Interview: Pramod Kapoor, author, 1946 Royal Indian Navy Mutiny; Last War of Independence - ‘Histories are written by those who rule’

Published on Feb 25, 2022 08:47 PM IST
The story of an uprising by sailors of the Royal Indian Navy who took on the British but were let down by India’s most prominent nationalist leaders
Author Pramod Kapoor (Courtesy Roli Books)
Author Pramod Kapoor (Courtesy Roli Books)
ByChintan Girish Modi

How would you describe the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) Mutiny of 1946 to generations of Indians who have never heard of this episode from our freedom struggle?

It started soon after the Quit India Movement, when leaders who had gone underground came out. A socialist group made up of people like Aruna Asaf Ali, Jayaprakash Narayan and Achyut Patwardhan were getting impatient with the slow results of Gandhi’s peaceful movement, and felt that something radical needed to be done. They started meeting with the naval ratings who were also radicals.

The first incident happened in the first week of December 1945 on Navy Day, an important occasion when the who’s who of Bombay were invited. The ratings decided to write anti-British slogans like Inquilab Zindabad, Jai Hind, and “Down with the British” on the walls of the signal school HMIS Talwar, where they were employed. The British needed to enforce some discipline, so they brought in Cdr Arthur Frederick King in January.

376pp, ₹498; Roli Books
376pp, ₹498; Roli Books

A few weeks later, in February, Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck, who was the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in India paid a visit to Talwar. The ratings created another embarrassment for them. BC Dutt and Rishi Dev Puri stayed up at night and painted the words “Jai Hind” and “Quit India” on the platform where the Commander-in-Chief was going to address the gathering. A lot of seditious literature was found in Dutt’s locker, so he was arrested immediately. Puri was discharged from service.

Cdr King lost his cool when he saw that the ratings refused to get up when he came to meet them. He started verbally abusing them. This was the final trigger for the uprising. But it had its origins in other problems such as racial discrimination, tall promises made at the time of recruitment that were never fulfilled, bad food and terrible living conditions. Once it began, it spread quickly through signals sent to British ships and shore establishments everywhere, from Indonesia to Bahrain. It was as if they were waiting for this to happen.

In less than 48 hours, 20,000 men took over 78 ships and 21 shore establishments. They pulled down the White Ensigns of the Royal Navy and replaced them with the entwined flags of the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League and communists. It all began in Colaba, Bombay. HMIS Talwar is now part of INS Angre, a shore establishment of the Indian Navy.

What were some of the demands of these mutineers?

They wanted an end to the poor service conditions and racial discrimination. They demanded the release of soldiers who had fought in the Azad Hind Fauj or the Indian National Army. They wanted the trial of these soldiers to be stopped, and demanded that they be acquitted. The mutineers also asked for the withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia and Egypt. They refused to fight against people elsewhere in the world who were fighting for freedom.

You stumbled upon references to the RIN mutiny while researching an earlier book titled Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography. What inspired you to dig deeper?

I was reading Volumes 89 and 90 of The Complete Works of Mahatma Gandhi when I saw some statements and letters by him, which were related to the mutiny. He had a major public disagreement with Aruna Asaf Ali. I wanted to learn more, so I read some unpublished letters of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. He had written to Gandhiji, saying that he had asked Jawaharlal Nehru not to come to Bombay as it would fan the flames. I thought there’d be more because these stalwarts would not have spent time discussing something that was not important.

I felt guilty about not mentioning the mutiny in my biography of Gandhiji. The more I read, the more I realized that the mutiny was much bigger than what I had read in passing. I got completely engrossed in it, and obsessed by it. I started looking at every possible piece of paper on the event like breaking news. My research took me across the seas to London. My ambition grew. I started contacting descendants and family members of the ratings who were involved in the mutiny. I hope I have done justice to the stories that I chanced upon.

Is the RIN mutiny comparable to the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857? Did it, in some way, mark the beginning of the end of British colonial rule in India?

Yes, I firmly believe that it did mark the beginning of the end of British colonial rule in India, but the two mutinies were very different. The Sepoy Mutiny was mostly related to the kartoos or cartridges that the soldiers were made to use. It did not have much public support. At that time, the public awakening was not as much as it was in 1945. The RIN mutiny had a lot more support from civilians, who came out on the streets. There were tanks on the streets of Bombay. It is estimated that over 400 people were killed in three days. The British thought that they would be butchered. There was panic in the British Parliament, and angry telegrams were flying between the British Prime Minister and Viceroy. They could handle Gandhiji’s peaceful movement but not a mutiny from all three defence forces – army, navy, air force.

Your book mentions that the mutineers were united across religions. How did this happen?

In one of the accounts that I read during my research, one of the leaders among the mutineers wrote, “We were Sikh, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, upper caste, lower caste, whatever, we were all made to sit around a big vessel full of dal, and we were given rotis. We all had to dip our rotis in the same vessel, and eat from it. That instantly united us. There was no difference. That is how we ate in the messes.” In 1946, there was a trial of a Sikh, a Muslim and a Hindu together as part of the Indian National Army trials at the Red Fort. This was a major error of judgement as far as the British were concerned. People across religions came together. If this feeling of amity had persisted, I suspect that the Partition would have been less bloody.

Why did the ratings aim their ships’ guns at Bombay landmarks such as the Gateway of India, the Naval Dockyard and the Yacht Club, which continue to exist?

This was in response to a threat that they were given. On the third day of the mutiny, Admiral JH Godfrey, who was commanding the RIN made a broadcast on All India Radio to say that the British would use all the force available at their command – even if it meant destruction of the navy. That was a direct threat to the ratings. The British commanded their most powerful warship HMS Glasgow, which was in Trincomalee, to sail rapidly and come to Bombay. The Royal Air Force fighter planes were ordered to fly low over these landmarks to scare the Indian ratings who had taken control of all the ships around Bombay. These ratings said, “If you cause any damage to us, we will just blow up these buildings.” They had to show that they were ready to counter the British threat. I don’t know if they would have done it. It would have resulted in a big disaster. A lot of Indians would have been killed along with the British.

While all this was happening in Bombay, what was unfolding in Karachi?

Karachi suffered the most in terms of the number of lives that were lost on two ships anchored there – HMIS Hindustan and HMIS Travancore – and four or five shore establishments on the Manora island. The action escalated there. The British fired on the sailors, and they retaliated. They were trained to fight, not bother about winning or losing. It was low tide, and the ship went down, so the British on the shore had a big advantage. They could fire down on the ratings, who were given only half an hour to surrender. It is said that only 10 or 15 people died in Karachi but I think that at least 30 to 40 people must have died.

Why were the ratings not backed by their senior officers? Could you explain this in the context of hierarchies, chain of command, and the training of officers?

I am sure that, privately, most of them were in favour of freedom for their motherland. But we must remember that no navy likes a mutiny whether it is now or 100 years ago. This is against the ethos that is inculcated in them. The first allegiance of the officers was to the force they were serving. Their duty was more important to them than their emotional attachment to their country – a country that had not even come into being in 1946. Some of the admirals did depose later in favour of ratings. At the time of action, only one officer rebelled. He was put into prison immediately. The rest of them were faithful to their own force. It is unfair to look at them 75 years later, and assess. They were just doing their job.

How did the Riviera Building on Marine Drive, Mumbai, come to occupy a central place in the story of the RIN Mutiny? Who were the key people involved?

Even today, the Riviera Building is with the Indian Navy. I don’t know if it is owned or has been rented by them for a long time. Riviera was always associated with naval forces. Flat No 2, which belonged to PN Nair and Kusum Nair, was the hub where most of the planning of the mutiny took place. PN Nair had served in the navy, and Kusum Nair had served as clerical staff in the navy for a few months. That’s how they had occupied that flat.

The young ratings met Aruna Asif Ali and members of the Ex-Services Association there. This Association was formed to address the concerns of people who were being discharged from the defence forces because the Second World War had ended, and the British had no need to employ them. In the beginning, the mutiny was not meant to be as bloody as it turned out. They were going to follow the Gandhian principle of non-violence. But the aggressive British response made the ratings very impatient. One of them said, “We have been trained to fight with guns. We don’t know how to fight with charkha.” That is why the situation escalated.

What made Aruna Asaf Ali, Minoo Masani and Jayaprakash Narayan support the mutiny?

They were a younger lot. They were part of a socialist group within the Congress. Aruna Asaf Ali was not arrested along with the big leaders during the Quit India Movement. She went to Gowalia Tank and unfurled the Congress flag, then went underground for over two years. In the process, her properties were confiscated. There was a big reward on her head. She did not surrender. She went from one place to another, and stayed hidden. When everyone was released from prison, Gandhiji made an appeal to her. This is what he said: “I believe you have become a skeleton. You must now surrender.” She surrendered physically but she was made of sterner fabric. She, Minoo Masani, and Jayaprakash Narayan thought that some amount of aggression was necessary. That’s how she got involved with the ratings.

Could you talk about the support that the ratings received from members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association such as Balraj Sahni, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Ritwik Ghatak, Prithviraj Kapoor, Salil Chowhdury, Sahir Ludhianvi and AK Hangal?

They were first supporting the Ex-Services Association with all the funding. They would perform, collect money, and give it to the Association. The Association was helping financially with the rehabilitation of people who had been discharged from the services, and needed to look after their families. It was also helping the ratings employed with the navy. Khwaja Ahmad Abbas was one of the main founders of the IPTA. Some of these people also addressed the ratings in the flat but the records of those discussions are not available.

In the book, you also write about Kallol, a Bengali play that Utpal Dutt directed in 1965. It dramatizes the RIN mutiny of 1946. Why did the Congress try to censor it so many years after the mutiny?

I am sure that it was their guilt. In 1946, Sardar Patel persuaded the ratings to surrender. At that time, he said that there would no victimization of ratings. He made promises, which were not kept. Muhammad Ali Jinnah said he would speak to the Viceroy. He did not keep his promises either. Within 24 hours of the surrender, the ring leaders of the ratings were taken to Mulund. There was a barbed wire kind of concentration camp, where they were deposited. Until 1958, we had four navy chiefs in India who were British. It must have been embarrassing to reinstate the ratings who had rebelled against the British during the mutiny.

Jawaharlal Nehru was against the idea of making an example out of insubordination in the navy. The ratings were not taken back. They just got two-line cyclostyled letters saying that the government had decided not to reinstate those who were dismissed with disgrace. There was a lot of debate about this. One of the ratings protested. He wrote to Nehru, “You were fighting from the streets against the British. We did the same thing for the love of our motherland. You have become the Prime Minister. We are still on the streets.”

In 1965, when a communist like Utpal Dutt staged a play, the Congress did not have the courage to ban it. They used to send goons and Youth Congress workers to gherao Minerva Theatre on Beadon Street in Calcutta. They even forced newspapers not to carry reviews. Thousands were coming to see it because it was a wonderful play. Utpal Dutt managed to create a sailing ship on stage with the technology at that time. Eventually, the CPM made a force of volunteers, and made sure that no one was stopped. It ran houseful for 800 shows. A year later, Utpal Dutt was put behind bars for waging war against the nation. When he was released, there was a big celebration. People from all over the city came out to support him.

Your book gives the impression that the RIN mutiny has been written out of school textbooks because it shows some of India’s national leaders in a poor light.

There are people in the navy who have never heard of it. People who are 70 plus have heard about it from their elders. The Congress should explain this. I support them for their secularism but this is something they need to clarify their stance on. Saying that independence was imminent, and that they could not rock the boat, is not enough. The mutiny was a powerful demonstration of courage from the naval ratings, and it must be part of the curriculum. You can give an explanation for how and why things happened in a certain way but you cannot edit it out. Histories are written by those who rule. The Congress ruled for so long. It was such an important episode. Every newspaper in the world carried this news. Indian newspapers had banner headlines about it for many days. It should not be edited out.

Did Jinnah and Nehru have similar objections to the mutiny?

I will not take names but it is quite clear that the political class of that time had started to distribute cabinet positions. They could not have let a rebellion of this kind take over. For five to six, even seven decades, they had been struggling for freedom. Many people died. They could not let these youngsters take the credit after all the work that they had put in.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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