1946 The Last War of Independence: The Royal Indian Navy Mutiny
By Pramod Kapoor
In 1946, ratings (non-commissioned officers or sailors) of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) staged a mutiny, posing arguably the greatest challenge to the British Raj since the 1857 uprising.
A saga of indomitable courage, dashed hopes and, perhaps, betrayal, it shook the British empire to the point of hastening its departure from India, and rubbed almost everyone else that mattered in the Subcontinent’s political hierarchy the wrong way. No wonder, then, that a veil of silence subsequently descended over the episode.
Despite being featured in many prominent works of fiction — theatre and cinema personality Utpal Dutt’s record-breaking play Kallol [Large Waves], Hollywood film Bhowani Junction, and novels such as Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh and Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace — the incident has been deliberately banished from public consciousness.
But this is a tale that needs to be told to a new, receptive audience, and doing so befittingly is award-winning Indian author and publisher Pramod Kapoor, with 1946 The Last War of Independence: The Royal Indian Navy Mutiny.
A book on the Royal Indian Navy mutiny of 1946 is a compellingly good read for connoisseurs of South Asian history in general, and of the freedom struggle in particular
Kapoor had just a passing awareness of the issue when he commenced his research and, to his everlasting regret, couldn’t take oral testimonies of the active participants, who are no more. He did, however, have unhindered access to all the sites associated with the incident. He also — albeit unsuccessfully — travelled to Pakistan in search of Shoaib Khan, president of the Central Strike Committee, which was a key element of the revolt.
The author meticulously went through countless reports made by British naval admirals, commanding officers of ships and shore establishments, cables and letters exchanged between London and Delhi, proceedings in the British parliament and hundreds of reports by both British-owned and nationalist newspapers. Balai Chandra Dutt’s autobiography Mutiny of the Innocents — though mostly focused on Dutt’s own accomplishments — also proved useful.
Kapoor’s book chronicles the ingress of the European navies into the Indian Ocean domain and the resistance offered by the hereditary Kunjali Marakar family of Muslim marine merchants, who struck terror into Portuguese hearts for over 90 years, followed by the legendary warrior-administrator Marathi Angrez family.
How Britain’s Royal Navy integrated itself into the Indian core, terminating with the setting up of the RIN on October 2, 1934, makes for interesting reading. The RIN’s bravery during the Second World War, in which — apart from patrolling the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Persian Gulf — it distinguished itself during the African and South East Asian campaigns, is also amply highlighted.
The book also follows the formation and rise of the Japanese-aligned, ultra-nationalist Indian National Army (INA), which was completely dedicated to the cause of the Subcontinent’s independence. Its cause attracted significant public attention, so much so that a court-martial trial of three INA officers — a Muslim, a Sikh and a Hindu — turned into a public relations disaster for the British.
But what was the naval mutiny all about?
Its seeds were sown during a massive recruitment drive whose promises proved false. During the Second World War, the RIN saw exponential growth, its strength ballooning from 1,722 personnel in September 1939, to 27,933 by the war’s end in September 1945. Indeed, by 1946, the Indian Defence Forces had more native men in uniform than British. However, working and living conditions aboard the ships were atrocious and abusive language — including racist slurs — was the norm.
The book discusses in some detail the cardinal roles played by the principal conspirators — a young married couple Pran and Kusum Nair, Balai Chandra Dutt, Rishi Dev Purie, Madan Singh, Shoaib Khan, Y.K. Menon, Purshottam Tricumdas and Aruna Asaf Ali — as well as the timeline leading to the official commencement of the mutiny and beyond.
Inspired by the INA and infuriated by the sentencing of its three brave officers, the mutiny’s ringleaders meticulously executed a plan to humiliate the British Royal Navy on its all-important Navy Day event on December 1, 1945, by littering the parade grounds of the on-shore signal school HMIS Talwar in Bombay [Mumbai] the night before.
Determined to make a bolder statement on the British commander-in-chief’s scheduled visit to Talwar two months later, the ringleaders pasted seditious slogans and leaflets on the walls, but tightened security resulted in their arrest.
The inopportune appointment of an unfit and openly racist commanding officer following the Navy Day parade fiasco pushed matters to breaking point.
Rating R.K. Singh, in a way, delivered the first warning shot of the brewing storm by doing the unthinkable: defiantly shouting out his resignation to his British commanding officer on February 1, 1946. From an official standpoint, the mutiny started on February 18 at HMIS Talwar, when sailors went on strike. A particular nugget the book reveals is that, though stones were often discovered in the sailors’ daal, these were deliberately placed in the night meal prior, to whip up tempers.
Morse code messages sent to naval establishments in India and beyond quickly escalated the movement to include 78 ships, 21 shore establishments and over 20,000 ratings.
Ships were taken over, armouries broken down and officers, both British and Indian, were ordered to leave their posts — the only known RIN officer to openly support the movement was Lt Ishaq Sobhani. The ratings’ mutiny found allies in the air force and gradually spread to the army. Incredible fraternisation showed the support of local communities and Indian military guards, loath to fire upon their fellow Indians, had to be replaced by British ones.
Though dissatisfaction with working/ living conditions was widely believed to be the principal cause behind the unrest, the mutineers’ demands included nationalistic ones, such as the release of all imprisoned political figures and INA members, and withdrawal of Indian troops from places such as Indonesia and Egypt, where they were deployed to quell uprisings.
For the Raj, the ratings’ transition from pro-British mercenaries to militant nationalists proved unnerving. It was so serious that, within 24 hours of the mutiny’s occurrence, a high-powered cabinet mission, including the First Lord of the Admiralty, was announced to handle matters.
Within a day or two it became clear that the mutiny was no longer confined to Bombay, as widespread public demonstrations and violent confrontations were witnessed in Karachi, Madras [Chennai], Calcutta [Kolkata], Delhi, etc.
Neither did it remain purely a naval affair. The communists — the only major political outfit to back the ratings — called for a strike and nearly 300,000 people spilled on to Bombay’s streets. British overreaction resulted in 400 people killed and up to 1,500 wounded over two days of mayhem.
Sailors aboard the HMIS Hindustan, docked in Karachi, chose to fight rather than submit to a British ultimatum to surrender. They were joined by sailors from the three principal on-shore training establishments at Manora: HMIS Bahadur, Himalaya and Chamak. Hindustan suffered the heaviest casualties of any ship during the mutiny, with its leaders arrested and imprisoned in Malir camp.
The valiant ratings were, unfortunately, let down by their country’s own leadership. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, with his penchant for non-violence, came out strongly against the sailors. Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah — as Kapoor quotes from Mian Zahir Shah’s book Bubbles of Water, Or, Anecdotes of the Pakistan Navy — let it be known that he was not in favour of the mutiny getting prolonged; he believed civil disobedience and political agitation were matters for politicians to decide.
Vallabbhai Patel prevailed on the ratings to surrender, assuring them of non-victimisation. Thus, after hard discussions in Bombay, the Central Strike Committee agreed to the February 23 deadline to surrender.
In an anti-climax of sorts, the powerful cruiser HMS Glasgow — armed with 12 six-inch guns and ordered much earlier to sail from Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, to quash the uprising — arrived in Bombay harbour 12 hours too late. Instead of quashing anything, it ended up being the venue for a roaring cocktail party for Bombay’s gentry a week later.
The promises made by India’s political leadership ultimately proved worthless: 523 mutineers, after a routine dishonourable discharge, were forcibly externed to face an uncertain future and justice remained elusive even after Independence.
British brute force and guile suppressed the revolt within days, but the revolutionaries had succeeded in making their point. British archives reveal that the one thing the mutiny achieved was to accelerate the push towards freedom, and Kapoor raises the intriguing possibility of what might have happened had India’s main political parties thrown their weight behind the communal unity on display. Possibly, the gory blood-letting that ensued during Partition 18 months later could have been averted.
A discussion on the Commission of Enquiry formed to probe into the issues is also included towards the end of the book. This gives some fascinating insights into the personal mindsets of all those involved in some way in the mutiny.
1946 The Last War of Independence is a compellingly good read for connoisseurs of South Asian history in general, and of the freedom struggle in particular. Not only does Kapoor do full justice to the subject by picking up the lost pieces of the puzzle to craft a skilful narrative, credit is also due to Lighthouse Publishers for making it accessible to the Pakistani audience.
It is, after all, a subject that concerns us just as deeply as it does our neighbour to the east.
The reviewer is a retired rear admiral of the Pakistan Navy.
He blogs at www.pervaizasghar.com
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 15th, 2023