Mahavir Singh: The Martyr Who Succumbed to British Brutalities in the Cellular Jail of Andaman
“Naa muh chipaake jiye aur naa Sir jhuka ke jiye,
Sitamgaron ki nazar se, nazar milake jiye.
Bus ek raat agar kam jiye toh hairat kyu,
ke hum jahan me, mashaalein jala jala ke jiye.”
“Neither did we hide our face, nor did we bow our head,
We lived, looking at our oppressors in the eye.
So what if we lived one night less,
We ensured that the flame in our torch continued to burn.”
These are some of the lines that one of the great unsung martyrs of our freedom struggle, Mahavir Singh, used to sing during his stay in the Cellular Jail.
The Cellular Jail in Andaman is a heart-wrenching reminder of the most inhuman chapter of India’s freedom struggle. After the First War of Independence which broke out in 1857, the British decided to isolate the freedom fighters to avoid another rebellion. Ruthless and crafty, therefore, they came up with the devilish idea of making a penal colony in the water-locked Andaman. They exiled Indian prisoners to Andaman, made them live in the remote island’s uninhabitable conditions and forced them to construct a jail from their own hands, which not only imprisoned them but many legendary freedom fighters, as well.
The stories of barbaric atrocities of political prisoners in the Cellular Jail are not unknown to us. Each time I think about Kaala Paani and the horrific torture meted out to prisoners there, it pains my heart to know how brutally our political prisoners were treated there. Their only crime-fighting for the freedom of our motherland.
In my Facebook series on the freedom fighters who were incarcerated in the Cellular Jail, today, I would like to share the spine-chilling experience of the great revolutionary, Mahavir Singh, who succumbed to brutalities subjected on him by the cruel British authorities in the jail.
Mahavir Singh was born in the year 1904 to Kunwar Devi Singh and Sharda Devi of Kasganj, Uttar Pradesh. Mahavir was drawn towards the cause of freedom right from his early teens. During his college years, he fully dedicated himself to the freedom movement and became an active Hindustan Socialist Republican Association member. Mahavir Singh was a close associate of Bhagat Singh, and even helped him, Batukeshwar Dutta and Durga Bhabhi escape from Mozang House in Lahore.
In 1929, Mahavir Singh was arrested for his involvement in what the British termed, the Lahore conspiracy case, and deported to the infamous Cellular Jail of Andaman, also called Kaala Paani (Black Waters).
The radial, seven-winged jail had earned notoriety as a living hell for the prisoners. The political prisoners were treated inhumanly in the Cellular Jail, and were assigned backbreaking tasks to be completed against a near-impossible deadline. Some of the tasks included working in the brick kiln, pounding husk to make ropes, extracting oil in the mill which required harnessing of prisoners like bullocks. The work at the oil mill was one of the most gruelling and led to the death of some of the inmates. As if these laborious tasks were not enough to crush one’s strength, the freedom fighters used to get harsh punishments for not completing these tasks within the designated time. The punishments included flogging, bar fetters, lashing, handcuffs, confinement in a solitary cell, extra hours in the dreaded oil mill and gunny bag clothes in the hot and humid climate, among other things.
Prisoners were deprived of sufficient food, basic nutrition and were not allowed to communicate with other inmates in the jail. The prisoners who were confined in the Cellular Jail would often succumb to diseases like tuberculosis, rheumatism, asthma and diarrhoea. No one deserved such living conditions, let alone our freedom fighters.
The prisoners decided to protest against all these atrocities, demanding liveable conditions and basic necessities. It was mutually decided to sit on a hunger strike and Mahavir Singh joined the strike. In May 1933, thirty-three political prisoners began the hunger strike. The prison authorities were baffled by the concerted attack. They locked the strikers on separate floors and imposed heavy fetters on them. The prison doctors had not witnessed any such thing before. Upon the advice of a senior doctor, it was decided that the prisoners would be force-fed by inserting rubber tubes from nose to stomach. Usually, force-feeding was done when the protester became physically weak after being on strike for many days, but in the Cellular Jail, the prison authorities started the process on the sixth day. They faced strong resistance from the prisoners.
Bejoy Kumar Sinha, in his autobiography, recounts how Mahavir Singh was force-fed and killed in the process, “They started the feeding process in a crude manner. When the tube was inserted, Mahavir resisted vigorously and coughed hard. The tube was thus transferred into the windpipe from the gullet. Pouring of milk began downright, and it went straight into the lungs.”
In no time, Mahavir Singh’s lungs were filled with milk, his pulse started to drop, and he lost consciousness. The doctors sensed that something was wrong and moved Mahavir Singh to the hospital on the stretcher. The prisoners and strikers asked them what had happened to Mahavir Singh and where they were taking him, but they didn’t respond. That was the last time the inmates saw Mahavir Singh. The strikers were restless all night wondering what could have happened to their dear friend and kept questioning the prison authorities, to no avail.
Bejoy Kumar Sinha, in his book, writes, “When the strike had terminated, we heard a report that his dead body was tied to heavy stones and sunk in the sea in the dark hours of the morning. No wreaths were laid, no funeral orations delivered, the dead body that the nation would have treasured and worshipped went down in the ocean to be the food of sharks.” It was in this inhuman manner that this unsung hero of this great nation was martyred.
When we visit the Cellular Jail in Andaman, there is a statue in Mahavir Singh’s memory, which reminds us of this courageous man’s painful story. The Cellular Jail gives a glimpse into what our freedom fighters went through during their imprisonment there. As you walk in the Cellular Jail premises, you see the instruments of torture like flogging stand, chain fetters, bar fetters, claustrophobic cells, oil mill, gallows etc. It is a gut-wrenching experience to see what our fearless freedom fighters had to go through.
Many great freedom fighters were exiled in the Cellular Jail and tortured in the name of confinement. Among them are celebrated sons of our motherland such as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Batukeshwar Dutta, Barindra Ghosh, Bhai Parmanand, Sohan Singh Bakhna, Prithvi Singh Azad, Sachindranath Sanyal and Bejoy Kumar Sinha among countless others. Though the British wanted to prevent them from taking part in the struggle for Independence, they grossly underestimated the valour of these brave sons of Mother India. Their sadistic torture may have scarred the bodies of these freedom fighters, but their spirits remained intact. If anything, their suffering strengthened the will of these heroic men who were even more determined to get rid of the British yoke.
People must visit places related to India’s freedom struggle like the Cellular Jail and Jallianwala Bagh. Such visits are like pilgrimages because these places are a reminder of the countless sacrifices our freedom fighters made in their attempt to free our nation. I would also like to urge the state governments to include our freedom fighters’ stories in their school textbooks so that children know about their inspirational lives and their indomitable patriotism.