On December 30 2018, when he was striding down the corridors of the iconic Cellular Jail in Port Blair, paying his obeisance to the memory of legions of revolutionary nationalists who had sacrificed themselves in the hellhole of Kala Paani for India’s liberation, Narendra Modi, as the prime minister of India, was in fact rekindling a deeper sense of gratitude and remembrance. The image of his bowing before Veer Savarkar’s portrait in the cell that the freedom fighter occupied, the image of him sitting immersed in contemplation, was a moving act of deep symbolism. It reflected the galvanising imagery and inspiration that Savarkar continues to evoke in the collective nationalist consciousness despite a vocal section — especially from among the Communists — heaping calumny on him for decades. In Modi’s tenacity, resilience and capacity to hold out in face of extreme adversity and hostility, one almost always discerns a penumbra of Savarkar.
That homage to Savarkar, that one poignant twilight hour that Modi spent going around the hallowed precincts of the Cellular Jail, reliving the facets of excruciating bondage that freedom fighters were subjected to, brought to mind Savarkar’s own prescient words spoken to other freedom fighters: “We are helpless today, the world holds us in disgrace today, but a day is sure to come when it will honour you, perhaps, raise statues to you in this very place where they revile you, and thousands will visit this place to offer their tributes to you as martyrs to the cause.”
That evening, when almost all of Port Blair turned out to hear Modi speak on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, on the freedom fighters who were incarcerated in Kala Paani, on how Andaman & Nicobar Islands had a central place in the national imagination of India, Savarkar’s prophecy had finally come true. Modi himself has referred to the Cellular Jail as a centre of pilgrimage which every Indian must visit at least once. “There is no state or province in India from which revolutionaries were not deported to the Cellular Jail and suffered,” he reminded us, echoing Savarkar.
On his attempt to record his experience in Cellular Jail, Veer Savarkar writes, “Hundreds of them, before me, had passed their lives under hard labour in the jail of Andaman Island…Thousands of Indians in that place have their claim for consideration, sympathy and duty on the whole of India. They belong to no one province and owe allegiance to Mother India alone, in spite of their difference in caste and creed, in party and other persuasion.”
The story of young Indu Bhushan Roy hanging himself in his cell because he refused to, any longer, be subjected to barbaric treatment; the valiant and irrepressible Ullaskar Dutt turning insane because of extreme torture and insult; and the intellectually alive and sensitive Upendranath Banerjee, among others, tied to the kolulike cattle and forced to turn the oil press; and the likes of Ram Rakha, Baba Prithvi Singh, Trailokyanath Chakravarty, Barindra Kumar Ghose, Bhai Parmanand, all of whom endured extreme hardship, are chapters that need repeated recounting.
The memory of their ordeals is unsettling. Modi’s visit to the Cellular Jail, and his hoisting of the 150 feet tricolour in Port Blair brought back to centre stage the relevance of that phase, especially at a time when puerile debates on freedom, patriotism and nationalism dominate the national discourse.
When he hoisted the tricolour as a tribute to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s heroic act 75 years ago on the very same island, Modi legitimised the long suppressed legacy of Bose being the first prime minister of Azad Hind. In 1943, Netaji had categorically observed that “Andamans, where our patriots suffered much is the first to be liberated in India’s fight for independence”. He had likened it to the Bastille in Paris. Seventy five years after he had visited the Andamans and the Cellular Jail and had hoisted the tricolour on a portion of India that he had liberated, cries of “Netaji Zindabad, Subhas Babu Zindabad” once again rent the air in Port Blair. It was one of those days when those who have cynically worked to marginalise nationalists and Netaji from the narrative of our struggle for selfhood and cultural recovery had to retreat. Modi’s act of reinstating Netaji in the centre of our national imagination is reminiscent of his effort in 2003 of reinstating the ashes of nationalist Shyamji Krishna Verma, 73 years after his death in Geneva. Mainstreaming of the nationalist narrative is an approach Modi has persisted with.
The Andamans are a unique landscape; in them converge trials, struggles, aspirations and hopes of nationalism and the triumph of liberation. Both in the strategic and ideational mindscape of India, the islands have a certain centrality. That balmy December evening, Modi brought it alive once more.