Acouple of weeks ago, I was privileged to see a remarkable work of art and history at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. Meanings Of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946 is the product of an unusual collaboration between artist Vivan Sundaram and cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha, aimed at kindling our collective memory of the Royal Indian Navy’s uprising in 1946. At the centre of the exhibition is a 40ft-long installation made of steel and aluminium and shaped like the hull of a ship. Visitors are seated inside and offered an extraordinary sound show drawing on the testimony of contemporaries, snatches of music and poetry, speeches of well-known and obscure figures.
It is a subtly layered discursive space in which to reflect upon the swirl of events in those fateful days of February 1946. The exhibition also has a wealth of documentary sources for the visitors to read: clippings from newspapers, police records, the telegrams exchanged between Britain, Delhi and Bombay. The cumulative effect is to force us to ask: How could such a momentous event have left so few traces in public memory? After all, the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) mutiny was arguably the single most important event in convincing the British government that it could no longer hold on to India.
The RIN revolt started on 18 February 1946 in Bombay. The naval ratings on HMIS Talwar protested against the poor quality of food and racial discrimination by British officers. The protest spread rapidly to the Castle and Fort barracks on shore, and to 22 ships in Bombay harbour. By the following evening, a naval central strike committee had been elected. The mutineers took out a procession in Bombay, holding aloft a portrait of Subhas Bose. Their ships also raised the flags of the Congress, Muslim League and Communist Party.
The demands advanced by the naval central strike committee combined service grievances with wider national concerns. The latter included the release of INA (Indian National Army) personnel and other political prisoners; withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia; and the acceptance of Indian officers only as superiors. Ratings in striking naval establishments outside Bombay echoed these themes. The strike spread to other naval establishments around the country. At its height, 78 ships, 20 shore establishments, and 20,000 ratings were involved in the uprising. The revolt at various locations was coordinated by signal communication equipment on board HMIS Talwar.
The most significant feature of this short uprising was the massive outpouring of public support for the mutineers. The city of Bombay, especially the labouring classes, went on strike on 22 February in solidarity. The public transport network was brought to a halt, trains were burnt, roadblocks were erected and commercial establishments were shut down. An army battalion was inducted to control the situation. Three days later Bombay was quiet, but 228 civilians had died and 1,046 were injured. Meanwhile, following assurances of sympathetic treatment from Vallabhbhai Patel and M.A. Jinnah, the ratings in Bombay surrendered on 23 February.
The leaders realized that any mass uprising would inevitably carry the risk of not being amenable to centralized direction and control. Besides, now that independence and power were in sight, they were eager not to encourage indiscipline in the armed forces.
The Congress’ stance was criticized at the time by the Communist Party and later by radical historians who argued that in 1946 India stood at the edge of a massive popular uprising—one that could have secured us real independence instead of a mere “transfer of power”. These arguments can be overstated, but the fact remains that the RIN revolt convinced the British that the sword arm of the Raj could no longer be relied upon to protect it. That these events have little purchase on our historical imagination is testimony to the continuing grip of nationalist historiography in our understanding of the 1940s.
In revisiting these events, though, we also need to situate them in a wider, global context. For the RIN revolt reverberated well beyond the subcontinent. On 19 February, the ratings tore down and burnt the American flag at the US Information Service office in Bombay. American intelligence described the revolt as “characterized by unexampled savagery” and as an “orgy of bloodshed and destruction”. Against the backdrop of the emerging Cold War—George Kennan had recently sent his famous long telegram from Moscow advocating containment of the Soviet Union—the Americans were particularly concerned about the role of the Communists in orchestrating the revolt.
US secretary of state Dean Acheson asked for more reports from India regarding “all events in which communist policy can be identified”. Desk-level officials in the state department argued that the Communists were the “world’s greatest specialists” in stoking naval mutinies. Their fingerprints were all over the RIN mutiny too, but “naturally the Indian Communist Party is not going to boast of having started such a mutiny”. Although reports from India contradicted such gloomy analysis, Washington continued to perceive these events through anti-communism lenses.
I hope this fine exhibition travels to other Indian cities as well as abroad. Karachi, another major centre of the RIN revolt, would be a natural destination. There it would also serve as a useful reminder to all of us that the military history of the subcontinent did not begin in August 1947.
Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.