Naval Revolt of 1946: A Conspiracy of Silence

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    In March 1965, pandemonium, or kallol, broke out on the streets of Calcutta, and in the eye of the storm was a Bengali play staged by noted actor and dramatist, Utpal Dutt. The play split the city down the middle, something that was reflected in a slogan that appeared on posters that began to pop up across the metro. It said: “Apni kon dol ey—jara Kallol dekhechhey na jara Kallol dekheini.” Roughly translated it read, “On which team are you – those who have watched Kallol or those who haven’t?”

    Kallol had seized the hearts and minds of Calcuttans, and the then Congress-ruled government in West Bengal pulled every trick in the book to stall the play. The media had been muzzled and, eventually, Dutt was arrested and tossed in jail.

    The reaction to Kallol indicated two things. It was as much a tribute to the power of the theatrical production as it exposed the guilt and shame harboured by the Indian National Congress for events that had taken place 20 years earlier.

    The play dramatised the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) Revolt of 1946 and parodied the role of the Congress and Muslim League, which had actively suppressed the rebellion and later reneged on promises made to the rebelling sailors. This is why an event as pivotal as the naval revolt has been reduced to a footnote in Indian history and all but erased from public consciousness, reveals Pramod Kapoor in his book, 1946: The Last War of Independence (2022).

    When the naval rebellion broke out, nationalist sentiment was at fever pitch. Two hundred and fifty years of servitude under the colonial British had taken a heavy toll and it fed into the sub-human conditions that the Indian ‘ratings’ or sailors had been forced to endure at the hands of the British.

    There was a second spark that set the tinderbox ablaze. The trials of soldiers belonging to the Indian National Army of Subhas Chandra Bose were underway in Delhi and stories of their heroism encouraged the sailors to take matters into their own hands.

    In just 48 hours after the revolt broke out in February 1946, 20,000 sailors took over 78 ships and 21 shore establishments. The strike spread from Bombay to Karachi, and civilians spilled onto the streets in support of the sailors. Hundreds died in police firing. That their resentment against their colonial masters ran deep is reflected in their demands, which include the withdrawal of Indian troops from countries like Indonesia and Egypt, where they had been deployed to crush uprisings by local independence movements against colonizers.

    In this excerpt, get an inside view of how the revolt was a victim of a conspiracy of silence.

    The mutiny presented a dilemma for the leaders of the three main parties. The national sentiment was strongly in favour of the mutineers and they realized it would not benefit them politically to publicly go against the tide. So, at one level, they had to show solidarity in spirit with the movement. But at another level, it did not suit them to support a rebellion when the peaceful transfer of power seemed in their grasp.

    The Communists were open and aggressive in their support, inciting students, trade unions and ordinary citizens to revolt and calling on the naval ratings to avoid surrender. On the other hand, the Muslim League focused on its own constituency with statements and appeals directed to Muslims.

    Sensing a transfer of power and imminent independence, the Congress did not want to rock the boat at this crucial juncture. So the Congress leaders were bent on persuading the ratings to remain peaceful and surrender unconditionally, giving them assurances that were well beyond Congress’ capability to deliver.

    Only one leader displayed the gumption to stand up for what she believed in. That was Aruna Asaf Ali. She was the sole dissenter who refused to join the conspiracy of silence or indulge in condemnation of violence, which was not of the ratings’ making.

    Aruna, a firebrand socialist member of the Congress, is most famously remembered for her activities during the Quit India movement in 1942. She raised the flag at Gowalia Tank Maidan during the Quit India movement and then went underground, running a clandestine operation that included releasing a periodical magazine and radio broadcast station.

    A friend of Jayaprakash Narayan, she was ideologically closer to Nehru than Sardar Patel. For her, the achievement of Independence took precedence over the method. As mentioned earlier, she was a friend and mentor of the Nairs and had been engaged with the ratings and activists from the Ex-Services Association for weeks, if not months, before the mutiny.

    She knew exactly when the strike would begin. In fact, it had been announced by the striking ratings that she would address them on 18 February at 4 p.m. at HMIS Talwar, the day the strike began. However, for reasons still unknown, she did not show up that day, and her absence left the ratings hugely disappointed.

    However, she had taken a stand. On 19 February, she urged the naval strikers not to permit uncoordinated and spontaneous actions to mar the disciplined movement they had crafted.

    In a press statement, she said: ‘Almost 15,000 naval ratings of the RIN units in Bombay have struck work and refused to eat canteen food since Sunday (17 February) evening. Their demands are essentially legitimate… At last young Indians in the services are no longer prepared to submit sheepishly to the hectoring and swearing of their British rulers. Unity and discipline are first essentials of all collective actions of this nature. They must formulate their demands precisely and conduct their struggle with dignity. Naval ratings must conduct their negotiations through the Central Naval Strike Committee.’

    To British authorities, her advice was: ‘The Naval authorities should note that at the instance of the representatives of the strikers, I am giving them this advice. I am sure the Congress and the labour and student organizations of Bombay will extend their moral support to their legitimate demands.’

    She travelled to Poona on 20 February, and met Gandhi. It was a long meeting that lasted almost two hours. She also sent a telegram to Nehru. It said: ‘Naval strike, tense, situation serious, climaxing to close. You alone can control and avoid tragedy. Request your immediate presence in Bombay.’

    The telegram angered Sardar Patel, who wrote to Gandhi about it. In his letter, Patel expressed shock that she had persuaded Nehru to come to Bombay to meet the sailors. He wrote: ‘She sent a telegram to Jawaharlal and gave out to the Press that under such circumstances, Jawahar was the only leader who could lead them. This she did as she could not find my support. Jawahar wired me asking if his presence was necessary; and in that case, he would come, setting aside all his preoccupations. I advised him not to come. Yet he is reaching here. He has wired back to me telling that he was feeling out of sorts and that he would come. He will come here at 3 p.m. Well! Let him. But the fact that he comes here on account of Aruna’s telegram is sorrowful indeed! This was how she is encouraged and if we would not resist their rashness, things will go from bad to worse.’

    Nehru had taken the first train to Bombay but he was persuaded by Sardar Patel not to meet the striking ratings. He returned to Allahabad the same night. That was the beginning of the end. From then on, far from receiving any support from the Congress high command, the ratings were under their continuous pressure to surrender.

    Excerpted with permission from 1946: The Last War of Independence (2022) by Pramod Kapoor and published by Roli Books. You can buy your copy here

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