Sunday, July 13, 2008


The RIN Mutiny: a brief history:-Royal Indian Navy Mutiny

HMIS Talwar at Bombay Harbour.
HMIS Talwar at Bombay Harbour.

The RIN Mutiny started as a strike by ratings of the Royal Indian Navy on 18 February in protest against general conditions. The immediate issue of the mutiny was conditions and food, but there were more fundamental matters such as racist behaviour by Royal Navy personnel towards Indian sailors, and disciplinary measures being taken against anyone demonstrating pro-nationalist sympathies. By dusk on 19 February, a Naval Central Strike committee was elected. Leading Signalman M.S Khan and Petty Officer Telegraphist Madan Singh were unanimously elected President and Vice-President respectively. The strike found immense support among the Indian population, already gripped by the stories of the Indian National Army. { read about I.N.A.:-}   The actions of the mutineers was supported by demonstrations which included a one-day general strike in Bombay. The strike spread to other cities, and was joined by the Royal Indian Air Force and local police forces. Naval officers and men began calling themselves the "Indian National Navy" and offered left-handed salutes to British officers. At some places, NCOs in the British Indian Army ignored and defied orders from British superiors. In Madras and Pune, the British garrisons had to face revolts within the ranks of the Indian Army. Widespread rioting took place from Karachi to Calcutta. Notably, the mutinying ships hoisted three flags tied together — those of the Congress, Muslim League, and the Red Flag of the Communist Party of India (CPI), signifying the unity and demarginalisation of communal issues among the mutineers.
The mutiny was called off following a meeting between the President of the Naval Central Strike Committee (NCSC), M. S. Khan, and Vallab Bhai Patel

of the Congress, who had been sent to Bombay to settle the crisis. Patel issued a statement calling on the strikers to end their action, which was later echoed by a statement issued in Calcutta by Mohammed Ali Jinnah

on behalf of the Muslim League. Under these considerable pressures, the strikers gave way. However, despite assurances of the good services of the Congress and the Muslim League widespread arrests were made. These were followed up by courts martial and large scale dismissals from the service. None of those dismissed were reinstated into either of the Indian or Pakistani navies after independence.

Events of the Mutiny:-
After the Second World War, three officers of the Indian National Army (I.N.A.), General Shah Nawaz Khan,

Colonel Prem Sehgal

and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon

Freedom fighter, Indian National Army colonel and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose's close associate G S Dhillon, in Delhi on December 22, 1950.

were put on trial at the Red Fort in Delhi

for "waging war against the King Emperor", i.e. the British sovereign personifying British rule. The three defendants were defended at the trial by Jawaharlal Nehru,

Bhulabhai Desai

and others. Outside the court, the trials inspired protests and discontent among the Indian population, who came to view the defendants as revolutionaries who had fought for their country.READ ABOUT THE TRIALS:-

HMIS Hindustan at Bombay Harbour after the war

HMIS Hindustan at Bombay Harbour after the war.

The mutiny was initiated by the ratings of Indian Navy on 18 February 1946. It was a reaction to the treatment meted out to ratings in general and the lack of service facilities in particular. On 16 January 1946, a contingent of 67 ratings of various branches arrived at Castle Barracks, Mint Road, in Fort BOMBAY(Mumbai). This contingent had arrived from the basic training establishment, HMIS Akbar, located at Thane, a suburb of Bombay, at 1600 in the evening. One of them Syed Maqsood Bokhari went to the officer on duty informed him about the galley (kitchen) staff of this arrival. The sailors were that evening alleged to have been served sub-standard food. Only 17 ratings took the meal, the rest of the contingent went ashore to eat in an open act of defiance. It has since been said that such acts of neglect were fairly regular, and when reported to senior officers present practically evoked no response, which certainly was a factor in the buildup of discontent. The ratings of the communication branch in the shore establishment, HMIS Talwar, drawn from a relatively higher strata, harboured a high level of revulsion towards the authorities, having complained of neglect of their facilities fruitlessly.
The INA trials, the stories of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose

, as well as the stories of INA's fight during the Siege of Imphal and in Burma were seeping into the glaring public-eye at the time. These, received through the wireless sets and the media, fed discontent and ultimately inspired the sailors to strike. In Karachi, mutiny broke out on board the Royal Indian Navy ship, HMIS Hindustan off Manora Island. The ship, as well as shore establishments were taken over by mutineers. Later, it spread to the HMIS Bahadur

Line-up of ships of the RIN on the Bombay dockyard breakwater during the mutiny.

. A naval central strike committee was formed on 19 February 1946, led by M. S. Khan and Madan Singh. The next day, ratings from Castle and Fort Barracks in Bombay, joined in the mutiny when rumours (which were untrue) spread that HMIS Talwar's ratings had been fired upon. Ratings left their posts and went around Bombay in lorries, holding aloft flags containing the picture of Subhash Chandra Bose. Several Indian naval officers who opposed the strike and sided with the British were thrown off the ship by ratings. Soon, the mutineers were joined by thousands of disgruntled ratings from Bombay, Karachi, Cochin and Vizag. Communication between the various mutinies was maintained through the wireless communication sets available in HMIS Talwar. Thus, the entire revolt was coordinated.
Victims of police firing on a crowd that had demonstrated in support of the mutiny.
The strike by the Naval ratings soon took serious proportions. Hundreds of strikers from the sloops, minesweepers and shore establishments in Bombay demonstrated for 2 hours along Hornby Road near VT (now the very busy D.N. Road near CST). British personnel of the Defence forces were singled out for attacks by the strikers who were armed with hammers, crowbars and hockey sticks. The White Ensign was lowered from the ships.
Signs of liberation started to occur in Flora Fountain. Vehicles carrying mail were stopped and the mail burnt. British men and women going in cars and victorias were made to get down and shout "Jai Hind" (Victory to India). Guns were trained on the Taj Mahal Hotel, the Yacht Club and other buildings from morning till evening.
1000 RIAF men from the Marine Drive and Andheri Camps also joined in sympathy. By the end of the day Gurkhas in Karachi

had refused to fire on striking sailors.
The strike soon spread to other parts of India. The ratings in Calcutta, Madras, Karachi and Vizag also went on strike with the slogans "Strike for Bombay", "Release 11,000 INA prisoners" and "Jai Hind".

Victims of police firing on a crowd that had demonstrated in support of the mutiny.
On 19 February, the Tricolour Indian flag of India

was hoisted by the ratings on most of the ships and establishments. By 20 February, the third day, armed British destroyers had positioned themselves off the Gateway of India. The RIN Mutiny had become a serious crisis for the British government. An alarmed Clement Attlee,
 the British Prime Minister, ordered the Royal Navy to put down the revolt. Admiral J.H. Godfrey, the Flag Officer commanding the RIN, went on air with his order to "Submit or perish". The movement had, by this time, inspired by the patriotic fervour sweeping the country, started taking a political turn.
The naval ratings’ strike committee decided, in a confused manner, that the HMIS Kumaon  
HMIS Kumaon  

had to leave Bombay harbour while HMIS Kathiawar was already in the Arabian Sea under the control of mutineering ratings. At about 1030 Kumaon suddenly let go the shore ropes, without even removing the ships’ gangway while officers were discussing the law and order situation on the outer breakwater jetty. However, within two hours fresh instructions were received from the strikers’ control room and the ship returned to the same berth.
The situation was changing fast and rumours spread that Australian and Canadian armed battalions had been stationed outside the Lion gate and the Gungate to encircle the dockyard where most ships were berthed. However, by this time, all the armouries of the ships and establishments had been seized by the striking ratings. The clerks, cleaning hands, cooks and wireless operators of the striking ship armed themselves with whatever weapon was available to resist the British Destroyers that had sailed from Trincomalee in Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
The third day dawned charged with fresh emotions. The Royal Air Force flew a squadron of bombers low over Bombay harbour in a show of force, as Admiral Rattray, Flag Officer, Bombay, RIN,{Admiral Sir Arthur Rullion Rattray (1891–10 August 1966)} issued an ultimatum asking the ratings to raise black flags and surrender unconditionally.
In Karachi, by this time, realising that little hope or trust could be put on the Indian troops, the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch had been called from their barracks. The first priority was to deal with the mutiny on Manora Island.

A couple of abandoned ships at Manora Island
Ratings holding the Hindustan opened fire when attempts were made to board the ship. At midnight, the 2nd Battalion was ordered to proceed to Manora, expecting resistance from the Indian naval ratings who had taken over the shore establishments HMIS Bahadur, Chamak and Himalaya and from the Royal Naval Anti-Aircraft School on the island. The Battalion was ferried silently across in launches and landing craft. D company was the first across, and they immediately proceeded to the southern end of the island to Chamak. The remainder of the Battalion stayed at the southern end of the Island. By the morning, the British soldiers had secured the island.
The decision was made to confront the Indian naval ratings on board the destroyer Hindustan, armed with 4-in. guns. During the morning three guns (caliber unknown) from the Royal Artillery C. Troop arrived on the island. The Royal Artillery positioned the battery within point blank range of the Hindustan on the dockside. An ultimatum was delivered to the mutineers aboard Hindustan, stating that if they did not the leave the ship and put down their weapons by 10:30 they would have to face the consequences. The deadline came and went and there was no message from the ship or any movement. Orders were given to open fire at 10:33. The gunners' first round was on target. On board the Hindustan the Indian naval ratings began to return gunfire and several shells whistled over the Royal Artillery guns. Most of the shells fired by the Indian ratings went harmlessly overhead and fell on Karachi itself. They had not been primed so there were no casualties. However, the mutineers could not hold on. At 10:51 the white flag was raised. British naval personnel boarded the ship to remove casualties and the remainder of the mutinous crew. Extensive damage had been done to Hindustan's superstructure and there were many casualties among the Indian sailors.
HMIS Bahadur was still under the control of mutineers. Several Indian naval officers who had attempted or argued in favour of putting down the mutiny were thrown off the ship by ratings. The 2nd Battalion was ordered to storm the Bahadur and then proceed to storm the shore establishments on Manora island. By the evening D company was in possession of the A A school and Chamak, B company had taken the Himalaya, while the rest of the Battalion had secured Bahadur. The mutiny in Karachi had been put down.
In Bombay, the guncrew of a 25-pounder gun fitted in an old ship had by the end of the day fired salvos towards the Castle barracks. Patel had been negotiating ferevently, and his assurances did improve matters considerably However, it was clear that the mutiny was fast developing into a spontaneous movement with its own momentum. By this time the British destroyers from Trincomalee had positioned themselves off the Gateway of India. The negotiations moved fast, keeping in view the extreme sensitivity of the situation and on the fourth day most of the demands of the strikers were conceded in principle.
Immediate steps were taken to improve the quality of food served in the ratings’ kitchen and their living conditions. The national leaders also assured that favourable consideration would be accorded to the release of all the prisoners of the Indian National Army. A very grave situation was tackled in a very timely manner and a real disaster was averted by the prudent action both by the strikers and the country’s leadership.
The mutiny caused a great deal of panic in the British Government. The connections of this mutiny with the popular perceptions and changing attitudes with the activities of the INA and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was taken note of and its resemblance of the revolt of 1857 also caused alarm among the British administration of the time. The fact that the mutiny of 1857 sparked off from a seemingly trivial and unexpected issue of greased cartridges, and that later historical analysis had revealed deep seated resentment among the then subjects of the East India Company led to fears that an identical situation was developing in India.
The Controversy: Political abandonment of the Mutineers

Surprisingly for events of the magnitude and reach that the mutinies came to be, the mutineers in the armed forces got no support from the national leaders and was largely leaderless. Mahatma Gandhi, in fact, condemned the riots and the ratings’ mutiny, his statement on 3 March 1946 criticised the strikers for mutinying without the call of a "prepared revolutionary party" and without the "guidance and intervention" of "political leaders of their choice". He further criticised the local Indian National Congress leader Aruna Asaf Ali, who was one of the few prominent political leaders of the time to offer her support for the mutineers, stating she would rather unite Hindus and Muslims on the barricades than on the constitutional front. Gandhi's criticism also belies the submissions to the looming reality of Partition of India, having stated "If the union at the barricade is honest then there must be union also at the constitutional front" The Muslim League issued similar statements which essentially argued that the unrest of the sailors was not best expressed on the streets, however serious the grievance may be. Legitimacy could only, probably, be conferred by a recognised political leadership as the head of any kind of movement. Spontaneous and unregulated upsurges, as the RIN strikers were viewed, could only disrupt and, at worst, destroy consensus at the political level. This may be Gandhi's (and the Congress's) conclusions from the Quit India Movement in 1942 when central control quickly dissolved under the impact of British repression, and localised actions, including widespread acts of sabotage, continued well into 1943. It may have been the conclusion that the rapid emergence of militant mass demonstrations in support of the sailors would erode central political authority if and when transfer of power occurred. The Muslim League had observed passive support for the "Quit India" campaign among its supporters and, devoid of communal clashes despite the fact that it was opposed by the then collaborationist Muslim League. It is possible that the League also realised the likelihood of a destabilised authority as and when power was transferred. This certainly is reflected on the opinion of the sailors who participated in the strike It has been concluded by later historians that the discomfiture of the Mainstream political parties was because the public outpourings indicated their weakening hold over the masses at a time when they could show no success in reaching agreement with the British Indian government.

Naval Uprising Statue, Colaba
The only political party to give unconditional support to the revolt was the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India, Ceylon and Burma (BLPI). As soon as it got news of the revolt it came out with a call for a Hartal in support of the mutineers. BLPI members Prabhakar More and Lakshman Jadhav led the textile workers out on strike. Barricades were set up and held for three days. However, attempts to contact the mutineers were foiled by British troops.
Possibly the only major political segment that still mentions the mutiny it is the Communist Party of India. The literature of the communist party, certainly see the RIN Mutiny as a spontaneous nationalist uprising that was one of the few episodes at the time that had the potential to prevent the partition of India, and one that was essentially betrayed by the leaders of the nationalist movement However, at the time, the CPI attempted to diffuse the situation, co-operating with the Congress and the Muslim League in trying to keep the peace.
More recently, the RIN Mutiny has been renamed the Naval Uprising and the mutineers honoured for the part they played in India's Freedom. In addition to the statue which stands in Mumbai opposite the sprawling Taj Wellingdon Mews, two prominent mutineers, Madan Singh and B.C Dutt, have each had ships named after them by the Indian Navy.

Legacy and assessments of the effects of the Mutiny
The most significant factor of this mutiny, with hind-sight, came to be that Hindus and Muslims united to resist the British, even at a time that saw the peak of the movement for Pakistan. This critical assessment starts from events at the time of the mutiny. The mutiny came to receive widespread militant support, even for the short period that it lasted, not only in Bombay, but also in Karachi and Calcutta on 23 February, in Ahmedabad, Madras and Trichinopoly on the 25th, at Kanpur on the 26th, and at Madurai and several places in Assam on the 26th. The agitations, mass strikes, demonstrations and consequently support for the mutineers, therefore continued several days even after the mutiny had been called off. Along with this,

the assessment may be made that it described in crystal clear terms to the government that the British Indian Armed forces could no longer be universally relied upon for support in crisis, and even more it was more likely itself to be the source of the sparks that would ignite trouble in a country fast slipping out of the scenario of political settlement. It is therefore arguable that the mutiny, had it continued and confronted the threat of the RIN commander Admiral Godfrey to destroy the fleet, would have put the British Raj on the path of a maelstrom of popular movement which would have seen British exit from south-east Asia under very different circumstances than eventually happened. Certainly, the forces at Godfrey's disposal was sufficient for him to carry out his threat of destroying the RIN. However, to control the result of those actions, compounded by the outpourings of the INA trials was beyond the capabilities of the British Indian forces on whom any British General or politician (including Indian leaders) could reliably trust. The navy itself was marginal in terms of state power; Indian service personnel were at this time being swept by a wave of nationalist sentiments, as would be proved by the mutinies that occurred in the Royal Indian Air Force. In the after-effect of the mutiny, a Weekly intelligence summary issued on 25 March 1946 admitted that the Indian army, navy and air force units were no longer trust worthy, and, for the army, "only day to day estimates of steadiness could be made". It came to the situation where, if wide-scale public unrest took shape, the armed forces could not be relied upon to support counter-insurgency operations as they had been during the "Quit India" movement of 1942. The mutiny has been thus been deemed "Point of No Return"
Also, the USA's historic hostility towards Imperialism certainly made it unlikely that Atlee's government would have sought solution by force. The involvement of the Communist Party also cast a very red tinge to this ultimately mass movement that, if confronted, had the potential to have been the flashpoint for the post-war powers, as was seen in Vietnam.
However, probably just as important remains the question as to what the implications would have been for India's internal politics had the mutiny continued. This had become a movement characterised by a significant amount of inter-communal co-operation. The Indian nationalist leaders, most notably Gandhi and the Congress leadership apparently had been concerned that the mutiny would compromise the strategy of a negotiated and constitutional settlement, but they sought to negotiate with the British and not within the two prominent symbols of respective nationalism—-the Congress and the Muslim League.. By March 1947, the Congress had limited partition to only Punjab and Bengal (thus Jinnah’s famous moth-eaten Pakistan remark).
In the after-effect of the mutiny, Weekly intelligence summary issued on the 25th of March, 1946 admitted that the Indian army, navy and air force units were no longer trust worthy, and, for the army, "only day to day estimates of steadiness could be made". . It was decided that; if wide-scale public unrest took shape, the armed forces (including the airforce- for Quit India had shown how it could turn violent) could not be relied upon to support counter-insurgency operations as they had been during the Quit India movement of 1942, and drawing from experiences of the Tiger Legion and the INA, their actions could not be predicted from their oath to the King emperor .
Reflecting on the factors that guided the British decision to relinquish the Raj in India, Clement Attlee, the then British prime minister, cited several reasons, the most important of which were: which were the INA activities of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, which weakened the Indian Army - the foundation of the British Empire in India- and the RIN Mutiny that made the British realize that the Indian armed forces could no longer be trusted to prop up the Raj.
Although Britain had made, at the time of the Cripps' mission in 1942, a commitment to grant dominion status to India after the war; these events and views held in 1946 by the administrations of the Raj would suggest to the reader that, contrary to the usual narrative of India's independence struggle, (which generally focuses on Congress and Mahatma Gandhi), the INA and the revolts, mutinies, and public resentment it germinated were an important factor in the complete withdrawal of the Raj from India.
In the same breath, whether awarded any credit for India's independence or not, the events at the time show that the strategy of Azad Hind (derived from the embryo of the Free India Legion) of achieving independence from Britain by fermenting revolts and public unrests - although a militarily a failure

 The Royal Indian Navy Mutiny RIN MutineerS Memorial In  COLABA Mumbai    

Thursday, February 25, 1999
Hero’s honour for Royal mutineer
Follow up
by Reeta Sharma
TOMORROW will be a historic day in the life of this self-respecting Punjabi from Siar village, near Ludhiana. He would be presiding over the "induction ceremony" of ‘INS Madan Singh’, named after him in recognition of his role in India’s struggle for freedom from colonial rule. The honour has come his way 52 years late. An incredible optimist he laughs off the delayed honour and grins: "It did appear like a mirage all these years but it’s better late than never."
Mr Madan Singh held his head high for all these 52 years despite the tag of having been dismissed from service after a ‘Commission of Enquiry’ set up by the British Colonial rulers found him guilty. He was charged with leading the historic ‘Royal Indian Naval mutiny’ of 1946. Although India became Independent in August 1947, no review of or rethinking about the mutineers was ever done all these years.
Nobody knows what happened to hundreds of mutineers who were dismissed from service. However the two main leaders, former leading telegraphist B.C. Dutt and telegraphist Madan Singh are still around. While Mr Dutt settled in Maharashtra, Mr Madan Singh worked in several parts of the world after dismissal. But eventually he came back to settle in his own country, "as that is what I always yearned for".
Here is a follow up on his life, packed with events which are gripping.
Mr Madan Singh continues to assert that "The mutiny in the Navy was the immediate cause of India’s freedom. The British rulers were simply shaken. Nevertheless, the role of the mutineers has been ignored and they were denied due recognition."
He vividly remembers even the minutest detail of the mutiny. "The roots of the mutiny in the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) lay in the British themselves who indulged in blatant racial discrimination over the years. The simmering discontent over ill-treatment, poor service conditions, lack of a redressal forum, humiliating of our Indian political leaders, etc pushed us to the wall and then to the mutiny. However the immediate cause was the arrest of B.C. Dutt who was put under detention. His crime was that he had painted slogans like, "Jai Hind".
"After the outbreak of the mutiny, the first thing that we did was to free B.C. Dutt. Then we took possession of Bucher Island (where the entire ammunition meant for Bombay Presidency was stocked) and telephone and wireless equipment, including transmitters at Kirki near Pune. Our quick actions ensured that all naval ships were fully under our command."
"Simultaneously we the Indians ratings at RIN had formed a ‘Naval Central Strike Committee’ (NCSC) to coordinate and direct the activities of the various units outside the HMIS Talwar. Leading Signalman M.S. Khan and I were unanimously elected President and Vice-President, respectively.
There is another crucial point to be recalled today. You see, next to the Castle Barracks there was an ‘iron gate’ closer to the town hall of Bombay. It was cleverly wired to the system so that in the event of an enemy trying to capture Bombay, a press of the switch would blow up the whole of Greater Bombay. This was the scorched earth policy of the then British government.
"Fortunately for us, this ‘iron gate was heavily manned by Indians who obviously obeyed our command when General Lockheart attempted to capture it. When he tried to advance towards the gate, the NCSC ordered firing which led to many casualties among the British sailors."
Sadly hundreds of mutineers were arrested and imprisoned either with the prisoners of world war or in solitary confinement as was the case with both Mr Madan Singh and Mr B.C. Dutt. The ‘Commission of Enquiry’ dismissed all of them from service. The national leadership, according to the various accounts and statements, seemed to be divided on the role of the mutineers. No wonder they were forgotten for good.
Mr Madan Singh had an extremely hard life after his dismissal in July 1946. "I went to my village Siar. I felt hurt when I overheard my father telling someone that I have come to see him only to take money from him. I left my village penniless and joined as a reporter with the Bombay daily, Free Press Journal. The great Sadanand was the proprietor and Natarajan was the Chief Editor at that time. Within a year I got disgusted at a majority of journalists reporting on the basis of handouts issued by the British authorities. The final blow was struck when I was an eyewitness like other journalists to the shooting of a leader of mill workers at point blank range. But my report was not carried. All papers carried the handout released by the British government with no mention at all of the killing of the leader. Crushed by agony and humiliation, I confronted Natarajan who directed me to meet Sadanand. I had always revered this illustrious old man who treated Churchill and Sardar Patel in the same way. When I barged into his room he very calmly said: "Your report was absolutely correct but I am sorry to have disappointed you. I hope you will one day understand my turmoil. My 18 ventures of newspapers have one by one been banned by the British. By keeping this one alive, even at such a cost like not using your report, we are at least able to point out some misdeeds of the British and motivate our people to eventually rise against the slavery". "I understood him fully but I still resigned because I knew that I won’t be able to swallow it day in and day out. Sadanand gave me the warmest ever send off in Free Press Journal. I reached Calcutta with only Rs 6. On the third day of my stay on the streets of Calcutta I got a job on a salary of Rs 150 a month with Dalmia Jain Airways. When I raised the issue of my petty salary, they rebuked me in the most humiliating manner. I walked back like a whipped dog, swallowing my pride for I could not afford to let this job go".
But Mr Madan Singh was an extraordinary worker with a brilliant brain and expertise in his line. No wonder then that by the seventh week of his job with Dalmias, the company raised his salary by five times. By 1952 he got admission into a regular course run by BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation), in International License in Radio Electronics nowadays known as AVIONICS. "These were the most stressful three years of my life. Minimum pass marks were 75 per cent, whereas in London University one was required to secure only 45 per cent." Mr Madan Singh not only passed out with 83 per cent, which was rare for even an Englishman, but also was the first ever Indian to make it. BOAC handpicked him and he worked in their foreign service wing.
By 1990 he came back to lead a retired life in India. Rear Admiral (retd.) Satyinder Singh wrote him five letters requesting him to apply for the status of a freedom fighter. "But I wrote back that if it is such a thing which one can get for the asking, it is not worth having it." However when Beant Singh former Chief Minister met Mr Madan Singh his childhood friend he was aghast on learning the fate of mutineers. He personally approached the Ministry of Home in Delhi in this regard. "So finally I have received a letter from Commodore Dina Bandhu Jena, VSM inviting me to the ‘Induction Ceremony’ on February 26, 1999 at Bombay."
His face was embossed with the serenity of the sea shore at sun set.

The 1946 rebellion of the sailors of the British Indian Navy

One of the most spectacular episodes of the intense revolt against the British Raj was the uprising of the sailors of the British Indian Navy in 1946. On February 18 of that year the sailors and shipmen of the British Indian Navy battleship HMS "Talwaar" went on strike. They invited  the masses of Bombay to join in the struggle they had started. As a result, anti- British imperialist sentiments started to spread like wildfire throughout the region. One of the most spectacular episodes of the intense revolt against the British Raj was the uprising of the sailors of the British Indian Navy in 1946. On February 18 of that year the sailors and shipmen of the British Indian Navy battleship HMS "Talwaar", who were at the time posted to the Bombay harbour, went on strike. They were protesting against the bad food and adverse conditions.
Although on the first day it was limited to a peaceful hunger strike, the signs of an imminent and much bigger rebellion against the British rulers were evident. On February 19, the sailors announced the strike to the Naval personnel stationed in the fortress and to those in the Naval Barracks. They took over the Naval trucks, boarded them, hoisted red flags on them and started patrolling the city of Bombay. They were inviting the masses of the city to join in the struggle they had started. As a result, anti British imperialist sentiments started to spread like wildfire throughout the region.
On the eve of February 19 1946, much wider layers of the Naval personnel had joined in this revolt. The union jacks on most of the ships of the Royal Indian Navy in the Bombay harbour were torn down and the rebel sailors hoisted red flags along with the flags of the political parties that were involved in the struggle for independence.
Within 48 hours the British imperialists were faced with the largest revolt ever of their Naval units. The message of this rebellion started to spread by word of mouth and then over the radio (the radio station had been taken over by the rebels) to military garrisons and barracks across India. Some of the leaders of the sailors broadcast the message of the uprising and revolutionary songs and poetry were also broadcast round the clock. The revolt spread to 74 ships, 20 fleets and 22 units of the Navy along the coast. It involved Bombay, Calcutta, Karachi, Madras, Cochin and Vishapatam. On February 20 only 10 ships and 2 naval stations were not in complete revolt.
In the beginning this revolt was considered to be spontaneous but that is not completely true. On the eve of February 19 a strike committee had been formally set-up. Signalman M.S Khan and petty officer telegraph operator Madan Singh were elected unanimously to the positions of president and vice president of the committee. Both of them were under the age of 25. One was a Muslim and the other a Sikh, and this was a conscious act to reject the religious divide being injected into the liberation movement by the native bourgeois leaders and their British masters.
Apart from the other tasks charted out for the strike committee, one of the important objectives agreed upon was to involve the political parties in this movement and gain their support. Tragically the Communist Party of India (CPI) had lost the leadership of the independence movement due to its disastrous policy of supporting the British imperialists under the so-called "anti fascist front" policy dictated by the Stalinist elite in the Kremlin. This had led to a rapid diminishing of support for the CPI in the liberation movement. The nascent Indian bourgeoisie and their leaders were at that time negotiating a settlement with the British. They were as hostile as the British to any revolutionary upsurge at this delicate juncture in the history of the subcontinent.
Gandhi reflected this by openly condemning the uprising of the sailors. The CPI leaders once again lost the opportunity to link up with the revolutionary masses. They did nothing to connect the Naval revolt with the strikes which were taking place in the textile industry, on the railways and in other sectors throughout India. Even leaders like Subhash Chandra Bose were unable to connect this movement with the revolt taking place in the British Indian army. He was rather more involved in an adventurist binge and had gone too far in launching the INA (Indian National Army) to fight British forces, under the auspices of the reactionary Japanese regime!
Congress and the Muslim League were not prepared to back the revolt for they feared the penetration of revolutionary and class struggle ideas into the movement which they had done so much to tear apart along religious lines with cunning and deception. In spite of this betrayal and contemptuous attitude of the national bourgeois leaders, the revolutionary momentum of the uprising gave it an impetus of its own. Revolutionary zeal, sentiment and passion were booming. The whole country was filled with the echoes of the slogan, "long live the revolution".
These slogans electrified the whole of Bombay. One of the poets of the era, Josh Malihabadi wrote enthralling verses an example of which was,
My task is my growth; my name is martyr
My slogan is revolution, revolution revolution.

On the February 21 the British shock troops opened fire with live ammunition on the sailors as they came out of their barracks in the Bombay fortress. This provocation changed a peaceful uprising into an armed rebellion. There were armed clashes between the British elite troops and the rebellious sailors throughout the day. On the first day one death was reported in Bombay, but on the second day 14 sailors were martyred in Karachi. The industrial workers who had joined the revolt with the sailors were subjected to brutal attacks by the British forces.
On February 22 and 23, 250 sailors and workers were slaughtered by the imperialist forces. According to various eyewitnesses interviewed, on February 21 it seemed that the oppressed masses of the whole subcontinent had risen up in a revolutionary movement against British rule. In these events the revolutionary strike committee had shifted its command to the "Narba" fleet. The sailors had now aimed the barrels of their guns on the ships and were now targeting the British Naval installations and command centres on the coast. Sirens were being sounded from all the ship decks. They were announcing through the loud speakers that to defend their comrades in the cities and in the harbour they would destroy the British military bases and installations if they dared to attack.
The British government in London was in shock. The British Labour Prime Minister Clement Atlee, in sheer desperation ordered the uprising to be crushed through brute military force. The commander of the British Indian Navy, admiral Godfrey threatened the rebellious sailors with "surrender or be perished". The so-called leader of the independence movement and one of the stalwarts of the Indian National Congress, Sardar Vallabhbai Patel, openly came out on the side of the British. He denounced the uprising and supported the imperialists' ultimatum. In this uprising the national leadership of India, both Hindu and Muslim, became allies of the British imperialists. This exposed their real class character and their collaborationist role in the saga of transition from British to native rule to independence.
Meanwhile the British fighter aircraft were carrying out threatening sorties over the rebellious fleet. In such conditions Sardar Patel gave the following infamous statement: "Only a small band of insolent, hot headed and insane youngsters are trying to get involved in politics through these acts, when they have nothing to do with politics".
Isolated, disillusioned and desperate after the treacherous role and attitude displayed by the "national leadership" towards the uprising, M.S. Khan put before the strike committee, the proposal of surrender. But the 36-member committee rejected this plea. Several tense hours passed. The mainstream "national leadership" intensified its efforts to isolate the Naval uprising from the mass movement for independence that was surging across the subcontinent. Demoralization was setting in amongst the members of the strike committee.
Another session of the committee commenced in the early hours of February 24 on the battleship HMS Talwaar. Now it had become more evident that there was no option but to surrender and lay down arms. At 0600 hrs on February 24, 1946 black flags were raised from the deck to announce surrender. In its last session the strike committee passed a resolution that was the last message of the revolutionary sailors to the toiling masses of the South Asian subcontinent. The resolution stated, "Our uprising was an important historical event in the lives of our people. For the first time the blood of uniformed and non-uniformed workers flowed in one current for the same collective cause. We the workers in uniform shall never forget this. We also know that you, our proletarian brothers and sisters shall also never forget this. The coming generations, learning its lessons shall accomplish what we have not been able to achieve. Long live the working masses. Long live the Revolution".
After the surrender most leaders and activists of this uprising were prosecuted incarcerated and executed inspite of their surrender. The nationalist bourgeois leaders refused to raise any protest. Not a squeak not a whimper came out from these nationalist parties masquerading as the stalwarts of independence.
However, this episode stands as one of the greatest chapters in the story of the struggle for independence from British rule. In spite of the fact that this uprising was defeated the movement showed the British what was in store for them in the future. One of the effects of this uprising was that the British Prime Minister Clement Atlee was forced to announce that the British would leave India before June 1948. Such was the blow inflicted upon the confidence of the British rulers by this naval uprising that they were forced to beat a retreat. The British, in connivance with the native bourgeois leaders, hastened the process of partition along ethnic and religious lines. After this episode they manoeuvred in such a way as not to leave the subcontinent united in any form whatsoever, either as a confederation or whatever political superstructure they may have envisaged before these revolutionary events.
The policy of divide and rule, that the British had learned from the emperors of Rome, now came into full play. The living body of a culture that was thousands of years old was cut in half and the blood of 2.7 million innocent souls was shed.
There is a criminal silence and elusiveness about the details of this glorious episode in the education syllabi in both India and Pakistan. Several other similar events and great episodes have yet to see the light of the day. Still, the memory of that naval uprising haunts the echelons of power from London to Islamabad to Delhi. The task of learning and carrying out the message and the aspirations of the sailors' strike committee of the February 1946 falls to today's rising generation of youth and workers. This can only be accomplished by carrying out a successful Socialist Revolution in any of the present day countries of the subcontinent. A socialist victory in any of these states would inevitably lead to the formation of a voluntary Socialist Federation of the South Asian Subcontinent.


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