The Forgotten Mutiny

A brief but fierce incident that deserves a more prominent place in the annals of history.

Published: 27th March 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th March 2022 05:08 PM   |  A+A-

Pramod Kapoor

Express News Service

The trial of the soldiers of the Azad Hind Fauz aka the Indian National Army at the Red Fort proved the adage: ‘The victor extracts at a usurious rate the price of his own blood!’ Inspired by their heroism, on February 16, 1946, within 48 hours of the trial, around 20,000 men revolted to take over around 80 ships, four flotillas, and 21 shore establishments. These young men, aged between 16 and 25, living in abysmal conditions with terrible food and racial discrimination, decided they had enough failed promises. Pulling down the Union Jack, they hoisted the intertwined flags of the Congress, the Muslim League and the communists. Britain panicked and quickly announced a Cabinet Mission in order to discuss the modalities for the transfer of power. With Indian troops refusing to open fire on the ratings, the revolt spread like wildfire to other branches of the armed forces and demonstrators poured onto the streets in support of the rebels. It led to 400 deaths and 1,500 were wounded. 

Quelling the rebellion, the British did what they did best—a show of force saw the HMS Glasgow sail at battle speed and the Royal Air Force planes did sorties. In retaliation, the ratings trained their mounted guns towards the shore, threatening to blow up the Gateway of India, the Yacht Club along with the abutting dockyards. With violence escalating, irate telegrams were exchanged between the British Prime Minister and the Viceroy. To expect the politicians of the times to behave any differently would prove to be a bridge too far. 

Regrettably, except for the communists, the others did not cover themselves in glory. For the last time, the Congress and the Muslim League were on the same page, pitching for surrender. They promised no one would be victimised. Yet, years down the road, both the governments of India and Pakistan, much to their eternal shame, reneged on their solemn promise.  

The Royal Indian Navy (RIN) Mutiny caused several public disagreements between Gandhiji and Aruna Asaf Ali, and between Sardar Patel and Nehru. But the author leads us to believe this seminal event, which inspired songs, art and theatre, did hasten the exit of the British and the transfer of power. In rebellion, the ‘Indian National Navy’, offered left-handed salutes to white officers. These incidents were widely reported in the press. Arrests were made. Court Martials followed as 476 sailors from the RIN were dismissed from service. As BC Dutt, one of the leaders of the RIN mutiny, wrote: “The barrack walls were no longer high enough to contain the tide of nationalism”. 

Regrettably, so much has been edited out from popular narratives about the Indian freedom movement. Indeed, it seems as if no effort was spared to blot out all mention of the mutiny of 1946, in what was probably the last straw that broke the back of the proverbial camel. Newspapers all over the globe came out with screaming headlines. The New York Times front-page banner said: ‘Bombay Swept by Flames...’ To me, this book is the right book at the right time. Seventy-five years later, justice has to be done and it needs to be spoken about. Our freedom struggle requires more alternative narratives that must be retold.

‘Even Though Nehru’s Heart was with the Cause, There was a Professional Hazard’

Author-Publisher Pramod Kapoor, on the sidelines of Jaipur Literature Festival 2022, talks to Smitha Verma about his latest book

What piqued your interest in a long-forgotten uprising and made you write 1946: The Last War of Independence?

While I was researching for my last book on Gandhiji (Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography) and was reading his biography, I stumbled upon an interesting incident. I came across letters by him which expressed disagreement related to this mutiny.  In Vol 89 and 90 (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi), I saw that he had written letters to senior leaders of the Congress. Even though I had heard about this event, I realised that this must be an important event looking at those correspondences. So I thought I will pursue it. The more I researched, the more I became fascinated by the subject. 

The mutiny was in many ways a fight against racial discrimination. How did it assume the shape of a fight against independence?

The seeds of the Mutiny were sown on the day the World War II started. The British recruited young boys into the Navy promising good pay and work conditions. But soon after joining, the young men realised it was a propaganda for getting them in. There was racial discrimination. Indian sailors of the same rank were kept separate from British sailors. They had poor living conditions, unpalatable food and so on. It was all brewing inside. So in 1945, after several leaders were released from jail, the two groups met. Young leaders like Aruna Asaf Ali had a series of meetings with these young sailors (ratings). That’s where it all began—joining of radical politicians and angry sailors.

But the ratings never got any support from our senior leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru or Sardar Patel. Why?

Gandhiji would not have supported anything which was not a peaceful movement. Even though Nehru’s heart was with the cause, there was a professional hazard. No one wanted to rock the boat considering the fight for independence was on its last leg. Even though the senior leaders promised ratings that their demands would be met once they surrendered, yet they failed to deliver as it was taken as a rebellion. I feel it should have been treated as a freedom movement and the promises should have been honoured.

What were the stark differences between the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny (first war of Independence) and Royal Indian Navy Mutiny?

1857 was a pure mutiny and in the beginning it was a movement started against kartoos that the soldiers were made to use. It did not have public support the way 1946 had. The public awakening in 1945 was much higher and this Mutiny had support of civilians, artistes, and young leaders. There was complete panic in the British Parliament as they knew they were not prepared to handle a mutiny by all three defence forces combined. 

Tell us about your next book.

My next is on India’s partition titled Divided at Birth. It will look into how things were divided between India and Pakistan after Partition—from artefacts to animals, books to land, everything in between. 

1946 Royal Indian Navy Mutiny: Last War of Independence
By: Pramod Kapoor
Publisher: Roli Books
Pages: 350
Price: Rs 695


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