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Monday 28 February 2022

Book Review: Rebels in the footnotes

1946: Last war of independence: Royal Indian Navy mutiny

By Pramod Kapoor

Roli Books: New Delhi

350 pages


February 18 marked the 76th anniversary of the mutiny by sailors of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN), an event long ignored in modern Indian history. However, like the role of the Indian National Army (INA), it is now being belatedly recognised as having contributed to India’s freedom struggle as effectively as did the Salt March of 1930 or the Quit India movement of 1942.


In this book, Pramod Kapoor, the well-known publisher of Roli Books, sheds light on the uprising by young sailors of the RIN, some as young as 16, in protest against “failed promises made at the time of recruitment, horrible living conditions, unpalatable food and abhorrent racial discrimination.” However, there was another major factor: The mutinous sailors were politically inspired by the increasingly visible role that the Indian National Army (INA) was playing. After the end of the Second World War, trials began of the officers and men of the INA and, like the soldiers of the INA, many of the naval ratings were keen to discharge their role in realising freedom for India. The RIN mutiny offered a clear path towards that goal.


One striking aspect of the RIN mutiny was that Indian naval officers did not back the ratings and remained loyal to the navy. Consequently, the uprising was almost entirely by ratings, or enlisted ranks, the majority of whom were World War II veterans, capable enough to organise the uprising and attract support from their peers. Within 48 hours of the beginnings of the uprising, 20,000 sailors had taken over scores of naval ships and shore establishments and presented a charter of demands. And, in an ominous portent for the British raj, the sailors quickly attracted sympathy. They were soon joined by civilians all across India and by their fellow servicemen in the army and the air force.


However, most of the political class was openly critical of the mutineers. While younger Congress workers, including Jayaprakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia, Acharya Narendra Dev and Aruna Asaf Ali backed the mutineers, the Congress and Muslim League leaders were thoroughly alarmed, in some cases as much as the British. Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru were in cordial disagreement over how to deal with the rebels. Patel, one of the Congress Party’s most influential leaders condemned the ratings’ revolts, calling it “nothing but hooliganism.” Mahatma Gandhi, sticking to his creed of non-violence, publicly denounced the rebel sailors in a bitter public exchange with Aruna Asaf Ali.


The revolt was short-lived in the face of British force and guile. Street battles erupted in Bombay and Karachi and the British were forced to call in white troops since Indian soldiers were unwilling to fire on their comrades. Although the mutiny was short-lived, Mr Kapoor says the British soon concluded that it marked a major turning point: Never again could the British rely on Indian troops to put down an insurrection. This was nothing short of a disaster, given the centrality of the Indian Army to British control of their Asian colonies. Mr Kapoor’s mining of British archives leads him to conclude that the RIN mutiny accelerated the rush towards India’s freedom, which came about just a year-and-a-half later.


One of the most striking aspects of the mutiny turns out to be the reaction of Indian politicians and political parties to what seems increasingly apparent: That independence could be attained through revolt rather than non-violence. The Congress Party and the Muslim League both persuaded the mutineers to surrender. Amongst the rebels, there was complete harmony and unity amongst the Muslims and Hindus. Mr Kapoor believes, based on his research, interviews with family members of the key mutineers and newspaper archives, that Partition would have been far less bloody if the political leaders of that time and attempted to build on the communal amity that the mutiny engendered, rather than ignoring it. However, for the Congress, which had led the freedom movement for almost half a century to the point where independence seemed imminent, this new dynamic was rocking the boat unacceptably.


The suspicion with which post-independence governments in both India and Pakistan treated the mutineers told its own story. Both the Congress and the Muslim League power elite refused to recognise the rebels as freedom fighters, or to grant them employment in government jobs. When, in the 1960s, revisionist writers wrote plays depicting the rebels as nationalist heroes, the governments of the time obstructed public performances in every way possible.


Kapoor’s central theme is summed up in a paragraph: “Instead of being enshrined in public memory alongside the Salt March, Jallianwala Bagh, etc., the naval mutiny of 1946 tends to be relegated to just a footnote, except in scholarly works written by historians, for the benefit of other historians.” Hopefully this long overdue work will do something to accord recognition to these long-ignored heroes of the freedom struggle.

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