A sailor arrested after the naval mutiny.

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A sailor arrested after the naval mutiny.

One of the most important but underestimated events of India’s independence movement was the naval revolt of 1946, about which Indian historian Sumit Sarker wrote: “If this insurrection had succeeded, the India’s struggle for freedom could have taken a different turn. From February 18 to 23 of that year, more than 20,000 ordinary sailors, called ratings, and junior officers from 74 warships and 20 installations took part in a strike, described as a mutiny or rebellion.

Mohammad Dewan Ali Nazir, Royal Indian Navy, Index no: 34499.

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Mohammad Dewan Ali Nazir, Royal Indian Navy, Index no: 34499.

After Bengal lost its independence at Palashi’s Mango Grove in 1757, the British Raj in India faced two major armed revolts: the first took place exactly after a hundred years, the military revolt of 1857, and the second took occurred 189 years later, the navy mutiny. Both in 1757 and 1857 the freedom fighters were defeated by the weapons and tactics of the British rulers, but the naval mutiny failed because of the Indian politicians of the time. It was not just the ratings mutiny that the political leaders decided not to support – the civil uprising sparked by the naval mutiny was also condemned by them. The scale of the civil uprising, had it occurred in a post-colonial era, would have created a revolution or at least caused the fall of the government in place.

Three days after the mutiny ended and the civil uprising was brutally crushed, then British Prime Minister Clement Atlee said in the House of Commons on February 26, 1946: “I regret to inform the Chamber that serious loss of life, injury and destruction of property resulted from all these disruptions. In Bombay, there were 223 deaths and 1,037 people were injured. The total damage includes the looting or destruction of nine banks, 32 government grain and fabric stores that the public can ill afford to buy. lose, 30 other businesses, 10 post offices, 10 police stations and 1,200 street lights. The number of vehicles destroyed is not yet estimated. In Karachi, there were seven dead and 21 injured. In Madras, until yesterday evening, one person was killed and another seriously injured” (Source: Hansard).

In his statement, Mr Atlee said: “Congress and Muslim League leaders cooperated in condemning and attempting to stop the unrest, but the Communist Party released a manifesto at midnight on Thursday thanking the public for their support. ” This perhaps explains why, to this day, the political classes of the three countries born out of the partition of India are unwilling to admit their failure and give full credit to these civilian mutineers and martyrs. Therefore, in 2021, there has not been a major event in the subcontinent to mark the 75th anniversary of the naval revolt.

On a personal level, it’s ironic that, despite studying history at the two best universities in the country, I didn’t have much interest in it during my student life. When I first heard about the rebellion from a mutineer, I had already taken a job and started my professional journey without an in-depth history. The mutineer I speak of was my father, who spoke of his role and his feelings for the lost cause during one of my short home visits. My father, Mohammad Dewan Ali Nazir (Royal Indian Navy, RIN, Index no: 34499) was one of the last 3,500 sailors and 300 sepoys who refused to surrender all the way.

They were arrested after surrendering and were released in August of the same year. The mediation and assurances given by the leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League turned out to be nothing but betrayal. Although the uprising was a challenge to the Empire, shaking the British imperial order, the leaders of the nationalist movement expecting to form an interim government through negotiation were not prepared to derail this prospect.

Press clipping from the Evening News.

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Press clipping from the Evening News.

The leaders of Congress and the Muslim League did not want a revolution – they wanted a peaceful transfer of power. Among the main politicians, only Congress leader Aruna Asaf Ali gave her support to the strike from the audiences and tried to persuade her party leaders to take a stand in favor of the strikers, but failed in the face of opposition from Vallabhbhai. patel. On February 22, Vallabhbhai Patel sent a message to the rebels to surrender. Only the Communist Party of India came out in favor of the naval revolt and called for a general strike. Reading the memoirs of one of the leading figures of the revolt, Balai Chand Dutt (BC Dutt), and a few other publications, one can easily imagine the frustration and pain felt by these mutineers in the face of the silence of the national leaders, whether they saw as a betrayal. Perhaps this explains why my father, too, lost interest in politics and did not talk much about the heroic uprising that ended in tragedy.

These nationalist leaders, including Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, advised them “not to confuse ‘political demands with demands for service’; to ‘keep calm’ and formulate their demands for service to naval authorities”. But from the start, these naval ratings raised political demands – in particular, the Quit India slogan. Their charter of demands called for: 1. The release of all Indian political prisoners; 2. Unconditional release of all Indian National Army personnel; 3. Withdrawal of all Indian troops from Indonesia and Egypt; 4. British nationals to leave India; 5. Actions against commander and signals bosonhead for mistreatment of crew; 6. Release of all detainees (naval ratings); 7. Rapid demobilization of RIN sailors and officers; 8. Equal status with the British Navy in respect of pay, family allowances and other facilities; 9. Best Indian cooking class; 10. No return of clothing kit after leaving service; 11. Better treatment of officers to subordinates; and 12. Installation of Indian officers and supervisors. (Source: Meanings of Failed Action: A reassessment of the 1946 Royal Indian Navy uprising by Dr Valentina Vitali, University of East London, UK.)

The autobiographies of two rebels – BC Dutt and Biswanath Bose – suggest that then (indivisible) India might have been a different place if the revolt of that day had succeeded. The rise of communal politics, the division and instability spreading through states and society, would not have happened. BC Dutt was one of the organizers of HMIS Talwar, the ship where the mutiny began. He was arrested and tried for writing a new slogan on a ship on February 1, three weeks before the start of the February 18 mutiny. His book, The Mutiny of the Innocents, contains details of how political literature and independence activities were organized long before their strike. RIN Mutiny, 1946 by Biswanath Bose also gives detailed descriptions of how the revolt unfolded. But politicians argued that the revolt was mainly due to Indian resentment over low wages, poor quality food and housing, inferior to that of whites, and racial discrimination.

After the 1857 mutiny, the British leadership banned the entry and discussion of political tracts in all forces, but BC Dutt used to secretly discuss political documents aboard the ship HMIS Talwar. Two months before the mutiny, on Navy Day on December 1, when it was open for public viewing, they wrote various slogans including “Quit India” and “Jai Hind” on the ship. Explaining the reason for the failure of the mutiny, BC Dutt wrote that while all Europeans and Indians were stunned by the course of events and wondered if it was a revolt, unfortunately the political parties had no nothing to say. When it was time to lower the British Union Jack and fly the Indian flag, they felt ill-prepared.

Newspaper clipping from the Hindustan Standard.

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Newspaper clipping from the Hindustan Standard.

On February 22, 1946, as Nationalist leaders were busy arranging for the surrender of the Notes, Prime Minister Clement Attlee told parliament that the sailors had been shouting political slogans and demanded that a political leader be given the opportunity to speak. He also said in the statement that Congress had nothing to do with the insurrection, but that communists and leftists might try to exploit sympathy.

British scholar William Richardson writes in The Society for Nautical Research that India’s political independence movement was behind the revolt (The Mutiny of the Royal Indian Navy at Bombay in February 1946, May 1993) . Author of the book 1946: The Unknown Mutiny, Promod Kapoor wrote that the marines were between the two aspirations of the two sovereigns. One part wanted their impending departure not to be tarnished by the stigma of rebellion. On the other hand, when power was imminent, other leaders were eager to see if there were any signs of chaos in the armed forces. Because in the future, they would have to manage these forces.

The politicians assured that no one would be punished, that no compensation would be paid and that measures would be taken to meet the demands. In fact, the opposite happened. The rebel leaders were arrested, tried and punished. Other rebels were ordered to take third-class train tickets home and never return to Bombay again. Making various excuses, deductions were made from back wages, even for minor damage to their uniforms.

Biswanath Bose’s book provides insight into the frustration and anger of these rebels over government behavior and political leaders’ failure to deliver on promises. He wrote: “If patriotism is a crime, then we must be criminals. Expressing his frustration at not being re-employed in the Indian Navy, he wrote a letter to Prime Minister Nehru asking if there was any law prohibiting his return to the force due to dismissal for participating in the liberation movement , and how, as the leader of Congress, Nehru could be the prime minister. Nationalist leaders were so reluctant to give the mutineers their credit, that the Indian government banned the Bengali play Kallol (Sound of the Wave), based on the mutiny, by playwright Utpal Dutt, and he was imprisoned. The play was first performed in 1965 in Calcutta at the Minerva Theater and drew large crowds.

Naval Uprising Statue, Colaba, Mumbai.

Naval Uprising Statue, Colaba, Mumbai.