Prejudice, Punishment, and Protest: The Carceral Experience under Colonial Rule in India

by Ashish Rawat

The punishment must proceed from the crime; the law must appear to be a necessity of things, and power must act while concealing itself beneath the gentle force of nature.


 Michael Foucault, Punishment and Prison, Page 106

After engaging in a 63-day hunger strike in protest of the inhumane conditions that Indian prisoners were experiencing in the Lahore Prison, Jatindra Nath Das passed away on September 13th, 1929. His sacrifice highlighted the urgent need for jail reforms and drew attention to the Indian inmates held under the British colonial government. Das’ hunger strike signified opposition to British anti-black policy in Indian jails. Protests of prisoners during their incarceration were not new, but one of the most notable and publicised acts of resistance was the hunger strike led by Jatindra Nath Das and Bhagat Singh. The protest was put together by Bhagat Singh and other detainees to demand parity in the treatment of political prisoners– to be treated as equals to any European political prisoner. As Jatindra Nath Das’ condition deteriorated, the jail officials had advised his release, but the colonial government refused and suggested his release on bail, which he rejected. The 116-day strike concluded with some benefits for the prisoners, but it also provided a sobering illustration of how the British colonial government treated European and Indian inmates unequally.

Initially for the British, Indians were a naive, non-threatening group of people, who were ‘capable of’ being civilised under proper submission. Thus, when the British initially began working on Indian penology, their policies reflected were patronising, reminiscent of the so-called ‘civilising mission’. [1]

However, the perception changed after the Revolt of 1857. Indians were no longer ‘harmless’ but ‘treacherous’ people, ‘incapable of reformation’. Thus, the colonial government realised they required an iron-hand policy to nip any instance of sedition and disloyalty in the bud. [2] 

Protests, uprisings, and resistance to colonial government policies, which became increasingly common at the outset of the 20th century, were seen as a threat to law and order under the colonial government. The Ingress into India Ordinance of 1914 and The Defense of India Act of 1915 were enacted to isolate the immigrants (mostly participants of the anti-colonial Ghadar Movement in the USA), from the rest of the Indian population, out of fear that the former would incite the locals and topple the colonial government, which was a great possibility since Britain was vulnerable due to the ongoing Great War.  

The Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919, popularly known as the Rowlatt Act, was passed to crush any revolutionary activity in the country and was another act to suppress the liberty of the Indian masses. However, due to widespread opposition across the nation, including the tragic Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, this act was not put into action. [3] These regulations and acts were to be seen as the repression of the Indian populace by the colonial government.

French philosopher Michel Foucault accurately noted in an article that to discredit a revolution, “those in power” portray ‘revolutionaries’ not as rebels but as “criminals.’’ [4] By portraying the opposition negatively, those in power seek to delegitimise and discredit the revolution. ‘Revolutionaries’ are no longer seen as a reaction of the society against the oppressive political government, but as a ‘nuisance’ to social law and order, some seditious and dangerous elements of the society who have to be ‘removed’ through deportation and imprisonment. Incarceration of these ‘offenders’ was seen as containing poisonous “gases” in a “septic tank”.[5] Many new ideas of containment of these ‘dangerous’ elements were put forward. It was proposed that a “sort of settlement” be created on the lines of a prisoner of war camp, where discipline is inculcated on the lines of “civilising” power of European principles to affect the revolutionary terrorists’ “body” and “mind.”

It was proposed that such endeavours should be undertaken in remote locations to realise these ideals. The initial thought was to use the old forts that could offer security and a sizable enclosure, like those in Chunar and Ahmednagar. Many forts had been designed to contain seditious and dangerous prisoners, including the Forts of Purandar and Asirgarh. [6] However, the suggestions did not materialise. Ultimately, to ‘reform’ the convicts, the captives were deported to the isolated islands of Andaman. Deportation was a serious penalty at the time for Indian criminals since they were required to work on these remote islands to complete the labour requirement, which doubled their sentence. The Wahabis were transferred to Andaman in the 1860s after the 1857 uprising captives arrived.[7]

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the editors of the Urdu weekly newspaper Swarajya and others convicted in the Alipore Conspiracy Case, and Nasik Conspiracy Case were deported to the Andaman Islands. To regulate the prisons, the colonial government came up with the Prison Act of 1894. With the momentum of the national movement in the first two decades of the twentieth century, Hazaribagh Central Prison in the modern Indian state of Jharkhand was the first jail in Indian penal history to be turned into a “political prison” to contain seditious elements. It was an attempt to keep these detainees away from the places where there was a strong national movement. New cells were built, and new wardens and guards were appointed, which included Gurkha Reserve guards from the military police to supervise the newly transferred Sikh convicts of the Lahore Conspiracy Case., “Colonial prison buildings” as observed by Waits, “were never meant to encourage individual reforms, rather, the buildings were designed as spaces of containment and control where the British could house a population that upset their notions of rational behaviour and social order.”[8]

In the Hazaribagh Central Jail, the condition of the aforementioned Sikh captives was so deplorable that even the Superintendent himself observed that “it would drive anybody insane, and would drive me insane.”[9] The prisoners were kept in cells in such rigid isolation that one of them went mad and assaulted the doctor. [10]

For the colonial government, one of the most difficult aspects of confining these convicts was finding the labour work that could be done in isolation in their cells. Many of them were put to work picking dal (pulses), while the difficult ones were put to work on chakkis (millstones to grind wheat).

Inside a prison cell in Cellular Prison, Photo Credit: Aliven Sarkar accessed via Wikimedia Commons

C Gopalchari recorded the plight of one such prisoner named Hira Singh who was a convict confined in the Hazaribagh Jail. Gopalchari wrote, “For six years, in the jail, he never saw the Sun. He was working, grinding corn, eating, sleeping, and doing everything else in a solitary cell till his brain was almost affected. He says now he is allowed to move, which is a blessing…Jail is my house, and if I don’t like anything I don’t do it, I take the punishment, that is all.”[11] The colonial captives were also the subjects of several experiments conducted behind the walls of the jail. As recorded by David Arnold, Indian prisons were the ideal location for the colonial doctor to get corpses for dissection. As an addendum to the sentence that the court had set, prisoners were dissected. To “prevent prisoners from escaping from jail by feigning death,” the Bengal Jail Manual stated that the corpses of deceased prisoners may not be removed from the facility until an autopsy had been completed.[12]

Numerous medicinal interventions, such as those for cholera, typhoid, malaria, and plague, were tested in the prison. In one such incident, the Inspector General of Prisons in Punjab gave jail superintendents in the province instructions to regularly provide weekly doses of sulphate of quinine to prisoners during malaria season. The medicine was for the treatment of malaria. Ramadan came during the malaria season that year, however, orders were given that Muslim detainees should continue receiving their medication and should do so after sunset. [13] Although only 10% of prisoners contracted malaria, compared to 90% of the general population, prisoners were used as test subjects for similar tests conducted behind guarded walls causing widespread resentment.

Savarkar Cell, Port Blair, Andaman-Nicobar Islands, India. Photo Credit: Rashu Naik

The living conditions of the prisoners and discrimination by the jail authorities in the Cellular Jail were more or less similar. V.D Savarkar, one of the most well-known convicts of that jail describes the inhumane conditions in which prisoners were being treated. Since the colonial government claimed that the prisoners were simply “bomb throwers” who were ‘criminals’, Savarkar describes that the punishment meted out to revolutionaries was different. He labels himself and others like him as “political prisoners’. As recorded by Savarkar, political prisoners were confined in their cells and were not allowed to speak to any other prisoners there in the jail and even if they fell sick, they were not taken to hospitals but locked in their cells. They were labelled ‘D’ (Dangerous) and were hence required to do extra labour on the premises. The political prisoners were allotted to turn the oil mile as a part of their daily labour.

In the words of Savarkar: “…twenty turns of the wheel were enough to drain away the strength of the strongest cooly and the worst, brawny badmash. No dacoit past twenty was put on that work. But the political prisoners were fit to do it at any age. And the doctor in charge even certified that he could do it!”[14]

In his reminiscences of his time in the cellular jail, another prisoner, Barindra Ghose mentions the langoti (a piece of cloth) that was provided to them while bathing in an open space, but the cloth was so skimpy that they could not cover their bodies. Ghosh saw the ‘bathing affair’ as such a gross humiliation that he often prayed to Earth “that she burst open and take him into her bosom”.[15] A committee on jail administration was proposed in 1913–1914 as a result of a resolution that was passed in the session of the Imperial Legislative Council. The committee’s report was titled “Report of the Indian Jail Committee.” It advised for improvement in jail administration, in light of Western experience.[16] 

However, as a result of the disparities between English and Indian prison systems, it was asserted that only a few of the Western experiments would apply to India. They did not intend to imply, however, that all Western experiments would necessarily be appropriate for introduction in the East. The suggestion of the committee includes the creation of simple imprisonment of two kinds: without liability to labour and with liability to light labour and no special treatment for the political prisoner. Numerous host inmates were moved from the Andaman cellular jail to the local jails by the recommendation of this committee’s proposal. Meanwhile, the Non-Cooperation Movement sparked a political surge in the nation, making jails the new site where people could protest against colonial policies. Handling the prisoners who had been taken during the Non-Cooperation Movement became a challenge for the colonial government. To overcome this difficulty, they created a new class of prisoners called “better class” prisoners to separate the various political prisoners while excluding those who committed violent crimes and constituted the greatest threat to the state. Compared to other convicts, this ‘better class’ would get preferential treatment.

Similarly, in Bengal, the colonial government created a ‘special class’ for the accommodation of those political prisoners whose ‘social position’ and ‘mode of living’ distinguished them from ‘ordinary convicts’. Under this special class those Indian prisoners whose mode of living approximated the European, were classed as European and given the privileges associated with that class in prison.[17]

In addition, the convicts were categorised broadly as European and Ordinary. The convicts who most closely resembled the Western way of life belonged to the European class. Based on the issue of health, this class was provided with superior comfort. The issue of this unequal treatment between inmates in Europe and India was sparked by the passing of Jatin Das in 1929. The widespread protest led the colonial government to create further categories of prisoners. Three classifications of convicts were established to address this issue. Class A contained “non-habitual” offenders of “good character.” Class B would consist of European, Anglo-Indian, and Indian convicts whose level of living was greater than the ordinary jail population. Prisoners in Class C are individuals who did not meet the requirements to be in A or B Class. [18]

The colonial government’s updated categorization system, which further segregated inmates based on the social status of the Indian community, exacerbated racial inequalities. The Civil Disobedience Movement’s Satyagraha inmates who were assigned to class C suffered due to both their class background and their political ideals. On the other hand, the elite leaders were given more liberty as compared to C-class prisoners. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru who wrote My Experiments with the Truth and The Discovery of India respectively while serving time in jail can be read to understand the experiences of the latter.

With the beginning of the Second World War, the National Movement in India picked pace. Participants of Individual Satyagraha, Quit India Movement, and Royal Indian Navy Mutiny were deemed ‘criminals’–this increased the number of prisoners. Moreover, the colonial government struggled with its classification system.

The Quit India movement marked a shift in the policy of the colonial government to categorise prisoners as Congress and Non-Congress and emphasis was given to segregation of Congress prisoners from the rest. [19] 

Another group that was segregated from these prisoners was the group of those involved in violence which included leftists, and revolutionaries. Hunger strikes were common in Indian prisons, demanding their privileges, and abolition of differences based on the class among political prisoners. However, the system of unequal classification in prisons remained symptomatic of the failure of the nationalist elite to give up the higher-class privileges.[20]

Foucault claimed that beginning in the early nineteenth century, penal imprisonment included both the restriction of liberty and the technical alteration of people. [21]       

The colonial government, in theory, built their penal regulations around this idea. On the contrary, as discussed above, the colonial government adopted a policy of segregation, isolation, exile, and harsh punishment because it was believed that the Indian people could not be changed. This strategy intended to exert control over the minds and bodies of the Indian population in addition to limiting their freedom. The colonial government believed that they could efficiently put down any opposition or revolt against their rule by punishing them severely and excluding them from society. Initially, the protest in the prisons was against the basic amenities, which later turned to equal treatment on par with European prisoners. The number of prisoners increased as the Indian masses participated more actively in the national movement since imprisonment was seen as a noble form of protest against colonial rule. The prisons suddenly transformed into political spaces for the colonial government to contain the dissemination of political ideas. To achieve this goal, the division between prisoners was created based on class, political ideology, race and caste. In this way, it was hoped, that the prisoners would be unable to organise mass resistance and would also function as a way to track and manage the activities of the prominent leaders.

[1] The history of the Indian penology begins from the East India Company Act of 1793, where The Governor General was given the authority to apprehend and imprison any person or individuals accused of committing crimes against the British dispensation. It is interesting to note that there was no deadline for taking the inmate to court, making the incarceration duration indefinite. Another law employed by British government to “suppress” revolutionary activity was the Regulation III of 1818 in Bengal, which was later extended to other regions of British India. The law did not specify a time limit for detention, similar to the East India Company Act of 1793. An essentialist approach to Indian society served as justification for the Regulation’s usage as a strong and effective tool. The Indians were seen as a specific characterization of a Hindu, whose unwillingness to “actively” collaborate with the colonial government rendered him unsuited for ‘normal’ ways of suppressing crime. For details check Singh, U.K. Political Prisoners in India, 1920-1977. Retrieved from pp.33-40.

[2] Cohn, Bernard S. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. Princeton. Princeton University Press. 1996. P.124.

[3] On 13th April, 1919 at a public meeting had been organised at Jallianwala Bagh in defiance of The Anarchial and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919. About twenty thousand people were gathered because of the Baisakhi festival. General Dyer reached there and ordered firing without giving any warning. Firing continued for about ten minutes and according to official account, 379 people were killed, and 1200 were wounded. For further details, see Dutta, V.N. Jallianwala Bagh, Ludhiana, Lyal Book Depot. 1969.

[4] Foucault, Michel. ‘The Dangerous Individual’, in Lawrence D. Kritzraan (ed.), Michel Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984, (trans. Alan Sheridan and others.). New York. Routledge. 1990. p. 142.

[5] Singh, U.K. Political Prisoners in India, 1920-1977. Retrieved from p.51.

[6] Ibid. p.54.

[7] The Wahabi movement was a socio-religious movement that sought to restore the original spirit of Islam, by protecting it from the influence of Sikhs in Punjab and British in Bengal. The movement was led by Sayid Ahmad of Rai Bareily. The followers of this movement were known as Wahabis or Ahle Hadis.  During the revolt of 1857, Wahabis were responsible for the spread of anti-British sentiments. For details see, Khan, Iqtidar Alam, ‘The Wahabis in the 1857 Revolt: A Brief Reappraisal of Their Role’ in Social Scientist, 2013, pp. 15-23. Retrieved from

[8] Waits, Mira Rai. ‘Imperial Vision, Colonial Prisons’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. Vol. 77, No.2, 2018. p. 165.

[9] Singh, U.K. Political Prisoners in India, 1920-1977. Retrieved from P.56.

[10] Arnold, David. ‘The Colonial Prison: Power, Knowledge and Penology in Nineteenth Century India’. in D. Arnold and D. Hardiman (eds.). Subaltern Studies. Vol. VIII. Delhi. Oxford University Press, 1994. p. 152.

[11] Rajagopalachari, C. Jail Diary: A Day to Record of Life in Vellore Jail in 1920. Bombay. Bhartiya Vidya Bhawan. 1991. p. 26.

[12] Arnold, David. Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India. Delhi. Oxford University Press. 1993. p. 108.

[13] Ibid. p. 108.

[14] V.D. Savarkar, My transportation for Life: A Biography of Black Days in Andamans (trans. V.N. Naik). In the words of Savarkar: “…twenty turns of the wheel were enough to drain away the strength of the strongest cooly and the worst, brawny badmash. No dacoit past twenty was put on that work. But the political prisoners were fit to do it at any age. And the doctor in charge even certified that he could do it!” Pg 81.

[15] Ghose’s pain is palpable when he writes , “I understood that here there was no such thing as gentleman, nor such thing as man, here we’re just convicts.”Ghose, Barindra Kumar. The Story of My Exile. Pondicherry. Arya Office. 1922. P.53

[16] Report of the Indian Jails Committee, 1919-20. Vol.1. Simla. Government Central Press. 1920. p. 397.

[17] Singh, U.K. Political Prisoners in India, 1920-1977. Retrieved from p.96.

[18] Ibid. p. 151.

[19] Ibid. p.233.

[20] Ibid. 235.

[21] Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (trans. Alan Sheridan). New York. Vintage Books.1995. p. 233.

Ashish Rawat is a Senior Research Fellow and President of the Researchers’ Society at the Department of History, Panjab University, India. He is a member of the British Association of South Asian Society (BASAS). Rawat is currently working on the pre-modern history of the Panjab region in India. His primary research interests are the history of migrations, frontiers and borders. He is also interested in researching the philosophy of existentialism.

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