BC Dutt, who lit the spark for the Naval Mutiny of 1946, is still an animated memory
Amita Shah | 09 Aug, 2018
AS THE SEA breeze wafts in through the windows, 90-year-old Ansuya Dutt’s thoughts drift between the past and the present. The television in the room beams images of Pakistan’s general election. “The outcome there is dictated by the army,” she says. With her grey hair tied up in a knot, her frail hands resting on the sofa and voice soft but crisp, she speaks using sparse words, non-judgemental about either the past or the present.
How was it living with a hero of the Naval uprising during India’s freedom struggle? “Very difficult,” she laughs. “We were both strong personalities. There was a lot of conflict,” says the widow of Balai Chand Dutt, who had played a prominent role in that uprising of 1946.
Dutt and several others were dismissed from the Navy after a five-day rebellion, an episode almost forgotten till he chronicled it in Mutiny of the Innocents. In the preface to the book, former Chief of Naval Staff Vishnu Bhagwat wrote: ‘When at the tender age of 22 years the young sailor BC Dutt was writing Indian National Army (INA) slogans on the wall of HMIS Talwar in Bombay, he would have hardly imagined he would be acclaimed an icon who lit the spark for a ‘Potemkin’ moment and still later be acclaimed as chronicler to the revolutionary events that caused the sympathetic link that energised the hearts and minds of our sailors, infantry soldiers, airmen and RIAF pilots, ordinary mill-hands, students, workers, citizens in many cantonments, military stations as far afield as Karachi, the Punjab, Calcutta and the port cities of the peninsula.’
Over seven decades after the revolt, Ansuya, a senior lawyer who practised for 50 years, lives neither in the shadow nor the glint of that bygone era. In her one- bedroom apartment on Mumbai’s Marine Drive, there are few signs of the past. She speaks of it only when asked. It was at meetings of the Praja Socialist Party that Dutt and she met. At that time, Dutt was working with the Free Press Journal and she, 27, was an executive with Standard Vacuum. He would accompany her all the way from Colaba to Sion, a distance of around 20 km. Ansuya, a Punjabi from Ludhiana who had studied at Shantiniketan, and Dutt, a bhadralok Bengali who as a teenager had left his ancestral Meral village in West Bengal’s Bardhaman district, married in court in 1955. “I forgot my mother tongue and spoke Bengali,” she says.
Asked if she wanted her son, Tanuj Dutt, to follow in the footsteps of her husband and join the armed forces, she minces no words. “No—because I am a non-violent person,” she laughs. Dutt, in his memoirs later, tried to drive home the point that the ratings (Naval soldiers below the rank of petty officer) did not incite the violence. ‘The national leaders might have been discredited effectively if we had practiced non-violence in spite of British provocation. The British had no option but to crush the uprising…. So far as we were concerned, we were mere sailors, not saints… consequently, we were rather poor practitioners of non-violence. It, of course, helped the leaders. We provided them with all the arguments for their disavowal of our cause,’ writes Dutt in his book.
Tanuj, who joined his uncle in an export business of electrical and engineering goods, did have some fleeting thoughts about joining the Navy when he was in school, but those did not fructify.
Dutt’s own desire to be in the Navy had been nipped in the bud. It lasted five years, ending with the uprising. He had tried again to join the Navy when Vallabhbhai Patel declared after Independence that ratings who were discharged from the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) for participating in the uprising could return to their ranks if they wished. By then, the RIN was the Indian Navy and Pakistani Navy. Dutt reported to the Indian Navy but was turned down. He persisted with his efforts and even wrote to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It was futile. ‘So I tried to wipe the Navy out of my mind and get down to the necessary task of earning a living. But, whichever way I turned, my past pursued me. I could hide from my people but not from my past. Nor was I allowed to forget,’ Dutt writes in his book, in which he describes himself as an actor in the ‘tragic drama’ of the uprising. For several years to come, he suffered nightmares.
Ansuya recalls that it was very difficult to get him to talk of his life in the Navy. He told his family about his days in Burma, when they slept on a beach. The British officers slept behind rows of Indian soldiers to safeguard themselves. Yet, in the mornings, some officers would be found dead. The Japanese would come silently at night and slit their throats. Tanuj remembers his father telling them that some of the British officers were so unpopular that they used to get shot by Indian soldiers on the battlefield and nobody would know who killed them. One of the anecdotes Dutt narrated about his life as a rating on the HMIS Talwar, a shore-based signal school in Colaba, was how they used to go to George Restaurant for biryani and jump off the second floor to escape paying the bill. After a couple of such instances, the manager ensured that the waiters kept an eye on them.
Bad food, one of the manifestations of discrimination between Indian and British soldiers in the RIN, had left a bitter taste among the ratings. Dutt later described the stew of mutton, vegetables and gram as ‘witch’s brew’ which no rating liked and the tea as ‘boiling black liquid’. It was used as ground for the first open revolt. On the morning of February 18th, 1946, when the ratings on the Talwar gathered at the mess for breakfast, there was an uproar over bad food. Someone shouted, “No food, no work!”
After his stint in the Navy, Dutt never fussed over food. “He would eat anything you put before him without complaints,” says Ansuya.
Three months after the ratings surrendered on February 24th, an inquiry commission report into the causes of the uprising said it was set off by a few men disgruntled over inadequate and unclean rice and daal, an impression Dutt later said was falsely created to discredit them.
His son resents how the uprising was made out to be a riot over bad food served to Indian soldiers. “There was an unmistakable swatantra (freedom) angle to it,” says Tanuj. For him, life as a descendant of a freedom fighter is “not any different from those of others”, barring journalists asking questions, his mother getting a freedom fighter’s monthly pension of Rs 1,000, a series of tugboats (service watercraft) named after BC Dutt and a memorial at Mumbai. His father brought his discipline, integrity and uncompromising attitude into their lives. Tanuj remembers how in 1968 a telephone landline was not fixed because the telephone services employee who came to install it wanted a bribe of Rs 10. They finally got a phone twelve years later without paying speed money.
It had saddened Dutt that after it was all over in 1946, they could not tell people that no officer had been manhandled and that no cash, belongings or arms and ammunition had been touched. The uprising, which reverberated with cries of ‘Inquilab zindabad ’ and had flags raised of the Indian National Congress and Muslim League, had several aspects: it was about fighting British discrimination against Indians, service conditions, Hindu-Muslim unity against a common foe, and also impatience with non-violence in the quest for freedom. Little wonder that many versions of the five-day revolt emerged in its aftermath.
“In the hastening of Independence, the uprising became the last big act,” says Commodore Odakkal Johnson, curator, Maritime History Society. He had heard stories about the uprising in bits from his father Odakkal Mohammad, who had joined the RIN in 1944 at the age of 18 and participated in the revolt. Some time after 2000, a kind of consensus came about among top Naval officers, historians and others that it should be called an ‘uprising’ and not a ‘mutiny’ since it went far beyond military disobedience in the ranks. Dutt says in his book, ‘Many of us would have been proud to be called mutineers, if only our faces had not been besmeared with wrong paints.’
Surrounded by paintings, including one by VS Gaitonde and a portrait of her done by her granddaughter Disha, Ansuya recalls how Dutt was disturbed by both Partition and the Emergency. Gaitonde, who was part of Bombay’s influential Progressive Artists Group, was a family friend of the Dutts, whose home was a hangout for aspiring artists, actors and politicians. Today, ‘Gai’, as he was called, is one of the country’s most renowned painters, but he had to leave the city back then because he could not afford to live there. The Dutt family gave shelter to several politicians opposing the Emergency, putting pieces of furniture together to make beds for them. “We were never told who they were, but I remember that when we were staying at Breach Candy, a friend living on Peddar Road gave shelter to Atal Bihari Vajpayee,” says Tanuj.
The outcome of the war that Dutt and his Royal Indian Navy colleagues fought against the British left him disappointed
Dutt’s disillusionment with the political leadership went back to the days of the Naval uprising. Feeling let down by national leaders, the young Indian sailors, fresh from fighting wars for the British, came to regret the way their own war had ended. Later, sipping his favourite Hercules rum, Dutt would at times go down memory lane and speak of how the uprising got little support from leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel and Aruna Asaf Ali. He wrote that the national leaders disowned the ratings who had dreamt of capturing the Navy and placing it at the disposal of their freedom campaign, and this had left them sorely disappointed. ‘None of the national leaders came to Bombay. All those who were filling the political arena with heroic calls for revolution discreetly kept their distance.’
The exposure that Indian soldiers got to global events during World War II had turned them acutely aware of the situation in their own country. ‘At their age and with their training and experience, they could understand and appreciate a Subhas [Chandra] Bose more easily than a Mahatma. The barrack walls were no longer high enough to contain the tide of nationalism,’ Dutt wrote.
He admits in his book that he and the other ratings, who were mostly ‘inexperienced teenagers’ from rural India, had little knowledge of politics. The war fought alongside the British against Nazi Germany opened his eyes to his own role as a sailor, one faced with the question, ‘Whose war did I fight?’
Over two months before the uprising, December 1st, 1945, was chosen for the first act of sabotage. The civil population had been invited to visit docked ships and onshore establishments. The night before, the ratings got down to upsetting the authorities’ plans. In Dutt’s words: ‘By dawn, the Talwar, meant as an exhibit before an admiring Bombay public, was in shambles. The parade ground was littered with burnt flags and buntings; 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’.’
Dutt had painted some slogans and pasted seditious leaflets on the barrack walls, calling upon the ratings to rise in revolt against the rulers. He was arrested and taken into custody. When the Commanding Officer, Commander King, shouted if he understood the consequences of what he had done, he replied, “Save your breath, Sir. I am ready to face your firing squad,” and pulled up a chair to sit down. Dutt had become a hero, an inspirational figure for the ratings bristling to get at their masters.
ALL DUTT HAD once wanted was to be a good sailor. But circumstances in the country altered his course and goal. “The most difficult part of living with him was his discipline. But it is his discipline that took him far,” says Ansuya, who saw him do head-stands every morning when she awoke. Dutt passed away in 2009 at 86. A sense of pride imbues her voice when she says that he practised what he believed. He believed in the “religion of man” and was a voracious reader, particularly of history, Henry Miller and Germaine Greer. Tanuj wishes he could follow his father’s sense of discipline—exercise each morning and read or write 25 pages after work every day.
Dutt, along with two others, had managed to get land for a voluntary organisation named after Yusuf Meherally, who is said to have coined the ‘Quit India’ slogan, on the outskirts of Mumbai without paying any bribe. After his retirement from Lintas, an advertising agency where he worked for around two decades, Dutt spent his weekends at the Yusuf Meherally Centre, which helped rural residents and cottage industries. It was like fighting a new war.
The outcome of the one where he and his Naval colleagues fought against the British had left him disappointed. The February 18th revolt had gained momentum within 24 hours. By the evening of February 19th, the British had lost control over a complete unit of their Indian fighting forces as the strike spread to 74 ships, four flotillas and 20 onshore establishments. ‘Bombay went to bed that night with revolution in the air, rioting, looting and acts of violence having broken out in all parts of the city. Added numbers of patrol cars equipped with radio sets were on the streets to deter would-be rioters. Troop reinforcements were brought up from Poona but their turn for action came only the next day,’ writes Percy S Gourgey, who was a junior RIN officer in Bombay at that time, in his book The Indian Naval Revolt of 1946.
But on February 20th, the uprising started losing steam. By the fifth day, ‘when the workers were challenging the might of the British empire with bare hands on the streets of Bombay and the ratings were still behind the guns’, they were completely isolated, with both the Congress and Communist Party abandoning them. The Flag Officer Commanding RIN, Vice-Admiral JH Godfrey (the highest authority in the RIN) reached Bombay on February 20th. Representatives of the Naval Central Strike Committee, set up on February 19th and headed by leading signalman MS Khan and Petty Officer Telegraphist Madan Singh, met him. The committee returned with a request from Vice-Admiral Godfrey that all ratings should return to their respective ships and establishments by 3 pm. ‘A majority of the ratings were unprepared for such a denouement. But, of course, as in all mass movements, we also had our share of compromisers and bargainers, dissenters and day-dreamers,’ Dutt noted in his book, which came out over two decades later. The number of casualties on February 22nd when British tanks cleared the streets after several were shot, was not known. According to newspaper reports, hundreds were killed and a thousand injured, but the figures were refuted by the authorities.
Gourgey writes, ‘In the space of one short week, the whole gamut of emotions experienced in the national liberation movement were manifested—fear, suspicion, jealousy, frustration and courage.’
The national leaders appealed to the ratings to remain calm and negotiate with the authorities. ‘Political innocents that we were, the significance of that advice was lost on us…. Finally it boiled down to the fact that where the RIN mutiny was concerned, the rulers and the leaders of the ruled were no longer adversaries, but allies,’ writes Dutt.
IN 1945, AS World War II ended, around 9,000 ratings were waiting to be demobilised. All political parties had started looking forward to Independence. Commodore Johnson recalls his father telling him that during the war, British officers were nice to Indian soldiers, but once it ended, their attitude changed. They used abusive language that the ratings found distasteful. The sense of soldierly camaraderie was over. “As a serving officer, I can see things from the ring side. In an organisation and disciplined military force like the Navy, a mutiny is unacceptable. However, those who took part in the uprising were caught in a whirlpool of post-war mismanagement of their demobilisation and the nationalist environment,” says Johnson.
His father told him that he would have done it the same way all over again but wished there was another way it ended. “One always joins the Navy with a sense of pride, but many on HMIS Talwar and at Castle Barracks, who fought gloriously in war, actually received a paper that said ‘discharged with disgrace’. They left dishonoured,” says Johnson. His book, Timeless Awake, in which he devotes a chapter to the uprising, has images of newspaper clippings sourced from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. A headline in one dated February 19th, 1946, says ‘Insulting Behaviour of C.O. Infuriates The Ratings’.
In March last year, artist Vivan Sundaram and cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha together worked on an installation, Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946—a 40-foot long container with a sound-and-light show. “It has BC Dutt’s melancholy voice. The work speaks of how people came together to participate in the freedom struggle. It does communicate something of that time,” says Sundaram, who had met Dutt in Mumbai in 1973.
A report by Lieutenant Colonel Haq Nawaz had said that Indian officers and ratings had nationalistic feelings, but did not nurture political ambitions. Among the reasons for the uprising, he cited the racist behaviour of British officers, major discrimination against Indian ratings and the perception of being misled at the time of recruitment with promises of assured post-war jobs. Dutt managed to get a job as a journalist at the Free Press Journal. ‘Basically, the ratings were completely devoid of communal feeling which was a tremendous asset for any newspaper,’ writes S Natarajan, who was the editor of Free Press Journal, in the foreward to Dutt’s book.
Dutt admits that it was in the advertising industry that he found his post-Naval career groove. During his days at the Free Press Journal, Dutt worked in the same room as Balasaheb Thackeray, who was its cartoonist, for three years. Tanuj recalls him saying that in those three years, he never saw the cartoonist smile.
Meanwhile, Ansuya got busy with her work, dealing mostly with divorce cases. “Divorce is no longer a stigma that it used to be. So business for divorce lawyers has increased several times,” she says.
Ansuya, however, does not like to be called a divorce lawyer. She is unhappy with the “deterioration” and “unethical practices” in the legal profession nowadays. Splitting her time between reading, watching television, playing Snakes and Ladders and offering legal consultation at times on cases, Ansuya has been fighting her own battle.
Other Articles of Freedom Issue 2018