Author, Burning for Freedom

Author, Burning for Freedom
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Saturday, July 4, 2015

Savarkar arrives in the Cellular Jail

Hi, Everyone! So often people ask me: “But why do you want to write on Savarkar? Why Savarkar?” This question will immediately be answered upon reading my book Burning for Freedom, of course—as one of my literary critics has written, “the author pays unabashed homage to Savarkar in the book” and therein also I have revealed why I am doing so. But for those who have not the opportunity to read it, I will say in short that, even if we were to consider his character alone, Savarkar is greatly estimable as is revealed in every phase of his life. What to say when we have his dynamism, daring, very many talents, magnetic personality, and more thrown into the equation? To me Savarkar is the foremost karmayogi of unparalleled patriotism. From the earliest childhood he was devoted to doing his very best for his beloved Hindustan and never, ever committed any mean or underhanded act, nor held grudges; “country first” was his mantra and he carried it out to the very end, always being true to his country and people.

On this 104th anniversary of Savarkar’s entry into the Cellular Jail, I am writing of that time with quotes from Savarkar’s My Transportation for Life. It does illustrate Savarkar’s qualities very well.

June 27, 2011: A handcuffed Savarkar was taken aboard the S.S. Maharajah and lodged in the dark, dank, smelly area in its belly below the deck which was partitioned off by iron bars. He writes: “Climbing into that steamer to be transported for life was like putting a man in his own coffin. . . .I was being put on my funeral pyre. The only difference was that I felt what was happening to me while my corpse would have felt nothing.”

He was to share this “iron cage” with fifty of the most hardened criminals “inured to filth, cruelty, and crime . . . some even stricken with foul diseases”. The space was so inadequate that there was not even an inch to spare between their beddings. Savarkar writes: “My feet touched their heads, and their feet came up near my mouth. If I turned on the other side, I found that a mouth nearly touched my mouth.” As Savarkar suffered from bronchitis, he was given the only space—one that gave slightly more room and the merest breath of air—located by two casks in the corner over by the partition.

But this was no blessing. A terrible stench emanated from the casks—they were to be used as chamber pots for the convicts to relieve themselves. And indeed, one was actually using it when Savarkar arrived at his spot. Savarkar was greatly respected even by these hardened criminals. His fifty-year sentence made their fifteen years appear negligible. They had taken up the attitude “behold him, he is a barrister . . . what is our grief before him? Brothers, let us not think of ourselves, let us think of him”—and so in shame, the convict was about to leave the cask before his business was complete. But Savarkar would have none of that. Signaling him to carry on, Savarkar said: “The claims of the body cannot be put off. There is no shame in answering the call of nature. In a moment, I may follow you. Do it freely. We cannot help it. We cannot afford to feel ashamed in this wretched condition. I can smell, so you think, but do you not have a nose too? Why then should I feel the stink any more than you do?” At this another convict offered to swap spots with him. Savarkar declined the offer: “Why should I put you in the midst of dirt by exchanging my place with yours? I also must inure myself to this kind of life.” He writes re this incident: “My hearted melted when I heard this. His generous offer was a wonder to me. I said, ‘O my God, even in the hearts of the most sinful ones, thou makest thy abode, turning it into a shrine of worship and prayer. Thou turnest what is dirty and untouchable into the holiest of the holy—the sacred basil pot it becomes when it is no more than a sink of filth and crime.”

The four days journey, especially under these circumstances is indescribable. In addition, what Savarkar had gone through in the past year as the British used all the force of their might—and indeed they needed to do just that!—to aggravate his condition should never be forgotten: the contrived warrant issued for him; his voluntary return to London from the guaranteed safety of Paris and immediate capture; the bending of the laws of Britain to execute the dastardly warrant; his fantastic escape in Marseilles; his kidnap back to the S.S. Morea; the tense journey in close proximity of officers thoroughly aggravated by the spot his escape had put them in; his incarceration (under inhuman conditions) in Indian mainland jails as another farce was dragged out in the courts of India; and the incredible, unheard of sentencing of fifty years of transportation to the dreaded Andaman Islands.

There was one relief in that interminable journey. Some Indian travelers and officers aboard the S.S. Maharajah wanted to express their reverence towards Savarkar in some tangible way by doing something special for him. Not being able to single him out for any special treatment, they arranged for a special meal for all of them. Instead of the dried grams and peas which was the standard food for the convicts for duration of the journey, everyone one was taken out of the “iron cage” to the open deck above—that in itself was a high treat—and given a delicious meal of rice, fish, and more. The convicts expressed their good fortune in having Savarkar in their midst, to which Savarkar would invariably reply: “Well then, it was right, after all, that I was sentenced to transportation for life. You, at least, welcome it, it seems.”

And even here, Savarkar could only think of the good of his beloved country. He writes: “When anyone spoke to me, full of  passion and sincerity, that it grieved his heart to find me in this pitiable condition, my answer to him always was, ‘Then you must be ready to fight. India must be fully armed and ready to fight and win her freedom, whatever the cost of that struggle, whatever the ordeal she has to through to reach the goal.’ From the ordinary sailor to the highest officer of the ship, from the prisoner right up to the soldier, I had become an object of political discussion all around . . . And conviction came to them on matters of which they were never convinced previously.”

July 4, 2011: Upon disembarking at Port Blair, as Savarkar waited for his turn to be taken to the Cellular Jail he was struck by an idea—country first, as always! He writes: “it suddenly struck me that the islands were so located in the Bay of Bengal that they constituted the bastion in the naval fortification of India from the East. As such they had an abiding importance in the future defence of our country.  . . . We must turn this base of defence into a Naval fortress, not unlike the formidable Sindhu Durga in the glorious days of Shivaji.”

Even as Savarkar dreamed on of the future navy of a free India, he was rudely roused and told get on. “I got up, I took the bedding on my head, my pots and pans in one hand, and girding up the chains around my waist, I stood ready for further orders. The mind suffers pain like the body hurled suddenly from a great steep height into the deep valley below. Disillusioned, and consigning to the future the glorious picture I had drawn, I stood up to face the grim reality of the present. I was led from the wharf to go up a steep ascent. With heavy weights on my legs and with bare feet, I could not walk up as rapidly as I wished. . . . we reached the top and saw the main gate of the “Silver Jail” [the actual name of the Cellular jail]. The gate began to grate on its hinges. It opened, I went in, and it was shut behind me. I felt that I had entered the jaws of death.”

And indeed, that’s exactly what it was like.

The main purpose of the Cellular Jail was the housing of 600 convicts in utter isolation that the spirit of the most hardened rogue might be utterly broken within six months. Humanity and rehabilitation of the convicts was not a concept that the British were familiar with then. A diabolical plan, one that was successful beyond their wildest dreams, was developed and executed.

Indeed, just being incarcerated there, day in day out was enough to break the toughest convict. For the political prisoners, the unhygienic conditions, the beatings, insults, and excruciating hard labor crushed their soul. Six months was considered the outside limit by the authorities to house the most hardened rogue, Savarkar spent almost ten years within the walls of this monstrous torture chamber—many of them without even getting a glimpse of the world beyond.

I had the good fortune to pay homage to Savarkar, and all the political prisoners incarcerated there, at the Cellular Jail. It is a never-to-be-forgotten experience. Several months after that it occurred to me that there is precious little information on the architecture of the Cellular Jail and wrote an article on it. I also drew sketches (from memory) to illustrate the stark, brutal reality of the Cellular Jail. I am giving the sketches as well as the link to my article here:

- Anurupa Cinar


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