Not many of us will remember that recently the 75th anniversary of the Indian naval mutiny / uprising against the British rule / Royal Indian Naval officers (British) was celebrated. It was taught as a reference till the year 1970 and then leftist historians removed it from the history books.
The prime mover of the uprising was one BC Dutt, in whose memory a residential colony has been named near INA Market, in New Delhi. The nerve centre of the uprising was in Bombay based ships. In the year 1946 the civilian population of Bombay also supported it. Ms Aruna Asaf Ali, a freedom fighter and politician of yesteryears had supported the movement. The uprising continued in Bombay for 4 – 5 days and for the 1st time, the blood of men in white naval uniform and civilians was spilled for a common cause and the aim was ‘freedom of the nation.’
On a balmy Bombay afternoon, the waves lapping against the hull of the INNS Talwar echoed in the deserted alleyway inside. Radio Operator First Class Mansoor Khan strode purposefully towards the communication room. His fingers expertly turned the dials and switches, as he glanced towards the open porthole. The sudden static from the high – power transmitter startled him as it crackled to life.
‘Come in Karachi .. come in…,’ he hissed into the microphone.
Madras, now Chennai, Vishakhapatnam also called Vizag and others, including Aden and Bahrain, had already confirmed, now only Karachi and Chittagong were remaining. It was just a matter of time. He glanced down at the secret message sheet in his hand; there were seventy – eight warships on the list.
‘Karachi… do you copy Karachi..’
The students listened in hushed silence as Commander D. N. Joshi (Indian Navy, retired) narrated his story of 18th February 1946. ‘Come in Bombay… come in…,’ came the reply, ‘this is INNS Hindustan…’
‘INNS Hindustan? INNS Talwar?’ interrupted one of the children. ‘You mean to say INS, short for Indian Naval Ship, right?’ ‘Wait…this was before Independence? It should be HMIS, right?’ exclaimed another proudly. Commander Joshi, smiled, ‘Not bad…but no!
On 18th February 1946, for about five days, His Majesty’s Indian Ships, HMIS, became the Indian National Naval Ships, INNS, borrowing the name from Late Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army.’ Commander Joshi declared. ‘We will get to the other things that happened on 18th February too; however, the events of the following day are also interesting…,’ he whispered. ‘What happened the next day?’ the students asked in unison.
This dramatised ‘story’ aside, what did actually happen on the 19th February 1946? Not unlike the historiography of 1857, the magnitude and the significance of the events of Monday, 18th February 1946 have been marginalised in most historical accounts. Consider the few years that preceded the events of that fateful Monday. The Indian National Army, under the leadership of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was making inroads into India through Burma (now Myanmar) starting 1942, with the idea of liberating India from the clutches of the English.
Consistent with their ‘achievements’ in 1857, the English decided to cut off the supplies to Bengal. The transport of rice into Bengal was restricted, in addition to removing the local stock of rice. The idea was to starve the entire region, so that the incoming army would be competing for food with the local population. The English succeeded, and the INA was unable to cross Bengal. This resulted in what is known as the Second Bengal Famine that starved the population of Bengal. Over four million Indians starved to death and the INA was defeated. No one taught us that 2nd Bengal famine was man made. What a shame to the Indian leftist historians, who wrote this narrative to please their masters.
After the end of the 2nd World War, there was widespread expectation by the Indian leaders who had been ‘engaged’ with the English, over ‘conversations’ that hardly went beyond ‘autonomy’ for many decades. They were expecting that England would be handing over the reins to India, on a ‘silver platter’. Months had gone by, and there was no substantive talk of independence. The ‘silver platter’ was not only empty, but the English were exulting in their post-war euphoria. Adding insult to injury, the English had begun the trials of the INA soldiers who had fought alongside Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, during the famous Lal Qila trials.
Alas, Indian independence was nowhere in sight.
Having heard many promises from their pacifist leadership for over twenty years, there was growing impatience amongst the civilians and Indian military personnel in the Air Force, the British Indian Army and the Royal Indian Navy.
Railway and postal workers were striking all over India and in Allahabad, a mob of 80,000 stormed ration centres. The ground and maintenance crew in the RAF at Dum – Dum airfield and several other stations ‘mutinied’. There was a general atmosphere of restlessness.
In February of the year, 1946, this impatience boiled over in many places across India. There were protests in Calcutta over the INA trials. There were fourteen trials of INA men resulting in prison sentences.
On 11th February 1946, Rashid Ali was sentenced to seven years rigorous imprisonment. Calcutta exploded. There were six days of intense agitations from 11 – 16 February. The English government attempted to clamp down on the protesters. There were street battles in which eighty-four Indians were killed and 300 injured. At exactly the same time, in Bombay, the Indian ratings of the Royal Indian Navy were expressing their resentment towards English rule. In the second week of February, slogans appeared on the walls of the establishments. ‘Quit India’, ‘Revolt NOW’, and ‘Kill the English Bastards’.
Shortly, the RIAF revolted in an India Pioneer unit in Calcutta and in various centres at Jabalpur. The air was thick with anticipation. On Monday, 18 February 1946, the English ensign on the HMIS Talwar was lowered. In a symbol of freedom, the ‘Azad Hind’ flag of the INA replaced the Union Jack on the mast. The naval leaders also hoisted the flags of the Congress and Muslim League to symbolise that these represented unified actions of Hindu as well as Muslims in the navy.
On that day, the naval personnel changed the name of RIN or the Royal Indian Navy to the Indian National Navy, in the spirit of Bose’s Indian National Army. HMIS Talwar became INNS Talwar. INNS Talwar was so chosen because it was a signals ship, capable of communicating with all the other ships. As soon as the Jai Hind flag was flying on top, other ships were notified. In a short period, seventy – eight other ships and twenty shore establishments from Karachi to Chittagong were under Indian control. These included the WT stations in Aden and Bahrain, a cookery school and two demobilisation centres.
In Karachi, Indians took control of the corvette HMIS Hindustan, and one other ship and three shore establishments. The English response was quick. However, in Bombay, the Indian soldiers that were sent in to suppress the ratings, refused to fire. In the bay, INNS Narbada (erstwhile HMIS Narbada) trained its guns on the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, located just behind the arch of the Gateway of India. Soon the whole city came to a standstill as the civilian population showed its support with strikes, hartals, barricades, street battles and the destruction of the police stations, post offices and other official buildings, while shopkeepers provided the navy personnel with free food and drink.
INNS Talwar, the communications ship at Bombay, became the centre of all negotiations and represented the overwhelming show of strength around all the ports. An English naval officer rushed to the top of the RBI building, the tallest in the area to get a bird’s eye view of the situation. A sniper bullet originating from one of the ships killed him instantaneously. Even before the Congress and Muslim League leaders got around to predictably ‘condemning’ this behaviour, England had already responded. The ‘pacifist’ voices might have selectively forgotten and even censured India’s ‘violent’ and ‘forgettable’ history of 1857, but the English knew exactly what the future held for them. The Jai Hind flag was symbolically analogous to the ‘Proclamation of Freedom’, made on 25th August 1857, but with a military force that was far more powerful.
Could England have retaliated as viciously as it did eighty – eight years earlier, and won this time around as well? Could England have sent their once mighty Air Force to crush the Indians? However, the real question was, would England, weakened after Second World War, be willing to engage in another bloody war with a highly motivated Indian Navy with support from the other Indian armed forces?
The answer came the following day, loud and clear, from a few thousand miles away.
On 19 February 1946, Patrick-Lawrence in the House of Lords, and Prime Minister Attlee in the House of Commons made a simultaneous announcement. ‘…that in the view of the paramount importance, not only to India and to the British Commonwealth, but to the peace of the world. His Majesty’s Government had decided to send out to India a special mission consisting of three Cabinet ministers to seek, in association with the viceroy.’
This mission was to work out the details of India’s independence.
The navy ratings were not impressed with that announcement. After all, England in the past had been ‘persuaded’ by the pacifists to send many ‘missions’ in the previous decades. None of them had resulted in India’s independence. Why would this be any different? However, the English recognised that the threat this time was real and present, and could spark something much larger. Indian soldiers who had fought for the British Army in the Second World War were witness to the INA trials as well. In stating that India’s liberation was necessary for the ‘peace of the world’, the English implicitly admitted that similar scenes could follow in other parts of the world, where Indian soldiers had fought, from Africa to the Middle East.
Therefore, cutting their losses and leaving India was a pragmatic choice that could allow the English to hold on, or control a few of their colonies around the world. However, the leaders of this ‘violent’ movement were going to need more convincing. Congress leaders were not only taken by surprise at the coordinated events of the naval ratings that shook the Indian subcontinent, but they had no idea that England had immediately chosen to retreat rather than engage in an all-out war.
Obviously, the English had planned to withdraw, without even consulting with the Congress leaders. Maulana Azad admitted in his memoirs, India Wins Freedom, that he only heard about the English announcement much later that evening, at 9.30 pm, over the radio. What started as a coordinated event by the naval ratings, with support from the RAF and an eager and rejuvenated INA, was inspiring civilians to join in. There were slogans of ‘Jai Hind’ all over the country. The Congress reaction was swift and the remonstration was immediate.
Jawaharlal Nehru quickly declared himself, ‘impressed by the necessity for curbing the wild outburst of violence.’ Gandhi in his speech on 22 February 1946 said that he had followed the events in India with ‘painful interest’, and scolded the ‘members of the navy’ for setting a ‘bad and unbecoming example for India’. As the popularity and scale of the movement increased, there were slogans announcing India’s impending liberation. This was a clear vindication of Bose’s approach toward the English.
Disturbed by the usage of the INA’s war cry, Gandhi said that, ‘to shout Jai Hind or any popular slogan was a nail driven into the coffin of Swaraj.’ Muslim League’s Jinnah echoed the Congress’ sentiments and asked the navy to return to their ships and lay down their arms. Hoisting the Congress and Muslim League flags in addition to the Azad Hind flags, symbolised a unity that superseded the political divisions that were unfolding in India.
Hindus and Muslims were united, but Gandhi was as usual distressed. He viewed this combination of Hindus and Muslims for ‘violent action’ as ‘unholy’. In addition to castigating the naval heroes, Gandhi was upset at the civilian leaders who were possibly critical in coordinating these activities with the navy and other armed forces. Who were these civilian leaders of this war? History on this subject is simply missing for reasons as discuss further; however, Gandhi’s speech gives us a hint. Without naming anyone, Gandhi censured the ‘known and the unknown leaders of this thoughtless orgy of violence’. Who were the ‘known and unknown leaders’ that Gandhi was attacking? Did he not want to publicise their names, lest they seize the limelight earned from an ‘unholy’ and a ‘violent’ way?
Will they always remain the unnamed heroes who helped set India free?
Will their actions be simply remembered as a ‘thoughtless orgy of violence’?
Nevertheless, the events that started on 18th February continued for a few more days. On 21st February, Admiral Godfrey issued his ultimatum ‘to surrender or face destruction of the whole navy’. The navy refused. It turned out to be a hollow threat. The impotency of the English rule was self – evident and their rule in India was symbolically over. However, the naval leaders countered with a demand for a more substantial evidence of the English intention to leave India. The navy representatives agreed to meet with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. With the press largely gagged, the public at large was not aware of the extent of power the Indian armed forces had over the situation.
Not fully trusting Patel, they agreed to back down on the condition, that Sardar Patel made a public announcement about the impending freedom. Patel agreed and the naval ratings retreated. They had achieved their goal. Sardar Patel gave a speech to the public in Chowpatty in Bombay the following day.
Sardar Patel declared and thundered that, ‘Azadi to ab chand dino ki baat hai’ (Independence is just a few days away). Despite some hiccups that ensued in the coming months, the English were finally removed from India the following year. With the mission accomplished, now it was a question of who takes the credit. The ‘known and unknown leaders’ were never allowed the limelight nor given credit for their sacrifices. In fact, they were castigated for their ‘violence’. The INA soldiers were described as people who were ‘misguided by a path of violence’, the air force personnel and the naval ratings, who had risked their lives, became simply as the ‘RAF strikers’ and the ‘RIN mutineers’.
As expected, the credit for India’s liberation was expropriated by the political opportunists, with a helping hand from the English. And Monday, 18th February 1946 was quietly erased from the history and ultimately from history books too. On 15th August 1947, P. K. Tope remembered the sacrifices of stalwarts like Tatya Tope and others during the War of 1857 and the heroes of 1946. As he looked closely at the fluttering Tricolour, he realised that the flag actually had a fourth colour: navy blue.
This navy – blue colour of the Ashok Chakra metaphorically recognised the events of the 18th February, 1946. That fateful Monday was never recorded in the annals of history, but the contribution of the navy was forever immortalised in the Indian flag.
It’s time to bring back this mutiny back into the history books by the NCERT Books and expose the games which the Congress played to just highlight only their leaders, without giving credit to thousands of Indian warriors, who gave their lives to free Mother India.