Monday, August 18, 2008




It was a golden opportunity to bring the oppressor and the oppressed together – and their families too. It would have been a rare opportunity to see them together in the changed circumstances. The experiences of surviving British Officers and their family members would have enriched our understanding of their mind and the policies pursued during that period. Impartial evaluation of history needs dispassionate understanding of both sides of the story.

Golden Jubilee Celebration of the notorious Cellular Jail was a golden opportunity to showcase the 100 years of its existence both as a penitentiary and a National Memorial. It was not a national but an international event that could have both sentimental and tourist interest.

Thousands of freedom fighters were lodged in the infamous Cellular Jail in its history of 100 years. But the Andaman Administration and the Department of Art & Culture could not go beyond the Ex-Andaman Political Prisoners Fraternity Circle which has been in the limelight ever since the destruction of the jail was stopped in 1967. Questioned about the other prisoners of Cellular Jail, Ms Rashida Iqbal, a teacher of the Department of Education on perennial deputation to Department of Art & Culture had this to say: “We invited applications and waited for six months. None other came forward. There are only about 650 ‘enlisted’ freedom fighters incarcerated in the jail.”

What a pity! The applications were for grant of pension and other perks to freedom fighters. Those who had participated in the freedom struggle as a sacred duty towards their motherland are those supremely self-respecting sons of Mother India who abhor claiming or demanding any material gain for that sacred duty. I wonder how they could be expected to do so. Such people, quite obviously, did not queue up for pension and pelf. The state in its wisdom decided to strike their names off the list of freedom fighters. Those who claimed their pound of flesh for their real or imaginary involvement in the freedom struggle only stood in queue for hours to collect their shawls, plaques and certificates – and the attendant material gains.

There are people who had participated in such anti-British rebellions and uprisings that chose to settle down in the Islands, raised families and died in anonymity, never ever claiming any favour from the state. One such name is that of Pandu Padal Bonangi, a proud member of Alluri Sitaramaraju group of Manyam Rebellion fame. He was incarcerated during 1922-32 along with five of his brother rebels.

After his release, he settled down at Birchganj in South Andaman, lived a healthy life and died in late eighties. He is survived by five sons – Dharamraj, Kesu Ram, Arjun, Shivraj, Dhanush and two daughters Neela & Krishna. Bhimraj, another son and a daughter are no more. He was known simply as Pandu or Pandu Padal.

This is one name. There might be many more. Only a sincere effort is needed to trace them and accord them the pride of place they deserve.

There are the Moplahs from very recent history. They have made their presence felt in every sphere in the Islands life and culture. Their names are also available and the families too can be identified easily. They too were not considered by the Administration to be worthy enough to sit with the Fraternity Circle.

The history of Cellular Jail is incomplete also without the participation of those who managed and administered the jail during those tempestuous years. They might have been tyrants, sadists and psychopaths drawing pleasure out of human misery. But they too were inseparable part of the whole. No race can be condemned as a whole. There are good people as there are bad ones. If there are brutes, there are philanthropists, as well. There were also those who empathized with the prisoners, tried to help them out, stood by them. And some of them paid with their career for being soft to the prisoners.

We missed a rare opportunity. In fact, Centenary of the Cellular Jail was a gigantic canvas and pigmies were entrusted to paint it. What better could one expect? Their vision does not go beyond song and dance. It was a solemn occasion for deep contemplation. What should have been a pan-territorial affair with massive participation of the people, turned out to be a pure and unadulterated official function with rows reserved for very important and not so important persons, speeches, bands and felicitation!. They ended up insulting the freedom fighters and this must sound highly upsetting and irksome to all those who are true Indians and above all – true humans at heart and in deed.

During the Centenary of the Penal Settlement in the Andamans in 1958, India Republic was just born. Nobody even remembered it, perhaps. But with the kind of people at the helm of affairs, I was sure last year that the 150 years of the First War of Independence last year (2007) and the 150 years of the Penal Settlement this year would suffer the same fate. And right I was. In a nutshell, on both the occasions, whatever little the Administration could find time to do was nothing but a theatre of the absurd. Even normal birthday parties are celebrated with a better fervor and flamboyant memorabilia.

You need people with vision, a sense of history and a vivid imagination to conceive programs and events of such magnitude. And an undying faith too in what they do!

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