The Twelfth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2010
Berkeley Prize 2010

Ishanie Niyogi

The story of a prison cell

My roots are in a civilization that dates to 2500 B.C. With such deep roots it is not surprising that I can think of many buildings that reflect India’s rich social and cultural history. While many of these buildings are World Heritage Sites; there are still others which lie neglected. One such building, now on the brink of dilapidation, is the old jail in the city of Dehradun. Through this essay I intend to bring to light the story of a very special prison cell. Special, because on several occasions during the 20th century, it was home to Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the political giants of the era who played a leading part at a critical moment in India’s history – the struggle for independence.

Like so many Indians, I grew up, oblivious of our cultural roots and of the wonders that fill our country. Strange that it takes an American wordsmith, Mark Twain, to pay homage to my country - “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and most astrictive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only!”

Picture the autumn of 1933. The season is changing – the trees have started shedding their leaves, a hue of golden brown, in contrast to the red brick walls of Dehradun jail. A gust of wind carries the leaves and sweeps them up, along with a few sheets of paper. A thin brown man hurries after them, desperate to catch them before they disappear. The wind breaks for a moment and he gathers them up. He calls out, “Panditji !”(“Pandit” being Sanskrit for Scholar with suffix -“ji”, a Hindi honorific), “I have your papers”. A man catches up with him. He is in his thirties, clad from head to toe in khadi vastra (coarse homespun cotton material), a white Gandhi cap, grey jacket, white kurta, sandals, a smile and clutching a sheaf of papers. Despite his simplicity, there is a quiet dignity about this man, “You didn’t have to”, he says. “But you have been writing since you got here. I couldn’t just let them go! , says the man graciously handing the papers to the man dressed in khadi.”Yes, I suppose so.”, muses the older man. Out of an arched alcove emerges a British officer, “So, Mr. Nehru, are you ready to be discharged?”, he asks. “Yes, indeed”, replies Jawaharlal Nehru. Turning back, he takes one last look at the building in which he has been imprisoned for the past ten months. Did he know he was to become a regular visitor!

Dehradun was a summer retreat for British officers, a picture-postcard hill station located in the verdant Doon valley within the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. The capital city of Uttarakhand state, it is majestically flanked by the Himalaya and the Shivalik mountain ranges.

It was in this picturesque town that Jawaharlal Nehru, second only to Mahatma Gandhi during the struggle for independence, was incarcerated for taking part in non-violent protests during the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1931. In 1942 the Mahatma designated Nehru as his political heir and in 1947 Nehru became the first prime minister of independent India. Other than the numerous visits that Nehru made willingly and happily to the Doon Valley, there were also a number of involuntary visits when he was brought here as the “guest” of the British government. The last sunset for Pandit Nehru in the Valley was 26 May, 1964; he passed away the next day, 27 May, 1964.

Jails were a second home to India's first Prime Minister and freedom fighter Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. He was imprisoned four times in the Dehradun Jail during the nation's struggle for independence. According to the officials of the old jail premises, the British kept Pandit Nehru for the first time from June 6, 1932 to August 23, 1933, the second from May 8, 1934 to August 11, 1934, the third from November 17, 1940 to February 28, 1941 and the fourth from April 19, 1941 to December 3, 1941. He was lodged in the warden’s quarters when he was imprisoned for the first time. The last three times he was in a cell that later came to be known as the 'Nehru ward'.

Nehru was a prolific writer and despite the hardships he faced during his confinement he completed 'Glimpses of World History', 'Discovery of India' and 'Letters from a father to his Daughter'. 'The Last Letter', as Nehru preferred to call it, written from Dehra Dun prison in 1933 to Indira, gives us a glimpse into the thought process of a father and insight into its likely impact on his daughter, both of whom went on to shape India’s destiny. His last in a series of letters from prison, shows the compassionate and tolerant nature of the man. What impresses me most of all, is his total lack of bitterness towards the Occupation Forces.

He also penned part of his autobiography while in jail including these lines about the Dehradun jail: "For fourteen and a half months I lived in my little cell or room in the Dehra Dun gaol, and I began to feel as if I was a part of it." He called it a “thought-infested room” where he had spent his time discussing topics ranging from history to politics with the other freedom fighters also serving time.

Currently at the Dehradun jail there are a few identified old buildings – the old jail, warden quarters and a few old buildings surrounded by barren land, all within the 11 acre campus. The stone and brick walls are covered with a coat of fading whitewash. The barrack has an arched entrance with the remnants of the word “Quarters” still visible. Opposite is a cobbled driveway leading to the main iron gate of the old jail complex. Nehru’s cell stands with barely half a roof and cracked walls. A rusty iron door and wild growth greets visitors to the prison complex. The tin roof of the toilet is missing, the open yard is full of bushes, the plaster of the cell’s ceiling is peeling off and the verandah has cracks. In short, official apathy is evident from the poor upkeep of the cell in which the country’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, was lodged during the freedom struggle.

Until recently this historic building was being used as housing for retired jailors, with plans for it to be demolished to house a shopping complex. The Hindustan Times, a daily national newspaper, discovered the forgotten cell after more than seventy years through extensive research. According to a Hindustan Times representative, “Searching out the cell was not easy as the Jail campus comprises of the old jail, new jail and several other old buildings.” Also, the fact that no complete record of Nehru’s imprisonment in Dehradun could be traced made identifying the cell, a difficult task.

Eventually Nehru’s own diaries solved the mystery. He wrote on 8 June 1932: "We are really not in the jail proper but just outside it in the warders' old quarters." Nehru clearly writes in his autobiography that his 1932 cell was located outside the gaol wall, but within the gaol compound, where the European Ward was situated. His diaries provided further clues by stating that he was allowed to take morning and evening walks for a distance of about a hundred yards from his cell. Another hint was about the height of the room," Here we have a baby wall hardly deserving the name of jail wall - barely nine feet." The wall of the discovered barrack is just about nine feet; it is located about a hundred yards from the main gate and is outside the old gaol wall but inside the campus.

Had the Hindustan Times not taken the initiative to trace this piece of history, the structure would have ended up as a shopping complex. The central jail has now shifted to the outskirts of the city in Shuddhowala, leaving behind the decrepit buildings. The authorities have kept the table, chair and bed used by the late leader during his imprisonment. An air of asceticism greets the visitors. Children from across the state visit the ward on Children’s Day, 14 November, their Cha Cha (uncle) Nehru’s birthday. This prefix to his name was a gift from the children of the nation.

Although the “Nehru ward” is one of four monuments in the state related to the freedom struggle, technically, it does not fit in the category of monuments to be preserved by the Archaeological Survey of India, because any monument taken up needs to be at least a century old. Nevertheless, it is impossible to overlook its historic significance as it represents the very real and important stories of people who left their mark on the Nation. The prison in its present form still demonstrates with some precision the facilities, conditions and attitudes prevailing in a prison cell of that period. The austere and monumental quality of the cell makes it a landmark feature. The cell is a tribute to the human spirit which cannot be crushed even when confined to the bleakest of surroundings. The preservation of the Nehru’s cell is as important to India as is the preservation of Mandela’s cell on Robben Island or Martin Luther King’s cell in the Birmingham jail. They are universal monuments to the human struggle for freedom and independence during the 20th Century.

This prison cell compound can play an important role in tourism because the income received from visitor activities can be used to fund the maintenance of this historic building. The prison cell could be a unique attraction offering visitors an insight into the well preserved cell of an intellectual Statesman. The simple fixtures used by the late leader during his imprisonment could all be placed within the cell. Guided tours of the jail block would enable tourists to see first hand, the conditions under which some of India’s greatest minds were held captive. It would also offer other experiences, such as an interactive museum, an environment friendly institution and a nature trail around the 11 acre campus.

Jawaharlal Nehru shaped the image of modern India. He was a passionate advocate of education for India's children and youth, believing it essential for India's future progress.His government oversaw the establishment of many institutions of higher learning, including the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management. Nehru also outlined a commitment to guarantee free and compulsory primary education to all of India's children. However, today there is a considerable decline in the percentage of out-of -school children. The state of Uttarakhand is full of such street children, earning a living for their families either picking rags or other menial jobs. They hail from both rural and urban areas. In an effort to reach these deprived and under privileged children in the hills and the slums of Dehradun, a school with a purpose would be run by renovating the European ward and the adjacent old buildings within the campus, maintaining the historic infrastructure with some strategic extension to integrate and assist a modern building. The school would allow the development of a modern Indian personality by giving free education and providing creative, recreational and physical activities. It would run in two shifts, a day school and a night school so that every child would have an opportunity to attend. The night school would offer both vocational and technical courses for those children who are forced by their parents to earn a living during the day.

The museum would be more than an intimate gallery, as it would be housed in the cells of the main jail premises, showcasing an array of innovative displays. A traditional costume doll gallery, if added to the museum could go a long way to showcase the cultural diversity of India and provide a glimpse of the world. Some galleries could be of India's most eminent personalities, which could be a brilliant analysis of India through the ages. Others would showcase the evolution of man with relevance to India’s rich civilization, along with interactive tools and measures. Nehru’s belief that the future of India lay with science and technology, makes it but obvious to have a science gallery, where workshops can be held on topics such as “How everything works around us!” Nehru once said, “Who indeed could afford to ignore science today? At every turn we have to seek its aid... The future belongs to science and those who make friends with science.” Keeping this in mind, the entire campus would be designed using the principles of Green Architecture. Workshops would show how power is generated on campus using unconventional sources of energy such as photovoltaic generation and how various measures are taken inorder to negate impacts on the environment.

The museum and restored Nehru Ward would be the major attraction, with the school maintaining a comparatively low profile. Visitors would be allowed to view the innovative teaching measures, without actually interrupting the school activities. The School would include patio spaces, gardens and a playground, integrating the school environments with the outdoors. The outdoor spaces would have tables, chairs, sitting mats offering opportunities for outdoor class, studies, relaxation, eating or working. The entire campus would be full landscaped, with a rose garden as these were Nehru’s favourite flowers. In short, the entire complex will not just be built as an attraction but will be adapted, without compromising its heritage significance, into an original and unique attraction.

Nehru once said while addressing the U.S. House Congress: “It is true that India's voice is somewhat different. It is the voice of an ancient civilization, distinctive, vital, which, at the same time, has renewed itself and learned much from you and the other countries of the West. It is, therefore, both old and new. It has its roots deep in the past but it also has the dynamic urge of today.” I cannot help but think that the complex I am proposing reflects this sentiment in the truest sense; the restored jail – Nehru Ward serving as a tie to the past hardships endured by this great man, the interactive museum, school and the use of Green Architecture, evidence of our continual and conscious push towards a brighter future.

I would invite the public, to come contribute stories, photographs and other memorabilia that was part of this jail. Thus, history that slipped into the background can be revived and new facets of the monuments can emerge. If we fail to act now, this history will quickly slip by and be destroyed. My only hope is that my generation and the next one will help cultivate a greater appreciation of the privilege of visiting and living in this historic valley. We must make sure that the memory of the blood, sweat and tears of the men who formed this Nation, is not lost.

Additional Help and Information

Are you in need of assistance? Please email
Ms. Ishanie Niyogi, Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, India
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