After 172 years, Madras Central Prison sent to the gallows

The trip to Kalapani used to begin from here and illustrious guests have included Subhash Chandra Bose, Jayalalithaa and Velupillai Prabhakaran. But having witnessed three centuries, the historic Madras Central Prison will now make way for the Chennai Metro Rail and an annexe of the Government General Hospital, taking with it a rich, if somewhat notorious, heritage.

Thousands have flocked to explore the dingy recesses of the prison ever since the State Prisons Department declared it open to visitors until it is demolished. As vendors mill about selling snacks and cigarettes, the morbidly curious have a field day. Digital cameras and cellphones click constantly, as men, women and children capture pictures of the cells that once held some of the most revered as well as the most feared personalities in the country.

A look at the jail's diary since 1837 reads like a who's who of the famous and infamous. During the early days of the struggle for independence, it housed freedom fighters such as Subhash Chandra Bose and Veer Savarkar. Post-independence, when identity became an issue, Dravidian icon CN Annadurai was an inmate of this jail for leading the anti-Hindi imposition agitation.

For these leaders, perhaps, prison was a place of inspiration despite the physical confinement. It is said that Netaji used to demand the most expensive tea, not because he was a connoisseur but to make the British Government pay. Annadurai, who went on to become the first Chief Minister from a Dravidian party, famously said prison was a place to hone one's intellect.

More contemporarily, the jail housed Opposition leader J Jayalalithaa for one of the many corruption charges she faced soon after her maiden tenure as chief minister in 1991-96. During her second stint in 2001, she returned the favour, sending present Chief Minister M Karunanidhi in the jail for a fly-over construction scam charge. Sources said that she ensured that he was held in the same cell that she had been lodged in.

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