The writer is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court. The views expressed here are personal.

Can Indian Navy afford a mutiny?

Published Mar 20, 2017, 1:00 am IST
Updated Mar 20, 2017, 6:50 am IST
The Navy clarified that the word “mutiny” cannot be applied to describe the incident, as it did not involve a rebellion by the entire crew of the ship
Indian Navy logo
 Indian Navy logo

The Indian Navy has ordered a high-level probe into an incident of insubordination and assault by some young sailors on a senior officer on board its survey ship INS Sandhayak off the coast of the eastern state of Odisha. They now face disciplinary action. INS Sandhayak, under the Eastern Naval Command, is used by the Indian Navy to carry out shallow coastal and deep oceanic survey and collect oceanographic and geophysical data. On March 9, the Indian Navy issued a press statement about the “incident of insubordination” aboard its survey ship INS Sandhayak in which, reportedly, “four sailors” were involved. The sailors not only “disobeyed orders” but also “exchanged blows with officers on the high sea.” Several words used in the statement need to be noted: “insubordination”, “disobedience”, “blows”, among others. The Navy clarified that the word “mutiny” cannot be applied to describe the incident, as it did not involve a rebellion by the entire crew of the ship. This clarification needs to be revisited with all sincerity. If one refers to Sections 42, 43, 45, 47 and 48 of the Navy Act 1957, which largely deals with disciplinary provisions one realises that the incident pertains to discipline, and discipline only. While Section 42 deals with the description of mutiny, the other sections pertain to the various disciplinary actions that are undertaken in case of mutiny or disorderly behaviour. Hereunder is a brief description of the aforementioned sections for a better understanding.

Section 42: Mutiny defined. “Mutiny means any assembly or combination of two or more persons subject to naval law, the Army Act 1950, or the Air Force Act 1950, or between persons, two at least of whom are subject to naval law or any such Act…”
Section 43: Punishment for mutiny. “Every person subject to naval law, who joins in a mutiny, shall be punished with death or such other punishment as is hereinafter mentioned.”
Section 45: Punishment for striking superior officers. “Every person subject to naval law who commits any of the following offences or strikes or attempts to strike his superior officer, draws or lifts up any weapon or uses or attempts to use any violence shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to 10 years or five years.”
Section 47: Punishment for disobedience and insubordination. “Every person subject to naval law, who wilfully disobeys his superior officer or shows or expresses intention to disobey his superior officer or uses insubordinate, threatening or insulting language or behaves with contempt to his superior officer shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to 10 years or three years.”
Section 48: Punishment for quarrelling and disorderly behaviour. “Every person subject to naval law, who quarrels, fights with or strikes any other person or uses provoking speeches or behaves in a disorderly manner shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years.”
From the above it is abundantly clear that there is a disconnect between the relevant sections of the Navy Act 1957 and the press statement issued by the Indian Navy. According to IHS Jane’s Fighting Ships 2016-2017, Sandhayak is a 1981 product of Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers (GRSE) and carries a “complement of 178 (18 officers) plus 30 scientists”. Does it then imply that only if the entire crew, including the 30 scientists, had resorted to collective indiscipline and insubordination, it would have been classified as a mutiny? Time to pause and ponder.

What makes the matter slightly serious is that this is not a “one-off type incident” or “mutiny”, but is part of a series of “incidents”, which have been reported during the past several months for all the wrong reasons, thereby putting the Indian Navy in a spot. Is there any gang or system or foreign hand operating behind this? It is indeed a tricky situation. All the more because the Indian Navy thus far has fared much better than the Indian Army and Indian Air Force so far as the indigenisation programme is concerned. And let us face it, except Russia and Japan, no foreign nation — however friendly — will accept an indigenously-built powerful Indian fleet operating across the Indian Ocean. Any failure to recognise this fundamental point would only put the Indian Navy’s laborious indigenisation enterprise into peril. Critics here may question the fairness and neutrality of singling out Russia and Japan. Point indeed; but there are good reasons. Both Moscow and Tokyo have found the Indian Ocean beyond their strategic goal. Moscow, even in its Soviet-era heyday, could rarely break through the “choke points” of the Black Sea (encircled by foreign land), Gulf of Bothnia and the Siberian port of Vladivostok (winter snow). No doubt they built a formidable navy aircraft-carrier Admiral Gorshkov, but they could rarely match the operational resilience of the Western fleet in the Indian Ocean.

The Japanese Navy too has traditionally been active on the Pacific Ocean owing to its proximity and vastness. Except for its momentous success of sinking the Royal Navy battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse on December 10, 1941 in the South China Sea, it has rarely ventured into the Indian Ocean. Hence, both Russia and Japan are unlikely to have strategic clash of interests with regard to India. Since the Western navies have been naval pioneers and dominated global naval affairs since the beginning of the 16th century, their retreat in this century cannot be accepted, or acceptable. Dependence to independence may be desirable for India but its unlikely to be so for the powers of yesteryears. One hopes and prays that the happenings onboard INS Sandhayak referred to as micro “incident” and not a “mutiny” is just so. A few words of caution here to avoid such situations in the future. A survey ship is not a warship. It does not have the rigours of excitement or tension of action. Hence, it is surprising that an episode like this happened on a non-combat vessel, as the human mind normally cracks under pressure. One hopes Section 46 of the Navy Act 1957 dealing with ill-treatment will be looked into when punishing the sailors. The act clearly states: “Every person subject to naval law who is guilty of ill-treating any other person… being his subordinate in rank or position, shall be punished with imprisonment up to seven years.” Thus, whichever way one may look at INS Sandhayak, it does not give me any pleasure but to warn that choppy waters lie ahead as the Indian Navy rises in stature, status and strength.

 




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