London party

A mutiny that petrified London

Book Review: The Mutiny of the Royal Indian Navy.
Pramod Kapoor brings a partly forgotten event from 1946 back to life.

In an article from February 21, 1946, New York Times Journalist George E Jones said the following: ‘The Royal Indian Navy sailors’ mutiny is seen here as potentially the most disturbing in the series of riots and protests among Indians, which began last November with epidemics in Calcutta.”

“Since then, there have been other large-scale civil protests, riots in Bombay and Calcutta – mainly centered on the trials of ‘Indian National Army’ men – and hunger strikes among personnel of the Royal Indian Air Force for better living conditions and food.However, the current clashes in Bombay and Karachi are the first time that the Indian armed forces have mutinied in this violent manner.

The British empire, it is now recorded, was petrified and London politicians felt that the 1946 uprising might take on the proportion of the Sepoy mutiny of 1857. But common sense prevailed and Sardar Vallabbhai Patel – also called the Iron Man – pledged his fairness and brokered peace. The brilliantly researched tome by editor and author Pramod Kapoor, 1946: Mutiny of the Royal Indian Navy (Last War of Independence) brings to light this crucial piece of information that – I feel – got lost in the pages of Indian history books.

So how serious was the case? Clement Attlee, the post-war British Prime Minister who succeeded Winston Churchill, immediately sprang into action. His telegrams to India, claims the New York Times, did not get immediate answers about the uprising, but Attlee was sure that the support of the Indian military – army, air force and naval personnel – could no longer be taken for granted. The book helps readers understand another crucial fact: that during World War I and World War II, Indian troops had been cannon fodder for imperial power, but now, around 1945-46, things were changing. The best option for Britain was therefore to opt for discretion and leave India, long considered the “crown jewel” of the Empire.

The 1946 uprising is serious. India was on fire because British leaders were carrying out trials of Indian National Army (INA) soldiers inside the vast Red Fort in the Indian capital. Besides, the naval mutiny was too hot to handle. The two incidents triggered the dispatch of the Cabinet Mission and the subsequent decision to grant freedom. Interestingly, two decades after India won its freedom, John Freeman, then British High Commissioner to New Delhi, told a rally that the 1946 mutiny had petrified London and that 1857 could repeat itself.

Indian sailors of the Royal Indian Navy. (Photo: press intervention)

The Indian government hailed the 1946 mutineers by mentioning them in Indian Navy charts during that year’s parade. Political connoisseurs have called it the rarest of the few gestures. Moreover, never before had the armed forces saluted the memory of those who rose up in arms against the established order.

Let’s go back to the book of these unsung heroes. Poor conditions of service, racial discrimination and anger over the court-martial of rebel Indian Nation Army (INA) soldiers were the main reasons for the mutiny.

The first spark occurred on February 18, 1946. It was a Monday and it was 0800 hours. A group of 1600 sailors from the battleship RIN HMIS “Talwar”, moored at Colaba in Bombay, went on strike. They complained about the food, which was of poor quality. Only the poorest quality rice, topped with stone chips and bits of mud, was provided. The scoring uniform was made of cheap and coarse material. Audiences had had enough of this routine insult.

The sailors came out of the mess because of insufficient food and began to brandish slogans: “No food, no work”. The following day another 20,000 people joined the strike, and over the next two days riots broke out. The Communist Party of India, which had a significant following among the working class of Bombay, immediately threw its support behind it. The Congress and the Muslim League were critical. The mutineers did not discriminate, they were seen by many hoisting the tricolor of the Congress, the green banner of the Muslim League and the red flag of the ICC on no less than 78 ships. The sailors urged the people of Bombay to rise up in support of their revolt – the biggest in naval history – which has spread to 22 units all along the Indian coast from Karachi to Calcutta. The strike spread like wildlife. Several motorcades were taken to Bombay, Karachi, Calcutta and other places in the following days. India’s ports looked like war zones even as Indian shores and British soldiers clashed. I read in another report that ships’ sirens were sounding and strikers were using loudspeakers to call on ordinary citizens and Indian troops to throw the British back to sea.

Indian soldiers pull down the British Union Jack and hoist the Indian tricolor during the RIN revolt in 1946. (Photo: News Intervention)

Some 400 Indians died of gunshot wounds and 1,500 were injured after British army and police soldiers (in towns where protests took place) fired indiscriminately at protesters. In a swift move, the sailors formed the Indian National Navy, on the lines of the INA of Subhas Chandra Bose and saluted the British officers with their left hands in a sign of rebellion.

Encouraged and urged on by Patel, the sailors surrendered on February 24, 1946. So what did this mutiny bring? Kapoor says this has accelerated the transfer of power. Let’s not forget that this mutiny caused public disagreements between Mahatma Gandhi and Aruna Asaf Ali, who secretly advised naval sailors during the mutiny. A serious rift has emerged between Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel. Kapoor says the 1946 naval mutiny was one of the hardest blows the British received during their 200-year rule in India.

And there were other fears for the British. Britain realized that without naval support, around 100,000 British soldiers, administrators and civilians and their families were unable to get to Britain safely. Many could have been massacred, the British left India the following year. I remember some notes from Mutiny of the Innocents, written by BC Dutta, a telegrapher who joined the RIN in the communications branch in 1941. Dutt writes: “We found ourselves working alongside white servicemen in the army. In the Indian Army, British servicemen enjoyed preferential treatment. Whether it was on base or in a combat zone, they had better accommodations, better amenities. They were paid five to ten times more for the same jobs as the Indian military. They traveled more comfortably. They could, if they wished, use the canteens, mess rooms and baths of the Indian servicemen, but the Indians did not have access to theirs. British servicemen were not required to salute Viceroy’s officers. The discrimination was crude and calculated to make the Indians feel inferior to the British.

Kapoor writes, “Indian audiences got a taste of what life in the Royal Indian Navy would be like from the day they joined. As one note in a letter home wrote: Officers do not act according to printed regulations but make their own rules. Now it wasn’t just British officers. Even the Indian officers treated them the same. Kapoor says the indiscriminate use of abusive and foul language was seen as a symbol of authority. “Bastards, baboons or pigs were common expressions heard in the Navy with bloody, behind chod, blacks and black bastards.

Beautifully, Kapoor scripts the story of the mutiny, explaining the central characters and who started the first planning. I learned that the first planning for the mutiny took place in an apartment on Marine Drive, overlooking the Arabian Sea. And the two who planned it were Pran and Kusum Nair, the latter named a journalist very active in the underground liberation movement.

Now, unlike the First War of Independence in 1857, when Indian mercenaries bailed out the British by mercilessly mowing down the revolutionaries, this time Indian soldiers were not favorably disposed towards their colonial masters. For example in Karachi, the Gurkha troops refused to fire on the sailors.

The book explains how the violence began. On February 21, the British deployed their shock troops who opened fire on the sailors as they left their barracks in Bombay. It turned a peaceful uprising into an armed rebellion. Indian ratings and British troops fought pitched battles throughout the day in Bombay and Karachi.

The atmosphere was further poisoned by Admiral Godfrey’s order to completely destroy the Indian Navy. The British surrounded the rebel fleets with a few loyal ships. A reinforcement of battleships from Trincomalee in Sri Lanka reached India Gate in Bombay. British bombers and RIAF fighter planes flew menacing sorties over the rebel fleet. In Karachi, the British send the murderous Black Watch, an infantry battalion from the Royal Regiment of Scotland.

There were other issues. Former Prime Minister Morarji Desai, who took up his post as interior minister in Bombay a few months after the mutiny, displayed a totally cavalier attitude towards the freedom fighters. He said sailors had no right to rebel. Desai even said that the INA was not the harbinger of independence and it was Gandhi who brought independence to the country.

I am told that the cover illustration of the book is a painting by a Chittagong-born artist, Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, who witnessed the events in Bombay in 1946 and was present in Kamgar Maidan when the people of Bombay, especially the working class, rallied in support of the February 22, 1946 mutiny.

Kapoor’s work is unquestionably the most vivid account of the last war of independence. Probably now, naval mutiny won’t be relegated to a footnote in most stories. Now it will surely find its place in the history of the struggle for freedom.

It’s time for Kapoor to write a fascinating book about the 1971 war of liberation that gave birth to Bangladesh. I’m sure it will do justice to another slice of history that remains buried in libraries due to lack of research.