On February 23, 1946, the Naval Central Strike Committee surrendered with this plea: “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 in the streets 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.”

For six days, Indian ratings of the Royal Indian Navy had gone on hunger strike, paralysed imperial forces, sparked rebellion across the country and shaken the foundations of empire. Yet already the strike committee seemed to be struggling against the amnesia that would close over it.

Seventy years after it wound up, however, artists and writers have remembered the uprising again. Different people have different reasons for remembering.

Guilt of omission

In February, Bhashya Prakashan republished Mutiny of the Innocents, a first-person account of the uprising by BC Dutt, who had been a telegraphist with the Royal Indian Navy. The book, first published in 1971, comes with a new foreword by Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, former chief of naval staff, who calls the uprising a “‘Potemkin’ moment”, which “energised the hearts and minds of our sailors, infantry soldiers, airmen and RIAF [Royal Indian Air Force] pilots, ordinary mill hands, students, workers, citizens”.

More books are on the way. Publisher and author Pramod Kapoor’s next project is a history of the uprising, entitled 1946. Earlier this year, Kapoor published a new illustrated biography of Gandhi. While researching for it, he found a wealth of information that he couldn’t fit in anywhere. “The guilt of omission and further study drove me to chance a full book,” he said. “I firmly believe that the episode hastened Independence.”

Kapoor was struck by the reactions it evoked among the national leadership, the faultlines it exposed within the Congress, between leftwing and rightwing factions, between Vallabhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru. “Politics prevailed as it continues to do in present times,” he said.

The symbolic moment

Many are keen to tell the untold story and absorb it back into history. Artist Vivan Sundaram and film historian Ashish Rajadhyaksha, for instance, are working on a new installation based on the uprising. It is a continuation of Sundaram’s History Project, displayed at the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta 18 years ago.

The new project will be a sound installation set up in the Coomaraswamy Hall of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Bombay. Audiences will enter a giant boat that can seat about 40 people and a 45 minute script, replete with voices from the uprising, will be played to them. Archival material will also be made available.

For Sundaram, it is a “romantic moment” in the history of the freedom struggle, which would become the stuff of song in decades to come. He stresses the idea of a spontaneous, composite uprising, started by the naval ratings but joined by ordinary people from different faiths and regions. The radio play, he says, will try to reflect the diverse languages and inflections of the uprising.

The project also reclaims a vital piece of Mumbai’s history. The city, after all, was the epicentre of the uprising. Sundaram has toured the city with Bhagwat, who took them to the different sites of the uprising. “Everyone growing up in Mumbai has heard of of it, though increasingly less so,” said Rajadhyaksha. “And nobody is very sure of what exactly happened.”

Rajadhyaksha is also fascinated by a moment so freighted with symbolic significance. “In India, we dwell on historic detail but not on symbolic meanings,” he said. And the story of the naval uprising contains ideas that still resonate today. The question of nationalism. The idea of empire and Britain’s global significance, revived by the recent Brexit. Finally, the telling of history, which has become the site of political contestations today.

For Rajadhyaksha, it is an episode that has not quite been assimilated into the history of the Indian freedom movement, a moment that “somehow passed without comment”. It raises questions that have not been answered seven decades after Independence. What if the Congress’s version of freedom had not been the only one that prevailed? What kind of independence would we have achieved if the naval uprising had been sustained and taken to its conclusion?

The other freedom movements

In the decades that followed Independence, the story of the uprising would be retold by the Indian Left and fashioned into a critique of the national movement led by the Congress. An account of the RIN strike, told by “some victimised Indian ratings” and published in 1954, comes with a foreword by Communist Party veteran EMS Namboodiripad.

In his write up, Namboodiripad claims a fellowship between the naval uprising and other movements of self-assertion rooted in a socialist ideology – the “Quit Kashmir movement under the Kashmir National Conference”, “the struggle for responsible government in Travancore, which brought the great working class into heroic political action”, “the anti-Razakar movement of the Telangana peasantry” and the Tebhaga movement in Bengal.

In this retelling, the naval uprising seems to have joined the ranks of these other, more granular movements for freedom that also ran alongside the Congress mainstream.

Revolutionary action?

The naval uprising of 1946 was an insurrection from below, disrupting the established course of the freedom movement. It was launched by ratings, the lower rank of sailors in the navy. Most Indian naval officers stayed away, as did the Congress leadership. The rebels, mostly young men aged between 17 and 24, found an answering warmth among the common people in cities like Bombay, Karachi and Calcutta.

The uprising seems to have been a curious cross between a movement for better working conditions and an anti-imperialist struggle. Ratings were incensed by the poor pay and accommodation, the miserable food and racist insults from British officers – conditions for a strike rather than revolutionary action, as one observer has pointed out.

Yet the rebels were charged with something more, a fierce anti-British sentiment and a nationalist fervour stoked by their experiences during the Second World War. Indian sailors serving in different theatres of the war had helped liberate places from fascist armies, had witnessed other countries fighting for their own freedom. “What did I fight for?” wonders BC Dutt in his account of the uprising, “Whose war did I fight?” A significant point in the rebels’ charter of demands was the withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia, which was in the throes of a freedom struggle.

Another clause demanded the release of soldiers of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, then on trial. Indeed, the INA or Azad Hind Fauj had made a deep impression on the young ratings.

Months before the mutiny broke out, Indian rating had begun to organise themselves, taking on the name “Azad Hindi” (Free Indians). The idea was to plan “revolutionary action” and assert that they were “as much sons of the soil as the nationalist Indians fighting for Independence”, says Dutt.

Strike and revolt

On February 2, 1946, when the commander-in-chief was due to visit the HMIS Talwar, Dutt painted slogans such as “Quit India” and “Jai Hindi” on the platform leading into the ship. He was arrested and kept in custody on board. Tensions were already brewing when the ship got a new commanding officer, Arthur King, a “tough, sun-tanned, stern disciplinarian of Kipling’s India” who did not pull his punches.

Decades later, Dutt and his comrade, Madan Singh, would remember the specific insults that he aimed at the ratings: “You sons of bitches, sons of coolies, sons of bloody junglees!”

Dutt and his co-conspirators started persuading the ratings to go on hunger strike and on February 18, more than 1,500 ratings gathered at the mess on HMIS Talwar and shouted slogans like, “No food! No work!” The ratings were on strike.

After that, things moved fast. Singh recalls how they managed to spread their message by quickly gaining control of the wireless systems, the cable network, civilian telephone exchanges and the transmission centre at Kirkee, which was manned by the navy. Within days, rebel ratings had managed to control 74 other RIN ships stationed in Bombay as well as different parts of the world. All the liberated ships planted three flags each: those of the Congress flag and the Muslim League, and the Red flag.

By February 20, ratings had taken control of HMIS Hindustan, stationed at Karachi. The British gathered forces around the ship and ordered them to fire. When the Baloch troops refused to fire, they rushed in white troops and surrounded the ship, forcing it to surrender after a brief exchange of fire.

As the protests spread in urban centres and port cities, the British rushed in more troops and navy chief Admiral John H Godfrey called in the air force. The forces opened fire, on the ships and barracks as well as on the streets. About 400 civilians in all are believed to have been killed.

At the barracks in Bombay, the newly formed Naval Central Strike Committee, led by MS Khan, deliberated on the next course of action. They had expected the national leadership of the freedom movement to steer the next phase of the uprising and negotiate with the British, but that did not happen. Abandoned by the national leadership and fearing more deaths, the strike committee decided to surrender on February 23.

Abandoned at the helm

What explains the aloofness of the Congress and the League leadership? While the Communist Party did organise strikes in various towns and Left-leaning Bombay leaders such as Aruna Asaf Ali expressed some tepid support for the rebels, historian Sumit Sarkar notes that Gandhi and Patel were openly hostile.

According to Gandhi, Hindu-Muslim unity for any purpose other than “non-violent action” was “unholy”. But historians have diagnosed other factors. First, the Congress leadership did not want the negotiations for Independence disturbed with a messy strike that shaded into violence. Second, they were thinking ahead. Patel wrote on March 1, 1946 that the “discipline in the Army cannot be tampered with… We will want Army even in free India”.

So the ratings were left to their fate. They surrendered on condition that they would not be punished but the promise was not kept. Hundreds were packed off to detention camps, court martialled and dismissed from service. Others were simply put on a train and sent home, never to return.

So the naval uprising left few heroes and faded from history as abruptly as it erupted. It was, as historian Barry Pavier argues, the alternative that got edited out of history.