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Bhagat Singh to Jawaharlal Nehru, here's what our leaders experienced in British jails

August 13, 2017 5:28 AM
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Bhagat Singh to Jawaharlal Nehru, here's what our leaders experienced in British jails

A peek into the life of Indian prisoners in British jails before Independence.

For the generation that was born during and after the 1990s, prisons and jails just don't represent the same thing that they did 70 years ago. The idea of imprisonment is still quite terrifying, and yet, we don't have to think about enduring the horrible conditions and atrocities we would have before Independence.

The British-Indian jails were part of the everyday battle that our long-drawn freedom struggle required. Every one of us who's heard stories of our grandparents going to jail for the sake of the country knows that there was glory attached to jail-time back then--even if it was detainment for just a day.

But there's a lot more to that picture, and the many leaders of our struggle for Independence have penned down their experiences for us to prove that. The glory of being jailed only comes in retrospect, because as our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, wrote in The Discovery of India, "Prison is not a pleasant place to live in even for a short period, much less for long years."

Incarceration was a common form of punishment as far back as the 1790s, when the British were just consolidating their rule in India. They established prisons in the many forts of India for security reasons, and turned the Andaman and Nicobar Islands into a penal settlement.

If you went to jail in this period, it would mean nothing short of hard labour, poor living conditions, and no rights whatsoever. The scenario barely changed in the early decades of the 20th century, as Bipan Chandra mentions in India's Struggle for Independence. In fact, with the building of the Cellular Jail in the Andamans, the kala pani got even more difficult to endure.

That's the prison early revolutionaries like Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Ganesh Savarkar and Bhai Parmanand had to live in. Mary Gibson described in her essay, Global Perspectives on the Birth of the Prison, that this jail, built on the Panopticon principle by Jeremy Bentham, did not have a single cell that was left without surveillance--thanks to its unique construction.

Manual labour was a given thing in the island, and the racial discrimination further alienated the prisoners. Bhai Parmanand, who was associated with the Lahore Conspiracy Case of 1915, described how severe the incarceration was in his prison diary, Aapbeeti. Even the long journey from Delhi to the Andamans via Calcutta took a toll on many prisoners.

In the Indian mainland, things weren't any better around this time. In fact, they got worse with the rise and rise of revolutionaries in the country. Bhagat Singh, who was incarcerated in the Central Jail Mianwali near Rawalpindi along with his comrades in 1929--Sukhdev, Rajguru and 21 others--realised just how oppressive the situation was.

Not only was there a clear discrimination between the European and Indian prisoners, but even the standard diet and rights of a political prisoner were missing. Bipan Chandra describes how Bhagat Singh and his friends started an in-prison hunger strike to demand all the rights they were denied--equality in food standards, clothing, toiletries, and other hygienic necessities, as well as access to books and a daily newspaper.

The hunger strike lasted 116 days, during which time the brave Indian revolutionaries endured torture, force-feeding, and witnessed the death of Jatindra Nath Das (who died after fasting for 63 days).

While this was how the Indian revolutionaries were treated, other high-profile Indian leaders had very different experiences of incarceration in British jails. Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and other Congress leaders were usually kept in well-guarded prisons, especially during the 1930s and 1940s.

Gandhi, who encouraged the masses of India to court arrest voluntarily for the sake of their nation, believed that prison life had both its negatives and positives. In an article in Indian Opinion, he even wrote that "incarceration may often be the means of opening the gateway to freedom, liberty, and reform", because prison life gave the human mind discipline.

Arrested 13 times during his lifetime, Gandhi was always treated like a political prisoner in India--which means he had access to books, pen and paper. His own personal needs, as Judith Brown explains in Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope, were never too many. He kept up his correspondence with people across the world while being imprisoned. In fact, Gandhi wrote his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, while serving time in Yerwada Jail in Pune in 1932!

Nehru did the same with The Discovery of India, which he wrote after getting arrested a day after the Quit India Movement was announced (along with all the other prominent Congress leaders), in Ahmednagar Fort Jail. Nehru explains in the book how he wrote it with the help of his comrades--notably Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Govind Ballabh Pant, Narendra Deva and Asaf Ali--and his daughter Indira kept up a steady supply of the reference books he needed.

But the thing to note in this book is that Indian prisoners in British-Indian jails were not half as secluded as before. Not only did the Congress leaders get to hear about the progress of the Quit India Movement while being separated (Gandhi, his wife Kasturba, and aide Mahadev Desai were imprisoned in the Aga Khan Palace), but also got the news of how it affected Winston Churchill's government and the way the Second World War was turning out.

"I do not know and cannot tell till I come into contact with my people how they have changed during these two years and what feelings stir in their hearts, but I have little doubt that these recent experiences have changed them in many ways," Nehru wrote in the last chapter of The Discovery of India.

While this was true--the people of India had turned more self-assertive and stood united, and Independence wasn't very far away--the leaders in prison like Nehru, could only do a few things, as he describes in The Discovery of India: read, write, nurture a garden at Ahmednagar Fort, while nurturing dreams and hopes for a future India beyond the prison walls.


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