A Revolt Fed By Poor Rations: The Royal Indian Navy Mutiny
Image Credit: Headlines about the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny in 1946


Along with cries of “Inquilab Zindabad”, this was the rallying slogan that heralded the start of the Royal Indian Mutiny of 1946. Unrest among the Indian ratings — non-commissioned officers and sailors — had been fomenting for a while. The causes were many: the scars of the Bengal Famine were fresh; the Quit India Movement’s echoes still resounded; Subhash Chandra Bose’s INA had charged up the ratings back home, many of whom were very politically conscious; the culture of racism and abuse the ratings were subjected to at the hands of their British superiors; the injustice of the privileges granted to their white peers while the Indians were denied even the basics — and faced a wide wage gap; apprehensions over demobilisation after World War II… And among these many weighty triggers was one very practical tipping point: lack of food.

Writer Vikram Doctor makes a reference to this in an article on how Independent India, as a nation, was born in hunger and constantly battled it in the years that followed. “...the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny in 1946…has also been suggested as having an underestimated impact on the British decision to leave India. This too involved hunger, with the naval ratings first agitating over the poor quality of food being given to them, and then escalating it into full mutiny,” Doctor notes. 

Discrimination was deeply embedded in the ratings’ experiences in the RIN. There were the broad hierarchies of officers and Other Ranks (ORs). Then there was the class system, whose upper, privileged echelon was occupied by the British and other white staff, and the bottom rung, composed of Indian personnel, ratings and so on. While the whites could access the Indian staffs’ mess and canteens, the latter were not allowed to do the same with the formers’ facilities. 

Petty Officer Madan Singh, a leader of the mutiny, also cited bad food, in addition to the poor service conditions, sundry humiliations and rank cruelty of the British officers, as one of the causes that led ratings to strike. 

Former Rear Admiral Satyindra Singh goes into the issue of scanty provisions in greater detail in his book, Under Two Ensigns: The Indian Navy 1945-1950. He highlights that there were no vegetarian rations for the Indian ratings. “(On) certain ships, English rations were limited to white polished rice and beef curry. The Indian cooks refused to supply Indian curry.” “Food in general was of low quality: Only poorest quality rice, garnished with stone chips and mud pieces, was supplied,” Singh further states, of the Indian ratings’ provender at this juncture.

Unsurprisingly then, better rations — “optimum quality of Indian food in the service” — were very much on the ratings’ charter of demands (along with the release of political prisoners, better service conditions, end to racial discrimination, withdrawal of Indian troops from Egypt and Indonesia, etc) for calling off their mutiny and resuming duty.

While the Royal Indian Mutiny was founded on deeply nationalistic sentiments, it did begin in a mess hall. Writes Anirban Mitra, of the landmark moment in Indian history: “On February 17, when the ratings reiterated their demand for decent food, British officers sneered that ‘beggars cannot be choosers’. This was the last straw. On the morning of February 18, 1,500 ratings walked out of the mess hall in protest, a clear act of mutiny. Yet they also declared that ‘this is not a mere food riot. (We) are about to create history…a heritage of pride for free India’.” Within two days, as per some experts, 20,000 men had taken over 70+ ships and over 21 shore establishments as part of their revolt.

Pramod Kapoor, author of an influential book on the 1946 strike, describes how food played a rousing role in more ways than one for those involved. “In an account that I read during my research, one of the leaders among the mutineers wrote, ‘We were Sikh, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, upper caste, lower caste, whatever… we were made to sit around a big vessel full of dal, and we were given rotis. We all had to dip our rotis in the same vessel, and eat from it. That instantly united us. There was no difference. That is how we ate in the messes’.” It's an important reminder as we observe our 77th Independence Day.

The Royal Indian Navy Mutiny of 1946 has been described in various quarters as “the last war for independence”. While its impact on India’s freedom struggle, as well as the merits/demerits of the national leaders’ stance on the strike, continue to be debated, it was a spark that built to a conflagration — and badly burnt the British. 


BONUS: A Slurrp Reading List For Independence Day

What it's about: Mahatma Gandhi's experiments with food are as well (if not better) known as his experiments with truth. Retracing his adoption of vegetarianism as a moral principle leads us to an English Premier League football club, a Sherlock Holmes mystery, a wholemeal bread brand, and the beginnings of modern veganism.

As a doctoral student in London, Ambedkar's dinners comprised Bovril and biscuits, which left him hungry for more. Read about his struggles in this article, and the companion piece below.

Revisiting a few historic meals from the life and times of the Father of the Indian Constitution, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, and how these tied in with his ideas of community dining as an anti-caste tool.