For Indian tourists, the most important sight in the Andamans is the Cellular Jail in Port Blair. This Jail and some of its more famous inmates are so well known and intricately linked with the Indian psyche that no Indian would like to miss a visit to the Jail while in the Andamans. Many people go to the island specifically to see the Jail.
We visited the Jail twice. The first evening, we saw the sound and light show. During the one-hour programme, the entire story of the Jail was related with the help of sound and light. This was superb, and we enjoyed it. The next morning, we were taken on a guided tour of the Jail and the National Memorial. We saw the cells and the walls of the three-storied building.
The penal colony of the Andamans was started in 1858. After the revolt of 1857, hundreds of Indians were arrested and brought over to the islands. They were kept on the islands of Viper, Ross, Navy Bay, Phoenix Bay, Birchganj and Dendas Point. Actually, the first group of 200 prisoners, brought in by the East India Company’s steam frigate Semir- amis, left Kolkata on March 4,1858, and reached Port Blair on March 10, 1858. This was the first batch of convicts who were brought to the Andamans by the British. They were joined by the others. At the end of the first three months, the total number swelled to 773.
Later on, it was decided to construct a proper jail for the convicts. The Cellular Jail was then planned with 698 cells in a large seven-winged building. It was three-storied. It was so planned that prisoners in one wing could not see the others in the different wings. Each cell measured 13.5 x 7 feet with a front barred by grills and a back ventilator of 3’ x 1’ placed nearly ten feet above the ground level. Prisoners were given a cot to sleep and a pot to urinate at night. Prisoners were confined to these cells for 12 hours at night. During the day, prisoners were required to work in the oil mills like animals. They were also required to work in the building sites. Prisoners were regularly beaten up and given other punishments. Many died due to such inhuman punishments. There were several protests and two important
Hunger strikes: one in 1933 and the other in 1937. These also caused many deaths. There was relief when prisoners were bought out and allowed to work in the fields. Sometimes, they were transported back to the mainland. During World War II, the islands came under Japanese occupation for some time. The Japanese were worse. They punished the prisoners severely and meted out inhuman torture. Many prisoners were dubbed as British spies and harsher punishment was meted out to them. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose visited the islands during the Japanese occupation. But he was not shown the ill treatment of the prisoners. He, therefore, had only a good impression about the Jail. Due to such ill treatment, the prisoners revolted several times. They resorted to hunger strikes. But the hunger strikers were beaten up mercilessly.
A devastating earthquake in June, 1941, ultimately led to the demolition of four out of the seven wings of the Jail. The Japanese also damaged the Jail during their occupation. When after World War II the Jail was finally closed down, only three wings remained. This area with the gate was declared a National Memorial by the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai on February 11, 1979. Even earlier, since Independence, it had become a place of pilgrimage for Indians. Presidents and Prime Ministers visited the islands and the Cellular Jail and paid homage to the prisoners who had spent time there.
The Administrative block, the Central Tower, work sheds, and the kitchen now form the National Memorial for the future generations to see what kind of torture the Indian freedom fighters had to undergo during the existence of the Cellular Jail. The light and sound programme was introduced in the Jail in 1990.
In the Museum are exhibited the photographs, the flogging stand with a dummy prisoner’s model, models of bed stead, prisoners with fetters, oil grinding and a model of the complete seven wings of the Cellular Jail. The walls of the Central Tower bear the names of the freedom fighters who were incarcerated in the Penal settlement. The cells are kept open so that visitors may have a glimpse of the interiors. The cell on the second floor where Veer Savarkar spent his days is very well-maintained. It attracts many visitors.
A separate memorial column has been erected as a mark of respect for the prisoners who spent time in the Jail. Separate statues have been erected in memory of those prominent freedom fighters who had been here.