NEW DELHI: There is much work to be done in the matter of treatment of political prisoners. They are treated as far as I can see in every way just like ordinary, simple and rigorous convicts. There is absolutely no difference in the food or the discipline or the tasks set,” says C Rajagopalachari, a stalwart of the freedom movement in his ‘Jail Diary’.
Published in 1922, it is an eyewitness account that chronicles the sufferings of countless, unfamiliar men and the pain they endured in prison to attain the common goal of independence.
Popularly known as Rajaji (1879-1972), the iconic leader narrates what he witnessed and experienced himself while lodged in the Vellore Central Prison.
“They had happy faces. Sesha Reddy was a pious, manly, strong, well-built, dark, sturdy young giant. He bore marks of the recent assault which the jail officials had made on him.”
Sesha Reddy, who ground corn into flour and two more prisoners who made woollen rope were among the numerous inmates he makes a mention. Some inmates also worked in the printing press.
Independent India’s first Indian Governor General and also the last one to occupy that position says that the whole system of jail administration was a scheme for slave labour in its fullest shape. It shines light on how the British regime treated Sathyagrahis and other prisoners.
Even for specific tasks, that warranted use of cattle, men were made to work and they were treated as slaves, laments Rajaji.
Such tasks include ‘pressing oil’ or the process involved to manufacture edible oil. For flimsy reasons, Sathyagrahis were put in solitary cells. Rajaji points out that two inmates Subba Rao and Venkat Rao were put in such enclosures, a punishment. “It is atrocious that we should be thus locked up in single cells.”
Rajaji, who suffered from asthma and boils and lost weight during his imprisonment, narrates the despicable condition in prison and the hospital attached to jail. Infested with bugs, lice and flies, the swarm of mosquitoes made sleep a luxurious affair.
Many inmates had taken ill, unable to cope with the prison condition, which includes poor food. The silver lining, it appears from the pages of the diary that there was solidarity among the prisoners in Vellore jail, who hailed from several parts of the country and also belonged to various faiths. “Ramamurthi was vomiting the whole night. Hanumanta Rao and Md Hussain were sitting near him soothing and helping him.”
Rajaji says: “How beautifully does my neighbour Md Ghouse’s La ila mix with my own silent prayer. Yet how the two communities warred with and killed and hated each other and how much misunderstanding still continues.”
When he was imprisoned along with his Congress party colleague, he says they were given an aluminium cup and a dish (plate) each.
“Washed them and had my first prison meal.. the rice was too much for me, but it could not be enough for full eaters.” He shared his food with two prisoners. While one was convicted for receiving stolen property and another was a thief. “These poor devils are dreadfully hungry.” The diary is full of references to the poor quality of food and the pathetic ‘Kulambu.’
Rajaji’s cell was about 11.5 ft by 8.5 ft and the jail inmates had to put up with the bad odour of urine emanating from a drain nearby. The British government treated them like common criminals. No newspapers were allowed.
“Our food is the same as that of ordinary criminals, we are locked in and let out at the same hours, we have to eat on the filthy ground standing or sitting on our toes and hurrying it off the plate, like beggars being fed. But we are not going to break for all this treatment. The government does not know that this merely enhances our sacrifice and strengthens our determination. Special comforts would undermine our strength in a subtle manner.”
In the jail, the stalwart of the freedom movement says two unglazed, absorbent pots were placed in a corner of the cell to serve as ‘commode and chamber pot’.
These pots had no cover and were placed within 4 ft of the bed. It does not ‘make the place sweet,’ and having a round bottom it wobbled when used. “My cell and the other cells in this solitary confinement block are comparatively free from bugs and lice. There is no furniture but only a brick and mortar platform for bed and the roof is an arched masonry work.”
The detestable prison hospital ambience could be understood from Rajaji’s own words: “The Superintendent appears to have instructed my removal to the hospital again. I told the Sub-Assistant Surgeon that if I had a choice in the matter I would prefer to remain in the cell. The bugs in the hospital are too much for me. The night pots kept in continual use through the nights make it practically like sleeping in the verandah of a big latrine... though it is solitary confinement here in the cell, it is better than the other place.” However, he was treated in the prison hospital for his illness.
On December 21, 1921, Rajaji was lodged in the Vellore Central Jail after a Sub-Divisional Magistrate sentenced him to 3 months’ simple imprisonment. He was General Secretary of the Indian National Congress.
On his arrival, he and another freedom fighter, Subramania Sastriar were taken to solitary imprisonment cells, along with condemned prisoners and recalcitrant convicts.
The diary brings alive the tumultuous events of the times like nation-wide strikes demanding freedom, and unceasing imprisonment of freedom fighters. It captures the yearning for ‘Swaraj’ among prisoners and has a reference to the Moplah prisoners in Vellore. A copy of the diary is available with the Tamil Nadu government’s Archives and Historical Research here.
On December 24, 1921, Rajaji says: “I was given my medal this morning. 8398, 21-12-21 (Date of Entry), 20-3-22 (Date of release) on a little wooden piece to be hung to the neck by a string.” He was released on March 20, 1922. “Only two things stand between us and the freedom. Fear of prison and fear of death.”