Thank you to Elizabeth C. Libero, who has joined the staff here at Global Maritime History. Here, she talks discusses the mutiny in the Royal Indian Navy following the Second World War. The connections she makes with Greg Dening’s Mr Bligh’s Bad Language are particularly interesting.
In February 1946 sailors of the Royal Indian Navy stationed in Bombay (present-day Mumbai) began a five-day strike to protest the continued presence of the British in India. The uprising spread across the sub-continent, eventually affecting 78 ships, 20 shore stations, and over 20,000 Indian sailors. Receiving no support from Indian Nationalist leaders, the mutineers eventually acquiesced to the Government of India authorities. The final message issued by the Navy Central Strike Committee ended by saying:
“A last word to our people: Our strike has been a historic event in the life of our nation. For the first time the blood of the men in the services and the people flowed together in a common cause. We in the services will never forget this. We also know that you, our brothers and sisters, will not forget. Long live our great people. Jai Hind.”
The NCSC believed their strike was an event of national historic importance, one that could never be forgotten. How distressed and disheartened they must have felt in the following three decades, when they saw little-to-no trace of this conflict in official histories, in serious scholarship, or in national commemorations.i
In the face of this disappointing national amnesia, Balai Chandra Dutt, one of the primary instigators of the strike, gives a fascinating account in his 1971 memoir, Mutiny of the Innocents. This engaging book not only details Dutt’s personal experiences but also condemns the political environment that disavowed the movement—the same political structure that later obtained in independent India. Mutiny of the Innocents exemplifies individual agency in the face of power, and reveals ways that the disenfranchised will make their own meaning out of historical contingencies. To explore the significance of Dutt’s memoir, below I examine the mutiny actions he describes, reading them as a theatre or a kind of text in their own right. The language and symbolism Dutt employed suggest that the strike threatened the imperialist authorities precisely because it addressed them in their own idiom. The anti-colonial leaders, however, failed to understand the poetics of the strike and thus a moment full of dynamic possibilities was left to fizzle out.
In late 1945 the RIN was full of unrest. The rapid expansion required during the war years now became a stumbling block as the authorities sought to demobilize 16,000 men. This resulted in overcrowding, back pay, and a sharp drop in moral. Food rations for the ratings were often inedible due to continued scarcity and logistical problems. These hardships were coupled with growing dissatisfaction with the British Government of India and a growing politicization of the seamen.ii
Some of these politicized ratings began to commit pointed sabotage on the HMIS Talwar, a signal training ship stationed in Bombay. Balai Chandra Dutt took a leading role, organizing the December 1945 “Messy Protest” and defacing the ship with political graffiti in early February 1946. On February 8th, tensions increased when the Talwar’s Commanding Officer Frederick King reprimanded a group of ratings by using racist epithets. The strike began on this same ship February 18th. With their skill at telegraphy, the Talwar strikers contacted other ships and shore establishments, gaining support. Many fellow ratings struck in Bombay, Karachi, Kathiawar, Aden, Bahrain, and even one ship out to sea. Civilians also joined with demonstrations and riots, most explosively in Bombay. The naval authorities attempted to parlay, but also reacted aggressively, using army men to isolate the strikers in their ships and barracks and firing upon them on the 21st and 22nd. Finally, promised a fair negotiation without recrimination, the mutineers surrendered on the 23rd. The sailors who participated were tried and punished summarily.iii
Opinion is divided as to what extent this confrontation shaped India’s final push to independence in 1946. While Subrata Banerjee’s 1954 The R.I.N. Strike asserts it “was probably the greatest single factor in hastening our freedom”, V.P.S. Raghuvanshi’s (1959) and R.C. Majumdar’s (1962-63) histories of the independence movement mention the mutiny in only a few sentences, and downplay its impact.ivRecent assessments of India’s nationhood have afforded a more central place to the 1946 mutiny, with Sumit Sakar calling it the “greatest threat of all” to British power, and “one of the most truly heroic, if also largely forgotten, episodes in our freedom struggle.” Chris Madsen finds that the Government of India’s and RIN’s official judgments reflect a desire to mold India as a continued de factoBritish dependency even after official independence. Military historian Ronald Spector argues in his 1981 publication that the mutiny was primarily due to a lack of unity within the RIN, which weakened morale.Andrew D. Davies has recently analyzed the poetics of the strike to argue that colonial discipline was often implemented through specifically maritime social and cultural relations. These works have extensively researched the official records, however, only Davies has significantly incorporated the strikers’ perspective into his analysis. v
This is where Dutt’s memoir becomes an important source. The son of a high-caste rural Bengali, young Dutt longed to leave his village and find adventure. He enlisted in the Navy at just 17, concealing his true age and lack of English language skills. According to his memoir, Dutt took to his new life as a sailor with gusto, and excelled in radio communications. He served in the Burma campaign and in the North Atlantic. After his wartime experiences, Dutt dreamed of serving for a Free India rather than under the British. He actively organized the ratings on the Talwar and several of their actions. After the mutiny Dutt was discharged and went on to a career in print advertising. He wrote Mutiny of the Innocents in time for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the event.
My close reading of Mutiny of the Innocents below takes several cues from Greg Dening’s 1992 Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty. Similarly to the Bounty mutiny, in the RIN mutiny, the language and signs employed by all sides of the struggle formed a dialogue. The Indian mutineers accused the imperialists on their own terms, exposing the lies of British justice, liberty, and fair play so central to their form of coercive power. These words and gestures culminated in a larger performance that can be read as active resistance even before shots were fired. An interrogation of the language, performances, and signs that infuse Dutt’s text reveals that while this mutiny diverged from Satyagraha, it conformed to discourses of naval power that had been established for centuries.
Mr. King’s Bad Language
The seaman’s distinctive language is well-known and has been studied both in terms of a professional argot and as a colorful marker of group identity. For Dutt, the initial exposure to and subsequent mastery of the sailor’s lingo formed a vital component of his transformation into a seaman. Interaction with British people was itself a new experience. Recalling his interview to join the Navy in 1941, Dutt informs his readers that this was “the first time in my life, I stood face to face with an Englishman.” He was Lt. Bailey, the Commanding Officer of the Signal School where Dutt would learn his specialty. When Bailey addressed him, the young recruit was lost. “The English he spoke was not the language I had heard before.” Passing this interview with the intervention of a sympathetic Indian officer, Dutt was enlisted and sent to the training ship Dalhousie. Here too the manner of speaking was unfamiliar: “I soon discovered that all orders were given at the top of the voice even if the order was meant for only one individual standing within arm’s length.”vi
Famously, sailors are known to curse and insult, and the RIN in the 1940s was no exception. Dutt recalls the Petty Officer’s instructions to the new recruits:
Despite his fright, Dutt felt awed and even a little enticed by what he terms such “picturesquely abusive phrase.” When the Instructor, taking up the Petty Officer’s orders, insulted and threatened the new recruits–“‘You bunch of sickly monkeys, you bloody cross between pigs and goats, bloody Sissies, I will have the whole bloody lot raped and that will teach you how to fall in line’[…]” –Dutt finds that, “I could not help but admire his language. Without quite realizing it, I gave vent to my thoughts: ‘Wah, Wah, excellent’.”vii
For speaking out of turn (and failing to portray the appropriate response of fear and deference) Dutt was then singled out for more insults and made to run up and down the ship. In a further stream of abuse, the Instructor asserted that he would transform the recruits from contemptible weaklings into “men”. Perhaps this promise of change and growth is why Dutt maintains, “I marveled at his language and his strength. […] I developed a healthy respect for him, particularly his language.”viii
Why, then, did the demands of the mutineers less than five years later include “good behavior of officers towards lower deck men”, “immediate disciplinary action against Commander King”, and “the appointment of a new Commanding Officer for the Signal School in place of Commander King”?ix Almost all histories of the mutiny agree that, like Captain Bligh so long before, the mutineers were incensed by King’s language.x Dutt recalls King screaming at the entire barracks, “You sons of bitches, sons of coolies, sons of bloody junglees!” These words infuriated the men: “The ratings were boiling with rage over Commander King’s language. I advised them not to stomach insults quietly but to protest.”xi Banerjee explains that the problem was twofold: the racist nature of these particular insults, and the transformed nature of the men, who, through wartime service, had proven their worth.xii Dutt seems to share this interpretation.
King himself later admitted, before the Enquiry Commission, that he did use such language.
“He claimed, in all innocence, that what he said was ‘normal Naval manners’. That indeed was the normal manner of speech of most of the white officers in the RIN. But the times had changed. Commander King, an old India hand, did not know it.”
Dutt further indicates that there was an insurmountable gulf between the Indian seamen and the authorities. Something was getting lost in translation. “[T]o King, the newly politically conscious Indian ratings were total strangers. He had no patience with our language, much less a grasp of our thinking. He misjudged the prevailing mood on the TALWAR altogether.” Where once the shared naval idiom brought the RIN together, now communications broke down. War had changed India: “The authorities did not realise that 1946 was not 1939 or 1940” … “Anyone with eyes to see could have spotted the signals. But, somehow, they could not apprehend the coming reality.”xiii
As Dutt noted above, the signals were plainly there to see. Mutiny of the Innocents emphasizes various symbolic actions that, together with words, form a rich text of insurgency and self-assertion. For instance, the first member of Dutt’s nationalist circle to resign was brought before Commander King. “Singh threw his cap on the ground and kicked it, signifying his utter contempt for the Crown and the service. […] Singh earned a three-month prison sentence.”xiv Singh’s action suggests that when Commander King refused to understand the new political language of the ratings, they would adopt the language of naval symbols to communicate. If the subaltern could not speak, he would still make himself heard.
Dutt understood this very well. He was the second rating on the Talwar detained by a furious Commander King. An official interrogated him about cryptic diary passages, but Dutt refused to co-operate. “The Lawyer-lieutenant snapped: ‘What the hell do you mean?’ I said: ‘I spoke in plain language. Is that also difficult for you? Like my diary? I mean exactly what I said’.” Dutt realized that he would need to perform in a particular manner. He writes, “I realised that I was a prize prisoner. I felt sure that if I played my role properly I would become a hero to the ratings. My new status would help our cause.” He understood, “I had become a symbol. I must not wreck it.” Resolved to perform fittingly in this new heroic role, prisoner Dutt took a bold stand against the authorities when he was brought to King’s office for further questioning.
“King shouted: ‘Do you know the consequences?’
‘Save your breath, Sir, I am ready to face your firing squad,’ I said nonchalantly, as I fancied a soldier of Free India would in front of an enemy. Ignoring rules, I coolly pulled a chair and sat down. The situation had passed beyond the scope of the Admiralty Manual. It was most unexpected; for some of the assembled officers, a bit of an anticlimax. Everyone present in the C.O.’s room, depending on his attitude to things Indian, was either puzzled or outraged. They were so taken aback that the correct response escaped them. There was complete silence. Having played my role, I felt a sense of immense relief. I had passed a difficult test successfully. I heard myself saying:
‘I have made my choice. Now it’s your move, Sir.’”xv
Such a performance would take both extraordinary courage and an understanding of the niceties of naval conduct. Sailors were expected to stand at attention before a superior officer, making Dutt’s move to sit a complete reversal. After which, he breaks the silence, not waiting for permission to speak. Also, Dutt addresses King in command form (“Save your breath”; “it’s your move”.) By performing in such an unexpected way, pointedly breaking the norms of C.O.-rating interaction, Dutt takes control of the situation. This was more than a mere show of bravado. Dutt’s performance said, in terms that the authorities would clearly understand, that he no longer considered King his legitimate commander, nor the Royal Indian Navy a legitimate body. Dutt was declaring his loyalty to the Indian people.
At the height of the mutiny other inversions of behavior occurred. Banerjee reports that the mutineers in the Castle Barracks discovered some officers trying to sabotage the strike. They decided “to give these officers a taste of their own medicine. They made them ‘double up’ for a few minutes. It was just to make them feel what the ratings had to undergo [….] So they ran up and down, panting and fuming.” In an army base that mutinied just days later, a British officer slapped a disobedient young soldier. The sepoy promptly returned the favor.xvi
To further invert naval norms of behavior, the strikers at the Fort Barracks in Bombay marched in full uniform, “as if they were on ceremonial parade—the only difference was the flags at the head and the slogans that they shouted.” Flags are among the most prominent visual symbols in Mutiny of the Innocents. Several times Dutt takes care to describe the Congress and the Muslim League flying together as one, and suggests that this symbol represents a missed opportunity to avoid the terrible violence of Partition. Banerjee also invokes these emblematic flags, with a difference—repeatedly Banerjee contends that the Communist flag flew together with the other two. If nothing else, this discrepancy shows that the two authors believed that the way they represented these symbols to posterity would have some kind of political implication for the present.xvii
These actions were all performed within highly symbolic spaces, fraught with imperial meanings. The ship was the initial site of contact with Europeans; the port of Bombay a major locus of exchange and extraction; and the Indian seamen considered some of the most “modern” and “English” of all Asians. Postcolonial critic Srinivas Aravamudan calls the ship “a carrier not just of goods and populations but of tropicopolitan narratives and metaphors.”xviii Thus the mutiny turned upside-down the primary site of colonization and generated its own new “tropicopolitan” story. The Talwar was the communications training ship, and thus could be seen to symbolize the pinnacle of the British attempt to “modernize” Indians. Davies has shown that “spaces of the RIN, both before and during the Mutiny, acted to make the men who served within the Navy active political subjects.”xix Therefore the context of the strike amplified its every aspect, and imbued the ratings’ actions with a charged political meaning.
Under normal circumstances, for example, the ratings kept ships in pristine condition. Dutt describes how all decks were scrubbed and metals polished to mirror-like condition twice a day. Fittingly, for their first major political statement, Dutt’s freedom-fighters made a huge mess of the Talwar. “We chose the Navy Day as the curtain raiser for the first act of sabotage” –note again the insinuation of a performance to be observed—Dutt continues:
“Navy Day was to be celebrated on December 1, 1945. The civil population was invited for the first time in the history of RIN to visit ships as well as the shore establishments. The authorities wanted to present a Navy of regular gentlemen—spick and span—and the ships dressed with flags and bunting. We put our intentions to test for the first time. […] By dawn, the TALWAR, meant as an exhibit before an admiring Bombay public, was shambles. The parade ground was littered with burnt flags and bunting; brooms and buckets were prominently displayed from the masthead. Political slogans in foot-high letters were staring from every wall: ‘Quit India’, ‘Down With The Imperialists’, ‘Revolt Now’, ‘Kill the British’.”xx
Another extraordinary show, one that blatantly disavowed the values and norms of the RIN.
Yet the reaction of every prominent Indian political leader shows a misunderstanding of the political nature of all of these actions. One wonders if Dutt was correct in his assessment that this was a willful misunderstanding among prominent figures with their own personal agendas at stake. Madsen and Davies’ work could support such a conclusion.
Analysis of the strike’s poetics, as portrayed by Dutt in his memoir, shows that specifically naval idioms were employed, which could not fail to attract the attention and ire of RIN officials. However the mutineers did not become national heroes following independence. While there “were plenty of arguments and counter-arguments criticising and defending the mutineers,” few of the actual participants joined in the discussion. “We did not have the stomach for it. And even if we had, we did not have the requisite training for a war of words.”xxi
Yet, nearly a quarter of a century later, Dutt decided to embark on just that: a war of words. Dutt was compelled to write Mutiny of the Innocents because of a gaping hole in the official narrative of India’s Independence. His memoir evokes a strong sense of unfinished business—of heroes unremembered, justice not served, and independence incomplete. The memoir aimed to correct this. As Halbwachs has argued, there are multiple channels by which memory can recall periods of transformation.xxii Dutt channeled his dissatisfaction with the status quo into one more act of defiance. By writing his memoir, Dutt sparked a new conversation. His text asks the reader to remember India’s transition to independence in a different way, one that respects multiple forms of individual agency and at the same time critiques enduring power structures that oppress it.
i# Balai Chandra Dutt, Mutiny of the Innocents (Bombay: Sindhu Publications, 1971), 185. Exact figures of the scale of the strike are disputed. Those above are from Subrata Banerjee, The R.I.N. Strike (New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1981), 97. However Madsen’s estimates are lower: 10,000 ratings, ten naval establishments, and 56 ships of frigate size or smaller. Chris Madsen, “The Royal Indian Navy Mutiny, 1946” in Naval Mutinies of the Twentieth Century: An International Perspective, Christopher M. Bell and Bruce A. Elleman, eds. (London; Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2003), 212. 123. The lack of public and official commemeration has changed in more recent times. A memorial statue was erected in 2002: “Memorial to Mark Naval Uprising to be Inaugurated.” The Times of India (Bombay) Dec. 4, 2001. Indian Navy Ships were named for Madan Singh and Balai Chandra Dutt in the late 1990s. Reeta Sharma, “Hero’s Honour for Royal Mutineer” The Tribune (New Delhi) Feb. 25, 1999.
A note on terminology: place-names of 1946 (Bombay, Calcutta) will be used throughout. I use the terms “strike” and “mutiny” interchangeably to describe the actions of late February 1946, because for enlisted people, to strike is mutiny. “There can be no such thing as a ‘strike’ in a fighting Service; disobedience to orders is mutiny.” D. J. Hastings, The Royal Indian Navy, 1612-1950 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1988), 219. c.f. Aruna Asaf Ali quoted in Satyindra Singh, Under Two Ensigns: The Indian Navy 1945-1950 (New Dehli: Oxford and IBH, 1986), 124-129.
ii# Hastings, Royal Indian Navy, 1612-1950, 213; 215-216; H. N. Brailsford, “Background to Mutiny” New Statesman and Nation vol 31: 788 (March 30, 1946): 226.
iii# Banerjee, The R.I.N. Strike, chapters 7-11; Dutt, Mutiny of the Innocents, 147; 173.; Madsen, “Royal Indian Navy Mutiny, 1946”, 215; 226.
iv# Banerjee, R.I.N. Strike, viii; V. P. S. Raghuvanshi, Indian Nationalist Movement and Thought (Agra: L.N. Agarwal, 1959), 255; R. C. Majumdar, History of the Freedom Movement in India (Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1962-63), 753.
v# Sumit Sarkar, Modern India, 1885-1947 (New Delhi: Dorling Kindersley India, 2014), 363. Arthur Bonner dedicates an entire chapter to the mutiny. Arthur Bonner, Averting the Apocalypse: Social Movements in India Today (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), chapter 13. Andrew Davies, “From ‘Landsman’ to ‘Seaman’? Colonial Discipline, Organisation and Resistance in the Royal Indian Navy, 1946,” Social and Cultural Geography 14:8 (2013): 868-887.
vi# Dutt, Mutiny of the Innocents, 38; 46. Later, commenting on media “spin”: “The British had a way of speaking which was entirely their own.” Dutt, Mutiny of the Innocents, 159.
vii# Dutt, Mutiny of the Innocents, 46-47; 52.
viii# Dutt, Mutiny of the Innocents, 54-55. As a side note I should mention that Dutt does not use any such language himself in his memoir, except when directly quoting these officers.
ix# Dutt, Mutiny of the Innocents, 204-205.
x# On Commander King’s insults, see for example Raghuvanshi, Indian Nationalist Movement, 255; Katari, A Sailor Remembers, 47. About Captain Bligh, see Dening, Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language, 55, 57-59.
xi# Dutt, Mutiny of the Innocents, 101; 102.
xii# “ ‘This is not the first time in our lives that we have heard such things. Each one of us present here has had these abuses hurled against him a number of times. But today our brothers in the Talwar have decided to fight. They refuse to tolerate any longer such insulting behaviour from any officer’.” Banerjee, The R.I.N. Strike, 16-17.
xiii# Dutt, Mutiny of the Innocents, 101; 102; 124. Even as unsympathetic a commentator as Hastings observes that many of the Commanding Officers “were insufficiently in touch with the their men.” Hastings, Royal Indian Navy, 1612-1950, 214.
xiv# Dutt, Mutiny of the Innocents, 84.
xv# Dutt, Mutiny of the Innocents, 96; 89 (italics mie); 91. See also 187
xvi# Banerjee, The R.I.N. Strike, 52; 116.
xvii# Dutt, Mutiny of the Innocents, 193; Banerjee, The R.I.N. Strike, 18; 28; 96.
xviii# Srinivas Aravamudan, Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804 (London: Duke University Press, 1999), 76-77.
xix# Davies, “‘Landsman’ to ‘Seaman’?”, 877.
xx# Dutt, Mutiny of the Innocents, 50; 80.
xxi# Dutt, Mutiny of the Innocents, 190.
xxii# “When a group or a society has undergone fundamental change, its memory seems to return to remembrances of the periods before and after that change via different pathways that are not continuous with one another.” Maurice Halbwachs, Maurice. The Collective Memory.  Francis J. Ditter, Jr. and Vida Yazdi Ditter, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 123.