How Urdu Poets Raged Against British Atrocities in The Cellular Jail of Andaman

100 years ago, these islands known as Kaala Pani for one to be sent across black waters was a fate worse than death.

5 min read
Hindi Female

I am in the Andaman group of islands. All around me, there is lush greenery, the azure waters of the Bay of Bengal, beautiful vistas of sun and sand against a vanilla sky, and all the amenities of new-age tourism.

It seems hard to believe that a century ago, these islands were referred to as 'Kaala Pani' and for one to be sent across the ‘black waters’ was a fate worse than death for no one came here willingly, least of all, on a pleasure trip.

To be sentenced to imprisonment in the penal colony here, the furthest outpost of British India was known to test the mettle of the sternest souls causing many to do anything, even write mercy petitions to that powers-that-be had, in the first place, ordered the exile.

Behind the Solitary Cells of Kaala Pani..

Even a quick tour of the infamous Cellular Jail in Port Blair is enough to give an inkling of the inhuman conditions of the poor souls who had been sent away to Kaala Pani.

Though the prison complex we now know as the 'Cellular Jail' was set up from 1896 to 1906, the Andaman Islands had been used for criminals and political prisoners who had to be removed from civil society and the immediate aftermath of the First War of Independence in 1857.

By the turn of the century, more prisoners came to be deported here and soon, a carefully calibrated system was in place: of control, capital punishment, and calculated use of a captive workforce—be it for making ropes from coir fibre to pressing oil seeds to extract oil to hard physical labour for building the harbor, laying down roads and constructing the buildings of this bustling colonial outpost.

With the Independence struggle gaining momentum and large numbers of political activists being sent here, it was found that mere transportation across the seas and incarceration in a penal settlement on an island was not enough. Much thought went into the design of the solitary cells (hence the name ‘cellular), the spoke-like design of the long barracks converging at a central point with a watch tower, the almost ‘fine art’ of torture and punishment.

Public floggings at strategically-located lashing posts were routine as were the hangings for the more recalcitrant among the prisoners. Such was the terror associated with its very name—Kaala Pani, referring both to the religious injunction for staunch Hindus against travelling across the waters for it meant loss of caste and also as a reference to the Sanskrit word Kal meaning Time or Death and used to mean the ‘waters of death’– that soon it entered language and literature as myth and metaphor.


Urdu Poets on Exile and Social Banishment

The Urdu poet alluded to it as a state of being stranded in unimaginably horrifying circumstances as a living hell. That decades later, the saza of Kaala Pani continues to be used as a metaphor for being marooned on a hopeless island is evident from this sher by Swapnil Tiwari:

Qaid huii hain aankhein khwaab jazeere par

Paa kar ek saza sii kaale paanii ki

(The eyes have been imprisoned on a dream island

Having been given a sentence like a Kaala Pani.)

And this somewhat simplistic one by Mukhtar Tonki:

Ranj-o-gham jitne hain un ko kaala pani bhej de

Ai Khudaa tu mere ghar mein shaadmaani bhej de

(Send all manner of sorrows and despairs to Kaala Pani

O Lord, send nothing but happiness to my home.)

Here is Shad Lakhnawi playing with the tropes of punishment and exile, again, using the metaphor of the dreaded island penitentiary:

Zulf-e-siyah ke mujrim hain

Kaale paanii bhijvaa do

(I am a culprit of dark tresses

Have me sent to Kaala Pani.)

And Lala Madhav Ram Jauhar also picking on the idea of exile and banishment in this sher:

Iss balaa ko to Khuda jald kare shahr-badar

Kaale pani ko ravaana shab-e-hijraan ho jaae

(May God soon send this curse into banishment

May the night of our separation set off for Kaala Pani.)


Writings of Those Held Captive Bashed the British’s Terror Acts Post 1857 Revolt

But what of those who were actually sent to Kaala Pani and endured its debasements and indignities not to speak of its many tortures? Since the frame of reference for this column is Urdu, we shall not mention the political prisoners who have left behind memoirs in other languages. Here we will only talk of the testimonies in Urdu.

In prose, there is the memoir of Maulana Mohammad Jafer Thanesari entitled Kaala Pani: Tawareekh-e Ajeeb. Sentenced in the Ambala Conspiracy Case of 1863, he spent 18 years on the Andamans. His account is remarkable for its descriptions of the living conditions, the interactions with other inmates, the complex system of punishment and ‘reward’.

In poetry, there is the well-known instance of Maulana Fazl-e Haq Khairabadi (1797-1861). A poet, jurist, philosopher and theologian (also incidentally, the great-great-grandfather of the Urdu poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar), he held the British guilty of unleashing terror upon the hapless Muslims after the Revolt of 1857.

Having spent 22 months in captivity, he died in 1864 and is buried in Port Blair. Writing in his island prison, an unrepentant Fazl-e Haq declared:

I did not commit any crime except this

I did not like them (the British), nor was I friendly with them.

Like Maulana Fazl-e Haq Khairabadi, Munir Shikohabadi (1814-80)— a poet too, was actively involved in the Uprising. Employed by the Nawab of Banda, he was arrested for his seditious activities and sent to the Andamans where he wrote prolifically during his imprisonment in a long poem entitled Qaid se Najaat (‘Liberation from Prison’), he speaks of bidding farewell to his fellow prisoners, his companions during the long incarceration and the hard labour as he prepares to go back home where he will find a new life difficult to comprehend:

Bas-ki barson raha huun zindaan mein

Bhuli qasr-e-suḳhan ki memaari

(Having lived in a prison for years

I have forgotten how to build the palace of poetry.)

And, finally, there is Savarakar writing in Urdu in his prison diary a copy of which is proudly displayed in the Cellular Jail museum; it is remarkable for its immaculate Urdu and its reference to Meraj, the journey the Prophet Muhammad is said to have undertaken to the high heavens:

Abhi meiraj ka kya zikr, yeh pehli hii manzil hai

Hazaron manzilen karni hain tai hum ko kathin pehlay

(Why talk of Meraj now, this is the first stage of the journey

We have to travel through thousands of difficult destinations.)

(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  British India   Urdu poetry   Andaman 

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