The Origins of Indian Navy And Genesis of Navy Day: An Overview

Navy Day celebrations on December 4, also offers us an opportunity to dwell in the past of the Indian naval traditions and also understand why December 4 is marked as the Navy Day

By Cmde Srikant B Kesnur

Special Feature : Navy Day

On the Navy Day, December 4, 2020, the then Navy Chief received a greeting from a foreign counterpart saying “Happy 49th Navy Day”. While well intended, it seemed to suggest that Indian Navy had been formed only 49 years before and, naturally, caused some raised eyebrows among the Navy top brass. This naturally leads to questions regarding the date of raising of the Indian Navy and significance of the Navy Day and connections, if any, with the origins of our Navy. This article attempts to unravel some of such issues.

The Royal Indian Navy (RIN), the immediate predecessor of the Indian Navy was formed on October 2, 1934. While, I will dwell on the ‘British origins’ of the Navy a little later, the RIN grew rapidly during the Second World War and performed very well despite being raised as a Coastal defence force. The first Navy Day was celebrated on Saturday, October 21, 1944, as the RIN joined the Royal Navy to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar (October 21, 1805). The war was drawing to an end and perhaps the authorities then felt the need to connect with the citizens and inform them about the exploits of RIN. We are informed by a press release of that time “the celebrations were attended by thousands in Bombay and other major ports and at important inland recruiting centres. Sir John Colville, Governor of Bombay took the salute when he inspected a guard of honour of R.I.N. men and Royal Marines at the Gateway of India, Bombay. The highlight of the day was the hoisting of Nelson’s Trafalgar Flag Signal at HMIS ‘Talwar’ a shore training establishment. Vice-Admiral Godfrey, Flag Officer Commanding Royal Indian Navy with other officers and visitors, saluted the flag. At HMIS ‘Dalhousie’ … there were displays of fire-fighting and first-aid and the ceremony of crossing the line”.

As, in the opinion of the British authorities, “the idea of fostering greater outreach and increasing awareness about the Navy among the public met with considerable success and aroused great enthusiasm among the public”, it was decided to organise similar functions every year on a larger scale and later in the season when weather was pleasant and not affected by October humidity. Arguably, albeit unstated, they may also have realised that the RIN needed its own special day de-hyphenated from Trafalgar day. The war was now over and the mood was more buoyant, at least amongst the naval hierarchy. The event was sought to be celebrated with great fervour on December 1, 1945, emphasising post-war jubilation. Unknown to them, owing to a combination of many circumstances, there was seething resentment amongst the rank and file exacerbated by the political cauldron of that time. The first stirrings of this came to light in the same aforementioned HMIS Talwar, which was gearing up for the occasion. While the officials were looking forward to a successful event, a group of ratings, on the preceding night, silently and secretly hoisted brooms and buckets on the mast and painted subversive slogans with political overtones – ‘Quit India’, ‘Inquilab Zindabad’, ‘Kill the white dogs’, etc. – on the walls and on the parade ground.  There was consternation next day when this came to light; thus, Navy Day 1945 was to provide the first spark for the Uprising that manifested itself two months later, in Feburary 1946, with Talwar (todays Motor Transport Pool, on Wodehouse Road, Mumbai) and Dalhousie (today’s INS Angre, on SBS Road, Mumbai) as the epicentres of the action. Much water had flown, it seems, in just one year.

The first Navy Day was celebrated on Saturday, October 21, 1944, but after several changes now December 4 is marked as the Navy Day

Given this background, there is little evidence of Navy Day being celebrated the following year in 1946. The birth pangs post-independence also meant that there was no Navy Day for the first two years and independent India celebrated its first Navy Day in 1949, on 17 December. From then on, it continued to be celebrated on the third Saturday of December every year. It served a practical purpose of using the following Sunday also for exhibition and events wherein people could turn up in large numbers. In 1959, with Vice Admiral RD Katari as the CNS, it was decided that December 15 would be celebrated as the Navy Day and the week in which the day fell would be celebrated as Navy Week. However, there was some flexibility to this. In Delhi, it used to be celebrated in January as “… advantage could then be taken for the route march, retreat and other ceremonies, of the presence of the Naval contingent and the Naval band which will come up to Delhi for participation in the Republic Day Celebrations.” The Navy Day celebrations were also cancelled, like for example in 1950 in the wake of Sardar Patel’s demise and in 1962 and 1963 due to the emergency. (See Table and accompanying PIB notifications).

The precise reason for choosing this date remains obscure but in all probability, it had no significance attached to any particular event or person. As brought out earlier, Navy Day/Week was an outreach initiative meant to bring Navy closer to the public and make them aware about the Service. However, fixing the date gave it focus and enabled better planning. In the late sixties, Vice Admiral SM Nanda as the FOC-in-C West, in order to further enhance the citizen-navy connect, conceived of several programmes around Navy Week, many of which we have, in one form or other, even today. The Navy Week of 1969 culminated with the Presidential Fleet Review on December 28, in Mumbai. In fact, even in 1971, the Navy Day was marked on December 15 as the war was drawing to a close.

It was the Senior Naval Officers Conference in May 1972, which decided that “Navy Day would be celebrated on December 4, to commemorate the very successful naval actions in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal during the India Pakistan War of December 1971 (emphasis added) and the Navy Week would be observed from December 1 to 7”. It’s been so ever since. It may be noted that many people link the Navy Day to commemorating the attacks on Karachi in Operation Trident on December 4, 1971.  However, it would be reductionist for us to situate the whole Navy Day to one Operation. Navy Day celebrates all of our success in the war, be it Operation Python on December 8, or the many actions in the Bay of Bengal. It also bears recollection that bombardment of the then East Pakistan from aircraft on INS Vikrant began on December 4, and the PNS Ghazi had sunk on the night of December 3 or 4. Thus, we must perceive the Navy Day to be ‘anchored in the daring attacks on Karachi on December 4, 1971 but covering the entire gamut of the Navy in the war ‘.

The Senior Naval Officers Conference in May 1972 decided that Navy Day would be celebrated on December 4, to commemorate the successful naval actions in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal during the India Pakistan War of December 1971

However, the fact that we celebrated Navy Day on December 4, from 1972 onwards does not mean that this year is 51st Navy Day, as some may infer. That gives a wrong message of our Navy being formed in 1971. That takes us to the origins of our Navy and whether it has any linkages to Navy Day. For example, the Army Day on January 15 is the day the first Indian Chief of Army Staff assumed office post-independence. This was appropriate and wise as the Indian Army consisting of different regiments and units have regimental and unit days celebrating their formation or major victories in battle. Choosing one day out of these would have been a nightmare. The first Indian Navy Chief took over on April 22, 1958, more than a decade after independence, and while significant to naval history, it did not qualify or make sense to mark that occasion as the Navy Day. The Air Force Day, on the other hand, is celebrated on the day the Air Force was formed viz. October 8, 1932. But that’s logical too for the Air Force since aviation, unlike seafaring, is a 20th century construct and air warfare is of relatively recent vintage. Hence, the chronological gap between Air Forces in India and abroad is not much and the colonial imprint limited.

But what about the Navy? Many people, especially the British and lots of post-Independence Navy leadership subscribed to the view that it began with the formation of Indian Marine at Surat on September 5, 1612 (some accounts give the date as September 12). In fact, several Navy Day speeches and writings right up to the 1970s seem to stress on this year as the origins of our Navy. While that gives us enough bragging rights with greater antiquity over Army and Air Force, it still does not appropriately answer the question of the origins of our Navy. The problem about referencing it to 1612 is that it tethers us to the British, whereas India’s seafaring legacy far predates that.

Let us consider the colonial era first. The Indian Marine transitioned through various different roles and assumed different names through the succeeding centuries from 1612 onwards. For a short period between 1830 to 1867 it was also known as the Indian Navy. Following the First War of Independence in 1857, the service was reduced to a non-combatant status and went back to being the Bombay and Bengal Marines. In the closing decades of the 19th century, it was revived as Her Majesty’s Indian Marine (HIMS), later upgraded to the Royal Indian Marine Service (RIMS) and, finally, on October 2, 1934, the Royal Indian Navy (RIN). On December 12, 1935 the service was presented the Kings Colour at the Oval Maidan, Bombay and this may have been a possible reason for December being chosen to celebrate Navy Day a decade later. On becoming a Republic on January 26, 1950, the Kings Colour was ‘laid to rest’ at the Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun in Dec 1950. On May 27, 1951, the Indian Navy being the senior service was the first to receive the Presidents Colour at Brabourne Stadium, Bombay.

The Indian Marine transitioned through various different roles and assumed different names through the succeeding centuries from 1612 onwards

So, while there is no doubt that the formal frameworks and organisational structures owe much to the British, there is a problem in limiting the origins of the Indian Navy to the colonial era. For one, we have a long seafaring tradition, which dates to millennia ago and we can’t ignore that. Second, we would end up actually having looking at history through the colonial perspective, and Indian actors who valiantly resisted and fought against Colonial powers would be seen, for example, as pirates. Third, it also stops us from looking into aspects of sea power and naval functions of native empires and kingdoms.

Chronologically, the most recent inspiring examples are the Marathas. Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj was a great maritime visionary who set up a fighting Navy and incorporated the Navy in his doctrine on statecraft. The great Maratha Admiral Sarkhel Kanhoji Angre reigned supreme at sea and could not be subdued. The commendable qualities of Maratha Navy are that they fought many powers at sea – the English, Portuguese, Dutch, Siddis, Mughals, Adil Shahis and several local chieftains – and stayed resilient. They fought in the era of cannons and gunpowder and despite technological asymmetry, showed great war fighting skill and tactical savvy. They were a thorn in the flesh of the colonial powers for almost 100 years, until the decline of their Navy in mid-18th century. That notwithstanding, underpinning Indian Navy’s origins to the Marathas would limit our Navy to a 17th century construct. The Kunjali Marakkars, the Admirals of the Zamorin (Samoothri) of Kozhikode, put-up heroic resistance to the Portuguese and showed similar tactical acumen in the 16th century. Rani Abbakka of Ullal is another example of a great ruler who fought Portuguese sea power in the 16th century. They too provide some useful references to our quest.

Many centuries before Marathas and Marrakars, kingdoms such as Satvahanas, Pallavas, Pandyas, Cholas, Cheras also showed maritime prowess

However, India’s maritime heritage and seafaring legacy of centuries poses the (happy) problem of determining the origins of our Navy. The Cholas, for example, were, arguably, our only thalassocracy with a sea empire that was as vast as their land empire. While their conquests may have been possibly more benign and less violent, it would be naïve to imagine that there was no coercion, power play, bloodshed or aggression involved. The Chola Empire reached its maritime zenith in the 10th and 11th centuries under Raja Raja and Rajendra Chola. Many of their contemporary kingdoms such as Satvahanas, Pallavas, Pandyas, Cheras also showed similar maritime attributes. And all of these kingdoms predate the Maratha Navy and Marrakars by many centuries.

But let our gaze turn further back and explore issues of sea power and intersections of military aspects in our maritime history. While there are references to oceans, soldiers sailing across the seas, boats, ships and navies in ancient times and Vedic and post-Vedic literature, the existence of fighting navies, sea battles or political direction is not immediately apparent in those times. The Mauryan era, however, has lot more clarity in this regard. As historian Bimal Kanti Majumdar, in his book The Military System in Ancient India brings out “the Mauryas built and commanded a Navy, their empire reached the sea in the East and the West, they took steps to prevent piratical raids on seaboard towns, they had a Board of Admiralty and Navadyaksha (Navy Chief) and they, possibly, had a navy or vessels equipped with armed men to destroy pirate ships and take action against those violating harbour rules”. Further, Majumdar emphasises the fact that the Mauryan empire had political relations with foreign rulers spread far and wide, their merchant ships carried goods and people and there was all round prosperity and, above all, that this was a government that ‘left no department of human life outside its scope’ to suggest that the Mauryan empire had a Navy. Based on this Majumdar writes “It is thus possible to hazard the conclusion…..that the history of Indian navy may be traced as far back as the fourth century BCE if not earlier”.

Our seafaring DNA is rooted in antiquity, our naval tradition is millennia old, and we are inspired by the glorious legacy of all our maritime forbearers from the Mauryans to Marathas

Following them, many other ancient Indian empires such as the Kalingas, the Guptas, the Chalukyas and the Palas, to name a few, along with the others mentioned hitherto, combined maritime activities with military enterprise to some degree or the other. It also needs to be noted that these discussions must be seen in the conditions and contexts of those times. If we go by the accepted doctrinal principle that the fundamental role of the navies is to protect trade and secure sea lines of communication it would suggest that the Mauryans, Guptas and Cholas were all able to meet these conditions. Hence, while our maritime activity traces back to the Harappan era nearly five millennia ago, aspects of navy and sea power also seem to have permeated our lives more than two millennia ago. It is a legacy we must be proud of.

Therefore, in the opinion of this author, the correct description of our maritime past would be to say that “our seafaring DNA is rooted in antiquity, our naval tradition is millennia old, we are inspired by the glorious legacy of all our maritime forbearers from the Mauryans to Marathas, we take our formal organisational templates from the British and our immediate past predecessor is the Royal Indian Navy”. While this may seem like a mouthful, it covers many issues pertaining to sea power, doesn’t locate the umbilical to the colonial era and leaves room for us to, rightfully, appreciate all our maritime icons and landmarks. We also need to reject the notion that the navy (or any fighting arm or organ of governance for that matter) ought to have single or precise moorings and origins. Having space for multiple possibilities or ambiguities in this regard adds to the richness of our inheritance.

So, the Navy Day now celebrates the glorious exploits of our Navy in the ‘71 war but it is a Navy with roots in antiquity and with colonial legacy being one of the many waypoints enroute. That leaves us then with the delicious question of why did the Navy and Admiral SM Nanda, the then Chief, choose  December 4, as the Navy Day. I am only trying to hazard a guess here and state upfront that I could be wrong. The old date December 15 had no significance in itself; moreover, post the war it was very close to December 16, the surrender in Dacca, which the Navy realised would be a separate event in itself. Much of naval action had taken place in the first week of war. December 8, famous for Operation Python was also the Submarine Day in the Navy. Thus, December 4, the first day of Indian action when Navy launched operations both in the East and the West and scored spectacular successes seemed the most appropriate. Why then the emphasis on Operation Trident and Karachi attack in subsequent years? While, the readers’ guess is as good as mine, I believe that Nanda and the top leadership wisely realised that with Bangladesh now an independent nation, highlighting the operations in the Bay of Bengal could be seen as an unnecessary triumphalism. On the other hand, the attacks on Karachi showcased strategic acumen, operational ingenuity and tactical boldness, apart from courage and daredevilry. In some ways, this was a perfect way and day to celebrate the Navy’s finest hour.

While, I will leave it to the readers wisdom to chew on that thought, there is no doubt though that situating the Navy Day to a specific date – of action and achievement – gave subsequent generations of navy persons a sense of pride. It also decolonised us by locating it in Indian context. It was a masterstroke that allowed us to commemorate our past and look to the future with optimism. That is the salience of celebrating December 4 as the Navy Day for the last 50 years. Today, events clustered around Navy Day extend to a fortnight or, often, a month. They signify a Navy that is growing, a Navy that has many stories to tell and many dimensions and domains to showcase. Today’s naval leadership do not deny our colonial legacy but stress that it is not the sole essence of our Navy. The Indian Navy has indeed come a long way.

The writer is a navy veteran, with several publications to his credit. Prior to his retirement, he was the Director, Maritime Warfare Centre, Mumbai; and Officer-in-Charge – Naval History Project. The writer would like to acknowledge the inputs provided by Cdr Mohan Narayan (Retd) and Mr Swaroop Anand while writing this piece. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda