Musings

Dark Noon in Dagshai

“This is where prisoners who created trouble – or who resisted interrogation – were brought,” said Reddy. “There are 16 cells like this one; as you can see, there are no windows.” He turned his wrist slightly, and the torch beam illumined the interior of the cell, arcing left to right along the grey, drab walls, up to the wooden-beamed ceiling, down to the pinewood floor. “The prisoner would be left here all alone. Solitary confinement…” his murmured words were swallowed by the dense, dank air.

And then, without warning, he switched off the torch.

I am not afraid of darkness. But I had never experienced or imagined darkness like this. It was monstrous, a living, breathing, cold, reptilian thing, filled with malice; a thick, suffocating cloak, saturated with dreadful memories…of  pain, screams unheard, endless loneliness, of derangement, death…

I fought down the panic that threatened to swamp my mind, forced myself to take a few deep breaths; I reminded myself that it was a wonderful sunny day outside, that just beyond the foot-thick walls of this room were forested slopes carpeted with wild flower, the autumnal beauty and freshness of the Shivalik hills. But somehow that awareness only made the blackness of the room more intense, more horrific; it was an atrocity in the midst of innocent beauty.

“For the prisoners who were sent here, it was dark like this: hour after hour, day after day.” Reddy’s tone was conversational, almost cheerful, strangely muffled by the choking darkness. “But never more than a week. No prisoner ever lasted more than a few days before breaking down and screaming for release – or losing their minds.”

Suddenly the cell was awash in the light of his torch. I swallowed a cry of relief that rose in my throat. We stepped out of the room. He shut the thick wooden  door to the cell and bolted it; then, he drew the great iron outer door shut and bolted and padlocked that as well.  “After Independence, when the Indian Army took over Dagshai Cantonment and decided to make a Museum here, including this prison, we found all kinds of instruments of torture in these rooms,” he said cheerfully. “But visitors were upset on seeing them…so they’ve all been removed.”

Within the solitary wing

“Well…I’m glad for that,” I muttered.

“But the British were imaginative,” he went on. “They didn’t always need torture instruments: here, take a look at these doors. ” He raised his torch to better illumine the two doors to the cell. “Can you see there’s a narrow space between these doors?” I nodded. “Well…the space is barely sixteen inches wide. Sometimes, if a prisoner showed any signs of stubbornness, the British guards would make him stand against the inner door, and then shut the iron door so that the prisoner wouldn’t be able to move an inch after that. He would have to stand motionless, arms by his sides, unable to sit or bend his knees, unable to turn his head, for hours on end…” he fell silent.

I found my voice at last. “Were the Irish soldiers who mutinied kept here?”

“Yes.  There are records. The British were meticulous about maintaining records on Dagshai Jail and all the prisoners who ever saw the insides of it. Including the charges against them, their sentences, their conduct and treatment…and of course the dates of their release, or execution as the case might be.”

“Even Daly…”

“Yes sir, even Daly…”

He led me out of the Jail and into the two-room Museum that forms a kind of annexe to the Jail.  I thanked him for showing me round, we shook hands and he strode off:  Bhargava Reddy, a fine young Indian Army soldier from Andhra Pradesh, in his mid-twenties with field experience in Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu (“on the LOC”, he told me proudly), Ladakh, Rajasthan…and now, Himachal Pradesh. “Dagshai is peaceful after border postings,” he had chuckled. “I’ve enjoyed history since school days…so CO-sir has assigned me the duty of showing visitors round the museum.”

According to legend, ‘Dagshai’ is derived from the Urdu ‘Daag-e-Shai’— a royal mark which was branded on the forehead of those arrested and incarcerated here.

Reddy had told me much about Dagshai and the mutiny in his crisp, matter-of-fact manner.  Dagshai Cantonment had been established by the British way back in 1847, on land obtained free of cost from the Maharaja of Patiala. In 1849, a Cellular Jail was constructed in Dagshai—the only other jail of its kind being the infamous Andaman Cellular Jail. The Jail was little known till 1920, when the mutiny took place.

 

walk-up-to-pinewood-for-kaapi-1.jpg
Dagshai Cantonment – view from Barog
Dagshai Jail - 1
Dagshai Cellular Jail

The mutiny had been led by Private James Joseph Daly, an Irishman attached to a company of the Connaught Rangers who were stationed in Dagshai in 1920.  That was a time when much of Ireland, under the leadership of the Sinn Fein and its military wing, the Irish Republican Army, was fighting for independence from Britain. In January 1920, the British government set up a mercenary army to put down the Irish ‘rebellion’. This brutal army of mercenaries was called ‘Blacks and Tans’ (or simply ‘Tans’) from the colours of their improvised uniforms—a mix of British Army and Royal Irish Constabulary outfits—and was the brainchild of none other than Winston Churchill, then Secretary of War. The Tans became notorious for their atrocities on innocent civilians in Ireland.

Word of the Tans’ cruel deeds reached Dagshai in June 1920, and on the evening of 1st July, Daly led a band of Irish and Indian soldiers, armed with bayonets, in an attempt to raid the company magazine. The soldiers guarding the magazine opened fire, killing two men and wounding another. Sixty-one men were convicted for their role in this short-lived mutiny: fourteen were sentenced to death, including Daly.

Mahatma Gandhi visited Dagshai upon hearing that a number of Irish and Indian soldiers had been sentenced to death for mutiny. Gandhi spent a night in the jail—in relative comfort—as a token of solidarity with the mutineers.

Daly was the only soldier whose capital sentence was carried out:  on the morning of 2nd November 1920, he was executed by firing squad.

After Reddy left I stood awhile in the Museum before a simple framed sheet on which were typed the lines of ‘The Dagshai Mutiny’:

To the tiny homesteads of the West
The recruiting sergeant came
He promised all a future bright
So the brave young men went off to fight
For the Empire and her might

And many’s the victory they had won
Many the hardships they had seen
They fought and died, side by side
Their enemies they had defied

And for a foreign king.

And the drums they were a-beating time
While the pipes did loudly play
When Daly died, the drums did beat
That morning in the Dagshai heat
Now we’ll beat the drums no more

While serving in a far off land
The news had come from home
Of a peoples’ fate it did relate
Of the Tans and their campaign of hate
And we’re fighting on their side
Arise! Arise! young Daly cried
Come join along with me
We’ll strike a blow for Liberty
Our regiment will mutiny and support our friends at home

And the drums they were a-beating time
While the pipes did loudly play
When Daly died, the drums did beat
That morning in the Dagshai heat
Now we’ll beat the drums no more

And the Colonel stood before his troops
Those men who mutinied
He told them of those honours won
But the men stood in the blazing sun
Saying we’ll fight your wars no more
For cannon fodder we had been
For the French at Waterloo at Suvla and Sud Elbar
We fought your every bloody war
And we’ll fight you wars no more

And the drums they were a-beating time
While the pipes did loudly play
When Daly died, the drums did beat
That morning in the Dagshai heat
Now we’ll beat the drums no more

Those men got penal servitude
And Daly’s condemned to die
Far from his home in Tyrellpass
This young man’s died in Ireland’s cause
Far from his native land

And the drums they were a-beating time
While the pipes did loudly play
When Daly died, the drums did beat
That morning in the Dagshai heat
Now we’ll beat the drums no more.

It was late afternoon when I set out to walk back down from Dagshai to Barog. A slightly chill breeze carried the fresh, bracing scents of pine resin, wildflower, damp earth. The silence, the sense of timelessness, was somehow intensified by the hum of dragonflies, the whisper of pines, the rustle of undergrowth as an agile cow clambered up a precipitous slope to munch on a delectable bush. The azure sky was flecked with tissue-thin streaks of cloud…translucent islands in an infinite ocean.

Dagshai is such a quiet, beautiful place.

It is a particularly terrible place in which to be imprisoned in torment, in darkness.

The road to Dagshai has portraits of many martyrs, from the Indian armed forces.  Dagshai is indeed a good place to remember martyrs. Patriots.

Daly doesn’t have a portrait in Dagshai. But his memory lingers.

Martyr 2Martyr 1

Martyr 3Martyr 4

On the way

On the way-3

 

 

 

 

 

 

14 thoughts on “Dark Noon in Dagshai

  1. Wow Mani, your narrative was so vivid it was like bringing those horrific memories back to life. The irony, though, is that the place looks so pristine and beautiful that it is difficult to imagine such an infamous structure even exists there. The pictures are beautiful and as always your write up so well done! Keep them coming!

  2. Wonderful effort Mani. What an excellent blend of Literature and History.Had never heard of Dagshai until our very recent trip to Kandaghat near Shimla , where we spent a few days.We took the toy train both ways and suddenly this quaint little station Kumarhatti Dagshai appeared on our radar. I was fascinated by the name, little knowing that this place had so much of history associated with it. All I did was click a photo, which I sent to you yesterday after your post was published.Great going Mani! I admire your effort at finding these little places that have both history and beauty and enlightening us .
    Keep it up friend.
    Ranjan

  3. Absolutely love this – Mani! Great description of your emotions when your guide turned off the torch – I felt everything that you’re writing. I had no idea about this history and Dagshai has always just been that hill one can see from Chandigarh. You pieced it to together so beautifully & told a truly poignant tale!

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