Bengaluru's Freedom Park once had the gallows, the last hanging was in 1968

Bengaluru's Freedom Park once had the gallows, the last hanging was in 1968
Bengaluru's Freedom Park once had the gallows, the last hanging was in 1968
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Built in 1867 by the British, the old Bangalore Central Jail – its official name has not been changed – on Sheshadri Road possibly housed the first gallows in the state. It was in use until around 2000, when it was shifted to Parappana Agrahara on the outskirts of the city. 

Retired teacher and Bengaluru historian Suresh Moona says that the government was all set to demolish the old structure, but due to pressure from heritage activists, decided to convert it into a memorial, where the gallows still stand. The last hanging here was in 1968. Hangings since then have been carried out in Hindalga Central Jail in Belagavi district.

Renamed Freedom Park – a popular cultural and protest venue – it is now being maintained by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike. It was inaugurated in February 2009. “Freedom fighters were proud that they were jailed there. Then, people were proud that they were jailed during the Emergency,” Moona says.

H S Doreswamy is one of the few people who were jailed during the British rule of the Indian sub-continent are still living. Doreswamy has been imprisoned there twice – the first time, for 14 months in 1942-43 during the Quit India Movement and later for four months during the Emergency.

He recalls that political prisoners were usually kept separately from those who had been jailed for crimes. In 1942, several Congress Working Committee members including former Karnataka chief minister K Hanumanthayya, former home minister M V Rama Rao, and H V Dasappa, P Subramanya, H Siddaiah were jailed here; and during the Emergency, L K Advani, Rama Jois, Michael Fernandes, Snehalata Reddy were imprisoned. 

According to official signboards, the prison complex is a "panoptican". A British philosopher and jurist named Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea of a structure he called the Panopticon, a circular penitentiary designed to facilitate constant surveillance of the entire facility from a central watch tower. According to the University College London website, however, his ideas were only implemented in a limited manner. 

Doreswamy says that the guards could see every part of the prison complex – the barracks, the kitchen, the solitary confinement area. (The view from inside Barrack A). Port Blair’s Cellular Jail is also built on this principle. (For a detailed understanding of the old structure, see here.)

Signboards put up by the government say that this corridor of Parallel Walls was the only way to enter the prison barracks area from the entry gate, and that each area was separated from the other by high walls. 

A lot had changed in the time that he had been imprisoned under the British and when he was jailed during the Emergency. “In the mornings, in ’75, I was surprised to see everybody standing with tooth brushes in their hand. I wondered whether I was in jail or in a hostel!” he says.

There were around 10-12 barracks, and around 30 people in each, according to Doreswamy, but the signboards say that 100 prisoners were kept in each barracks. “There used to be a toilet behind the barracks. They would close it at 6 pm and only open it at 6 am,” he said.

There were separate barracks for women. Asked about Snehalata Reddy being kept alone, because she was the only woman, he asked: “Was she kept alone? Oh… in 1942 there were around 8-10 women and they had separate barracks.” Today, women maintainence workers use the sleeping slabs to rest (above).

Doreswamy recalls that during the time of the British, prisoners were kept in solitary confinement only when an offence was committed inside the jail. “If there was fighting, or if someone insulted an officer, then they would keep people (in solitary confinement) for a day, two days, or a week. They would be made to stand in shackles for hours, they even had to eat like that,” he said. (The block in the image above is locked and has mannequins in a re-enactment of the past.)

When Doreswamy was jailed during the Quit India Movement, the then British government had executed five people in what came to be known as the Esoor satyagraha case in which two Indian officers of the British police had been killed in present day Shimoga district.

Students in Esoor village in Shivamogga district were active participants in the freedom movement. Whenever someone new came to the village, they would make them join a procession, shout slogans, put the Gandhi topi (cap) on their heads and send them on their way. Two police officers Kenchegowda an inspector and Channekrishnaiah, a sergeant, once came to see what the commotion was. “These boys wanted them to join the procession. Kenchegowda did not budge, and he fired shots into the air,” he says.

(The rectuangular trench below the gallows.)

“Thinking that their boys had been killed, villagers turned up with whatever (weapons) they could find and beat them to death. Fearing retribution, they locked up their homes and fled into the forests. When the reserve police turned up, they looted homes and lit up huge circus torches and put them up on big trees in the forests that night. That’s how they caught them.”

Ten people were given the death sentence for those deaths. On appealing in a higher court, five of them were let off. “They hanged five boys over three days. Jail rules allowed only two people to be hanged in a day, that too only at 6 am.”

Today, eight families from Tumakuru district live in the rooms seen in the image, just a few feet away from the gallows. They have been working here for a year, as farming was unviable. 

Today Freedom Park plays host to picnicking families and groups of friends. A security guard says that the park is open for a few hours in the morning and later in the evening. In between those times, they do not allow couples or groups of boys and girls, because "they go to secluded spots". At any given time during the day, you will find weary person taking a quick nap on the grassy slopes outside the park.

(All photos by Anisha Sheth)

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