Others died of disease, starvation, or committed suicide as they could not take the indignities heaped on them. Professor Pramod Srivastava of Lucknow University, who recorded the oral history of Kala Paani from 19 erstwhile prisoners, revealed unknown horror stories like prison cells teeming with scorpions. When a revolutionary complained of eye pain, the jail doctor poured alcohol, resulting in vision loss. Yet imagine, in spite of the heinous treatment the British meted out to our freedom fighters, we still continue to call the capital city Port Blair, the name that was given to honour Lieutenant Archibald Blair of the British East India Company who first annexed the islands.
When you see the solid, five-pronged jail structure, it seems like the British had planned to stay forever. Movements on all sides can be watched from the central tower. This was a prison built to torture and demoralise inmates. Compare it to the temporary-looking Auschwitz concentration camp built by Hitler to exterminate innocent Jews, the handicapped, homosexuals and gypsies as part of his Final Solution in his strategy of 1,000 years of the third Reich. The other famous prison it can be compared to is Alcatraz, isolated off San Francisco bay, ostensibly for the correction of crooks.
The mass of Indian tourists continued…
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