Google the words ‘punishment transfer Andaman’ and you’ll find numerous reports of officers being transferred here from all over India to take up punishment postings. As many of the islands are remote and conditions can be difficult, sending someone to the atoll is sure to straighten out the stoutest heart. This was a trick the Indian government inherited from the British rulers. On some of the islands, there are no mobile phone towers or proper ship connectivity.
The Kalapani experience
Transfer to such islands is similar to spending time in jail. In that respect, the Cellular Jail lends itself as a ready metaphor for the entire experience. It’s a metaphor that is rooted in the very origin of the British interest in this atoll in the first place. The British government came to these shores to set up a penal colony to lodge all kinds of notorious convicts and later Indian freedom fighters.
In those days the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were feared by even British officers. They had to be lured here with better pay packages or early promotions. For the Indians who had the misfortune of being stockade here, this was the Kalapani experience, a place from which there was no going back.
The Cellular Jail
Nothing represents the kalapani experience better than the Cellular Jail in Port Blair. It’s the first sight that greets a visitor upon arrival. It’s a rambling three-storeyed structure with three wings - there used to be seven -- radiating from a central tower like the rays of a starfish. It was called the Cellular Jail because it had only cells - 696 of them -and no dormitories, each measuring 13.5 by 7 ft.
The tiny ventilators were placed nearly 10 ft high in order to minimize chatter among the convicts. The piss pots used to be so small that one visit to it was enough to bring it to the brim. And if one felt the urge more than once during night, no jailer would hear the prisoner’s desperate call for 12 hours from sundown to sunrise.
Remnants of a stain
Since Independence, however, the A&N Islands have been gradually rid of the kalapani stigma. New settlements were built, better infrastructure was provided and efficient officers were seconded here ensure fast development. But a little of the taint remains. Sadly the Andamans continues to be a place maintained by the Indian government to punish non-performing Indian officers.
Sanjib Kumar Roy
The author is the correspondent of the New Indian Express in Andaman and Nicobar Islands.