Kala Pani and the Evils of Colonialism

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There are only a few places I have visited in the world that had a palpable sense of evil. One was an island off the coast of Gambia, where captured slaves from the interior were held before being transported across the Atlantic or up to Liverpool. Another was last week at the Cellular Jail in Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman/Nicobar Islands. A Union Territory of India, these beautiful islands are an almost two hour flight from Chennai in South India, and the bottom tip of the Nicobar chain (Indira Point) is only 93 miles from Banda Acheh in Indonesia.

I had come to Port Blair for other purposes, to visit colleagues there and speak in a church, but also wanted to visit one of most important historic sites in all of India, the Cellular Jail. It was known as ‘Cellular’ due to it being entirely composed of single cells, which the prisoners were locked in from 6 pm to 6 am in solitary confinement. Constructed in 1906 with seven wings that could hold over 600 prisoners, the British rulers of India used it as a place of confinement and exile far from the mainland both for India as well as Burma. Though used for crimes of various severities, it over time primarily housed political prisoners, or ‘freedom fighters’ against British colonial rule, including the Savarkar brothers, key figures in the struggle for independence.

The infamous jail continued a colonial penal system that had started in the Andamans in the year 1858, with the first prisoners arriving that had fought the British in the first war of Independence. (or also known to the British as the Indian Mutiny of 1857). Prisoners were held in various places including Viper Island until the Cellular Jail was built in 1906. The transport to the Andamans became known as Kala Pani, meaning the ‘water of death’. It is said to come from the Sanskrit word Kal, meaning ‘time or death’, and Pani or water, hence the ‘water of death’. The phrase spoke of the hopelessness of the cruel and inhuman treatment many received in the Andaman prison system. Not all prisoners were sent for life, with many released after varying prison sentences of six to twelve years or more.

As I walked around the jail with my friends, I found myself not only feeling the hopelessness and evil still present, but also grateful that the jail still stood. It closed during World War II in the 1940’s, when the Japanese defeated the British and occupied the islands until 1945. In the years after Indian independence in 1947, four years after the first celebration of independence by Subhas Chandra Bose in Port Blair in 1943 with the Indian National Army, there was a debate what to do with the jail. (For those not familiar with this history, Bose had formed a separate Indian army that fought the British and Allied with the Axis powers. The Japanese seemed to tolerate him, and Bose hoped that when they defeated the British they would give India freedom. What would have actually happened is of course open to question. Unfortunately it may have resulted in a new Japanese colonialism. )

In the years up to 1968, four of the seven wings of the jail were demolished to make way for a new government hospital for Port Blair. Only three wings remained, and survivors of the jail and their families, among others, campaigned for the preservation of the site as a national memorial. The Prime Minister at the time, Indira Gandhi, agreed and set into law that the jail would be preserved. It is now a national memorial, and has been excellently preserved down to the cells and even the gallows were executions were carried out.

At the sound and light show one evening at the jail, very well done telling the story from the vantage point of a very old peepul tree, I found myself in tears as it started with a beautiful rendition of the Indian national anthem. Now with full disclosure, I do cry sometimes when I hear the national anthem. It is no secret to my friends how much I love India, and somehow being at this historic site of oppression and colonial evil made me even more grateful for India’s dynamism and freedom.

The photo accompanying this post is of the whipping post, prominently displayed in the center of the jail’s grounds. It was the actual site where prisoners were flogged, at the order of infamous British jailers like David Barry, who served at the prison from 1909 to 1918. How ironic, I pointed out to my friends, that the figure on the whipping post was white. Perhaps David Barry?

I will have more to say in the next post on the evils of colonialism, as I went from Port Blair to Calicut, Kerela, the site where Vasco da Gama landed in 1498, ushering in a period of Portuguese colonialism.

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