Navy Day tribute: Saluting seamen’s role in 1971 liberation

As Navy Day approaches it is time to remember and honour our valiant seamen, especially those who contributed in one way or the other to the freedom struggle. Navy Day is celebrated every year on 4 December. It was on this day when during the course of the 1971 war with Pakistan for the liberation […]

As Navy Day approaches it is time to remember and honour our valiant seamen, especially those who contributed in one way or the other to the freedom struggle. Navy Day is celebrated every year on 4 December. It was on this day when during the course of the 1971 war with Pakistan for the liberation of Bangladesh, Operation Trident was launched and the Indian Navy sank four Pakistani ships close to the Karachi harbour.

Unfortunately, post-independence, for decades the contributions of Netaji Subhash Bose and the Indian National Army were ignored. In a travesty of justice, the INA members were not permitted to join the Indian army. The same fate befell BC Dutt and others who participated in the 1946 Naval Mutiny.

The uprising in 1946 wasn’t a small affair by any means. The Union Jack was replaced with the Indian national flag on ship mastheads. Seventy ships and twenty establishments came under the control of Indian sailors within the space of twenty-four hours. RK Singh, a seaman was charge sheeted for sending in his resignation, a disciplinary offence at the time. When Singh was brought before the Commanding Officer, he reportedly threw his cap on the ground, displaying his contempt for the Crown. BC Dutt himself was charged with multiple offences and brought before the Commanding Officer. Commander King asked him if he knew the dire consequences that awaited him, to which Dutt responded nonchalantly with: ‘Save your breath, Sir. I am ready to face your firing squad.’

BC Dutt, wrote a heart wrenching memoir titled Mutiny of the Innocents in which he poignantly chronicled the happenings on the Talwar and beyond, which unfortunately no mainstream publisher at the time and even decades later sought fit to publish. A small publisher brought it out eventually but it was thereafter out of print for many years before being republished in 1971. In 2015 Admiral Vishnu Bhagat penned a preface in which he wrote: ‘BC Dutt’s chronicles will no doubt one day be accorded their due place of honour as an authentic record of the spirit of those times and an inspiration to men in uniform.’

The rebellion on the HMIS Talwar had captured the imagination of the ordinary people of Mumbai or Bombay as it was then called. When the English tried to starve the mutineers, many restaurants, including the Parsi establishments, opened their kitchen and sent across free food. When the British tried to get Maratha soldiers to fire on the rebels, they refused point blank. There is little doubt that British government, led by Prime Minister Clement Attlee, decided to fast-track Indian independence partially as a result of the efforts of those brave men. Eventually the English asked the Congress Party leaders to intercede on their behalf and following such an intervention the rebellion was called off. The freedom demanding activists who had painted ‘Quit India’ slogans all over the ship given assurances that they would be absorbed into the Indian Navy once India was free. Alas, that promise was broken! The truth of the matter is that the breaking of a solemn promise and the neglect of the brave sailors was not accidental but deliberate for reasons best known to the powers-that-be.

RC Dutt writes: ‘I sent in an official application to the Navy for my reinstatement. It was not acknowledged. I wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of Free India. I got a reply from his private secretary stating that my letter had been forwarded to the Defence Ministry for appropriate action. I knew that so far as the Navy was concerned, I had reached the dead end. My other comrades had reached it much earlier.’

The fate of the seamen who elected to go to Pakistan was vastly different. The Pakistanis honoured the promise that has been made to these men even if they chose not to honour other Indian patriots such as Shaheed Bhagat Singh. With an aching heart Dutt writes: ‘It was a different story in Pakistan. It reinstated the ratings who wished to return. Mohammad Ali Jinnah kept his word. I learnt that MS Khan, President, Naval Central Strike Committee was given the rank of an officer in the Pakistan Navy.’

Yet, this too was not the unkindest cut of all. When the rebellion began the British officer commanding the training ship assigned a junior Indian naval officer to spy on the ratings and find out who were the main persons behind the insurrection. Dutt writes on how the man who ‘squealed’ on him, so to speak, later became an officer in the Indian Navy and rose up the ranks to do very well indeed.

BC Dutt himself possessed certain skills and a felicity with the English language which enabled him find employment with the Free Press Journal. His heart went out to his naval comrades who could not find employment. As he writes: ‘Jobs were not plentiful in those days. The bulk of the employment in mid-forties was to be found either in the government offices or with the foreign firms. Both were closed to the ratings.  Most of them were forced to return to their villages cringing for a miserable living. They had no choice. None was offered to them. The tears we shed today for all those patriots who fell in battle must be really reserved for these abandoned men. For they survived to suffer the misery of disillusion.’

One of Shakespeare’s characters in Twelfth Night speaks of ingratitude in the following terms: ‘I hate ingratitude more in a person than lying, vainness, babbling drunkenness or any taint of vice that inhabits our frail blood.’ Lest it be accused of ingratitude, this nation not only needs to remember and properly honour the valiant seamen who hoisted the Indian tricolour on the Talwar and others who participated in the 1946 uprising, it needs to make up for decades of criminal neglect.

Rajesh Talwar is the prolific author of thirty-eight books across multiple genres and has worked for the United Nations for more than two decades across three continents. His latest book is ‘Where Elephants Danced and Dragons Flew.’