When will India abandon the colonial model and learn to treat its prisoners with dignity? Do we need to revisit theories of crime and punishment? Have we run out of ideas in the punishment list, but not in the offence list? If the colonial implant had a specified agenda, what is ours? At this stage of our narrative, it may be useful to put forward the following lines from Oscar Wilde, who was jailed for homosexuality in one of the great scandals of the epoch:

For they starve the little frightened child 
Till it weeps both night and day: 
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool, 
And gibe the old and grey, 
And some grow mad, and all grow bad, 
And none a word may say. 
For only blood can wipe out blood, 
And only tears can heal ...

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), the nineteenth-century British political thinker, observed that to serve the happiness of others by the absolute sacrifice of one’s own was the highest virtue in man. With this perspective in mind, I present an array of familiar Indian faces in a new setting and relate them to the moments of the time. I acquaint the younger generation with their toil and sacrifices, for only against the background of this knowledge can we measure the magnitude of their contribution to nationalist consciousness. I believe one can do their memory no greater service than by making known the facts of their life.

The Black Waters (Kala Pani)

The British Empire had its dark spots. The East India Company and the government under the Crown created their own Gulags by condemning thousands to forced labour, at times for decades, and subjected the prisoners’ intellect to their tyranny. Pattison Walker, the first superintendent of the Kala Pani or the Black Waters, reached Port Blair on 10 March 1859 with two hundred convicts.

Such officers, mostly British rather than “Native Jailors”, became lawless without restraint and often turned into monstrous tyrants. Thus his successor, Captain Haughton, gave free rein to terror and drove the prisoners to despair under the compulsion of the lash.

Given their insolence, racism, and impudence, such officers did not approve of sporadic eruptions by the “rebels” and by the “fundamentalists”. Accordingly, they followed the shadow of terror by bringing over the five “Wahhabi” rebels (Mujahidan-e Jang-e Azadi) to the Andaman Islands in the 1860s and ’70s. They did not spare the brothers Yahya Ali (1828–1868) and Ahmad-Allah (1808–1881).

Nor did they show mercy to Maulana Mohammad Jafar of Thaneswar, a key figure in the Ambala Trial, though, unlike others, he was caught up in the dialectics of exalting the coloniser and humbling the colonized. Fazl-e Haq Khairabadi (1792–1861), a jurist who followed his father’s tradition of emphasising the rational sciences at the Islamic school in Khairabad, was their big fish. Munir Shikohabadi (1814–1880), also exiled, refers to him as “the treasure house of scholarship”; others describe his “excellence in esoteric learning” and his skills as a poet.

Intellectually, Fazl-e Haq gained an enviable standing at a time when the ulama and Sufis of north India lived in the shadow of the successors of Shah Waliullah (1703–1762) and his eldest son, Shah Abdul Aziz (1746–1824). Like the Bhakti movements in medieval India, Sufism was often tinged with a kind of social radicalism or anti-feudalism. Fazl-e Haq left government service in disgust to take up employment with the princely states.

Added to the litany of complaints was his critique of the British rule, which led him to tacitly back, without being directly involved in the day-to-day planning, the insurrection on 25 August 1857. He paid a heavy price for it. While so many scholars of his kind brokered peace with the authorities, Fazl-e Haq languished in the “Black Waters” until his death in 1861. Ghalib mourned him as a sublime, highly positive manifestation of selflessness, now forgotten and forsaken. Fazl-e Haq felt cut off from life and from the world in that demoralising atmosphere. He wrote:

“The excesses of the hard-hearted enemy cast me on the shore of a great saltish sea in a plateau which has a cape (ras), also named ras. Here the sun always shines straight upon my head. It has difficult mountain passes and hilly roads full of trouble. There are passes in the hills, enveloped by waves of the tumultuous sea whose water is bitter; its breeze is hotter than simum and its comforts are more dangerous than poison; its eatables are more bitter than the taste of colocynths and its water more harmful than snake poison. Its sky is a cloud which rains sorrows and its rain clouds shower afflictions and miseries...It was in this environment that I became a victim of several diseases and severe illnesses. These made me lose my patience; my heart became melancholy: my full moon was dimmed and my honour was lost. I do not know how deliverance and emancipation can be effected from this condition which has made me sorrowful...so that I might be compensated for.”

Scores of people pined away in the Andamans or perished by the dozens in the bloom of manhood through deprivation, disease, or by committing suicide. Thousands were jailed, and many went to the gallows with heads unbowed. A popular saying of the times was, “the blood of the martyrs will colour the red dawn”. A household saying in the course of the Lahore Conspiracy Case was that “the graves of the martyrs are places where fairs will be held every year”.

Was it worth paying the price? The men of the time had no doubt that it was. Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (1876–1938), the Bengali novelist, portrayed their sacrifices in Pather Dabi (The Path’s Demand). Author Shudha Mazumdar, who was the first Indian woman to promote prison reform, recalls in her memoirs “the thrill” of secretly poring over it in the still of the night, locking it up in her drawer, and surreptitiously returning the banned book to its owner.

In Chittagong, she heard of Surya Sen, the bold “terrorist” leader, and of the Revolutionary Youth Society. Lala Lajpat Rai (1865–1928) declared that repression, espionage, or “official terrorism” would not stop or check the surge of the new feeling of patriotism and nationalism; the sentences of death and transportation only fuelled it further. Today, the “new feeling of patriotism and nationalism” evokes interest and curiosity. Indeed, the indomitable courage of the victims of British cruelty has turned Kala Pani into “a sacred place of pilgrimage sanctified by the dust of martyrs’ feet”.

Overland Prisons

In the early 1890s, the two penal establishments – the Central Jail and the Viper Chain Gang Jail – housed a daily average of 11,804 convicts. In the early twentieth century, 2,662 of them were from UP alone. Gradually, they were joined by prisoners from other areas. In August 1921, each one of the Mappilla (Moplah) rebels, who belonged to the principal Muslim community of fishermen, sailors, and coolies along the Malabar Coast, made the most of the luxury of 500 cubic feet of space, and 27 square feet of superficial area per person.

Though the Jail Committee proposed a minimum of 75 square yards (area within the main walls) per inmate, that is, 23.25 acres for a central jail of 1,500 prisoners, jail officials adopted a typically mechanistic and often racial approach and turned a blind eye to disease, endless toil, isolation, and death. Hence they refused to accept the Savarkar brothers – Ganesh (1879–1945) and Vinayak (1883–1966) – in December 1920. Similarly, they turned down the transfer of Sikh activists in the Gurdwara Agitation.

Three other examples show the indifference of the authorities to the concerns of the prisoners. First, ex-sowar Thakur Singh, son of Prem Singh, wanted to shift from Poona so that his relatives could “supplement” his “provincial” diet in the Punjab. In Calcutta, SS Batliwala wished for his wife’s company, then in Yeravda – sometimes called the “King’s Hotel”. Lakshmi Kant Shukla and Vishnu Saran Dublis, too, longed for the company of their respective spouses.

While each of the cases is singular or atypical, the juridical–political responses did not seem capable of distinguishing between a range of human voices. I do no more than to call attention to their voices of lament and celebration, of agony and relief. The thoughts of the creative minds amongst them flew, like leaves chased by the winds, in all directions.

“Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”

Prison, to Aurobindo Ghose, signified an ashram (religious heritage). He claimed that god sheltered him; at one point, he found himself in the lap of the World-Mother, cared for like a child. When he was asleep in ignorance, he came to a place of meditation full of holy men and found their company wearisome; when he awoke, god took him to a prison and turned it into a place of meditation and his testing ground.

Long attuned to rebellion, to Savarkar the atmosphere of the Cellular Jail in Andaman suggested the possibility of a flaming “revolt”. However, he looked upon the jail sentence as an opportunity to serve under his banner. Early in the morning and late in the evening, he used to pass insensibly into a sweet sound sleep after trying a bit of pranayam.

Jailgoing became the most sublime of tasks. Thus, Aurobindo Ghose reacted to the arrest of Bipin Chandra Pal (1858–1923), writer–orator, and commended his “manly, straightforward and conscientious stand for the right as he understood it”. Comforted by Pal coming out of prison with his power and influence doubled, he expected posterity to judge between him and the petty tribunal that treated the actions prompted by his “honourable scruples” as crimes.

Bhagat Singh (1907–1931), who threw a bomb into the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi on 8 April 1929, had other ideas. He imagined revolution as the inalienable right of mankind and freedom as everybody’s birthright. While officials fiddled over his deathbed, Punjab’s towns and villages resounded with innumerable songs about his heroism.

In much the same vein, martyrdom became a spiritual condition and its attainment the loftiest of all goals. Hence, Lajpat Rai’s death, in the course of the agitation against the Simon Commission, led to fire and fury in the public arena. It was avenged by the Revolutionary Socialist Republican Army.

Again, Bengal extolled Jatindranath Das (1904–1929) and Subhas Chandra Bose (1897–1945), “the liberator on a white horse, a rather incongruous Joan of Arc”. He had been imprisoned from 1924 to 1927, and then again in 1930. Sympathy, honour, and accolades are what he got for his persecution.

This book does not trace the long and arduous path to freedom. I have instead focused on political prisoners who aimed to illuminate and enrich the world with their deeds, and others who ascribed, as Aurobindo Ghose did, both their release from prison and their renewed activity to divine power.

Yet, “even the heroes and heroines and the faith that moved them have been downgraded as sentiments of little value’, writes Chandralekha Mehta, daughter of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (Swarup Nehru). They find a place in my narrative. I discuss their life stories, about which so little has appeared in print, and link them to the political stir from the 1920s onwards. In all this, Gandhi’s radiant figure stands out against the dark background of British rule.

Why did people traverse the jail road when they could have achieved personal glory and advancement by taking a less hazardous route? What encouraged their fraternal attachment and their lifelong striving? Why did the young Gandhi forsake his European clothing and adopt the loincloth? What led Motilal Nehru (1861–1931) and his son Jawaharlal Nehru to chasten life and character by adopting the discipline of self-abnegation? Why did the Ali brothers (Shaukat and Mohamed) give up European attire to wear crescent moons on their grey caps and the Khuddam-e Kaaba (Servants of Kaaba) badges?

News spread far and wide that the once-fashionably dressed Shaukat Ali (1873–1938) had taken to wearing a loose, long green coat of peculiar cut, and that his shaggy beard symbolised his protest against Europe and Christendom. Why did they come out of jail just as brave as they went in?

Why did Mazharul Haq (1866–1930), who was with Gandhi in England and returned to India by the same boat in 1891, give up his chhota peg, wear a beard, and abandon his palatial bungalow to live in a kuchcha house near the Ganga at Digha Ghat? Bihar’s leading barrister “grew as fond of the ascetic life as he was of princely life”, stated Gandhi.

His wife, a member of Bombay’s Tyabji family, offered to him her choicest four bangles made of pearls and rubies. The Mahatma was overwhelmed with joy when she produced the bangles and thanked God that He had brought him in touch with the Tyabji family.

Why did Chitta Ranjan Das (1870–1925) give up his princely lifestyle? Was such the agony of servitude? Did he give up his individual freedom for a common, national, freedom? Finally, what does one make of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s (1890–1988) fetters, grinding prison labour, and solitary confinement? My intention in this book is to indicate the direction in which the reader must search for solutions to the very complex problems of the Anglo-Indian encounter.

Excerpted with permission from the “Introduction: The Prisoner’s Paradise’, Roads To Freedom: Prisoners In Colonial India, Mushirul Hasan, Oxford University Press.