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Letter From Port Blair

Letter From Port Blair

The moment I landed at the Veer Savarkar International Airport at Port Blair in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, my thoughtful host MP Arun informed me that a booking had been done for us to see the  son at lumiere (sound and light) show at the Cellular Jail the same day evening. One of the primary objectives of my journey was to visit the jail, a symbol of man’s cruelty against man. 

I knew only one aspect of the jail, how the British found the Andaman island a perfect natural jail, as it was surrounded by the Indian Ocean. The Indian mainland was hundreds of nautical miles away. I also knew that one of the first lot of prisoners there were those who took part in the First War of Independence, also called the Sepoy Mutiny.

I also knew that the jail was an architectural masterpiece in the sense that one guard at the watch tower at the centre could keep an eye on all the 696 cells in the jail from his vantage position. However, it was a visit to a private museum at Mohali that opened my eyes to another chapter in the history of the Cellular Jail.

The museum was set up to perpetuate the memory of Dr Diwan Singh ‘Kalapani’, who arrived in the Andamans as an Army medical officer. He took over charge of the hospital at the Cellular Jail on October 20, 1927. He was the founder president of the Indian Independence League at Port Blair.

The Japanese who occupied the jail during the Second World War arrested Dr Diwan Singh in a false spy case in October 1943. He was subjected to inhuman torture and died on January 14, 1944, long before India could attain Independence.

My visit to the museum was facilitated by Dr Diwan Singh’s grandson Dr (Captain) GS Dhillon, chairman and director of the Dalhousie Public School, whom I can describe as a friend. He was an extraordinary host for the children of Deepalaya when they visited Dalhousie a couple of times. It was there at the museum that I learnt that the Japanese were blood-thirsty, bestial and brutish.

Priten Roy and Swapnesh Choudhury in their book  Cellular Jail: Cells Beyond Cells describes an incident: “As food scarcity in the islands grew more acute and the Japanese supply line more ineffective and disrupted, the Japanese unhesitatingly thought of exterminating the whole population of the old and infirm, women and children.

“During July/August 1945, about 700 men, women and children who were arrested without any ground and were detained in the Cellular Jail were taken out in a boat and bayoneted  down into the deep sea near Havelock island (about 40 km from Port Blair).

“The sea water turned red with human blood and sharks rushed from all around to tear the bodies into pieces. Barring only a few, none out of the 700 persons could make it to the shore by swimming and met their sea grave in the red and blue waters of the sea at Havelock”.

My acquaintance with Dr Dhillon and the visit to the museum, which has a replica of the Cellular Jail, kindled in me the desire to visit Andamans. And when a long-lost relative invited me to the Island, I did not think twice before buying the cheapest air ticket possible.

The sound and light show was nothing compared to the one I saw at the Red Fort where I could feel the cavalry encircling it to arrest the mutineers and deport the last Moghul ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to Burma, also under British control. Since the narration was in Hindi, I cannot claim to have understood every word I heard.

What struck me the most was the frequent reference to “Veer” Savarkar in the narration. What did he do to merit the title? Why was the title “Veer” not given to my friend’s grandfather who died in the jail, while it was given to Savarkar who died of old age, decades after India attained Independence?

Thousands of people — freedom fighters to hardened criminals — were kept in the dingy cells from where they could see only the steel bars that separated them from the wide world. Any of them who resisted the detention or raised his voice against the jailor was subjected to the severest torture. Savarkar did not make such a mistake!

In 1933, the prisoners resorted to a hunger strike to protest against the inhuman conditions in the jail. “On the fifth day the authorities adopted their customary method of forced feeding. They employed stout ruffians among the sepoys who threw down the prisoners by force and when the prisoners were subdued, they pressed their chest, abdomen and knees and with brutal pleasures tried, by force, to send the rubber pipe through the mouth to the stomach.

“As a result of this forced feeding, the milk pipe penetrated into the lungs of Mahavir Singh who died on the very first day of such feeding at about 1 am on 18th May 1933. Mahavir Singh was convicted in the Lahore Conspiracy Case. He was a comrade of Martyr Bhagat Singh”. Mohit Moitra and Mohan Kishore Namadas, who were also subjected to such forced feeding, died in similar circumstances.

No, they are not “Veer” but only VD Savarkar is. Let me quote from the records kept in the jail. He was allegedly involved in the “Nasik Conspiracy Case which began on January 23, 1911. GD Savarkar, his brother, and Daj Narayan Joshi were awarded life transportation. VD Savarkar was arrested in England on the excuse that the pistol to kill Justice Jackson was sent by him. Deported to Cellular Jail, Andaman. Released in 1921”.

In the jail, there are arrow marks leading to the Veer Savarkar Cell where he was kept in solitary confinement. He had no clue that his own brother was in a cell in another wing because no such interactions were allowed. There were actually seven wings like seven spokes of a bicycle wheel which met at the Watch Tower.

The front side of the cells faced the backside of the wing in the front. It is only the Savarkar Cell which is identified. Inside the cell are two portraits of Savarkar, one showing him in fetters. The  two utensils the prisoners were allowed to keep are also kept inside the cell. On the wall is a copper plaque which carries something in Sanskrit.

Why is an exception made to the incarceration of Savarkar? Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked rhetorically during the Karnataka elections whether anyone from the Congress family, an euphemism for the Nehru-Gandhi family, visited Savarkar in the Cellular Jail.

It only exposed Modi’s total ignorance about the Cellular Jail. The British built the jail to keep the prisoners away from civilisation. Even inside the jail, they were not allowed to interact with fellow prisoners. The only time they could see some human beings was when they were allowed to go out of the cells to answer the calls of nature.

Savarkar had himself written to the British authorities that he or any of the prisoners were not allowed to have any visitors. So, how could Jawaharlal Nehru have visited him? 

Veer in Hindi means brave. The dictionary describes the  brave as one who is “ready to face and endure danger or pain”. Now, let us see how he responded to both danger and pain. Better still, let’s compare him with Bhagat Singh.

Did Bhagat Singh deny that he was involved in the activities that led to his arrest and punishment? No, he did not. On the other hand, Savarkar pleaded that he was not involved in the conspiracy case and it was a case of misfortune or miscarriage of justice that he was punished.

Bhagat Singh was only 23 when he was given capital punishment. Some of his family members and friends requested him to seek clemency from the British. He refused. Yes, he wrote one letter to the British, a brilliant piece of writing. It is also true that he sought a special favour from the alien rulers. He wanted to be shot, as he was a revolutionary, and not hanged to death. 

Alas, the British did not accede to his request and he was hanged to death. I remember one of my school teachers at MS High School, Ranny, an ex-serviceman who lost one of his arms in the Second World War, telling us that Bhagat Singh was one of the few persons, if not the only person, in recorded history to have gained weight after he was awarded capital punishment. He was not at all afraid of death. In fact, he had “Inquilab Zindabad” on his lips when the hangman put the noose around his neck.

In contrast, Savarkar wrote not one but several letters seeking clemency. His letters mentioned the hardship he faced in jail. He especially lamented the fact that he was not able to have any contact with his family. He always ended his letters with promises to be a good, loyal servant of the British. 

Writes Savarkar: “Moreover my conversion to the constitutional line would bring back all those misled young men in India and abroad who were once looking up to me as their guide. I am ready to serve the Government in any capacity they like, for as my conversion is conscientious so I hope my future conduct would be”.

In another letter he admits “the regrettable breaking of the laws”. He pleaded for himself and his brother, even pointing out that unlike some fellow prisoners who continued their revolutionary activities while still being in jail, they conducted themselves like loyal British citizens. 

Finally, he promises, “Whether you believe it or not, I am sincere in expressing my earnest intention of treading the constitutional path and trying my humble best to render the hands of the British dominion a bond of love and respect and of mutual help. Such an Empire as is foreshadowed in the Proclamation, wins my hearty adherence. For verily I hate no race or creed or people simply because they are not Indians!

But if the Government wants a further security from me then I and my brother are perfectly willing to give a pledge of not participating in politics for a definite and reasonable period that the Government would indicate. For even without such a pledge my failing health and the sweet blessings of home that have been denied to me by myself make me so desirous of leading a quiet and retired life for years to come that nothing would induce me to dabble in active politics now”.

His clemency petitions had an effect. He was shifted to an Indian jail, which is what he wanted right from the beginning, from where he was released after a couple of years. Having said this, I would not blame Savarkar for writing such letters. 

If I were in his position, I, too, would have also appealed for mercy and for opportunities to meet my family members. I would also have atoned for the “mistakes” I made and I would also have promised to be a law-abiding citizen.

That is what Savarkar also did. So, I should not blame him for writing mercy petitions. There are some who claim that Savarkar’s letters were to mislead the British as he never gave up his revolutionary beliefs. Such claims are utter balderdash. Post-release, Savarkar behaved, as he promised the British, like a loyal citizen. He did not take part in the freedom struggle.

On the contrary, he helped the British, who thrived on their divide and rule policy. His Hindutva project served this policy so well. He is the one who propounded the theory that Hindus and Muslims were two nations and they could not live as one, long before Mohammed Ali Jinnah came up with his two-nation theory. No, he did not want Partition. He wanted Muslims and Christians to be kept as second-class citizens enjoying limited rights.

In terms of bravery, he comes nowhere near Bhagat Singh or countless prisoners like my friend’s grandfather who perished in the Cellular Jail. In fact, he betrayed the revolutionary movement. Yet, it was LK Advani as Home Minister who decided to single out the cell where Savarkar was incarcerated as a pilgrimage centre. Again, it was he who took the lead in having Savarkar’s portrait in Indian Parliament. 

Students of history, especially of the Cellular Jail in Andamans, will remember Savarkar as the one who wrote beautiful, although grammatically incorrect, clemency letters and not as one who showed any bravery while on the island. As he himself said, he was there only because he was destined to be there.

Was it not William Shakespeare who said, “Some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”? Yes, some like Bhagat Singh and Dr Diwan Singh ‘Kalapani’ achieve greatness by their act of courage and some like Vinayak Damodar Savarkar have greatness thrust upon them. Life is like that!


(Published on 04th June 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 23)