Review: 1946 Royal Indian Navy Mutiny; Last War of Independence by Pramod Kapoor

Published on Sep 30, 2022 08:08 PM IST

A gripping account of the events and personalities involved in the Royal Indian Navy mutiny of February 1946, a momentous event in the history of India’s freedom struggle that has not received the attention it deserves A gripping account of the events and personalities involved in the Royal Indian Navy mutiny of February 1946, a momentous event in the history of India’s freedom struggle that has not received the attention it deserves

The INA trials were front page news and sparked a series of “strikes” within units of the Indian Armed Forces including the Royal Indian Navy. (HT Archive)
The INA trials were front page news and sparked a series of “strikes” within units of the Indian Armed Forces including the Royal Indian Navy. (HT Archive)
ByRana TS Chhina

In the year 1946, India was on the cusp of gaining its freedom from Great Britain after over two centuries of colonial rule. To paraphrase Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...” There was both hope and uncertainty in the air, and many of the now-familiar defining events of that year still lay shrouded behind the veil of an indeterminate, uncertain future.

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

The recently concluded Second World War had acted as a catalyst to the national freedom movement. The war clouds over India had dissipated, borne away by the winds of change that brought with them new hopes and expectations, and also a sense of impatience as the vast allied armies that had fought the fascist foe were dismantled in an agonisingly slow process of demobilisation. India had played a key military role during the war, which was fought on a scale never before witnessed in human history.

The country occupied a central place in sustaining the Allied effort especially in two major theatres of the war – the Middle East and South-East Asia. Its geostrategic location between these two theatres ensured that it played a pivotal and multifaceted role, as “a base, a storehouse, a springboard and a recruiting ground.” The Indian Army expanded as it had during the previous world war to supply the largest all-volunteer force ever raised in the history of human conflict. By the end of the war, Indian soldiers had served on nearly all the war fronts. The Indian Air Force had similarly expanded from one squadron in 1939, to 10 squadrons by 1945, and the Royal Indian Navy had made a name for itself in the Indian Ocean and the coastal waters around Burma (now Myanmar).

Although the British had emerged victorious in the conflict, not all was well within the Raj, which had sustained itself for so long on the unquestioning fidelity of the Indian Armed Forces. The formation of the Indian National Army (INA) by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose had been kept under wraps during the war, but the Red Fort Trials of the key surviving Indian protagonists propelled the INA into the national consciousness and ignited long-suppressed passions in the breasts of their countrymen.

Against this backdrop of rising nationalistic fervour, there occurred, in early 1946, a series of incidents of “strikes” within units of the Indian Armed Forces. These had a profound impact upon the colonial authorities and undoubtedly contributed to hastening the processes that led to the departure of the British and the freedom of India in 1947. These strikes or mutinies, which began in units of the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) quickly spread to the other Services as well. The causes for the unrest were also similar. They included, inter alia, demands for parity in pay with European personnel of the Royal Air Force (RAF) or Royal Navy (RN), an end to racial discrimination and slurs, betterment of service conditions, and speedy demobilisation. It is interesting to note that these demonstrations took place in the technical services or arms, which were largely composed of young Indian men with better education and political awareness. The RIAF incidents were defused by quick and sympathetic action on part of the Indian officers of the service before they could develop into a “mutiny”. In military law, if two or more men present the same grievance at the same time, it is deemed a mutiny. Yet, in the Navy, the situation deteriorated rapidly and events quickly took a serious turn that threatened to destabilise not just the Indian Armed Forces but the entire country as well.

Starting with HMIS Talwar, the RIN Signal School at Colaba in Mumbai, the mutiny spread rapidly among RIN ships and establishments across the city. As news of the uprising became known, there were widespread agitations in different parts of the country although the worst affected was Mumbai itself, where workers and citizens combined to form common cause against the British. While the initial attempt by the naval ratings was to maintain a non-violent, passive front, things quickly got out of hand and violence escalated as riots broke out in civilian areas and shots were exchanged at a number of places during the height of the uprising, which lasted from 18-22 February 1946. The revolt came to an end when the ratings surrendered on the advice of Sardar Patel and other Indian political leaders. The role of the Indian political establishment in the entire episode has been subjected to critical scrutiny in this book. The author raises uncomfortable questions about the lack of support for the mutiny by nationalist leaders. Whether the rationale for this was justified or not is something the reader must discover for himself, although the author’s sympathies are clearly with the ratings.

Author Pramod Kapoor (Courtesy Roli Books)
Author Pramod Kapoor (Courtesy Roli Books)

While there have been other books that have chronicled the events of the period, notably the monograph by DK Das, Revisiting Talwar: A Study in the RIN Uprising of February 1946, (Delhi: Ajanta, 1993), the author provides a gripping account of the events as they unfolded, as well as the various personalities involved. Far from being a dry historical narrative, the book engages the reader as the author peels away the multiple layers that added to the complexity of the times. While the reference to the “Last War of Independence” in the title may be hyperbole, there is no gainsaying the fact that it was a momentous event in the history of India’s freedom struggle, and one that has not received the attention that is its due. This very readable account will engage everyone interested in the military and political history of India.

Was the uprising justified? What was more important: military discipline or an uprising fuelled by nationalist fervour in a nation that was on the verge of evicting colonial authority through a long struggle that had been marked by high principles and non-violence? This is for the reader to decide.

Sqn Ldr (Retd) Rana TS Chhina, MBE, is Secretary and Editor, Centre for Military History and Conflict Studies

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