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A Forgotten Page of Indian History

Naval Uprising of 1946

Odakkal Johnson ( is curator of the Maritime History Society at Mumbai and has been a maritime professional for 35 years. He is the author of Timeless Wake: The Legacy of the Royal Indian Navy during World War II (2013) and co-editor of Essays in Maritime Studies, Volume–III (2016).

Hope and Despair: Mutiny, Rebellion and Death in India, 1946 by Anirudh Deshpande,New Delhi: Primus Books, 2016; pp 122 (134 including preliminary pages),950.

The book Hope and Despair: Mutiny, Rebellion and Death in India, 1946 is a well-researched thesis. The introduction reveals a long-standing period of academic enquiry of this multifaceted account. The actual event lasted less than a week with the action set across Bombay, Karachi, Calcutta and a few other locations, and lasting over a year prior to independence. Apart from recent nostalgia and few rare poetic and cinematic references, Insurrection 1946 is a classically forgotten page in Indian history.

The preceding neglect gives this book its importance. Researchers would be delighted to lap up a comprehensive political, demographic and environmental study of the mutiny. Previous and recent narratives of this naval mutiny have called it an uprising, or even an insurrection. This book is based on work that refers to reams of archives, including those from the National Archives of India and involves a long period of research (starting from studies by the author when doing his BA course). The story does get influenced by Marxist scholarship, ranging from Sumit Sarkar to Sekhar Bandyopadhyay. In many places, young naval ratings have been given an extrapolated revolutionary zeal, similar to the cadres of the Indian National Army (INA). The author states, “It was evident that the Marxist interpretation of the Naval Revolt was radically different from the official one to which conservatives like my father subscribed” (p xviii).

On a personal note, as a reviewer, I have tried to avoid the effect of an excessive influence of what my father, a participant of the uprising, shared with me over a lifetime. There have been efforts, of late, to restore the place and significance of the Naval Uprising of 1946 by quite a few authors, publishers, artists and classic historians. Deshpande’s book therefore becomes a fitting read, as a piece of evidence for students of Indian history, to sketch a part of the canvas of the very origin of constitutional India.

Frustration and Despair

The saga of B C Dutt, based on his work, Mutiny of the Innocents and related in the book raises the disdain of bureaucratic process, contrasted with personal dilemma, faced by participants like him, before and after 1947. The author painfully describes this:

After independence, Vallabhbhai Patel, obviously in deference to the popular opinion on the Naval Mutiny, stated in Lok Sabha that the accused and discharged ratings from the RIN would be re-instated in the Indian Navy if they so desired. However, ground realities were different and this was soon realised by optimistic men like B C Dutt who took Patel’s assurances at face value … Dutt applied officially to the Navy for reinstatement but received no acknowledgement. Then, in an act of frustration and desperation, he wrote to Nehru only to receive a reply from his private secretary that his letter had been forwarded to the Defence Minister for appropriate action. (p 6)

The author presents the story of the Royal Indian Navy in terms of the lack of its organised growth in the run up to World War II. The failure to “Indianise” and the priority given to the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNVR), gave rise to a lot of angst, among Indian ratings, towards the completion of the war. This echoes the reviewer’s own research (Timeless Wake: The Legacy of the Royal Indian Navy during World War II, 2013, Mumbai: Maritime History Society). Indian sailors gave a heroic and professional account of themselves in World War II in many theatres. Yet, their maritime zeal and military pride declined after the war. There was attitudinal conflict between British officers and sailors of the colony.

To trace the thinking and motivation of the participants of the naval mutiny in 1946, the author examines in depth, the recruitment process followed by the Indian armed forces, before and during World War II. He highlights the existing misconceptions of those who heard about the lashkars and sepoys of World War I.

Between the two World Wars, the colonial state neither had the money, nor the inclination, to improve the Indian Soldier’s working conditions. The Jawan was essentially a traditional peasant in a modern uniform drawn from the professional “martial” classes of India who served for a limited number of years in single-class companies and mixed-class battalions. (p 14)

Terming the process as obsolete, the author goes into elaborate details of recruitment and motivation to join the military. Through this he brings up the painful reality faced during the subsequent demobilisation.

Deshpande devotes only around 40 pages (out of 122) in two chapters (out of three) to the actual insurrection story of 18–23 February 1946. It was primarily anchored in Bombay and Karachi. An empirical narrative, it is interspersed with ideology and poetic zeal. In the origins of the discontent captured by the author, there is repeated stress on the influence of the Quit India movement as catchwords towards a wave of mass nationalism. “This mutiny, which became a mass revolt involving thousands of Indian civilians in Bombay, Karachi and other Indian cities, expressed the surging popular nationalism in India during the anxiety ridden spring of 1946” (p 55).

The actual events in Bombay, recounted from pages 56 through 62, are then related to the many political and economic developments that were happening in the same period. What is commendable is that the original narration of events at Karachi is presented in a holistic account. That component tends to be neglected in other similar renditions of the uprising. Those accounts render a lesser or greater importance than the event had on our independence struggle. At one place, the author says,

The news of the mutiny on HMIS Talwar in Bombay, reached the ratings in the shore establishments of Karachi through newspapers on 19 February. Given the atmosphere prevailing in the naval establishments of Karachi, this news was received with “tremendous excitement” and “suppressed jubilation” by the Indian ratings. (p 74)

What is also reiterated in the book is that for more than 100 years there were a string of sporadic mutinies and rebellions in portions of the colonial military. The Naval Uprising of 1946 may well have been the proverbial last straw that hastened the otherwise planned transfer of power in 1948. Was this so? The author leaves the query as an unstated possibility.

The book does not examine naval custom or tradition and the (expected) apolitical thinking of the naval ratings. There are, however, references to influence of the times, including revolutionary zeal from the INA as also Marxist leanings. However, the reader is not led to conclude that the participants of the Naval Uprising were political or that they had any post-event aspirations of revolutionary leadership.

Final Surrender

Fuelled by discontentment, triggered by genuine grievances and frustrated by lack of empathy, the actions of the naval ratings described in the book show a professional resolve to achieve what they considered to be their genuine mission. Journalists who visited the HMIS Talwar did report a charter of demands given to Rear Admiral Arthur Rullion Rattray on his visit to the establishment. By 21 February 1946, the mutineers had taken over the HMIS Narbada among other ships and manned the guns even as British Army contingents poured into Bombay to quell the rebellion with brute force. “The next day the Royal Air Force threatened the rebel led ships by flying a squadron of bombers low over Bombay harbor” (p 61). The book captures a key extract of the Flag Officer Commanding Royal Indian Navy (FOCRIN), Vice Admiral J H Godfrey’s threat, “… To continue the struggle is the height of folly when you take into account the overwhelming forces at the disposal of the government at this time, and which will be used to their uttermost even if it means the destruction of the Navy of which we have been proud” (p 61).

The book goes on to relate that through the night of 22–23 February 1946, it became clear to the mutineers that the national leadership across the political spectrum had already shifted the narrative to justice and fair treatment after the expected surrender. The saga of the final surrender and the visible despair of the participants of the insurrection is a must-read.

The existing degree of the uprising’s imprint is perhaps due to some resonance that the ratings found among the civil populace in Bombay and Karachi. “The inquisitive Karachi crowd was drawn to the Mutiny when the ratings in Manora rebelled. On 22 February, the firing between the British troops and Hindustan transformed the crowd into an active force.” A very pointed observation by the author is, “significance of urban crowds in modern India, and the political lessons drawn from their volition, will be lost to historiography and posterity if the year 1945–46 is treated as just another year in the ‘transfer of power’ in India …” (p 72). If the book inspires further examination and enquiry, as is being done by a few researchers (that I am aware of), it will succeed in its purpose. It certainly is a good scope of study and removed from the oft repeated hagiographic narrations.

Memory loss about the uprising was certainly observed among the rulers of the period and seemed to continue post independence.

The exact number of naval mutineers killed in Karachi and Bombay remains unknown but at least more than a dozen may have been killed in the battles fought between the naval establishments, Hindustan and the British Army. It was only in 2002 that a memorial to those who died in February 1946 was erected in Colaba, central Bombay (…) The point is … to interrogate the silence which shrouds that event seventy years after it occurred. (p 107)

Hope and Despair is an apt title. The monograph is an academic presentation about an up-and-down experience of a number of aspirational people who were knitted together by their choice to join the Royal Indian Navy. The hope was of employment, finding an identity and well-being in a military atmosphere, as a dream by thousands of ordinary working-class people, from the villages and the hinterland. The recruits found themselves fighting a war for their colonial masters in distant lands. When the job was done, they crashed headlong into a wall of despair in the rude and ruthless form of demobilisation. This disillusionment, in a nation that was witnessing the tiring end of the struggle for independence, left more questions than answers even as a new nation was being born.


Updated On : 5th Mar, 2018


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