The end of a prison’s days

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Memories Journalist N Gopal visits the cell where he was held as a prisoner under POTA, Photo: Prabhu K

A FORMER DMK legislator, M Surulivel, becomes emotional on seeing the cell in the Chennai Central Prison (CCP) where he spent a year during the Emergency. It was here that several DMK leaders, including party chief M Karunanidhi’s son MK Stalin and others were beaten up mercilessly on the night of February 2, 1976. “We never thought we would get out alive,” recalls Surulivel. Soon after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi dismissed the DMK Government on January 31, 1976, nearly 500 DMK men were arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act and lodged in jails throughout the state. Surilivel is among the estimated 4-lakh people who have visited the CCP since it was thrown open to the public last month.

The 170-year-old British-built prison is set for demolition following a decision by the state government to hand over the 14- acre site for the Metro Railway Project and expansion of the Government General Hospital. The prison had ceased to function two years ago after a modern prison complex became operational in Puzhal in suburban Chennai. With its demolition, only a question of time now, prison authorities decided to allow the public to visit the historic jail, whose front gate has been a familiar sight to Tamil film buffs.

The public response has been beyond expectations. Overnight, the jail became a tourist spot for the poor and middle classes. “People are curious to see the jail where over 500 freedom fighters stayed in different periods of time. For many, it is an opportunity to see what a prison looks like,” says R Nataraj, Director General of Police, Prisons. Built in 1837, the CCP first functioned as a transit prison, housing prisoners being taken to the Andaman jail. It became a full-fledged prison in 1855.

Since then it has been part of Chennai’s history. More recently, it even played a part in the vendetta between Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. In 1996, the Karunanidhi regime arrested Jayalalithaa on various charges and lodged her in one of the cells for about 27 days. The AIADMK recalled her jail experience during the last assembly elections in these words: “She (Jayalalithaa) was lodged in a cell in the CCP, close to the stinking Cooum river, with bandicoots, lizards and cockroaches freely running about.” What the party failed to mention was that Jayalalithaa settled scores with her bete noire. After Jayalalithaa returned to power, Karunanidhi was arrested in 2001 on charges of corruption in construction of flyovers and thrown in the same cell where she was kept earlier.

For Tamil journalist Nakkheeran Gopal, the prison holds dark memories. In 2003, Gopal was arrested on several fake charges and booked under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. He was charged with possessing an unlicensed revolver and some pamphlets supporting a banned Tamil group. He spent a major part of his nine-month detention in one of the cells in CCP. Visiting the cell after five years, he still recalls the horrific moments in prison. “Once a snake entered my cell. Since we spotted it in the nick of time, my life was saved. I killed it with the help of some other prisoners,” says Gopal. Bandicoots, each the size of a cat, had a free run of the cell.

Meanwhile, heritage lovers are sad at the prospect of losing the CCP. Historian and heritage conservationist S Muthiah lamented that heritage structures are being pulled down one by one in the city. “There is no law to protect heritage buildings,” he said. He felt there was little chance of saving the historic Chennai prison from the bulldozers.