Kala Pani - A Forgotten History



Radio 4 Promotion Note





Producer : Geoff Ballinger

Phone number :01 22989

Synopsis :

This information is factually and editorially accurate.


Kala Pani - in Hindi it means 'the black water'.

And yet it means much, much more than that - it means exile, alienation, isolation, oppression.

Selma Chalabi visits the scene former penal colony on the Andaman Islands, of which her grandfather was the last governor.

Nowadays, Greater Andaman is a beautiful tropical island, nearer to the coast of Burma and Thailand than to India.

Back in the days of the British Empire, it meant a living hell for Indian political prisoners held in its infamous cellular jail.

It's a story that has been forgotten in Britain; not so in India, as Selma discovers.

A chance find of some reel-to-reel tapes dictated by her grandfather before his death leads journalist Selma Chalabi on a journey of discovery, to find out more about the exotic palm-fringed islands of which he was the last British governor.

Nowadays, the Andamans are best known in the outside world for the terrible damage caused by the tsunami in 2005.

Amongst Indians, however, they are a place of pilgrimage for a very different reason.

For the Andamans signified kala pani - a place of exile beyond the black water, by which the most intractable political enemies of the British Empire would finally be broken, losing their caste and family ties.

The Andamans to which her grandfather was appointed assistant governor in the 1930s were a curious backwater, and the scene of a rather curious experiment in criminal justice - thieves and murderers were allowed out into the community to work in the houses of British administrators.

As 96 year old Mollie Boomgardt, who knew Selma's grandfather, cheerily recalls, 'you knew what you'd got with a murderer as a cook; with petty thieves you didn't know where you were!'.

But the rehabilitation of prisoners was not the original purpose of the penal colony on the Andamans.

In fact, as Selma discovers, it was established in order to dispose of Britain's political enemies on the Indian subcontinent, and, in the words of Andamans historian Francis Xavier Neelam, 'break the spirit of the freedom fighters.

Crossing the black waters was a double penalty - it meant you lost whatever status you enjoyed on the mainland, as well as facing torture and isolation'.

As Selma discovers, there were two sides to India's struggle for freedom: on the one hand, there was Ghandi's non-violent approach, but on the other there was an active, armed struggle.

In Bengal, Chalabi meets the last living Indian Freedom Fighter, Sri Bimal Bhowmik, who was deported to the Andamans in the 1930s.

'From the moment we joined the Movement, we were mentally prepared to die.

We knew what our fate would be'.

Sri Bhowmik very nearly did die, during one of the hunger strikes that rocked Port Blair's notorious Cellular Jail during the 1930s'.

Solitary confinement, bar-fetters (leg irons that restricted his movements) and frequent whipping, in addition to extremely hard labour pounding coconut fibres were just some of the torments he faced at the hands of the British authorities.

So sensitive is the history of the Cellular Jail that it is now considered a National Memorial, and a place of pilgrimage for Indians.

But until now, it is not a story that has merited very much attention in Britain.

Mrs Boomgardt, the daughter of one of the gaolers at Port Blair, still vividly remembers the arrival of Freedom Fighters singing songs, and being taken by lorry to the jail We thought they deserved to be locked up for what they were doing'.

Nowadays, opinion has completely changed.

Bengali historian Parimal Ghosh of the University of Calcutta has a completely different view: 'I consider Kala Pani to be an atrocity on the Freedom Fighter'.

Selma Chalabi visits a former penal colony on the Andaman Islands."