February 14, 2020
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Radioactive Rebels?

Signalsmen of the Jabalpur mutiny of 1946 wonder why they aren't heroes

Radioactive Rebels?
Radioactive Rebels?
On the quiet morning of February 26, 1946, some 120 men of the 'J' company of the Signals Training Centre (STC), Jabalpur, defied their British superiors and broke free from their barracks. Part of a radio signalling unit, they were angry at the abuse heaped on them by their British counterparts.

They were also upset at the incarceration of two Indian National Army (INA) officers at Red Fort in Delhi. The ranks of the mutineers swelled to 1,700 men, armed with nothing more than Congress and Muslim League flags. Shouting slogans, the patriotic mutineers protested peacefully for some days till a bayonet charge by the Somerset Light Infantry brought the mutiny to a halt.

Eighty men behind the mutiny were court-martialled and dismissed without pay and pension. Forty-one others were sent to prison. But the incident was quickly hushed up. The British officers stationed in Jabalpur were replaced by Indian officers and most of the records destroyed. And so, a chapter in India's struggle for freedom was virtually buried. The recognition due to the soldiers for standing up to British might was denied them.

In sharp contrast, the naval ratings who mutinied just days ahead of the Jabalpur mutiny were recognised as freedom fighters. The mutiny was officially recognised as part of the freedom struggle by the government of India. The men were allowed to serve in the navy of independent India and retire with full pensionary benefits, pay and allowances. What's more, they were awarded special freedom fighter's pensions. All that the mutineers of Jabalpur received for their efforts was a bayonet charge, rigorous imprisonment and dismissal without benefits.

The Jabalpur mutiny, though lost to public historians, left a deep impact on the British. The then commander-in-chief of the British Indian army, Gen Sir Claude Auchinleck, sent several secret cables back to London, discussing a quick transfer of power from British hands to the Indians. Seeing the Jabalpur and the navy mutiny of Bombay together, the British were worrying about the probability of a larger insurrection. Therefore, when the men of the 'J' company stood in defiance, they made history—this was the first and only major instance of Indian army regulars challenging the British.

The effect was telling. The naval mutiny—and another in the air force, a few days earlier—could be contained. But the shock was from the Jabalpur mutiny, for the British Indian army and its loyalty was considered the backbone of British rule in India.

Maj Gen V.K. Singh and his book

The account of the Jabalpur mutiny has now been recorded in The Contribution of the Indian Armed Forces to the Freedom Movement, a recent book by Maj Gen V.K. Singh (retd), chairman of the signals corps's history cell.

Singh chanced upon the few remaining records of the Jabalpur mutiny while working on the official history of the Corps of Signals. He has already published the second volume of the corps's history and is busy collating material for the third and final volume. "I saw what Gen Sir Claude Auchinleck wrote to the army commanders, worried that the loyalty of the Indian troops couldn't be taken for granted anymore. This had a profound impact on the British and probably quickened the departure of the British from India," Singh told Outlook.

It was in 2002, when Singh reopened dusty files of the Corps of Signals, that he lighted upon this forgotten chapter of the mutiny. "It seems that the men were agitated at the result of the INA trials, in which two officers were sentenced to rigorous imprisonment. The fact that Indian troops were treated as inferior to the British and paid less also added to their anger," says Singh.

He immediately took up the cause of getting the mutiny recognised as a part of the freedom struggle. However, he only ran into the impenetrable Indian bureaucracy. As letters flew between Singh, the directorate of signals, ministry of defence, and the ministry of home affairs (MHA), the bureaucratic machinery continued to hold out. Singh took pains to point out to any official who would care to hear him out that the Jabalpur men had been ignored while recognition had been accorded to the naval ratings who participated in the Royal Indian Navy mutiny, which ironically took place a couple of weeks before the Jabalpur mutiny.

A list of the court-martialled
Click here for large image

Meanwhile, one of the survivors of the mutiny, Lance Naik Neelakantan Nair, went to the Kerala High Court seeking directions to the MHA. In July 2003, the court directed the MHA and the state government to look into the matter and report back in six months. But nothing came of it. Finally, in a letter dated February 14, 2003 (No 8/2/2003-FF-P), the MHA stated that the issue of granting freedom fighter status to the mutineers had been "considered and it has been decided at the level of the home minister that they cannot be treated as freedom fighters."

The then home minister and currently the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, L.K. Advani, as the letter states, did not find the mutiny and its impact adequate enough to club it with the freedom struggle. After much persuasion from the signals corps, some of the participants, 41 out of over 1,700 mutineers, were granted a meagre pension while the others were dismissed since official records showed that they had been "discharged on administrative grounds". What the MHA forgot to look into was a small but critical detail on the discharge certificates. The men had been discharged, the certificate stated, for taking part in the "Jubalpore STC mutiny".

"It is absurd. All the naval mutineers have been recognised and feted by the government as freedom fighters. They too were discharged on administrative grounds. But the same logic didn't hold true for the men who suffered for decades for participating in the mutiny," says Singh. Ironically, the naval mutineers were also radiomen just like the ones in Jabalpur.

M.A. Kochuvareed, a mutineer

Eighty-seven-year-old M.A. Kochuvareed, who was a havildar during the Jabalpur mutiny and is one of its few survivors, has laboured to seek recognition from the government for nearly 60 years. His memory is fading, but Kochuvareed still remembers those fateful days of the uprising in great detail. "Just two weeks before the mutiny, we had heard Pandit Nehru at a rally in Jabalpur. He told us that even a chotta harkat (minor move) on our part would be enough to bring down the British flag and raise the Indian tricolour. Many were already agitated and we decided to take on the British soon after that. A few days after the mutiny began the British sent in a bayonet charge that killed nearly eight people and injured 30 others," Kochuvareed recounted to Outlook.

Indian officers such as Brig Terence Baretto and Maj Gen K.K. Tiwari, both then war-weary captains in the British Indian army, were rushed to Jabalpur by army headquarters and the command of the unit was handed over to another Indian officer, one Lt Col Mukherjee. "As an adjutant I was in charge of the quarterguard where the men had been incarcerated and we heard from them about how they had been ill-treated by their British counterparts. I learnt a lot from them," remembers Tiwari.

So why did the British hush up the Jabalpur mutiny? They feared trouble if the news of the revolt spread to other army units across British India. A year later, as independent India finally became a reality, the brave men of Jabalpur became a footnote in the forgotten records of the Corps of Signals.

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