August 8, 2001


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Admiral (retd) J G Nadkarni

The end of tradition

When Indian naval ships haul down their old ensigns with the St George's Cross for the last time at sunset on August 14, they will also end 250 years of naval tradition. Along with the ensigns the Navy has also decided to redesign the flag officers personal flags. Gone are the red balls in the quadrants which used to denote either a rear admiral (two) or a vice-admiral (one). A few old-timers, especially those who had received training with the Royal Navy and who had many friends in Britain, are dismayed by the change.

The Indian Navy, in one form or another, is one of the oldest of India's armed forces. Under the name of the Bombay Marines it came into existence in the 18th century and went through many avatars. It was called the Indian Marines, the Royal Indian Marines and finally the Royal Indian Navy before India dropped the prefix Royal after becoming a Republic in 1950.

Unlike the Indian Army which grew to a strength of over two million during the Second World War, the Indian Navy was always a minuscule force. The Royal Navy underwrote the maritime defence of India, leaving the Royal Indian Navy the job of coastal defence.

Although the sailors were Indian, most of the officer corps was British and foreign. A few Indian officers had begun to be inducted from the early 1930s. A large number of Indian officers were inducted during the war years in the volunteer reserve category. Most of them were given permanent commissions after the war and became the backbone of the Navy after Independence. Even so, at Independence the senior-most Indian officer had less than 20 years service and the Navy continued to rely on the Royal Navy to provide it technical expertise and its senior officers. In fact the commander-in-chief of the Indian Navy (and later its chief of the naval staff ) continued to be Royal Navy officers until 1958.

With such long and mutually advantageous association with the Royal Navy it was but natural for the Indian Navy to imbibe and assimilate practically all the traditions of the bigger and older navy. The rank structure, uniforms, ensigns, flags, the organisation of the Navy, the method of announcements on board ships, the way we salute, the use of the bosun's pipe etc were all very similar. Initially the sailors wore the same 'square rig' that Royal Navy sailors wore, with the three stripes on the blue collar representing Nelson's three famous victories. The Indian Navy used all the manuals and drill books from the Royal Navy. Life in the messes, including even the food served, were copies of the way it was in the Royal Navy.

Tradition plays an important role in the life of a service. Each of India's army regiments have their own traditions stretching back hundreds of years. Some go into battle with the battle cry "Har Har Mahadev," others with "Ayo Gorkhali." The Gurkhas have the fearsome tradition of the khukri charge.

The Royal Navy is full of traditions which they pass on from generation to generation. Traditions are not just flags and buntings. There are also traditions of bravery, courage and never surrendering. At the Battle of Crete when the British Army ashore was being evacuated, Admiral Cunningham's fleet was losing many ships due to German air attacks. When one of his staff officers timidly suggested withdrawing from the scene, the admiral fixed him with a cold look. 'It takes three years to build a ship but 300 years to build a tradition. The Navy never lets the Army down.' Of course, not many were impressed with Royal Navy traditions. Winston Churchill was one. 'Naval tradition? I'll tell you what naval tradition is. Rum, the bum and bacci.' He was referring to the naval preference for drink, tobacco and buggery.

Being a new service with no tradition to speak of, the young Indian Navy adopted all Royal Navy traditions as their own. This rankled many young officers who saw no reason to continue the Indian Navy's ties with, what to them, was another navy from a land far far away. With pressure from many quarters the Navy began to throw overboard many of the time honoured traditions. New uniforms were designed. Food in the messes was 'indigenised.' Of course, the Navy was clever enough not to discard everything British. Although India's national policy prohibits alcohol (toasts are drunk in orange juice), and even American and Russian ships are dry, the Indian Navy has managed to keep its tradition for 'rum and baccy' alive.

The new policy of replacing the ensign appears to be the Navy's efforts to get on the swadeshi bandwagon. The national paranoia about removing anything and everything which reminds us or smacks of colonial rule has finally got to India's armed forces. Will we also now obliterate the names of the Navy's first four chiefs and remove their portraits from South Block?

The redesigning of the admiral's personal flags will put an end to the numerous jokes on admirals and their flags which permeate through the Navy. Most of them are lewd but taken in good humour. 'What is the vice of the vice-admiral?' goes one. 'The rear of the rear admiral' is the answer.

The red balls in the quadrants of flags denoted the admiral's rank. 'The admiral has lost one of his balls' was a common way of announcing a promotion. A chief of naval staff was commonly referred to as 'the admiral with no balls.' Alas, no more. Now the balls have been replaced by stars and instead of losing them you gain them as you are promoted. Two, three and four stars will henceforth denote a rear, vice and full admiral. And one can hardly joke about that. The new personal flags look suspiciously close to those which the US Navy flies. Perhaps it is symbolic of our newfound camaraderie with that navy.

When an admiral relinquishes a particular appointment, his flag is hauled down on the last day and handed over to him as a memento. Thank god, this tradition is still alive. On completion of my command of the Western Fleet, my flag, the one with the two red balls, was presented to me and is encased in a glass and wooden box. It sits proudly on the mantelpiece. Let the new Navy have its new flags. I will always cherish my balls.

Admiral Nadkarni is a former chief of the Indian Navy.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

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