Although it was an episode that actually lasted less than a week and remains largely forgotten in public memory today, the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) Mutiny of February 1946 was arguably the single most critical event in convincing the British to hasten their exit from India.
Triggered by a group of 20 young Indian ratings (low ranking sailors) of the RIN between the ages of 17 and 24 stationed on the His Majesty’s Indian Ship (HMIS) Talwar, the mutiny spread to 74 ships of the British Royal Navy—from Indonesia to Aden, 20 shore establishments, and brought together nearly 20,000 of their fellow Indian sailors across mother tongues, class, caste and creed.
These young men, who called themselves ‘Azad Hindi’ (Free Indians), had one cause binding them together—the rapid exit of the British from India. But what caused 20 young Indian ratings to perform such an act of daring on the morning of 18 February?
The answers are manifold. With the end of World War II, the British coffers were nearly empty. They could not afford to maintain a large Navy in India and began letting go of many Indian personnel, particularly ratings, despite their heroics in the War.
Those ratings who continued working were paid poorly, given shoddy accommodation, made to do demeaning tasks like cleaning toilets, sweeping floors and carrying tea for the British officers, and then suffer the indignity of suffering racist insults from them. Add an insensitive and cruel disciplinarian like Commander Arthur Frederick King commanding the HMIS Talwar, and rebellion wasn’t far away.
“Torture and injustice often work as a powerful adhesive even when inflicted upon disparate groups with a common cause. The young ratings—Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Dalits, Brahmins, with different mother tongues, of all class and caste, were made to sit around a large wooden vessel full of indigestible daal, given half-cooked rotis, which they would dip into the common vessel and eat as a community meal. Irrespective of their religious and class differences, the act of breaking bread together made them brothers in arms. Inadvertently, the British naval officers had united them to turn rebels,” writes Pramod Kapoor, the author of ‘1946: The Unknown Mutiny’.
However, their experiences in the War also triggered a growing discontent with the institution, which was further charged with an ever-increasing spirit of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism.
While liberating different countries from the throes of fascism, serving Indian personnel also witnessed many countries fight for their Independence from their colonial rulers. The likes of BC Dutt, one of the main protagonists of the mutiny, asked themselves questions like ‘What did I fight for’ and ‘Whose war did I fight.’
A key demand of the mutineers was the withdrawal of Indian soldiers from Indonesia, which was fighting its own War of Independence. Another significant demand was the release of Indian National Army soldiers, who had served under Subhash Chandra Bose. Their objective was ‘revolutionary action’ against the British because they were “as much sons of the soil as the nationalist Indians fighting for Independence,” argued BC Dutt.
Laying the ground for revolt in the wee hours 2 February 1946, Dutt painted slogans like ‘Quit India’ and ‘Jai Hind’ on the wooden platform leading upto the HMIS Talwar, where the commander-in-chief of the RIN was to address the officers and men. Dutt was arrested but kept in custody on board and tensions between the commanding officer and crew grew.
Meanwhile, Dutt and his fellow conspirators like MS Khan and Madan Singh began persuading their fellow ratings to join them in a hunger strike. Finally, on the morning of 18 February 1500 ratings went on strike shouting slogans like “No food! No work!” at the mess upon the HMIS Talwar.
In a conversation with The Tribune, Madan Singh describes how the rebel ratings spread their message of rebellion to colleagues boarded in different ships.
“We did this with the help of the wireless system under our control. We were able to win over almost all the 70 ships and all the 20 seashore establishments. We had secured control over the civilian telephone exchange, the cable network and, above all, over the transmission centre at Kirkee manned by the Navy, which was the channel of communication between the Indian Government and the British,” says Singh.
Within a few days, the rebels had managed to take control of 74 other RIN ships stationed in Bombay, Karachi and other parts of the world. All these ‘liberated ships’ had replaced the British ensign with the three flags of the Congress, Muslim League and Communist Party.
“The most significant feature of this short uprising was the massive outpouring of public support for the mutineers. The city of Bombay, especially the labouring classes, went on strike on 22 February in solidarity. The public transport network was brought to a halt, trains were burnt, roadblocks were erected, and commercial establishments were shut down,” writes military historian Srinath Raghavan for Mint.
And the British response was swift and brutal. As Pramod Kapoor goes on to write,
“Not just naval ratings, students’ unions and mill workers galvanised by the Communists, too joined in the mutiny and hit the streets of Bombay, leading to widespread arson, looting and vandalising of anything British. The retaliation was inevitable, and nearly 300 civilians lost their lives, and over 1,500 were injured when police opened fire. So intense was the anger against the British, and so rapid and widespread was the rebellion, that it took months before peace and sanity could return…Officially, HMIS Talwar and nearby ships surrendered on 23 February, but in Karachi, the mutiny lasted till 25 February.”
The decision to surrender on 23 February came from the Naval Central Strike Committee established on 19 February, which elected Leading Signalman Lieutenant MS Khan and Petty Officer Telegraphist Madan Singh as President and Vice-President respectively.
They expected the national leadership to join them in their struggle but received an inadequate response. Abandoned and left for dead, the committee feared that more would die mercilessly and thus decided to surrender.
“We decided to surrender after being called upon to do so by the Congress leaders, particularly by Sardar Patel. We were assured that there would be no victimisation…we made it clear that we shall surrender only to our national leaders and not to the British authorities. However, the promise made to us about ‘no punishments’ was honoured more in the breach,” says Madan Singh, speaking to The Tribune.
Many were sent to detention camps, dismissed from service, sent home without a trace and court-martialed.
But the reason why they were left at the altar by the leaders of the freedom struggle (with the possible exception of Aruna Asaf Ali) is open to interpretation.
Some argue that the Congress leadership wasn’t keen on disturbing the intense negotiation for Independence with the British by a strike that had devolved into violence. “The leaders [also] realised that any mass uprising would inevitably carry the risk of not being amenable to centralised direction and control. Besides, now that Independence and power were in sight, they were eager not to encourage indiscipline in the armed forces,” writes Srinath Raghavan.
Whatever be their reasons, it’s time we remembered the brave young men who dared to defy an Empire and “energised the hearts and minds of our sailors, infantry soldiers, airmen and RIAF [Royal Indian Air Force] pilots, ordinary mill hands, students, workers, citizens,” writes Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, the former Chief of Naval Staff.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)