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Cellular Jail: Stories of Clemency and Betrayal

The Kashmir Monitor





By Zubair Ahmed

Modi’s recent visit to the Islands has brought Cellular Jail and Savarkar back into focus. Cellular Jail had many variants of inmates. And, though the common cause for which they fought might be liberation of the country from the British. But the contemptuous reference to others continued inside the jail premise, which led to even betray those ideological opponents to the British and brand them terrorists. If Savarkar submitted clemency petitions to escape the prison life, another inmate Khushi Ram Mehta complained about laxity of discipline in Andaman citing the revolutionaries as terrorists following communism and socialism.

VinayakDamodarSavarkar (Convict No. 32778) in his clemency petition to the Home Member of the Government of India on 14th November 1913, concludes with the statement:
“In the end, may I remind your honour to be so good as to go through the petition of clemency, that I had sent in 1911, and to sanction it for being forwarded to the Indian Government? The latest development of the Indian politics and the conciliating policy of the Government have thrown open the constitutional line once more. Now no man having the good of India and humanity at heart will blindly step on the thorny paths which in the excited and hopeless situation of India in 1906-1907 beguiled us from the path of peace and progress.”


“Therefore, if the Government in their manifold beneficence and mercy release me, I for not but be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English Government which is the foremost condition of that progress. As long as we are in jails, there cannot be real happiness and joy in hundreds and thousands of homes of His Majesty’s loyal subjects in India, for blood is thicker than water; but if we be released the people will instinctively raise a shout of joy and gratitude to the Government, who knows how to forgive and correct, more than how to chastise and avenge.”

“Moreover, my conversion to the constitutional line would bring back all those misled young men in India and abroad who were once looking up to me as their guide. I am ready to serve the government in any capacity they like, for my conversion is conscientious so I hope my future conduct would be. By keeping me in jail, nothing can be got in comparison to what would be otherwise. The Mighty alone can afford to be merciful and therefore where else can the prodigal son return but to the parental doors of the Government?”

“Hoping your Honour will kindly take into notion these points.”

Savarkar was later released and he abstained from any revolutionary activity henceforth.

Another ‘nationalist’ inmate, Khushi Ram Mehta hailing from Hoshiyarpur, Lahore betrayed other inmates by reporting to the intelligence bureau.

In a confidential intelligence bureau report vide file no. 90/41-Jails dated 5th Dec 1941, based on extracts of statements of Khushi Ram Mehta addressed to the Chief Commissioner, he accuses some of the inmates, adherents of communism, who fought the British forces, as terrorists.

Khushi Ram Mehta, a revolutionary convicted in a Ooty Bank Robbery case of 1933 and also suspected to be implicated in two mail runner robberies perpetrated in Jullundhur District in 1941 scouts for the intelligence agency and makes a statement which says,

“The supervision in the jail was extremely defective and the convicts had been able to smuggle in a lot of communist and socialist literature. Dr.Narain Roy, nephew of Dr.BidhanChander Roy, Niranjan Sen and Lahore Group smuggled the largest volume of literature in the jail.”

He also states how this was accomplished. He refers to the freedom fighters as terrorists.

“In the Indian jails, the ‘terrorists’ had been associated freely with Civil Disobedience Movement prisoners several of whom were men of high learning and had been permitted all sorts of books for study in jail. On their release the prisoners made over their literature to the terrorists, who brought them to the Andamans unchecked by the so many authorities which formally checked them, on their way to the Andamans.”

“The prisoners requested some contacts living in Andamans outside the jail to get books direct from the continent and smuggle them through warders.”

“The prisoners requested their relatives in India to send them particular books. When they arrived in jail, they were checked by the authorities who finding them objectionable set them aside. There were, however, some terrorist prisoners who were working as ‘munshis’ in the jail office who picked those books and gave them to their comrades”

He reports to the intelligence that in connivance with the authorities, the prisoners could include their literature into the library.

“Finally, the control of the library passed into the hands of the terrorists. This was about the year 1935. The prisoners spent most of their time in reading communist or socialist literature with the result that there was hardly any left who had not been become a confirmed Communist or Socialist. Apart from the leaders of the groups held study circles, in which the principles of Socialism and Communism were explained.”

Explaining the daily routine in the jail, he states:

“At 5.30 am, the locks of our cells were opened and after performing our daily ablutions, we had some exercises till about 8.00 am, when we took our breakfast. Later, we did the nominal jail work which was allotted to us. From 10 am to 4 pm, we attended the study circles with an interval for meals by mid-day. From 4 pm to 6 pm, we attended the games. We dined at 7 pm. We moved about in the compound till about 9 pm when the cells were closed.”

“It was then decided that an organ of the party which was called the Communist Consolidation, should be started immediately.”

He further reported that the group comprising Dhanvantri, Vije Kumar Sinha, B K Dutt, Bankeshwar, Narain Roy, and Niranjan were appointed to the editorial board of a manuscript paper, named “The Call”, which they published from the jail.

“The “Call” was started as a monthly paper. Members of the Consolidation Committee contributed articles on different subjects dealing with Communism and Socialism. “The Call” was a manuscript paper. Only one copy was written and placed in the library. It had about 150 pages. These activities of the Communist Consolidation continued unhindered till about the middle of 1937.

Khushi Ram Mehta also reports about a Chittagong Group, which wanted to take the activities further.

“The Chittagong Group members therefore, started military parades, at first without the sanction of the authorities, but a little later with the full approval of the authorities. They also had their uniform prepared. They prepared their buttons and badges from the silver utensils they were given for use. Anand Singh was their leader instructor. They were able to put up a very impressive show. When they marched past, and performed several lying and attacking formations with their Bamboo sticks used instead of muskets, they appeared really magnificent. The Chittagong Group therefore attracted about 30 or 32 members of the unattached groups. Some members of the Communist Consolidation were so impressed with these military drills of the Chittagong group that they also sought permission from the Communist Consolidation leaders to join the daily parades of the Chittagong Group. This resulted in the number of the Chittagong paraders increasing to about 90.”

“Frequent public meetings were held in the jail which were addressed by different speakers on the burning topics of the day. The May Day, the October Day etc were celebrated in the jail with due solemnity.”

He also notes in his complaint that the wing where the political prisoners were lodged appeared to be a miniature Soviet school.

“The “BandeMatram” and “Bharat Mata ki Jai” and other national slogans were never used. Such was the state of affairs when Gurmukh Singh arrived. He was mightily pleased to see the work that had already been accomplished. He was placed in quarantine on his arrival. So much was the keenness of the prisoners to see the new comrade that the quarantine was not respected and somehow or other members, one after the other, even in his days of quarantine had protracted interviews with him.”

Gurmukh Singh’s idea was that they should first of all win over some warders of the jail and through them make contacts with persons living outside the jail in that Island. The latter were to establish contacts through soldiers, or employees on board the S. S. Maharaja which visited the Island about once in every ten days. He put his idea into practice immediately.

“The practice in Andamans is this that convicts transported from India to that Island are at first kept in the jail for a period of three months and then those of them who are considered less dangerous are sent out in the open to work independently if they have got private means and under Govt. supervision if they none.

“One Thakur Singh, a life convict from Amritsar who was working under government supervision was immediately got hold of by Gurmukh Singh and he agreed to work for the party. Thakur Singh was further successful in establishing contacts with two Sikh soldiers who were serving in that Island. It so happened that they were deputed on duty on board the S.S. Maharaja for escorting the prisoners back to India. Gurmukh Singh sent a letter through Thakur Singh and these soldiers to someone in Calcutta. These soldiers were however arrested in Calcutta.”

“Thakur Singh was also returned to Lahore Jail. The soldiers were not able to deliver the letter to the person for whom it was intended. The letter fell into the hands of the government. After this incident, the jail authorities made a general search of the cells of prisoners but the latter had come to know of it beforehand and therefore had buried all their books and other objectionable literature underground. The authorities also were not very keen in their search as they felt that if they recovered some objectionable literature they would not escape blame for inefficient control over the prisoners.”

When the jail inmates went on hunger strike ont July 1, 1937, Khushi Ram reported that Gurmukh Singh had incited them to go on strike against the authorities.

“After about six months of the arrival of Gurmukh Singh, 215 “terrorist” prisoners went on hunger strike. 80 other prisoners were to go on ‘work’, encouraging the hunger strikers and create noise and protest against the forcible feeding when it was resorted to. They were also to arrange to get information regarding Indian reactions to the hunger strike. It had already been arranged that the newspapers containing Indian reactions should be smuggled inside the jail through some warders and other contacts which had been established. It may be stated here that even after the arrest of the two soldiers mentioned earlier in this statement who had carried messages for Gurmukh Singh, the later had made adequate arrangements through warders and other contacts to receive and to dispatch information regularly from the Andamans.”

Cellular Jail has its share of stories of clemency petitions and betrayals, seeking favours from the British. And some of them were rewarded too. Savarakar was repatriated and released after he petitioned and Khushi Ram Mehta was repatriated in 1937 and released in 1938.

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Not in the Mahatma’s name

The Kashmir Monitor



By Apoorvanand

The recent uproar over the glorification of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, NathuramGodse, by the BharatiyaJanata Party’s Bhopal candidate Pragya Singh Thakur has forced her party to tick her off. It should be a solace for us that there is at least one non-negotiable in Indian politics, that the political cost of the celebration of the murder of the Mahatma is formidably high! But now we would be told to let the matter rest as she has been chided even by her mentors.

Let us look at the implication of this approach, that Ms. Thakur, sans this statement, should be acceptable to us as a potential representative in Parliament. She continues to be the ‘symbol of Hinduism’, as she claimed Prime Minister NarendraModi had said of her. Our satisfaction over the condemnation of Ms. Thakur makes us forget that she is being audaciously presented as the most fitting answer to secular politics, which holds that a person accused of attacks on Muslims cannot be a people’s representative in India.


The idea that a Hindu can never indulge in a terror act is, in fact, another way of saying that terror acts are always committed by non-Hindus. Or, by Pakistan, which for BJP leaders is a proxy for Muslims. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, while talking about the Samjhauta Express blast case acquittals, claimed that it was unimaginable to accept that Hindus could be involved in such acts, and that he believed that in all such crimes there was the hand of Pakistan. A crime has been committed, and since the Hindu suspects cannot (being Hindus) do it, it can only be Muslims even if they are not caught — this is the underlying assumption.

It is this theory which is being thrown at us by the BJP by presenting Ms. Thakur as its choice for the electorate of Bhopal. It has another sinister aspect. She was selected knowing well that she could not be a choice for Muslims. Her selection is therefore a message to Muslims that by not voting for her, they disregard the sentiments of Hindus, thus showing intolerance towards the majority.

By supporting her, the ‘symbol of Hinduism’, they have a chance to endear themselves to the Hindus. If they don’t, they would always be a suspect.

This argument is not new. Many pundits, while accepting that Mr.Modi was a divisive figure, urged Indians to choose him as he was the best bet for the economic development of India. So, can Muslims be so sectarian as to think only about themselves while the greater national interest is at stake?

The swift and determined move by the BJP to reject her statement on Godse is a clever ploy to make this issue irrelevant while judging her. It is as if we are asked to judge Godse, setting aside the act of murder of Gandhi by him. There are ‘respectable’ people who feel that Godse spoilt his case by murdering the Mahatma. They regret this folly as they believe that there was strong merit in his ideological stance. According to them, he rightly opposed the Muslim appeasement of Gandhi, his anger at the dangerous friendliness of Gandhi towards Pakistan is correct, and his impatience with the unwise and impractical pacifism of Gandhi is to be understood if we want to make India strong.

We are asked to understand that there was a reason Godse was forced to kill Gandhi. We are asked to not treat him as a simple criminal. He was driven by high ideas. To make him a man of ideas, he is constantly humanised. We have seen over the years people talking about his childhood, his education, his editorship. Gandhi must have done something really horrible to provoke a thoughtful human being to turn into an assassin. If anything, they imply, he was a just assassin!

So, we are asked to move away from the trivia, that is the act of the murder, to the substantive, the issues raised by Nathuram in his ‘brave defence’ in the court, which had moved people to tears even then.

The RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh (RSS), unlike the Islamic State and the Maoists, understands it well that an individual and identifiable act of violence makes it abhorrent and repulsive for the masses, whereas anonymous acts of violence are always more palatable. It was therefore important for Savarkar to distance himself from his disciple, Godse, to remain respectable. For the RSS it was necessary to disown Godse to be able to keep working on the majoritarian ideas he shared with or had learnt from Savarkar and the RSS. No known RSS hand soils his hands with blood; yet it is the politics of the RSS, not at all different from Godse’s, which makes blood flow.

Gandhi had said again and again that it would be better for him to die if India were to become inhospitable to Muslims. He was talking to those who were objecting to the recitation from the Koran at his prayer meetings. Death he could accept but not the narrowing of his heart! Neither bowing to threats or force! In the same invocation, he said, if you ask me to recite the Gita at gun point, I would refuse to obey you.

Gandhi told his audience, your heart is also large. Don’t constrict it. It is this challenge which needs to be accepted. It requires immense bravery of intelligence and humanity to be able to hear Gandhi. This intelligence would tell us that the distancing from the murder of the Mahatma by the co-travellers of Godse is in fact a strategy to enlarge the space for majoritarian ideas and draw more and more Hindus towards them, thus making Gandhi irrelevant while keeping his facade decorated.

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Why I want Pragya Thakur to win

The Kashmir Monitor



By Saba Naqvi

Regardless of whether NarendraModi remains Prime Minister or not I want terror accused Pragya Thakur to win from Bhopal. The esteemed leadership of India’s pre-eminent political party chose a terror accused as a candidate and they must endure her tenure as MP.

Pragya may be a poisonous vendor of hate and violence but she is not a hypocrite. Ever since she spoke her mind on describing NathuramGodse, the individual who shot MK Gandhi to death, as a patriot, the BJP national leadership has claimed to be disturbed. The Prime Minister spoke up after her statement, saying, he would never forgive her for what she had said and the party stated that it had initiated disciplinary action against her.


But by the time the party took this position, many members of the BJP had come up with twisted arguments somehow justifying Pragya’s validation of the assassin of a figure many revere as a Mahatma or Great Soul. Party members exposed their own problematic ideological heritage that included non-participation in the freedom movement led by Gandhi. Some of them could not help but reveal their own natural impulse to drop the veneer of falsehood and come clean on how they do indeed believe that Godse was a patriot despite having killed Gandhi.

The Godse remark in just two days exposed the ideological underbelly of the ruling party that does indeed have members who believe that Gandhi was a villain who loved Muslims and Pakistan. That’s why Godse, by his own account in a famous trial, shot him. A must-read for those who wish to engage with this debate is the book titled “The Men Who Killed Gandhi” by ManoharMalgonkar.

Seventy-one years after that crime on January 30, 1948, we have come to the point where a candidate contesting in an election for Parliament embraces the Godse world view. What’s more, a member of Modi’s council of ministers, AnantkumarHegde, endorsed her position. The MP from Karnataka had earlier kicked up a storm when he had said that “we are here to change the Constitution”. Yes, the same Constitution he took an oath to protect.

Hegde’s also received a show-cause notice to explain his position and on May 17 BJP president Amit Shah said the party’s disciplinary committee would submit a report on the matter in 10 days, after the election verdict, that is. There was more: the BJP media cell chief in Madhya Pradesh, the state from where Pragya is contesting, was brazen enough to say that Gandhi was the father of the nation of Pakistan. The BJP suspended him.

So how do we read the ideological contortions ever since Pragya uttered the “Godse is a patriot” words? One could say that the BJP is trying to occupy the space of both extreme and moderate in a national ideological pendulum that has shifted right-wards. It’s not a bad ploy—the ideological family plays to the more core beliefs, that are to be revealed step by step, and just in case some voters find them unpalatable, there are the “reasonable” elements as well.

And, voila! Modi becomes a moderate who is being stern with the fringe! That is a useful projection at a time when there is the possibility of needing some allies post-23 May. The BJP has made this ideological journey before, of being all things to all men. Earlier, former Prime Minister AtalBihari Vajpayee was offered up as the moderate to LK Advani, the architect of the Ram temple movement, who brought the BJP to national prominence. Today Modi today is the moderate who is speaking up against the hardliners, who are called “fringe” by those who believe it’s all part of a great national purpose.

It’s not. The “fringe” has been mainstream for some years now. Much before Pragya was presented to the nation as a candidate for parliament, the BJP leadership chose an unabashed Muslim-hating monk of a religious order to be the chief minister of India’s most populous state. All these debates about ‘moderate’ and ‘hardliner’ are a farce designed to make the BJP constituency feel better about themselves. It’s part of the good cop/ bad cop tactic.

To conclude, therefore, I want a terror accused to win, just so that we can, as a nation, get a reality check on where we have landed up. And just in case someone wants to ask me about whether I am afraid, here is my reply: I am so certain about the courage of my convictions, that there is no fear, although I do feel some shame for those who have tied themselves into knots over something about which there should have been no ambiguity. Bring on Pragya and let’s see what happens next.

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The ‘unpeople’ of India

The Kashmir Monitor



By Abdul Khaliq

Muslims now have to live with the bleak truth that the most powerful political party and its ideological parent, with tentacles spread across the country, are pathologically hostile to Muslims.

I fear for our future as a secular, multicultural country that once celebrated a richness of culture and tradition. Till not long ago we affirmed our common humanity even as we celebrated our differences. Our nation represented diversity, kindness, compassion and a revulsion of extremist views. But, over time, our collective souls have been deadened by violence, deepening communal and caste divides and the most perverse thinking. The cosmopolitan spirit has been throttled by hyper nationalism, populism and a deep distrust of the liberal values of tolerance and inclusion. A creeping majoritarianism is spreading across the land.


In this overheated, protracted election season, Muslims are up against it, caught between a rock and a hard place. Theirs is an Orwellian world where they are the “unpeople”— a term coined by George Orwell in his scary masterpiece 1984, to define those whose names and existence had been erased because they had incurred “Big Brother’s” ire. Muslims now have to live with the bleak truth that the most powerful political party and its ideological parent, with tentacles spread across the country, are pathologically hostile to Muslims. What makes their plight infinitely worse, is the fact that even the major allegedly secular party has consigned Muslims to social invisibility. Can one trust a party that is afraid to even allude to the Muslims’ problems, let alone address them?

When the PM evoked the 1984 mass slaughter of Sikhs and quoted Rajiv Gandhi’s infamous justification about the inevitable effect of the falling of a big tree, why did the Congress president not hit back by recalling the 2002 Gujarat riots and Modi’s Newtonian observation justifying the killing of hundreds of Muslims as a reaction to an action? He refrained, not for any ethical reason, but simply for fear of being seen as empathetic to Muslims and their problems and of equating the two tragedies. Caught between the flagrant hostility of the right-wing and the fraudulent concern of the secular front, Muslims are India’s outcasts.

In today’s India, where all issues across the political spectrum are seen through the lens of identity politics, Muslims are vilified for their custom, dress and tradition. They are physically attacked for the food they eat, discriminated against in employment, housing, and even civic amenities, and, they are routinely victimised by law-enforcement authorities simply for being Muslim. Social media is awash with the most hateful, stereotypical portrayal of Muslims as terrorist sympathisers, baby producing factories and worse. Although India has been the home of Islam and its adherents for much more than a millennium, Muslims today are constantly pilloried about their loyalty to the nation.

All assessments about Muslims are universalised, in black and white and deeply problematic. In a conversation with two CRPF sub-inspectors who have recently returned from Kashmir (I did not reveal that I was Muslim), I was told that “these Muslims are a nuisance as even their women throw stones at us.” Please note that the stone-throwing by the disgruntled Kashmiris is perceived as a common trait of Muslims — all 190 million of them. Their other complaints were that Muslims support Pakistan and insist on eating only halal meat. When I asked how the civil unrest in Kashmir could be resolved, I got an answer that stunned me: “Make sure that the police force in Kashmir is recruited only from the Shia community and they will teach these Sunnis a lesson!” How well have the British taught us the art of “divide and rule” and of polarising communities! The conversation filled me with anguish at the gratuitous distrust and hatred for Muslims. The animosity runs deep and is expressed by ordinary citizens in a matter-of-fact tone that is unnerving.

I recall clearly the sense of cautious optimism among Muslims when NarendraModi assumed power in 2014. His swearing-in was a strikingly symbolic moment, epitomised by the presence of the Pakistani PM that signalled hope of rapprochement with Pakistan (Indian Muslims know through experience that their well-being is linked to this crucial relationship). The PM represented a more decisive polity that promised an equitable social order expressed most eloquently in the Socratic slogan, “Sabkasaathsabkavikas”. This slogan encapsulated this nation’s foremost mission of fostering social solidarity based on the principle that every human being matters. Minorities felt reassured by the PM’s emphatic assertion in 2015 that “my government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly.” He repeatedly made appeals to preserve our core values of diversity, tolerance and plurality, calling on Hindus and Muslims to work together to fight poverty instead of fighting one another. His stunning embrace of Nawaz Sharif on Christmas Day 2015 filled everyone with hope.

On the ground, however, India began witnessing a deepening cultural mutation as vigilante squads terrorised and lynched Muslims in the name of protecting the cow, launched “gharwapsi” campaigns that have all but ended the freedom to choose one’s faith and used “love jihad” to stifle any kind of solidarity between the two communities. Minorities began to believe that the present dispensation’s aim is to convert India into the Hindu Rashtra of Hindutva where Muslims and Christians would live as second-class citizens. The current election rhetoric has only exacerbated those fears. The BJP LokSabha candidate for Barabanki boasted that “NarendraModi has made attempts to break the morale of Muslims. Vote for Modi if you want to destroy the breed of Muslims.”

We are on the cusp of having a new government at the Centre. Opinion polls and the most reliable — the bookies — predict victory for the NDA, but with a reduced majority. Ironically, the return of Modi as PM is the best hope for peace within the country and the neighbourhood. Imran Khan was right when he said that only Modi could help resolve Kashmir. He is the only leader with the power to rein in the lunatics whose purpose in life is to polarise communities and engage in eternal war with Pakistan. In any case, the new government’s first task would be to combat the overpowering atmosphere of distrust and hate bedevilling society which constitutes the foremost threat to the nation, more so than terrorism. The creation of a truly secular society free of prejudice and discrimination must be the prime mission.

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