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Freedom fighters and prisons

chandigarh Updated: Oct 25, 2014 12:17 IST
Hari Chand Aneja
Hari Chand Aneja
Hindustan Times

"Veer Savarkar spent 10 years of his life in isolation in this tiny and dark cubicle," the Port Blair prison tourist guide said. We looked in disbelief wondering how any human being could be isolated day and night for 10 years in a cell of 13.5x7.5 feet? A small grilled ventilator punctured the wall at a height of three metres, permitting a little light in the cell.

We were attending an audit conference in the Andaman Island and were visiting the jail in 1988. The island is known as Kaala Pani. Hundreds who participated in the sepoy mutiny of 1857 had been exiled for life to the island. The Cellular Jail was built in 1906 to ensure solitary confinement for dangerous prisoners. True to its name, the jail had 693 solitary cells in seven wings that prevented prisoners from communicating with each other. Indian freedom fighters were often imprisoned there.

Savarkar was an ardent freedom fighter. He defied the British rulers many times. In 1906, he went to London to pass the Bar-at-Law. He started the Free India Society to seek India's independence and galvanized Indian students. He was arrested in London for his fiery speeches and was sent to India for trial. He arrived in July 1910, handcuffed and in chains. He was tried and sentenced to life in the Andaman Island. All his property was confiscated.

In prison, he was yoked to the shank of an oil mill and forced to rotate around the mill like a bullock.

He chopped coconuts with a heavy wooden mallet. His hands bled.

Savarkar's passion was writing but he was denied pen and paper. Nevertheless, he etched his thoughts on the walls of his prison cell using thorns and quills. "The soul that suffers gets stronger. The aim is the freedom of the mother land," he proclaimed.

On the ground floor, was a spooky room called "phansi" (death by hanging). This is the room where revolutionaries were hung with a rope.

The prison is now a national museum, highlighting the sacrifices of those martyred in the freedom struggle.

We saw metal chains, handcuffs, fetters, guns and bayonets used to contain the prisoners in the 1930s.

As we meandered though the prison, I ruminated why many leaders spend long years in prisons. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years incarcerated in a damp concrete cell measuring 8 feet x 7 feet on Robins Island and later in Pollsmoor Prison. Mahatma Gandhi was jailed 13 times between 1917 and 1942. Jawaharlal Nehru spent nine years in prisons between 1921 and 1945. Aung San Suu Kyi, in Myanmar was under house arrest or in prison for 15 years, while Benazir Bhutto was a political prisoner for four years.

Bertrand Russell was incarcerated by the British government for six months for opposing World War I.

Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize, is serving an 11-year sentence for criticising China's government.

I admire the fortitude of these leaders. Isolated from their families, friends, colleagues, they had iron will power to assimilate torture, loneliness, pain and agony for their causes.

It may be idealistic to expect a prison-free world. There will always be some who have to be segregated for violence and crime. But hopefully, men seeking freedom of thought and speech will not be imprisoned.