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Military Digest | 80 years of a strange Indian mutiny of World War II

In subsequent editions of this Column, the other mutinies will be covered but today we shall recall the Christmas Island mutiny which took place on March 11, 1942.

Japanese soldiers with captured gun at Christmas Island in March 1942. Credit: Wikimapia

The 80th anniversary of a mutiny by Artillery soldiers stationed at Christmas Island, south of Java, Indonesia has come and gone unnoticed and uncommented in military spheres. While a new book has come out covering the Naval Mutiny of 1946 in great detail, what is not widely known is that in the early 1940s, when the Second World War was in progress, there had been a spate of mutinees by Indian soldiers against the British, and all of them had Sikh troops/Sikh personnel involved in them. Two of them-The Royal Army Service Corps and Central India Horse mutinies- had direct involvement of the Indian Sikh troops while the Hong Kong Royal Artillery and Christmas Island Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery mutinies had Sikh involvement in them.

In subsequent editions of this Column, the other mutinies will be covered but today we shall recall the Christmas Island mutiny which took place on March 11, 1942. Ironically, the Punjab Mussalman soldiers, and Sikh policemen who aided them, rose against the British over the decision to take down the flag of surrender offered to the Japanese invading forces and to raise the Union Jack. The subsequent trial of the seven soldiers involved in the mutiny found the fear of Japanese reprisals to be the motivating force behind the uprising which claimed the lives of one British Captain and four NCOs.

Documents accessed from the National Archives of India show that a detachment of one officer, 4 British NCOs and 27 Indian jawans from the 7 Coast Regiment of the Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery were stationed at Christmas Island. Capt Williams was in charge of the troops on the island which also had Europeans living on it along with Sikh policemen.

The Japanese naval forces shelled the island on March 7 and it was decided to hoist a flag of surrender as resistance was futile and accordingly the troops were disarmed and a six inch gun was dismantled and stored. However, on March 10 it was again decided to hoist the Union Jack and taken down the white flag of surrender and the gun was also re-assembled. This did not go down well with the troops who felt that the Japanese would inflict much cruelty on them for going back on the surrender.

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There was a get together of European soldiers and civilians on the night of March 10 and in the early hours of March 11, when the British Captain and four NCOs were asleep, they were all killed and their bodies thrown off the cliff into the sea.

The archives documents show that after the capture of the island the Japanese asked the “brave soldiers who had killed to step forward” and several Indian soldiers stepped forward. Other accounts say that the Sikh policemen too had accepted their role in helping the mutineers before the Japanese occupiers.

After the Japanese surrender in World War 2, six soldiers, all Punjabi Mussalmans belonging to Jhang district, now in Pakistan, were sentenced to death by a court martial in March 1947. The sentence of five of them was confirmed by the Commander in Chief of Far East Land Forces and one was acquitted in September 1947. However, since India had been partitioned by that time, the government of Pakistan interceded and demanded the custody of the men and as a result their hanging did not take place and the case was taken over by Pakistan Government. It is presumed that they did not receive any punishment in Pakistan.

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A letter by Lord Mountbatten dated September 26, 1947 is also part of the archives where the Secretary to the Governor General states that Mountbatten opines that since the case had been finalised before August 15, it need not be opened again by the Pakistan Government. The letter also states, “The Governor General discussed this case with the Prime Minister on 8th August and recorded a note that Pandit Nehru regretted the necessity for these men having to pay the extreme penalty, but stated that he would not protest”.

Senior officers with regional connect take over high appointments

Several senior military officers having association with this region have taken over high offices recently. A Karnal boy, Vice Admiral Ajay Kochhar has taken over as Commandant of the National Defence Academy (NDA) Khadakvasla. He is himself an Ex-Cadet of NDA and was in the Juliet Squadron. A product of Rashtriya Indian Military College (RIMC), Dehradun, Vice Admiral Kochhar has commanded the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and was also the Western Fleet Commander.

In Shimla, Lt Gen SS Mahal has taken over as the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Army Training Command (ARTRAC). An Armoured Corps officer, Lt Gen Mahal has earlier served as GOC of Ambala-based 2 Corps and was serving as GOC Uttar Bharat Area before taking over as Army Commander. His ancestral village is Kathgarh in Nawanshahar district and his ancestors played a key role in securing the agreement between Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Lord William Bentick on the banks of Sutlej in 1831.

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In yet another development a former GOC of the Jalandhar-based 11 Corps, Lt Gen CB Ponappa has taken over as the Adjutant General in Army HQs. He was the Corps Commander in Jalandhar from December 20 to February 2022 and belongs to the Mahar Regiment.

First published on: 04-04-2022 at 04:24 IST
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