The Sinister Twilights
The Sinister Twilights
Twilights at Port Blair were never pleasant for Dr. Diwan Singh, the Senior Medical Officer for the Andamans and Nicobar Islands. They made him nostalgic; the faint clouds on the horizon, gilded by the unsteady brush of a drooping sun, silhoutted his distant home.
That particular evening in 1941 had disturbed him more than ever – he could not make out why. He had, of course, heard some blood-curdling yells from a tribal hamlet, while passing by a small island, on his way back to his headquarters after inspecting a medical camp. It continued to echo in his memory and sounded somewhat ominous – again he did not know why.
He must do something to cleanse his mind of elusive forebodings. He drew a scrap of paper and scribbled out his thoughts in Punjabi:
‘It is the storm- over there,
Lingering with a blind fury,
It will strike, from across the horizon;
It will strike-
And leave in its wake,
Darkness, obliterated Sun – the Moon – the Stars.
The storm of destruction, turmoil and change.
I won’t know you, neither you me
The storm will strike –
The storm . . .’
His feeling proved premonitory, in a few days.
World War II broke out. On the 23rd of March 1942 the Japanese struck at Port Blair. By then most of the English officers on the archipelago had escaped to the mainland. The rump of the administration had an uncertain duty.
As a few thousand Japanese marched into the town while more waited in their ships off the coast, the leftover of the colonial bureaucracy had to take prompt decisions’ – whether to retain their allegiance to the beaten British Hon or to salute the Rising Sun. Among those who decided in favour of the former course of action were the officials of the telegraph department. They blew up the office with the help of mines laid earlier – but were captured.
The hapless native population managed to show welcome signs to the grinning invaders. The occupation was complete within twelve hours without a single shot being fired. Many viewed this as auspicious. And when the Japanese threw the doors of the Cellular Jail open and signalled the prisoners out, there was a bit of euphoria among those who knew something of history and of the fall of the Bastille.
A few exciting hours were to pass before the islanders would realize the meaning of the invaders saving their bullets that long.
Soon, the Japanese were seen moving about through the bazaars, picking up anything they liked and from any shop. Hard as they tried, the merchants found it difficult to keep their welcome smiles stretched for too long. Nor could they cry, for some of them were slapped even for drawing long faces. They must look grateful.
The plundering spree continued on the second day – until the unexpected happened.
‘Look,’ Mr. Kesar Das, a kind of legend in Port Blair, popularly known as Masterji, told us, pointing at a row of houses across his balcony. ‘Beyond that was theresidence of my friend Julfiquar, called Sonny by us. A Jap entered his house and picked up two eggs. “Please leave one, for we have a child who needs it,”
Sonny had the cheek to say, trying to look, polite through a grin. But the officer cast a menacing look at him, his gestures daring Sonny to check him. Sonny suddenly drew his gun and fired.’
The picture of the aftermath that emerges from what Masterji told us and from an invaluable document prepared by Rama Krishna, a Tahsildar whom the Japanese had appointed the Deputy Commissioner of the Territory and who was also the Chairman of the Andanlans Branch of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian Independence League, was like this: Julfiquar?s shot only grazed past the Jap’s head, but he was soon back on the scene with a thousand soldiers firing their rifles in every direction. They went on setting fire to all the houses on then-way. Finally they caught hold of Sonny.
It was evening. Practically all the residents of Port Blair were driven to the market place. They included Sonny’s parents and brothers. They saw their Sonny, dear to all for his courage and kind-heartedness, kicked and dragged to a corner of the ground.
And here is how Bijay Bahadur, an eye-witness, narrated the event over All India Radio, Port Blair: ‘A burly Jap soldier approached and caught Sonny by his hands and started beating him methodically. I had never known anything so cruel in my life. Then Sonny was made to stand; six soldiers took positions with their rifles; the Commander stood with a white kerchief. He dropped it and Sonny was shot dead.’
As the deadly sound died down, the stunned crowd was ordered to disperse.
While the Japanese were plundering and burning Port Blair, some of the convicts let loose by them attacked the suburban villages. There were clashes. Both plunderers and innocent villagers, scores of them, fell dead.
Some affluent locals thought it a sound strategy in the prevailing situation to befriend the Japanese, throwing parties or heaping gifts on them. Through these contacts the Japanese realized that most of the people who mattered had fled the islands or were absconding. The population present could be easily cowed down.
And they acted promptly. They must have the best available accommodation. Without the least apology they entered any bungalow, private or official, and literally threw out its occupants. Atul Chandra Chatterjee, an officer who stuck to his position as the head of the Treasury and Financial Advisor to the Chief Commissioner, was evicted from his house. As he came out to the lawns, hapless and perplexed, the Japs saw that a crowd had gathered in front of the gate, curious about the fate of an officer considered important by them. It could be favoured with a glimpse of the Japanese sword power.
‘Halt!’ cried the leader of the gang. He gave a broad grin at the crowd before rushing upon Atul Babu. He then unsheathed his sword and stretched his grin as well. Next moment Atul Babu’s head rolled on the grass.
Once comfortably lodged, they looked for pleasure. They mobilized a gang of ex-convicts who raided the villages, captured women. They were led into Jap camps in the manner cattle are driven into slaughter house,’ reminisced an old witness.
Days passed smoothly for the new potentates. They had set up a civilian government with Narayan Rao as the Chief Com- missioner. Rao, partly in good faith and partly under the spell of his unexpectedly gained status, liberally used the only car at the disposal of an Indian.
But perhaps he sported his blessings a bit too liberally. Before long the Japanese ships were bombarded by the Royal Air Force. There must be a spy ring transmitting information to the Allies and Narayan Rao could be its hub, for he had been observed driving his vehicle at night. One evening the ‘Chief Commissioner’ was stopped right in the market and unceremoniously dragged from his status symbol and pushed into the Cellular Jail.
Suspicion grew into phobia. Hundreds were rounded up and herded into jail. Let us listen to Rama Krishna:
Between the tortures, interrogation by the Japanese continued, accompanied by constant blows with a thick stick. When continuous questioning alternated with beatings yielded no desired result, new steps were taken. Sprinkling a part of the body with petrol and setting fire to it until the entire skin burnt deep was one step. Another step was to incise daily some part of a man’s body and to sprinkle the cut with salt or powdered chilli.
When all these methods failed, wives and children from the homes of the victims were brought to the jail In the torture chamber the woman was beaten in front of her husband and the husband was beaten in front of his wife. Or the wife was asked to beat her husband and the husband, the wife. Children were beaten in front of their parents … sometimes the son was asked to beat the mother or father. Confession? But what confession, having done nothing . . .? Seven prisoners were shot dead. Many died in the torture chamber and it is not known what happened to their dead bodies. The entire population was panic-stricken.’
Summary deaths were meted out to those who did not prove quite servile. Among them was Dr. Dewan Singh.
It was a relatively lonely forenoon when I was walking across the courtyard of the Cellular Jail. Early in the April though it was, the heat was unbearable, particularly for a group of three Europeans passing by me. They wiped their faces frequently and cursed the weather, hardly paying any attention to their guide’s commentary: ‘This is the famous Cellular Jail, the Bastille of India . .’
‘The best jail of India?’
‘No, madam,’ the guide corrected the stooping old lady. ‘The Bastille.’
‘The Bastille, you see
The lady shrugged. Every European was not bound to know the significance of the Bastille. Her eyes had fallen on me. No reason why I should not help.
The Bastille was the fortress used as a prison which the rebels stormed, marking the beginning of the French Revolution
‘Oh, oh, oh . .. the French Revolution! Thanks.’
She hurried to catch up with her companions. The guide eyed me with some wariness.
‘Look, my friend,’ I told him in Hindi. ‘Your analogy does justice neither to the Bastille nor to the Cellular. Jail. The Bastille had been stormed by the French themselves and not by any foreign invader. Therein lies the Bastille’s glory. The Cellular Jail had a more glorious past than the Bastille and far more tragic …”
He did not seem to appreciate.