Posts Tagged ‘Major-General Shah Nawaz Khan’

(On the occasion of the 72nd anniversary of this insurrection)

For many years the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) Mutiny, which broke out in in full swing on February 18, 1946, and lasted a mere five days before the leaders who acted on behalf of the disaffected soldiers surrendered, remained largely marginal in narratives of modern Indian history.  The temper of the times—shortly after the end of the war, and on the cusp of independence—seemed, both in in popular memory and in Indian historiography, to be better represented by the INA Trial that was launched in November 1945 when the British charged Colonel Prem Singh, Major-General Shah Nawaz Khan, and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon with murder and “waging war against the King-Emperor.”


The site of that trial was the Red Fort, now converted into a courtroom:  it is here that Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor, was adjudged guilty of treason and banished into exile.  If the 1858 trial brought India into the orbit of the British Empire as a Crown colony, the INA Trial became, oddly enough, the swansong of the Raj.  Indian nationalists had, over the years, mastered the oracular and spectacular space of the courtroom; for the occasion of the trial, Nehru donned his lawyer’s garb and helped to furnish the drama which catapults an event into history.  And, to cap it all, everyone understood that the INA Trial was a verdict on the absent Subhas Bose, by now elevated into the pantheon of Indian deities; in a manner of speaking, he even presided over it.


The war years, in the nationalist imagination, are associated with “Quit India”.  But the war had precipitated other kinds of unrest, creating shortages of food and other essential items.  The Royal Indian Navy and Royal Indian Air Force were raised from a state of infancy to some prominence, and in all three services of the armed forces the end of the war brought to the fore the question of demobilization and gainful employment for men released into civilian life. There was resentment at the use of Indian troops to put down revolutionary dissent in Indonesia, and Indian servicemen chafed at the huge gap between themselves and British soldiers, as evidenced by large disparities in salaries, the quality of canteen food, and working conditions.


Men of the Royal Indian Navy at Stamshaw Training Camp, Portsmouth, 8 July 1942.  Source:  Wiki Commons.

At the HMIS Talwar, Balai Chand Dutt, who had served in the RIN for five years, found other kindred spirits who intently watched the proceedings of the INA Trial and resented the discrimination and racism they continued to encounter as soldiers of the Empire.  On 1 December 1945, British officers found the parade ground, where the HMIS Talwar was shortly to be displayed to the public, sprayed with signs, “Kill the British”, “Revolt Now”, “Down with the Imperialists.”  Airmen at the Royal Indian Air Force station in Karachi struck a few weeks later:  that show of dissent, which would spread to over 50 stations in South Asia but remains little studied, was dealt with gingerly by the British.


Meanwhile, at the HMIS Talwar, little acts of insurrection continued, and Dutt was apprehended for vandalism on February 2nd.  Dutt has related in his memoir, and this is confirmed in contemporary accounts appearing in the Bombay Free Press Journal, that Arthur King, commanding officer of the ship, abused the sailors with such epithets as, “Sons of bitches’, ‘Sons of Coolies’, and ‘Sons of Bloody Junglees’.  Dutt and his fellow rebels persuaded the ratings to join the revolt, commencing on February 18th with a hunger strike.  In less than three days, the revolt had spread to nearly 75 others ships and nearly 20,000 sailors, all under the age of 26, had thrown the gauntlet.  The Naval Central Strike Committee was formed and issued a series of well-thought out demands, calling for the release of all political prisoners, action against King, better pay and working conditions, employment for demobilized men, withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia, and respect from officers.  And, yet, on February 23rd, the Committee capitulated; the organized strike was over.


Evening News of India, Bombay, 21 February 1946.

Historians are generally in agreement that the mutineers floundered since they found that the leadership of neither the Congress nor the Muslim League was supportive of the strike.  The British began to deploy troops to put down the mutiny, determined to deal firmly with the rebels.  As Field Marshall Wavell, the Viceroy of India put it in a telegram to Prime Minister Attlee, the “example of the Royal Air Force, who got away with what was really a mutiny, has some responsibility for the present situation.”  The Strike Committee called for a city-wide hartal in Bombay—not without some success.  By February 22nd, a good portion of the city had been shut down, but violence had also flared up at various places.  By the end of the day, 63 people had been killed, mainly in police firings.  Sardar Patel had been despatched by the Congress to converse with the leaders of the strike; the Strike Committee, meanwhile, though it had the support of some local Bombay Congress leaders and most notably Aruna Asif Ali, who had played a prominent role in the Quit India movement, could not produce a leader of national standing.  On Patel’s assurances that the rebels would be treated fairly, the Strike Committee ordered the end of the strike.


Bombay:  Scene of the RIN Mutiny, February 1946.

In the received left narrative, the Congress was always a bourgeois organization, beholden to Indian capital and, especially at this juncture, mindful of the fact that, in independent India, the support of Indian business and industry leaders would be needed to build the nation.  The elites were scarcely prepared to allow petty soldiers and workers to show the way to freedom; they would not let the thunder be stolen from them.  There was perhaps little sympathy among Congress leaders, who had spent the better part of the war years in jail, for sailors whose patriotism had arrived rather late in the day.  Communist support for the Mutiny, and the Strike Committee’s call for a hartal, had given the communists an opening that Patel was determined to throttle.  Negotiations for India’s political future had commenced and were still inconclusive, but the way forward seemed unquestionably to be within some constitutional framework.

The RIN Mutiny may have been a much less momentous event than some recent commentators have imagined, and assessments of as it having hastened the end of British rule in India seem overblown.  But it nevertheless still permits us to think both about the India that came into shape and the possibilities for a better future that might have been scuttled at this pivotal moment.  In India, unlike in most other countries that went through decolonization, civilian control over the military has remained the one inviolable principle of the Republic.  Writing on 1 March 1946, Patel put forward a defense of his objection to the strike with the observation that “discipline in the Army cannot be tampered with . . .  We will want the Army even in free India.”  Patel understood better than most others the unrelenting and unforgiving logic of the democratic nation-state.  At the same time, in the suppression of the RIN Mutiny lie the seeds of the continuing inability of the nation-state to harness the power of the working-class and to address it as the motive force in history.   There is also the comforting thought that, at one time, mutinies in the armed forces spread from Bombay to Karachi—harbinger not only of the possibilities of working-class solidarity, but of the transgressive force of truly revolutionary activity.  The RIN Mutiny did not fit into any blueprint for the future; the pity of it is that the blueprint has even less space for such acts of insurrection now.

[A shorter version of this piece was published as “An Act of Insurrection”, Indian Express (23 February 2018), p. 15, also available online.]


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The history of colonial India was, one might say, bookended by political trials.  The crimes of Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of India, were showcased in lengthy impeachment proceedings against him in the British Parliament from 1788-95; towards the end of 1945, the first of a series of Indian National Army (INA) trials generated an extraordinary upsurge of sentiment against the British and doubtless hastened the end of two hundred years of colonial rule.  Nearly every pivotal moment in the history of British India was similarly marked by a political trial:  one can enumerate in this respect the trail of Bahadur Shah Zafar in 1857-58, which signified the formal end of the Mughal Empire, the two trials (in 1897 and 1908) of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who represented, in the colonial vision, the ‘extremist’ phase of Indian politics, or the various trials, on charges of sedition, treason, conspiracy, or revolutionary violence, of Aurobindo, Mohandas Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, M. N. Roy, and Lala Lajpat Rai, each of whom nonetheless represented a different constituency of anti-colonial Indian politics.


Occupying a remarkable place in the arena of state activities in colonial India, political trials were never just only a form of contestation between the state and its colonized subjects.  Such trials of state were generally never convened without the expectation that, in the dramatic setting of the courtroom, the performance of both the state and the rebels would be received with utmost attention; and though not all trials were accompanied by fanfare, by the loud trumpeting of the triumph of justice, they were each in their own way spectacles to which the entire nation stood witness.


Subhas Bose with Officers of the INA

The setting for the INA Trials was indeed dramatic:  having fled from India in January 1941, Subhas Chandra Bose eventually made his way to Berlin where the Nazis assisted him in setting up a Free India Center.  In December 1941, the German army had agreed to hand over to Bose such captured prisoners from the (British) Indian Army as were agreeable to joining the Indian Legion, a military force that Bose was establishing though it was to be placed under German command.  It is in Europe, then, that Bose started recruiting captured Indian POWs to aid in the liberation of India, though he had comparatively little success:  only 2,500 of the approximately 17,000 POWs could be induced to join the Indian Legion.  Meanwhile, the theatre of war had moved to the Asia and the Pacific, and it is in September 1942 that the first Division of the INA comprised of 16,300 men was raised under the leadership of Captain Mohan Singh.  A year later, Bose summoned the remnants of the INA, renamed it the Azad Hind Fauj [Free India Army], and energized it, in a move reminiscent of Gandhi’s “Do or Die”, with a simple but entrancing slogan:  “Chalo Delhi.”


In 1943-44, the British had instituted the first courts-martial of British Indian Army personnel captured as INA troops.  However, these trials excited little attention, and even most historians have scarcely paid any attention to them:  much of the Congress leadership was behind bars, and, moreover, the Congress position, as articulated by Nehru, was that however patriotic and well-meaning INA men might be, they had “put themselves on the wrong side and were functioning under Japanese auspices.”  What has become known as the INA Trial, launched in November 1945, was a different story.  The INA had seen significant military action in the Imphal-Kohima sector and INA troops had become the stuff of legends.  Bose himself had died in a plane crash in August 1945; though the circumstances of his death were deemed highly suspicious by many, his apotheosis as the great martyr had taken place.  Nevertheless, Britain’s victory in World War II as part of the Allied forces was decisive, and the INA had been disbanded in May 1945.   Soldiers who had engaged in traitorous conduct could not be allowed to go unpunished.


Military Parade of the INA at Padang

In putting Colonel Prem Sahgal, Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, and Major-General Shah Nawaz Khan on trial on the charges of murder, abetment to murder, and “waging war against the King-Emperor”, the British scarcely anticipated the uproar that ensued.  The Congress Working Committee passed a resolution in sympathy with the prisoners.  Nehru, in a speech delivered on November 3, two days before the prosecution was launched, stated that “the trial of the three INA officers will be of historical importance. . . .  It touches the sentiments of the whole nation.”  Demonstrations in solidarity with the accused were held throughout the country, and Gandhi and Patel were among those who visited the accused in jail.  A Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim had been put on trial, in unintended homage to Bose’s own defiance of communal divisions, and the Congress defended all three men.  The Defence Committee was made up of a stellar list of legal and political luminaries, headed by Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru.  Bhulabhai Desai, who argued that the accused could not be tried under the Indian Penal Code and that international law was applicable in this case, was largely responsible for the defence; and much has been of the fact that Nehru, who had ceased to practice law at least 25 years ago, donned his barrister’s gowns and made a couple of appearances in court.


Jawaharlal Nehru and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, to his right, proceeding to the INA Trial.

The outcome was preordained:  all three accused were found guilty and handed down a sentence of deportation for life.  Meanwhile, however, a mutiny had broken out on several of the ships and shore establishments of the Royal Indian Navy, and all this made transparent that, in the words of the feminist and socialist Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, “it was really freedom versus bondage that was really on trial.”  Acting under immense pressure, army chief Claude Auchinleck, in whom rested the final authority to dispose off the case, commuted the sentences of the three defendants.


Crowds Gathered Outside the Red Fort during the INA Trial

The trial, I have implied, can well be seen as a locus for the colonialist sociology of knowledge, the micro-politics of power, and the cultural politics of resistance. To appreciate, nonetheless, the singularity of the principal INA Trial, I shall suggest only three lines of inquiry.  First, it is striking but not surprising that the trial was held at the Red Fort, rather than a courtroom. The Red Fort had been the seat of the Mughal Empire, and the British chroniclers of the great rebellion of 1857-58 noted that when the British reoccupied Delhi in late 1857, they signified their dominion over India by rendering profane the sacred space of the Mughals and defiling it with the consumption of pork and wine, both taboo to observant Muslims.  He who seeks to show his authority over India must command the Red Fort.


Secondly, why did the Congress, which had earlier adopted the view that the INA recruits were patriots but nevertheless misguided in their willingness to join a fighting force aided by fascists, so unambiguously take up the defence of the INA accused? Were Congress leaders positioning themselves for the provincial elections and the struggle ahead?  Was this a final attempt on the part of the Congress to project itself as an organization that alone could withstand the furies of communalism?  And, finally, does the mass popular sentiment in support of the INA accused suggest that Gandhi had been sidelined or does it contrariwise point to the fact that the Quit India movement had moved India irrevocably towards freedom?  Whatever’s one outlook on these questions, the centrality of the INA Trial in the narrative of late nationalism cannot be doubted.

A shorter version of this piece appeared in print as “The Call to Freedom:  How the INA Trial Hastened the End of British Rule”, The EyeIndian Express (Sunday) Magazine (3 January 2016).









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