Unwrapping an Uprising that hastened Indian Independence

The article looks at the three approaches to understanding the narrative of the 1946 Royal Indian Navy Uprising. One is the idea of a planned conspiracy to overthrow the imperialists by the communists. The second is that of a revolutionary upsurge by young firebrands inspired by the Indian National Army of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. The third is the overflowing angst from racial discrimination and mistreatment that broke the disciplined contours of a naval service into a strike. The author argues that the actual events in 1946 may have had a mix of these possibilities.

South Mumbai—SOBO to page 3 of tabloids and just "town" to suburban Mumbaikars—is a treasure trove of culture, commerce and contestations across time. Amid the hustle and bustle of a regular work day followed by letting one's hair down on the weekend, the roads of "Fort" and the streets are eternally inscribed with the timeless saga of straws that broke the back of the "Raj." In the stretch of Wodehouse Road adjoining Talwar Camp (near Naval Transport Pool, Mumbai) and the INS Angre maintained 1946 Naval Uprising Memorial and further to the Bombay Samachar Marg, do the commuters realise the hallowed portals of a movement that altered the date of Indian independence? This reflection hopes to kindle a from-the-beyond mindscape on an unsung annal of Indian history.
While I grew up on the first-hand accounts of the 1946 Royal Indian Navy Strike of 1946, it had been lost as a “forgotten insurrection”. I vividly recall the efforts of Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Vivan Sundaram in March 2017 at the Coomaraswamy Hall at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) (Krishnan 2017). Shekhar Krishnan was generous as a scholar to subsequently share precious archives that are now a treasured collection at my erstwhile canvas of learning—Maritime History Society. I will return to the March 2017 exhibition to have the correct chronology of the revival of this saga.
Efforts by Founder Chairman MHS, Vice Admiral MP Awati and another Founder Trustee Admiral JG Nadkarni enabled the journey of “Timeless Wake: The Legacy of Royal Indian Navy in World War II”. The content was based on multiple archives, interactions and an immersive search at National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK. Published by MHS and released on Navy Day (December 4th) 2013, it has a chapter on the 1946 RIN Mutiny, now called an Uprising. The core focus of that chapter came from a participant of the 1946 RIN Mutiny, my father, Odakkal Master of Kondotty, Malappuram, Kerala. Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat insisted on rewording the Mutiny or Strike to Insurrection or Uprising. Credit goes to Vice Admiral Vinod Pasricha for getting the Naval Uprising Memorial at Cooperage, finally inaugurated on December 4th, 2001 (Bose, 2022). Bose shares the narrative of Western Naval Command re-enacting some elements on 23rd March 2022, with the participation of naval personnel, veterans and the government. Beyond Chapter 16 in Timeless Wake, I am delighted to have read “Hope and Despair: Mutiny, Rebellion and Death in India, 1946” by Anirudh Deshpande. These and Pramod Kapoor’s book are the few objective narratives apart from those done by the participants and early scholars in 1950s and 1960s.
What is this gripping saga from the beyond that is a crucial waypoint in the saga for Indian independence and yet consigned to an unsung segment? How does one piece the account free from a super-nationalist paradigm and politicisation of a sailor-worker struggle? I believe there are three approaches to understanding the narrative of the 1946 Royal Indian Navy Uprising. One is the idea of a planned conspiracy to overthrow the imperialists by the communists. The second is that of a revolutionary upsurge by young firebrands, inspired by the Indian National Army of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. The third is the overflowing angst from racial discrimination and mistreatment that broke the disciplined contours of a naval service into a strike. The actual events in 1946 may have had a mix of these possibilities. 
This piece looks at the alternative approach that stems from the heart-filled sharing of my father and is validated by personal research and that of fellow investigators. I have penned the sentiments of this important event in Timeless Wake at the end of Chapter 16 in the words of 'Baba,' my father:
“One always wishes one joins a mighty service with zeal and leaves it with glory! Sadly, for a number of people in Castle Barracks who had fought in the war got another (dis)honour. They received a certificate that said: ‘Discharged with Disgrace from His Majesty’s Service’. …….” Those honourable men, whom no piece of paper could dishonour, walked out with heads held high to build a newly-emerging nation…” (Johnson O 2013).
The “mutineers” or “insurrectionists” were no revolutionaries or rebels. I still believe they were not even political protagonists or seeking to be freedom fighters. They were among over 35,000 ratings of RIN, RINR and RINVR who had, with the encouragement of national leadership and to seek vocational aspirations, served with honour in the maritime domain in the war years. They included a teacher's son from Bengal, a clerk's son from Ludhiana, and a mill worker's brother from Kolhapur, among other ordinary folks who sailed across the oceanic canvas. With a high pace of recruitment since September 1939, these men had served in global theatres from North Atlantic to the Singapore Strait, from Arakan in Burma and off to Madagascar, from the Red Sea and Gulf Waters to the Mediterranean and even the Central South Indian Ocean. India was not part of the war as a political power, and yet Indians fought on the ideals of liberty, justice and freedom of the seas. They inherited the legacy of the Sadhabhas of Odisha, the Satavahanas of Andhra, the Cholas who had a naval influence over Sri Vijaya, the naval might of the Kunjali Marakkars of Malabar and the renowned maritime fervour of Sarkhel Kanhoji Angre of the Maratha Armaar (Fleet). 
What turned out after World War II ended on 15 August 1945? The aftermath was an emergency season with an unimaginable logistical challenge for the Royal Indian Navy. The scaled-up naval numbers had to be brought to a tentative number of around 11,000. The demobilisation demon was huge. One of the figures in late 1945 indicated that 940 officers and over 9,000 ratings had to be transitioned to civilian life amid a bureaucratic mindset (yes, babucracy was alive even then) with many reservists, especially British personnel, eager to return home. The unrest started assuming viral proportions with increasing court martials. Even during the war, the Royal Indian Air Force and many army units had seen an outbreak of insubordination resulting from racial behaviour and fatigue of deployment. 
In August 1945, the Flag Officer Commanding Royal Indian Navy (FOCRIN) created a morale section at naval headquarters. This itself became a lasting clerical legacy even in my naval service days as the Morale and Security Report that none really read! Then in November 1945, there was mounting discontent at HMIS Talwar, and HMIS Shivaji saw slogans such as "Quit India", "Long Live Revolution", and "Kill the White Bastards", appear on the barrack walls. "Inquilab Zindabad" also was painted, leading many to believe of an active role of Indian National Army leanings among naval ratings. Having travelled the world, the ratings were aware of global developments and the national movement towards the possible transfer of power to an independent India by June 1948 (Explainers 2022). My father knew there was never an active conspiracy to follow the Azad Hind Fauj of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Pramod Kapoor has given an account of a Mumbai conspiracy by B C Dutt and R D Puri, in his book in Chapter 4 (Kapoor 2022). The larger body of ratings were disciplined sailors who served a cause and looked forward to an emerging India. At that stage they had nationalistic feelings and yet sans any political leanings. The account that my father shared has some unpalatable references to the otherwise famous figures of then political movements and is revered in a demi-god manner today.
The sailors faced, on a daily basis, unhygienic living conditions with bad food. The colloquial dal patli and bread, along with rice abounding in stones, made mealtimes a challenging task for duty personnel by late 1945 and January 1946. The harangued British officers of the day did not taste food as was the naval custom. Overall, there was a growing divide between officers and the ratings. Sadly, this was not limited to the British but also some Indian officers. A subtle divide was also growing between senior ratings from West Punjab and educated signal ratings from southern India, fueled through clever machinations by the burra sahibs! What had been seen as the insensitive British attitude amidst the Bengal Famine of 1943-45 was now felt in the naval barracks (Seshan [MHS], 2021).

The uprising was finally triggered by the infamous Cdr AF King, an uncouth and highly arrogant racially minded officer. He was made the commanding officer of HMIS Talwar even though he was not a communications specialist. After sloganeering and charges of catcalls on WRIN officers, the atmosphere deteriorated. Leading telegraphist B C Dutt was incarcerated and accused of being a communist. After berating the ratings on 8 February 1946, Cdr King dismissed the complaints on food by asking for a written service request. By 17 February 1946, the tone and language of Cdr King had dropped to the pit, and ratings refused food. The conflagration was set to explode.
The narrative of 18–23 February 1946 is now well known on the RIN elements. What remains captivating is the speed and scale that engulfed 11 shore establishments in Bombay (Mumbai), 60 ships in the harbour and RIN stations across India. Leading signalman M S Khan and other wireless ratings were the fastest in action to capture the signal stations across the RIN bases! 

1500 ratings walked out of the mess hall in protest as the first ammunition-free strike on the colonial mindset and rejected appeals by Rear Admiral Rattrey, flag officer commanding Bombay. The second day saw 20,000 men involved and M S Khan and Madan Singh leading the effort to form the Naval Central Strike Committee. Ten other naval establishments, 45 RIN ships and four flotillas joined the nationwide uprising. Flags of the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League and even the Communist Party were flown in place of the Union Jack (Johnson O 2013). Another major station of the expanding movement was Karachi, whereby on 20 February 1946, 1500 ratings joined in. Anirudh Deshpande shares a vivid narrative of the solidarity of the citizenry with the strikers in his book. Gun battles opened between the ratings and the military police (Deshpande 2017). 
Thursday, 21 February 1946, started with an eerie calm in Bombay. The hunger strike continued. Within an hour, the situation in the barracks and elsewhere went awry. As ratings rushed out in numbers, they faced firing from the military police. Reinforcements of the colonial police began reaching castle barracks also. That brought in a warning signal from the rating captured HMIS Narbada in Bombay that if the military police fired, all ships in the harbour would open fire (Johnson O 2013).
Rear Admiral J H Godfrey, FOCRIN in a charged up and belligerent radio broadcast, threatened “Stringent measures,” “using the overwhelming forces” at his disposal, “even if it means the destruction of the Navy!” Confronted by Justice Sayyid Fazl Ali of the Commission of Enquiry, Admiral Godfrey apologised in April 1946 for his words (Indian History Collective nd). Politically, Aruna Asaf Ali became a rallying point of independently-minded politicians who chose to speak up for the “mutineers”. While the mainstream Congress and Muslim League leaders were internally opposed to the action of the ratings, little was expressed publicly. M K Gandhi expressed grave displeasure at a revolutionary action against the British government by the ratings without the leadership of any political party (Shukla 2017). That validates the largely apolitical nature of the uprising despite efforts by some to ride the wave of opportunity. The ongoing freedom movement as an aspiration and examples of the INA did influence the Indian citizenry that found expression in a rare synergy through the uprising. Rising in support of the naval ratings were the mill workers from Parel. Public demonstrations with a mix of labour and sailors flooded the streets of present-day SOBO. Firing on the protestors continued on 22 February 1946. It was reported that in the police action, the death toll was 300, and over 1,000 were severely injured. 

As the uprising spread, the end was hastened on 23 February 1946 in a mix of fatigue, disenchantment and betrayal. The subsequent "Loh Purush" Sardar Vallabh Patel, along with Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, conveyed an amnesty-based consideration by CinC India and FOCRIN on the striking ratings. The accounts narrated by my father contained deep anguish on the turncoat political leadership who were keen to rule the soon-to-be independent India by now. What many forget was captured by Radhika Seshan, “When those on whom you are depending on to provide force are objecting to the use of force, one cannot hold the country any longer." Clement Atlee also remarked that “the tide of nationalism is running very fast in India” (Shukla 2017). The 1946 RIN uprising led by non-political, patriotic, freedom-serving ordinary Indian ratings sounded the death knell and saw Indian Independence hastened to 15 August 1947. 
What do we conclude as the flow of events that unwrapped an uprising? Conspiracy, revolution or a heart that beats for freedom and justice. My thoughts indicate the latter in a pot-pouri of environmental catalysts that found expression to hasten Indian Independence. 
Culture and art have been the decisive and true expressions of reverence for the Naval Uprising of 1946 that enabled us on 15 August 2022 to celebrate Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav. The slogan is apt, even if the political opportunism is pretty mercenary. Sahir Ludhianvi, in the 1961 film Dharmputra, brought to life the heart-rending lines inspired by the 1946 Naval Uprising. These lyrics were first composed in the aftermath of the uprising (Bhatt 2022):
धरती की सुलगती छाती के बैचेन शरारे पूछते हैं
तुम लोग जिन्हे अपना न सके, वो खून के धारे पूछते हैं
सड़कों की जुबान चिल्लाती है
सागर के किनारे पूछते हैं -
                      ये किसका लहू है कौन मरा 
                      ऐ रहबर-ए-मुल्क-ओ-कौम बता
                     ये किसका लहू है कौन मरा
This reflection is multi-faceted and weaves the strands of nostalgia, angst, homage, inspiration and hope in a narrative that has lived with this author for over four decades from its first rendition. Returning to the art installation “Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946” by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Vivan Sundaram in March 2017 at CSMVS, there was a sense of peace to see some 30 aficionados staying spellbound in a creative tribute through audio, light and Art (Shah 2017). The mainstream commemoration was weak till this author was Director of the Maritime History Society and, with the support of Western Naval Command of the Indian Navy, conducted an Academic Seminar on the 75 years of its occurrence in February 2021. Some months later, it would figure afresh in the Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav Commemorative Symposium on 9 August 2021. A cultural commemoration that started at a subaltern level had come full circle into the national narrative.


Must Read

Do water policies recognise the differential requirements and usages of water by women and the importance of adequate availability and accessibility?
Personal Laws in India present a situation where abolishing them in the interest of gender justice also inadvertently benefits the reactionary side.   
Back to Top