“I love being part of this iconic edifice and have spent more than two decades in the Cellular Jail of Port Blair. While serving my ‘official sentence’ here, I have seen thousands of people come and go. Some admire the magnificent structure, some take selfies, photos and videos, others revere the premises, and a few are curious onlookers. I watch them all from behind the bars of my second-floor premises and keep an eagle eye on the daily proceedings,” says Dr Rashida Iqbal, Assistant Director at the 104-year-old Cellular Jail in Andaman & Nicobar Islands (A&N Islands).

Dr Rashida has interacted with many Presidents, Prime Ministers and VIPs over the last two decades, recalling for them the history behind freedom fighters associated with the Cellular Jail. Not just well-known personalities but scientists, professors, writers, from India and abroad have sought her out for her knowledge of the region.

Her interaction with Bollywood actor Tom Alter, whom she assisted for shooting a documentary titled Jewels of the Sea, is one of many encounters with famous people.

The Cellular Jail has a unique architectural structure with wings attached to a central core. Constructed strategically during the British era, it housed many freedom fighters from the Indian mainland. Rashida explains that the building was meant to crush the soul of freedom fighters but it didn’t succeed in breaking the spirit of India’s heroes.

Passion for the past

For a long time, the string of A&N islands has spelt a terrible association in the Indian subconscious. They have always been known as Kala Pani, the deadly backwaters to be banished to, which meant a point-of-no-return and death. Since the late eighteenth century, the emerald islands were used as open-air penal settlements for “dangerous” convicts who were subjected to rigorous intimidations.

Initially, the British used the isolated Islands and the first gallows were built on Viper Island in 1860s and the Cellular Jail was later established at Port Blair. The aim was to keep firebrand freedom fighters in solitary confinement and a terrible amalgamation of fact and fiction thus grew around the jail, sealing off the Andamans as dreaded territory.

The Cellular Jail was created over 10 years and reckoned as the most formidable colonial prison that ever existed.

About 20,000 cubic feet of stones and 30,00,000 bricks were used for construction, sourced from a nearby hillock. Cellular Jail was a massive, three-storied structure with seven wings of unequal length, radiating from a central watch tower. Shaped like spokes of a wheel, the central tower could be effectively used by a single watchman without the inmates being able to tell whether they were under scrutiny. The jail comprised 693 individual padlocked prison cells. Today, three wings remain as four annexes collapsed during an earthquake in 1941.

A museum at the Cellular Jail was built after the premises were turned into a national monument in veneration of the freedom fighters. It contains artefacts like neck-ring shackle, leg iron chains, iron grills, fetters, flogging stands, etc.,all sourced from England. But the pièce de résistance is the light and sound show held both at the Cellular Jail and Ross Island, which is mesmerising and takes you back 100 years.

As an islander, Rashida was in the 12th standard when her father passed away in 1981. Since childhood, going to school was fun as her elder brother and mother managed everything for her despite financial constraints. Coming from a big family of 10 siblings, she was desperate for a job to support the family. She managed to complete BA and B Ed and was inducted as a teacher in 1985, at 21! The authorities noticed her enthusiasm for imbibing knowledge and promptly deposited her at the Cellular Jail in August 1996. While working there shecompleted MA (Political Science), MA (History) from Madras University and even obtained a Ph D from Osmania University, Hyderabad, in 2009 on The Role of Cellular Jail in Indian Freedom Struggle.

Explaining why she is so devoted to the Cellular Jail, Rashida says, “My father Ainulla Khan was born in the early 1900s in Peshawar of undivided India. He was convicted and transported 3,300 km to Port Blair when he was in the early 20s, and was put under the category of “self-supporter” bearing the SS No.5677. The special category allowed my father to drive the Jail van, as he was one of the few persons who had a driving licence issued by the British.

“When he was released, he married the daughter of another convict in 1943, just as the Japanese occupied A&N islands. Until his death, my father worked as a driver in the Transport department of the islands.”

Paradise and paradox

Today, the Cellular Jail located at Port Blair in the archipelago of 836 islands in the Andaman sea is both a paradise and a paradox. Almost equidistant, at about 1,270 km, from the port cities of Kolkata, Chennai and Visakhapatnam from the mainland, it’s growing into a tourism target.

As one takes flight to the pristine islands, they seem to be afloat in the turquoise blue waters of the Bay of Bengal. The A&N Islands are known for serene sandy shores, swelling blue-green waves of sea surf, lush jungles with hidden endemic species.

Their out-of-the-way location, isolated tribes, coral reefs, snorkelling, sumptuous seafood, island hopping and scuba-diving enhance their appeal as a must-visit destination.

The writer is a wildlife enthusiast and photographer based in Noida