B.C. Dutt's Mutiny of the Innocents offers a razor sharp first-person account of a forgotten episode in the history of India's long struggle against foreign rule. In the early months of 1946, low-ranking sailors in the Royal Indian Navy began supporting Indian independence, but only after years of loyal service to the wider empire. Their sudden change of heart bewildered both British military leaders like General Claude Auchinleck and Indian politicians like Mahatma Gandhi.
Dutt's story, however, begins with his entrance into the Royal Indian Navy as a teenager. A radio and signal operator, Dutt and his fellow Indian sailors served loyally throughout the war, but lost enthusiasm for their task as profligate racism sets a clear divide between themselves and white service members. Despite the racism, Dutt worked hard, and took pride in his work. He was a cog in a wheel, but thrived in his own way. At the end of the war, Dutt found himself stationed at the HMIS Talwar, the shore establishment where he first learned his trade as a signalman. For Dutt, and his fellow veterans, the future looked bleak. The post-war navy offered few opportunities for advancement; outside the military, jobs were scarce. And many Indians viewed the sailors and soldiers of the Indian military as mercenaries more interested in lining their pockets with British coin than serving their homeland. Dutt's experiences with racism, and his own questions about his role in the British empire, eventually led him to take action in support of Indian independence. Gathering in the canteen of the Talwar, Dutt and a few like-minded conspirators engaged in well-timed acts of minor sabotage. For the most part, they merely distracted sentries and pasted revolutionary slogans on barrack walls. They timed their subversive activities to maximize the embarrassment of their officers.
In February 1946, the authorities caught Dutt. But he refused to cooperate or name his fellow conspirators. Further, he declared himself a political prisoner, rather than an insubordinate sailor. In a political situation already fraught with tension, this caught his superior officers off guard. They tried to respond with restraint in order to keep the situation quiet. But the opposite happened. Dutt's slight success catapulted him into the spotlight. Other naval ratings used a common complaint--the poor quality of navy chow--to rally other sailors to the cause. The ensuing rebellion more resembled a student protest or worker strike rather than a violent insurrection. What began as small demonstrations of discontent expanded into a brief (but bright) flame of outright rebellion, and came to be known as the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny. It ultimately involved upwards of 12,000 ratings (low-ranking sailors). The ratings seized ships and shore establishments throughout Bombay; ratings in Calcutta, Karachi, and elsewhere also gained control of their vessels. The ratings adopted the language of the nationalist leaders, and formed a strike committee to lead the way. The ratings offered to hand over the navy to nationalist leaders in Congress and Muslim League, but received a cold response from everyone except the Communists Party.
Congress leaders, especially Sadar Vallabhbhai Patel, quickly organized a truce between the mutineers and the British authorities. Very few ratings lost their lives, and only a few ships were damaged. But for enthusiastic participants like B.C. Dutt, the short-lived mutiny taught them an indelible lesson on the limits of India's revolutionary politics. The nationalist leaders had struggled for decades to achieve Indian independence. Now the leaders could already see the finish line, and yearned to reach it. The British were clearly on the way out. The mutiny, rather than helping the nationalist leaders achieve their objective, threatened to disrupt the delicate balance of power of domestic politics. Besides, the nationalist leadership consisted of lawyers and industrialists and cloaked themselves in the mores of non-violence; they distrusted military personnel out of habit, and the young naval ratings now asking for their help were no exception. Thus, the complex realities of nationalist politics quickly eclipsed the RIN mutiny.
A year and a half later, India won its independence from imperial rule, but at the cost of an independent Pakistan. Jinnah, the first leader of Pakistan, kept an earlier promise and allowed Muslim mutineers to apply for positions in the Pakistan navy. In India, however, newly-minted Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (and the rest of the Congress leadership) opted to keep the mutineers out of the service. The Royal Indian Navy discharged D.C. Butt quickly and quietly; he tried to join Nehru's navy, but without success. He eventually made his way back to Bombay and became a reporter with the Free Press Journal, the newspaper that most closely covered the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny.
We do not often think of mutineers as innocents, but B.C. Dutt's book makes a convincing case that these young men truly did not know what they were getting themselves into. The book begins with a forward from S. Natarajan, the editor of the Free Press Journal at the time of the mutiny. He describes his own interest in the mutiny, and his careful decision to chronicle the efforts of the naval ratings when a few members of their party appeared on his doorstep on 18 February 1946. Though the mutiny ended in meekness, it shared dangerous echoes with rebellions that began elsewhere in the world. When the book transitions to Dutt's voice, the account assumes an uncanny charm. He records the events without malice or resentment. He articulates the views of his enemies with remarkable generosity and restraint.
In particular, Dutt chronicles the motivations of the Indian officers that remained loyal to the navy, and the actions of Commander King, a white officer whose racist language helped the mutiny spiral out of control. In other accounts (including Banerjee's The RIN Strike and Sarkar's Towards Freedom series) King stands a mysterious and foolish monster. But in Dutt's account, Commander King emerges as a complicated and surprisingly sympathetic figure that lacked the political wherewithal and leadership skills to contain the misbegotten mutiny. Like Dutt and King, the ratings and officers initially caught in the strike simply lacked the political sophistication to achieve their objectives.
B.C. Dutt published Mutiny of the Innocents in 1971. Reflecting on his actions of twenty-five years prior, Dutt comes across as an astute observer of human nature. He also has the wisdom to reassess his actions in the rearview mirror, and place them in historical perspective. At times, a sense of humor shines through the book's pages, as when after a late-night attempt at revolutionary graffiti, naval sentries catch Dutt with his hands covered in glue.
Dutt's book stands as a riveting account of political failure in waning shadows of the British raj. Dutt managed, for a short time at least, to rally sailors to take a political stand against the British empire; the rebellion's failure, as Dutt states at the close of the book, was probably inevitable. His revolution failed, but his book succeeds.