THE UNKNOWN UPRISING THAT SHOOK THE MIGHTY BRITISH EMPIRE

by Editorial

The week that went by, from 18 to 25 February, marked the 75th anniversary of a landmark event in Indian History—the uprising by sailors of Royal Indian Navy (RIN) in February 1946. Over the years while the uprising has been studied and documented at the academic level it has not acquired the same salience in popular lore as, for example, the 1857 war of independence or the exertions of the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose led Indian National Army (INA). The reasons for this are manifold and are a subject of separate analysis. However, recent history indicates that while the Congress spearheaded non-violent approach was the principal vector of our freedom struggle there were many other revolutionary struggles and active movements which contributed significantly to the final outcome. In this light, in its platinum jubilee year, the naval uprising is worth revisiting so as to place it in proper context and also inform many of our countrymen who may not be aware of this event.

Sub Lt Balwant Singh with other officers. He was among the few officers discharged from service, as Lieutenant, for suspicion of being involved in the uprising.

Photo Courtesy – RAdm AR Radhakrishnan Retd

Issue of uniform kit to new recruits in 1940.Royal Indian Navy recruitment camp 1941.

RIN Job Advertisement Booklet, published in 1940.

B.C. Dutt

Originally termed as the naval mutiny, the event has, over the years, been described in many ways—revolt, rebellion, insurrection, strike, depending upon the prism of the observer. Irrespective of the characterization, there is little doubt amongst many contemporary historians that the naval uprising along with similar such (smaller scale) revolts in the Indian Army and the Air Force and the INA trials spelt the death knell of the British Empire or, at the very least, hastened its departure. When the British finally realised that the coercive elements of state could no longer be under their control it was game up for the Raj. Before we explore the many dimensions of the uprising, let us look at what happened in those tumultuous days.

BACKGROUND

The end of World War 2 bequeathed a complicated situation in India. The euphoria of winning the war was soon replaced by political uncertainty amidst hopes of early independence and economic distress, caused in large measure due to the burdens imposed by the war. Unemployment, agrarian distress and increased costs of living had made life difficult for the common man. On the global stage, the cold war had begun and the US and the USSR emerged as the new powers. War worn Britain, while still the preeminent colonial entity, was losing its sheen and reaching a point of exhaustion. On the strategic plane, India had contributed hugely to World War 2 by men and material and expectations were rife that this would be recognised by moving quickly towards some form of transfer of power. At the tactical level, the personnel of Indian Army, Air Force and Navy who had fought in foreign territories alongside troops from Britain and other countries realised that they were not inferior in any way, in skills or courage, and hence started questioning the need for them to be servile to a foreign power.

The Royal Indian Navy (RIN) was formed, in Oct 1934, essentially as a Coastal Defence force for India, while the British Royal Navy (RN) continued to be in-charge of blue water operations in the Indian Ocean Region and in furtherance of India’s ‘interests’. As war clouds hovered in the late 1930s and Britain realized that RN could no longer afford to devote forces for protection of India, the RIN was rapidly expanded to 15 times its original size from nearly 2000 personnel to more than 30,000. [On Mahatma’s birthday, remembering Indian Navy’s pre-independence journey )

While the RIN acquitted itself very well in the war especially considering the makeshift nature of many arrangements and acquisitions, it could no longer sustain at that size after the war. Hence, the force was planned to be truncated to meagre levels and personnel demobilized. At the end of the war about 20,000 men of the RIN were located in the ships and establishments in Bombay. The British Government decision to demobilise the war time recruits in the post-war period resulted in much dissatisfaction and disquiet because Sailors who had joined the Service after being promised a rosy future of a permanent well-paying job in Navy or assured career transition to civilian jobs were now suddenly being rendered unemployed. There was loss of, both, pride and economic status.

HMIS Talwar the Navy’s wireless communication establishment and training school, in Bombay, accommodated the communication branch ratings and ‘draft reserves’, many of whom were awaiting demobilisation. It was woefully overcrowded with restive ratings. Communication sailors, at that time, were more qualified and were generally better educated; this also made them more questioning of authority and less amenable to discriminatory practices.

THE PRELUDE

As a subsequent RIN Commission of Enquiry (CoE) report on the Mutiny brought out, things had been heating up at Talwar for a while. Unsatisfactory working and living conditions, bad food, indifferent leadership, rude and racist behavior by British officers and Warrant Officers, recruitment promises gone awry, a bleak future that stared many who were being released from service and the volatile political situation were all adding up to a dangerous simmer. The situation is well described by naval historian Rear Admiral Satyindra Singh, in his book ‘Under Two Ensigns’ as “a young over expanded service rapidly disintegrating in the rush to demobilise, living in a supercharged political atmosphere with its own additional feelings of disappointment, apprehension, uncertainty and un-redressed grievances”.

Three events stand out in this regard. On 01 Dec 1945, Navy Day was sought to be celebrated with great fervour emphasising post-war jubilation. It was the first time that the event was open to the public and HMIS Talwar was gearing up for the occasion. While the officials were looking forward to a successful event, a group of dissatisfied ratings, on the preceding night, silently and secretly hoisted brooms and buckets on the mast and painted subversive slogans with political overtones—‘Quit India’ and ‘Inquilab Zindabad’—on the walls and on the parade ground. As author Lt Cdr G.D. Sharma in his book Untold Story: The Naval Mutiny says, “The first signal of mutiny flashed up on the night of 1 December 1945.”

Another instance brought out by Sharma took place a month later and is further described by history blogger Ratnakar Sadasyula, “The beginnings of the Naval Ratings Mutiny were in an event that occurred on 16 January 1946 when a contingent of more than 60 ratings arrived at the Castle Barracks in Mint Road of Mumbai’s Fort Area. They were from the training ship HMIS Akbar at Thane and it was evening 4 pm. On being informed of their arrival the galley cook, took out 20 loaves of bread, casually added some water to the mutton curry as well as the dal that was from the previous day and served it. The food was so tasteless and substandard that only 17 ratings took it, the rest of them went ashore.”

The authorities took punitive measures including appointing Commander Arthur King a ‘strict no-nonsense’ officer as the new Commanding Officer of Talwar. In retrospect, this was a short-sighted move because he adopted a typical high-handed approach. Similar anti-British slogans again appeared on 01/02 Feb in anticipation of the visit of Vice Admiral JH Godfrey the Flag Officer Commanding Royal Indian Navy (FOCRIN). An early ‘success’ in identifying Leading Telegraphist Balai Chandra (BC) Dutt as the ‘mastermind’ of the painting incident and placing him under close arrest induced false optimism and gung go attitude. However, even after that the slogan writing continued.

Further, there were more troubling signs. A sailor, RK Singh, due for release anyway chose to resign instead, as an act of civil disobedience as Sailors were not allowed to resign as per service rules. He was immediately sentenced and sent to Arthur Road prison. The car of Cdr King was painted with Quit India slogans and his tyres deflated. He also received anonymous threatening calls. Unfortunately, none of these were seem as warning signs.

The more proximate reason occurred on the morning of 06 February 1946, when King entered one of the barracks and abused the communication ratings not on duty as ‘sons ofbitches, Junglees and Coolies’ perceiving that they had not paid attention to his arrival. As a protest against his language, fourteen ratings made individual complaints to Lt Commander Shaw, the Executive Officer. Shaw forwarded the complaints to King and apprised him of the gravity of the situation. However, King deferred the matter until 16 February and then told the ratings that they were making false complaints against the Commanding Officer. He gave them twenty-four hours to rethink. As would be obvious, this was a bizarre situation where the accused was adjudicating on his case. Further, his stubborn attitude matched by the determination of the ratings to seek justice took the situation to a boiling point. On the same day Dutt was informed about the authorities’ decision to demote and discharge him from Service.

THE REVOLT

On 18 February 1946, the ratings found the breakfast served was not properly cooked and inadequate. BC Dutt who, many years later, authored a book ‘Mutiny of the Innocents’ says: “As a protest, the ratings walked out of the mess hall. Someone shouted the slogan: No Food, No Work.” Satyindra Singh brings out that “the mutiny originated on the then HMIS Talwar and then spread to various naval ships and establishments all over the country and even beyond Indian shores. Only a few remained unaffected”.

Author Pramod Kapoor who is writing a book on the Uprising describes it thus “Just before dawn on February 18th, 1946, ratings on HMIS Talwar struck work, refused to eat and shouted slogans of ‘Quit India’, ‘Down with the British White Rats’, ‘Jai Hind’ and relayed signals to all within radio range informing them of the strike. The ratings were all young men, barely 17 to 24 years old, but they had lit the spark for what could be termed the Mutiny of 1946. For most people, the Indian mutiny refers to the one that took place in 1857 against the British East India Company, and posed a threat to the British Crown’s rule over India. The Naval Mutiny of 1946 was a courageous and audacious revolt by patriotic young men that spread like wildfire among the ship and shore establishments controlled by the RIN, spreading as far as Aden and Indonesia, and posed a major threat to the British rule because of its timing and circumstance”.

While the political aspects can be debated there is no doubt that the revolt spread far and wide and at its height involved 78 ships, 20 shore establishments and 20,000 ratings. While Talwar was the nerve centre it spread across Mumbai, Karachi, Visakhapatnam, Madras, Kochi, Jamnagar, Kolkota and Bahrein where other units of the RIN were located. In spontaneous reaction, sailors at these places stopped work, went on hunger strike or resorted to other forms of agitation. In Mumbai, the naval dockyard, ships and Castle Barracks (today’s INS Angre) were enveloped in the revolt. Officers, mostly British, were sent out of the ships and the Union Jack and Naval Ensign were hauled down and replaced with flags of the political parties of the day. Ships were taken over by ratings and in some cases the main guns trained at the Gateway of India, Taj Mahal hotel and the Yacht Club adjacent to it. While this was more to deter any firing at them, the significance of pointing weapons on what were seen as colonial symbols was not lost on the establishment and the general populace. As Talwar was the Communications training school the ratings used wireless telegraphy and codes to communicate among themselves and to spread the message across all naval echelons. The ratings in an act of chutzpah also took over the Butcher Island which served as the ammunition depot for the British.

The immediate cause of the ‘mutiny’ in other ships and establishments were sympathy with Talwar, supportive (or inflammatory depending on the perspective) articles in the press and similar feelings of disenchantment with the authorities. On 19 February 1946, around 2000 ratings from various establishments and ships in Mumbai came down on the breakwater to carry out ‘a sit down strike’. Singh stresses through that “with rare exceptions, the behavior of the mutineers towards their officers was courteous with the usual marks of respect”.

The ‘mutiny’ was also accompanied by civil unrest in many places. The reports on radio and in newspapers spread like fire and considerable sympathy was shown towards the demands of the ratings. In Mumbai, a meeting was held in Azad Maidan by the ‘mutineers’ and they marched in processions shouting anti-British slogans. As the enquiry report states “The ratings paraded the streets… although their behaviour in general was rowdyish, the mutiny was still non-violent.” Mumbai also saw mass protests by citizens coming out in support of the ratings. Civilian port and dockyard workers, mill hands, railway workers, student unions joined in the protest. The public transport system came to a halt, trains were burnt, roadblocks were erected and commercial establishments were shut down. A general strike in support of the revolt took place in Bombay on 22 February and in Karachi on both 22 and 23 February. The revolt came to receive widespread support from public even for the short period that it lasted, not only in Bombay and Karachi, but also in Calcutta, Ahmadabad, Madras, Trichinopoly, Madurai, Kanpur and several places in Assam.

The ratings formed a Naval Central Strike Committee (NCSC); MS Khan, Leading Telegraphist and Madan Singh, Petty Officer Telegraphist, were elected as the President and Vice-President respectively. On 19 February, a meeting was held at Talwar between Flag Officer Bombay Rear Admiral AR Rattray, RIN officials and representatives of the NCSC. The Committee demands included aspects such as non-victimisation of strikers, release of R.K. Singh, speedy demobilisation and reasonable peace time employment, immediate disciplinary action against Commander King, improvement in standards of food, scales of pay and other aspects of work environment. Interestingly, the demands also included immediate release of political and INA leaders, immediate and impartial enquiry into the firing on the public all over India and immediate withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia and Middle East. The last part clearly indicated the political nature of the protests.

As may be expected the establishment having been taken by surprised reacted with full fury. The ratings were warned to surrender failing which threat of use of force was openly made. The Government summoned Royal Navy ships from the East Indies Fleet at Trincomalee, RN ships in harbour were asked to be at standby for actions against RIN ships commandeered by mutineers, British Army troops were called in after the Indians refused to fire, Tanks and Artillery were requisitioned for support if needed and the Air Force bombers made low passes over naval dockyards in a show of strength. Unfortunately, pitched battles took place between the revolting ratings and their antagonists in the Castle Barracks of Mumbai where the Army troops laid a siege of sorts, surrounding the Castle and cutting off water and electricity while the ratings responded by sniping at them from the parapets, and in Karachi where an exchange of gunfire took place between ratings on HMIS Hindustan and Army troops. Mumbai witnessed 2 deaths and 6 personnel injured while Karachi saw 8 deaths and 40 injured. 33 personnel could not be accounted for and while presumed deserted by the authorities then may also have figured on the casualty list. Also, many sailors in various parts of the country were arrested and put in custody during the crisis.

In Bombay, the mass civil unrest and certain acts of arson by extreme elements resulted in curfew being imposed and police/military firing on unruly mobs. A panicky establishment reacting in knee jerk manner caused considerable blood to be spilled as close to 400 people were killed and nearly 1,500 injured. As Sharma eloquently brings out, “It must be said to the credit of the striking ratings that it required the bravest of the Braveheart to face the British might in this unequal contest. The ratings were now facing military might similar to the 1857 mutiny against England.”

While generating popular support, the uprising did not, however, garner the backing of the main political parties. The movement was leaderless and rudderless unlike, for example, the INA where the charismatic leadership of Netaji provided the glue and organisational coherence. Further, the naval uprising was seen as a one-off episode and not continuation of a political movement. This deprived it of much legitimacy. Some experts also argue that the Congress and the Muslim League having moved into pole positions with regard to transfer of power did not wish to cede that space to anyone or detract from that trajectory.

The happenings in Bombay and elsewhere were seen as acts of indiscipline and defiance of the authority by most political leaders of significance such as Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. While Pandit Nehru was more sympathetic, he too did not wish to upset the non-violent nature of the freedom struggle. As historian Srinath Raghavan says, “The leaders realised that any mass uprising would inevitably carry the risk of not being amenable to centralized direction and control. Besides, now that independence and power were in sight, they were eager not to encourage indiscipline in the armed forces”. On 22 February Sardar Patel sent a message saying, “The strikers should lay down all arms and should go through the formality of surrender, and the Congress would do its level best to see that there is no victimisation and the legitimate demands of naval ratings are met as soon as possible.” This advice was eventually accepted.

The revolt was called off following a meeting between M.S. Khan and Vallabhbhai Patel. Patel issued a statement calling on the strikers to end their action, which was later echoed by Mohammed Ali Jinnah on behalf of the Muslim League. However, the agitations, mass strikes, demonstrations and support for the revolt continued for several days even after it had been called off. The surrender statement was remarkable for its defiant tone. It stated: ‘Our strike has been a historic event in the life of the nation. For the first time, the blood of the men in the services and the people flowed together in a common cause. We in the services will never forget this. We also know that you, our brothers and sisters, will not forget. Jai Hind.’

Part 1 of the two-part series.

The authors are associated with the Naval History Project. Views expressed here are personal and do not reflect those of the Indian Navy or the Government of India.

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