‘Veer’ Mahabir Singh’s body was thrown into the sea but his portrait doesn’t adorn any wall in Parliament
Govt fetes Savarkar as ‘Veer’ but has unceremoniously dropped names of over 450 ‘Veers’ from plaques in Andaman. Here is the story of one such ‘Veer’, largely forgotten even in his home state of UP
Amedia report (Kolkata edition of Millennium Post, dated 6th September 2020) informed that in new memorial plaques installed in the Cellular Jail, names of more than 453 freedom fighters have been dropped. No reason was cited but most of the names dropped apparently were Bengalis, Muslims or Communists.
Not surprisingly, the new plaques installed by the BJP government displays the name of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar prominently. Savarkar is of course the one prisoner who begged for mercy, promised good conduct and asked for mercy from the colonial masters not once but four times. It is an irony that while his name occupies a pride of place, names of hundreds of those who didn’t seek mercy, have been dropped unceremoniously.
Over a thousand revolutionaries from different parts of India housed in the same jail never asked for pardon; many of them were close comrades of Bhagat Singh. There was Barindra Kumar Ghosh, who was among those who initiated the revolutionary movement in India; there were Ghadar Party leaders most of whom were agricultural labourers; there was Trailokya Nath Chakravarti, who spent 30 years of his life in jail; there was Sachindranath Sanyal, who was awarded life imprisonment twice in his lifetime and there were comrades of Bhagat Singh like Shiv Verma, Gaya Prasad, Jaidev Kapoor, B.K. Sinha, heroes of the Chittagong Armoury Raid (many of whom were teenagers) and so many more!
Then there was Sher Ali Khan, a Wahabi rebel, who was deported to Andaman in the 1860s where he assassinated the Viceroy of India, Lord Mayo.
Trailokya Chakravarti notes in his autobiography that Savarkar categorically refused to participate in hunger strikes and advocated good behaviour with the jail authorities. One of the many heroes who lost their lives in the infamous prison was Mahabir Singh—whose 116th birth anniversary was observed on September 16.
A Revolutionary Life
Born in an affluent family of Eta in 1904, he joined D.A.V. College of Kanpur in 1925. The college was a hub of underground revolutionaries at that time and soon Singh became a member of the clandestine organization, Hindustan Republican Association (HRA). He opted to become a whole-timer and was shocked to receive the enthusiastic support of his landlord father. His younger brother Balbir remembers that though a college dropout, Mahabir was well-read and had good knowledge of English, Sanskrit, Bengali and later learnt some Persian too.
In the fall of 1928, HRA was transformed into Hindustan Socialist Republican Association under the leadership of Bhagat Singh and the revolutionaries decided to loot the Punjab National Bank in Lahore to raise funds for their movement. Though this particular action failed, HSRA revolutionaries went on to assassinate the notorious Assistant Superintendent of Lahore Police, J.P. Saunders, and later bomb the Central Legislative Assembly to oppose two draconian legislations. Along with many of his comrades, Mahabir was arrested on 19 June, 1929. He was awarded life imprisonment in the Lahore Conspiracy Case and was deported to Andaman.
In Andaman, the Indian Bastille
Freedom Fighter B.K. Sinha has compared the Cellular Jail of Andaman with the infamous Bastille Jail of pre-Revolution France.
However, the Cellular Jail resumed taking prisoners in 1932 and Mahabir Singh was among the first batches of prisoners sent there. Prisoners were made to sleep on the wooden floor which became very cold at night. They encountered snakes and scorpions, which came out of the cracks in the walls. Malaria was rampant. The cells had no provision for light and ventilation. Prisoners were made to work rigorously, abused incessantly and not given proper food, water, clothing, housing, sanitation and other basic facilities. Medical facilities were also very poor. News of these terrible conditions reached the mainland and created an uproar, following which most prisoners were transferred to other jails after the First World War.
However, the Cellular Jail resumed taking prisoners in 1932 and Mahabir Singh was among the first batches of prisoners sent there. Prisoners were made to sleep on the wooden floor which became very cold at night. They encountered snakes and scorpions, which came out of the cracks in the walls. Malaria was rampant. The cells had no provision for light and ventilation.
When appeals for improvement failed, prisoners decided to go on a hunger strike. Thirty-three prisoners including Mahabir Singh began their hunger strike on 12 May, 1933. The trio of Mahabir, Gaya Prasad and B.K. Dutt were identified as the brain behind the agitation and they were isolated and confined to dark cells.
From the sixth day of strike, force-feeding of the prisoners began. Doctors divided themselves into groups and along with armed policemen they started breaking into the cells of the agitators one by one. Some physically not very well-built prisoners were forcefully fed with milk but it was very difficult to feed the stronger ones like Mahabir.
The ultimate sacrifice
On 17th May 1933, two doctors along with some heavily-built jail staff, marched towards Mahabir’s cell. As soon as Mahabir saw them he blocked the entrance with his full strength. The policemen were able to open the door after a lot of struggle. Inside the cell, they faced blow after blow from Mahabir despite the fact that he was on hunger strike for the past six days.
Finally, he was forcibly pinned to the floor for forced-feeding. The doctor was an amateur and the rubber tube meant for pouring milk through the nose was not placed properly, and the milk went to the lungs instead of the stomach. Unaware of the mishap, the attendants left him unconscious in his cell.
Alarmed at not hearing his voice, other prisoners began calling his name. They after some time could make out the muffled voice straining to say Good-bye!”.
When he was finally taken to the hospital, as the stretcher passed in front of Gaya Prasad’s cell, Mahabir Singh waved his hand and said, “Good-bye, doctor!” (Prasad was a physician).
Prasad, Dutt and other prisoners waited anxiously for some news. After several days, Prasad was able to get hold of an attendant who finally revealed that Mahabir had died that very day and his body had been thrown into the sea. The hunger strike continued and two more prisoners lost their lives.
The death of these three young revolutionaries sent shockwaves throughout India. Protests erupted in major cities, forcing the government to accept demands of the prisoners.
One final hunger strike was organised in 1937 demanding immediate release of all political prisoners. The demand became a mass movement as people did not want another Mahabir Singh and most of the revolutionaries were released or shifted to prisons in mainland India.
(The author is a PhD scholar at JNU researching the lives of freedom fighters)