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The Naval Uprising of 1946 – more than a small slice of history

Every school child knows about the Mutiny of 1857. But few are aware of a key rebellion on the cusp of Independence in 1946, which is commemorated in the sculpture of a sailor at the wheel in the garden of the naval establishment on Nathalal Parikh Marg off the Colaba Causeway. Ronita Torcato tells us the story

On the right of the statue of a sailor at the wheel in the garden of the naval establishment on Nathalal Parikh Marg off the Colaba Causeway, the exterior wall of a modest structure is embellished with a series of plaques recording milestones from the Naval Uprising of 1946. The plaques have been installed thanks to the efforts of the Maritime History Society, which was set up back in 1978 by the indefatigable, jovial Vice Admiral Manohar Prahlad Awati, history and heritage enthusiast and recipient of the Vir Chakra during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, whom I’ve had the privilege of often meeting as a reporter/columnist at The Daily, Bombay’s feisty and first morning tabloid (now sadly defunct.)

The late Vice Admiral Awati founded the MHS on 12 May 1978 to promote Indian maritime knowledge and wisdom through research, studies, documentation and archives of naval history.  Helmed over the years by Commander Mohan Narayan, Commodore Dr Johnson Odakkal and now Comdr Ashiesh Khanna, the MHS has been collaborating with scholars and other like-minded organisations in heritage and academia.

In March this year, the MHS organised a Commemorative Event at the Naval Uprising Memorial, which was attended by naval officers, heritage enthusiasts and Maharashtra’s young Tourism and Environment Minister Aaditya Thackeray. In May, MHS had celebrated 44th Founder Day with a commemorative lecture by Ruby Maloni, former professor and head, Department of History, University of Mumbai on ‘India’s Sea Power and Conflict between 16th to 18th centuries’.

 Back in February 2021, the year which marks the 75th Anniversary of the Indian Naval Uprising, the MHS had collaborated with the University’s Department of Civics & Politics to co-host a seminar titled, Naval Uprising 1946: Span and Significance, with a view to commemorating, reinvestigating and reimagining the 1946 Naval revolt which many historians concur, had signaled the end of the British rule in India.

The spark of resistance was lit on January 16 (my birthday if I may strike a personal note)  when a group of naval ratings in the Castle Barracks on Mint Road of Mumbai’s Fort precinct, went ashore to eat, unable to consume stale food. Substandard food was just one of many grouses, major ones being continual incidents of racism and broken promises of equity.

On 18 February 1946, Naval Ratings M.S. Khan and Madan Singh led a revolt on the HMIS Talwar and spearheaded a strike committee. Soon, other shore establishments and ships anchored along Bombay (now Mumbai) harbour joined the rebellion as did Karachi ratings on HMIS Hindustan.

What had started as a local complaint against the dismal quality of food, poor wages, living conditions and racial discrimination, spread like wildfire to other parts of the country like Madras, Cochin, Vishakhapatnam, Poona, Jabalpur, Calcutta and the Andaman Islands. With nationalistic fervour at a pitch, the Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army), supported by the Japanese lmperial Army and founded by Netaji Subash Chandra Bose (whose grand-nephew I’ve had the privilege of meeting in Hamburg) also became an  inspiration; let it be said, the chief inspiration.

The Union Jack was removed and the tricolour and Congress and Muslim League flags hoisted on all the ships. Unsurprisingly, the uprising garnered strong support from the public. But not the Indian officers. Our colonial masters responded with alacrity. On 20 February, British destroyers positioned themselves near the Gateway of India which the mutineers had threatened to blow up along with the docks.

The revolt was quelled in just four days. It is guesstimated that over a thousand were injured and between 200 and 400 people including civilians killed. The official record, however, lists the deaths of seven Royal Indian Navy sailors and one officer, 34 injured and 476 discharged from duty. Intriguingly, the event finds little or no mention in history texts even as it is said to have expedited the process of transfer of power to India. (Clement Attlee cites the revolt as a major decision to grant independence.)

Like many hitherto and inexplicably, obscure events, the Naval Uprising of 1946 is no longer deemed a small slice of history, or a mere footnote in textual records, but a multi-layered event of richly textured multiple narratives. Viewed from a wider angle today, the Uprising can be seen as an engagement with history, activism, art, literature and subaltern identities. By way of example, one can cite 1946 Royal Indian Navy Mutiny: Last War of Independence by  Pramod Kapoor, who founded  Roli Books the same year that the late Vice Admiral Awati had established the MHS.

Harking to World Wars 1 and 2 in which innumerable Indian soldiers died fighting for the British Empire, Kapoor’s book stresses the importance of dominion at sea and reveals that the mutineers were never reinstated by the Indian government, post-Independence. The magnitude of their  heroic resistance Kapoor realised while researching  for a pictorial biography on Mahatma Gandhi  in the course of which he discovered scores of reports on the Uprising by British admirals and naval  officers, cables and letters between London and Delhi, proceedings in the British Parliament and debates in India’s Legislative Council. Admittedly, all “honest”, but narrated, mostly, from the British point of view.

In yet another book, The Indian Naval Report of 1946, Percy S. Gourgey, an ex-lieutenant of the Royal Indian Naval Volunteer Reserve, wrote that the events led to the “mounting fever of excitement affecting the whole political climate”. Kapoor would wade through countless newspaper clippings and documents in libraries, interview people with deep knowledge of the revolt and tour HMIS Talwar at Colaba, where “inflammatory slogans” were written on the walls apart from “seditious pamphlets” circulated in the docks/Fort area (where this correspondent lives).

The revolt soon extended into a clarion call for freedom from British rule with the mutineers demanding the release of all political prisoners. An important factor in the rebellion was the arrest of a rating, B.C. Dutt, who had scrawled ‘Quit India’ on the HMIS Talwar. As he tells it in his memoir, Mutiny of the Innocents (1971), the Indian Navy assumed a non-cooperation stance with journalists who were trying to write stories on the event.  Lack of records and memory were the excuses trotted out by the naval brass even as the historian Patrick French writes  that “at its height the mutiny might have involved seventy-eight ships and twenty thousand sailors” across undivided India.

In 1978, Admiral Awati set up the MHS to rectify this sad, non-communicative state of affairs and negligence of history. The Founders Day is always celebrated with a commemorative lecture by a scholar and this year’s erudite and compelling  lecture was delivered by Ruby Maloni on the theme, India’s Sea Power and Conflict between 16th -18th Centuries.

The MHS seminar last February objectively analysed the uprising for historical context, demographics of the mutineers, the geo-political environment, media reportage and archival commentary as well as  artistic and literary explorations. All the while, bearing in mind that it was a commemoration and not a celebration and, more importantly, that mutiny in the Armed forces must never be glorified. Pertinently, Gandhiji, Sardar Patel, and Jinnah were united in criticising the Naval Rebellion.

Only Aruna Asaf Ali of the Congress, the Students Union of India and the Communist Party of India supported the insurrection with calls for dharnas and hartals. There was too, significantly, marked and commendable solidarity between religious groups but not long after, India was savaged by the most horrendous communal riots.

July – September 2022