The omitted truth about India’s Independence

Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri
·Columnist
·9-min read
Men of the Royal Indian Navy stream through the streets in Bombay after burning a UK flag during anti-British demonstrations, on February 25, 1946. The flag carried in the foreground is that of the Congress party. The smaller flag near centre is the Muslim League flag. (AP Photo)
Men of the Royal Indian Navy stream through the streets in Bombay after burning a UK flag during anti-British demonstrations, on February 25, 1946. The flag carried in the foreground is that of the Congress party. The smaller flag near centre is the Muslim League flag. (AP Photo)

Everyone has heard the story of India’s freedom.

Anyone, anywhere in the world could tell you that the British left India because of the non-violent, Quit India movement led by Mahatma Gandhi.

That’s what we are taught in schools. I too believed in this, until I got interested in reading about one of our greatest actors, Utpal Dutt, who acted in over 200 memorable films like Golmaal. There was much more to Utpal Dutt than his silver screen avatar.

On December 27, 1965, Utpal Dutt was arrested by the Congress government of West Bengal under the Preventive Detention Act and detained for over seven months, as the Congress government feared that his play Kallol, which ran to packed houses at Calcutta's Minerva Theatre, might provoke anti-government protests in West Bengal.

Kallol was based on the Royal Indian Navy mutiny of 1946, which was the real reason why the British left India. And the Congress government didn’t want the common people to know this deliberately omitted fact because it would have busted the Congress’s story that we won freedom only because of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent movement.

Justice PB Chakraborthy, the Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court and the acting Governor of West Bengal, wrote: "When I was acting Governor, Lord Attlee, who had given us independence by withdrawing British rule from India, spent two days in the Governor's palace at Calcutta during his tour of India. At that time I had a prolonged discussion with him regarding the real factors that had led the British to quit India. My direct question to Attlee was that since Gandhi's Quit India movement had tapered off quite some time ago and in 1947 no such new compelling situation had arisen that would necessitate a hasty British departure, why did they leave?"

"In his reply Attlee cited, ‘the erosion of loyalty to the British crown among the Indian army and Navy personnel as a result of the military activities of Netaji’, as the main reason.

That's not all. Chakraborthy added: "Toward the end of our discussion I asked Attlee what was the extent of Gandhi's influence upon the British decision to quit India. Hearing this question, Attlee's lips became twisted in a sarcastic smile as he slowly chewed out the word, m-i-n-i-m-a-l!"

To understand the significance of Attlee's assertion, we have to go back in time to 1945. The Second World War had ended. The Allied forces, led by Britain and the United States, had won. The Axis powers, led by Hitler's Germany, had been vanquished.

The British economy was in big recession to the extent that it didn’t have money to provide for basic facilities to the Royal Army in India.

At the same time, in August 1945, Subhash Chandra Bose had reportedly died, while he collaborated with the Japanese and Hitler to fight the British. After the Second World War was over, three of the top officers of the Indian National Army – General Shah Nawaz Khan (Muslim), Colonel Prem Sehgal (Hindu) and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon (Sikh) were put on public trial at the Red Fort in Delhi.

Due to the sympathy toward Netaji and the INA, there was an instant and large outpouring of passion and patriotism amongst Indians. These stories were being shared via wireless sets and through media on ships, where the sailors who were being given bad treatment and lack of proper service facilities, got inspired to go out and join together in a strike and rebel against the government.

Official British military intelligence reports in 1946 indicated that the Indian soldiers were inflamed and could not be relied upon to obey their British officers. There were only 40,000 British troops in India at the time. Most were eager to go home and in no mood to fight the 2.5 million battle-hardened Indian soldiers who were being demobilised.

In January 1946, due to slow demobilisation and poor conditions of service following the end of World War II, cadres in the Royal Air Force went on a series of demonstrations and strikes at several dozen Royal Air Force stations.

As these incidents involved refusals to obey orders they technically constituted a form of ‘mutiny’. The ‘mutiny’ began at Karachi (RAF Drigh Road) and later spread to involve nearly 50,000 men over 60 RAF stations in India and Ceylon, including the then-largest RAF base at Kanpur.

The protests lasted about eleven days. The issues causing the RAF unrest were ultimately resolved, but it set a precedent and in less than a fortnight, on February 18, 1946, a mutiny broke out in the Royal Indian Navy in which 78 of a total of 88 ships mutinied.

Said Sir Stafford Cripps, intervening in the debate on the motion to grant Indian Independence in the British House of Commons, “… the Indian Army in India is not obeying the British officers… in these conditions if we have to rule India for a long time, we have to keep a permanent British army for a long time in a vast country of 400 million (and) we have no such army….”

The Royal Navy Mutiny started on February 18, 1946 and by next evening a Naval Central Strike Committee was formed where Leading Signalman M S Khan and Petty Officer Telegraphist Madan Singh were unanimously elected President and Vice President, respectively, and soon it spread from Bombay to Karachi, Calcutta, Cochin and Vizag. 78 ships, 20 shore establishments and 20,000 sailors were in the strike.

Seeing this Naval strike, Bombayites did a one-day general strike. Even the Royal Indian Air Force and local police forces joined in the other cities. The NCOs in the British Indian army openly ignored and defied the orders of the British superiors. In Madras and Pune, the Indian Army revolted in the British Garrisons.

Riots broke out all over the country. The British made to get off their cars and shout ‘Jai Hind’ by the mutineers and the Indian Tricolor was hoisted on most of the ships.

Day 3 into this, the Royal Air Force flew an entire squadron of Bombers over Bombay Harbor to show support. Meanwhile, the sailors had taken over HMIS Bahadur, Chamak and Himalaya and from the Royal Naval Anti-Aircraft School.

It was by that time that the decision to confront the Navy ratings was taken by the British and the sailors aboard the destroyer ‘Hindustan’ were challenged. Many sailors lost their lives and could not fight back much and in the process, the ship ‘Hindustan’ was destroyed.

Despite the extensive support from the public and all wings of the Armed forces (Army, Navy, Air force, and even the police), national leaders did not support the Navy mutineers or their supporters but instead condemned them.

These brave freedom fighters in the Navy were leaderless, surely, but they had achieved what no other generation and group of Indians had achieved in 250 years – turn the Indian Armed forces personnel against their ‘masters’.

Netaji Bose had imagined this kind of a situation.

Ultimately, however, Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress party opted for a ‘Quit India Movement’ against the British in 1942 and he spread the slogan ‘Do or Die’, which in fact Netaji had proposed in 1938.

The reasons behind Indian independence are nicely summarized by the esteemed Indian historian Ramesh Chandra Majumdar: “There is, however, no basis for the claim that the Civil Disobedience Movement directly led to independence… the battles for India’s freedom were also being fought against Britain, though indirectly, by Hitler in Europe and Japan in Asia. None of these scored direct success, but few would deny that it was the cumulative effect that brought freedom to India. In particular, the revelations made by the INA trial, and the reaction it produced in India, made it quite plain to the British, already exhausted by the war, that they could no longer depend upon the loyalty of the sepoys for maintaining their authority in India. This had probably the greatest influence upon their final decision to quit India. Without loyal sepoys it was quite impossible for the British to rule in India because it could not have brought enough Englishmen to India to quell any nationalist movement.”

In 1967, during a seminar marking the 20th anniversary of Independence, the British High Commissioner of the time John Freeman said, “…the mutiny of 1946 had raised the fear of another large-scale mutiny along the lines of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, from the 2.5 million Indian soldiers who had participated in the Second World War. The mutiny had accordingly been a large contributing factor to the British deciding to leave India. The British were petrified of a repeat of the 1857 Mutiny, since this time they feared they would be slaughtered to the last man."

Mainstream politicians – from Jinnah to Gandhi to Nehru to Maulana Azad – all seemed to have let these freedom fighters down. They apparently abandoned them and except for preaching they did nothing to help them.

In its last statement, released on the night of February 22, the Naval Central Strike Committee concluded, ‘Our strike has been a historic event in the life of our nation. For the first time the blood of men in the Services and in the streets flowed together in a common cause. We in the Services will never forget this. We know also that you, our brothers and sisters, will not forget. Long live our great people. Jai Hind.’

On March 15, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee accepted that, “The tide of nationalism is running very fast in India and indeed all over Asia… national ideas have spread… among some of the soldiers.”

A year later, they fled before the Empire collapsed on their heads.

Almost 54 years later on December 4, 2001, the Naval Uprising memorial was inaugurated to restore the forgotten history of India’s freedom struggle against the British invaders.

In 2005, Utpal Dutt’s play Kallol, for which he was imprisoned, was revived as a part of the state-funded ‘Utpal Dutt Natyotsav’, on an off-shore stage, by the Hooghly River in Kolkata.

Without the Naval Uprising of 1946, the story of India’s freedom will never be complete.

(With inputs from 1. Royal Indian Navy Mutiny, Wikipedia 2. Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian National Army, and the War of India’s Liberation – Ranjan Borra, Journal of Historical Review, no. 3. Inside the actor’s mind 4. Drishtikone.com )

Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri is an award-winning filmmaker and a bestselling author. He tweets at @vivekagnihotri. All views expressed here are of the author.