History

Freedom on the Waves: The Indian Naval Mutiny, 70 Years Later

‘For the first time the blood of men in the Services and in the streets flowed together in a common cause’ – in remembrance of the Royal Indian Navy’s mutiny, 70 years on.

It is perhaps the natural course of history that some events and individuals are remembered more than others. The Indian struggle for independence is no exception. While the great leaders, and the movements they led command respect, there remain unsung heroes whose contribution has remained unknown except in the scholarly books of historians. The mutiny of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN), which broke out on February 18, 1946 – and, in only five days, delivered a mortal blow to the entire structure of the British Raj – is one oft-forgotten saga. It is worthy of remembrance on its 70th anniversary.

The tide of nationalism after WW2

The Second World War changed geopolitics. It also altered the way societies view the world and themselves. The Indian soldier was no exception. The war had caused rapid expansion of the RIN. In 1945, it was 10 times larger than its size in 1939. Recruitment was no longer confined to martial races; men from different social strata, including many college-educated, enlisted. As the campaigns carried the soldiers across the seas, they saw the world, read the newspapers and learnt that the war was for ‘restoring democracy and freedom’. The Indians themselves were hailed as liberators as they freed Greece, Italy, Burma, Indo-China and Indonesia from Axis rule. This forced many of them to wonder ‘Will not my own country be free? How am I a liberator when my own land is a colony?’ Moreover, the inclusion of Indians in technical posts had proven that they were no less than the whites in professional expertise. And, they had seen first-hand how the Europeans had fled in face of the initial Japanese onslaught – ‘white supremacy’ was an obsolete myth.

But, the end of war also meant demobilization and the anxiety of unemployment. Worse, crude British racism knew no end. British salary was 5-10 times more than that of the Indian. They had better food, better quarters, better quality uniforms and travelled comfortably in individual berths. The Indian barracks were ‘pigsties’, the food was often inedible and Indians were herded into train compartments. The British and Australian troops could use the canteens and messes designated for Indians, but not vice versa. Even medals and recommendations were denied at times. The Indian soldiers loathed the foul language the British used and were not going to tolerate the arrogance anymore. The smoldering resulted in at least 9 minor mutinies between Mar 1942 – April 1945. With the war over, several factories were shut down leading to widespread unemployment. The increasingly strong labor movement protested through more than 1200 strikes during 1945-46.

At the nationalist front, the memories of the heroic ‘Quit India’ movement were fresh. And then, the news of the struggle of Netaji’s INA burst onto the scene. Indians rejoiced that a formal Indian army, led by the charismatic leader, had actually fought the British in battle. As the trial of the INA officers proceeded in the Red Fort, the press printed tales of the non-sectarian character of their struggle. As Nehru described it, ‘[the trials] gave form to the old contest: England vs India…a trial of strength between the will of the Indian people and the will of those who hold power in India’.

The anti-colonial attitude went beyond India. Indians deeply resented the fact that their army was now being sent to crush the new peoples’ governments in Burma, Indonesia and Indo-China, and reestablish French and Dutch colonies. In the last months of 1945, police firing killed 63 protestors at Bombay and Calcutta. These were turbulent times and the young Indian soldier was deeply affected. As BC Dutt, one of the leaders of the RIN mutiny wrote in his memoir, ‘The barrack walls were no longer high enough to contain the tide of nationalism’.

RINmutiny

The sparks – the Azad Hindi boys on HMIS Talwar

Based at Bombay, HMIS Talwar was the signal-training establishment of the RIN. With 1500 officers and ratings (enlisted members) on board, it was the second-largest training center in the whole empire. In the informative recollections titled Mutiny of the Innocents and The RIN Strike By a Group of Victimized Ratings, the former mutineers detailed the squalor on board the Talwar and the indifference or racism of the British officers. It was at this time that a colleague returned from Burma secretly carrying letters from INA men addressed to Nehru and Sarat Bose – an incident that ignited their latent patriotism.

Years later, Dutt recalled, ‘…we came from widely different regions… belonged to Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Sikh families. The years spent in the navy had made them – the ratings of the RIN – Indians’. A few of them formed a clandestine group called ‘Azadi Hindi’ and planned to create general disorder and unrest on Talwar.  On Navy Day, 1st Dec, 1945, they painted ‘Quit India’, ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ and ‘Revolt Now’ all over the establishment and repeated it when Commander-in-Chief General Auchinlek came on a visit. Dutt was eventually arrested but his defiant reply to Commanding Officer King – ‘…Save your breath, I am ready to face your firing squad’ – made him an instant hero. Another rating, BR Singh, flung his cap down and kicked it in front of the officers.

The unprecedented incidents received press coverage and surprised everyone. However, CO King responded by calling the ratings ‘you sons of bitches’ and ‘sons of bloody junglees’. The emboldened ratings replied with slogans painted all over the Talwar, and even deflated the tyres of King’s car. Though the events were confined to one center, word spread to all the ships and shore establishments in Bombay. Ratings openly began to discuss politics, read nationalist newspapers, set up a INA Relief Fund and submitted individual letters protesting against CO King.

The strike at Talwar ripples outwards

On February 17, when the ratings reiterated their demand for decent food, British officers sneered that ‘beggars cannot be choosers’. This was the last straw. On the 18th morning, 1500 ratings walked out of the mess hall in protest, a clear act of mutiny. Yet they also declared that ‘this is not a mere food riot. [We] are about to create history…a heritage of pride for free India.’ By 4.30pm, the ratings had rejected the appeals of their officers and even Rear Admiral Rattray. The ‘strike committee’ decided their task was to take over the RIN and place it in the command of national leaders. A formal list of demands called for release of all Indian political prisoners including INA POWs and naval detainees, withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia and Egypt, equal status of pay and allowances and best class of Indian food. It also formally asked the British to quit India.

The Bombay press was puzzled by the turn of events. Only the Free Press Journal understood the significance of what was underway, and editor S. Natarajan even offered his columns to the ratings. By that night, AIR and BBC had to broadcast the news of the RIN strike and it spread like wildfire across the country.

The next morning, sixty RIN ships harboured at Bombay – including the flagship HMIS Narbada, HMIS Madras, Sind, Mahratta, Teer, Dhanush, Khyber, Clive, Punjab, Gondawana, Berar, Moti, Jamna, Kumaon, Oudh – and eleven shore establishments, including the large Castle Barracks and Fort Barracks, pulled down the Union Jack and hoisted the three flags of the Congress, the Muslim League and the Communist Party. Under the ‘joint banner’ of Charka-Crescent-Hammer and Sickle, the ratings marched in thousands towards the epicenter, the Talwar.  They chased foreigners, stoned British-owned shops and pulled down the flag from the USIS library. By the morning of February 20, the strike had spread to Calcutta, Karachi, Madras, Jamnagar, Vishakapatnam, Cochin and other navy stations.

In all, around eighty ships, four flotillas, twenty shore establishments and more than 20,000 ratings joined the mutiny. Most Indian officers, barring a few like Lieutenant Sobani and Lieutenant Mani, stayed away. Yet in 48 hours, British India had lost control of its navy.

HMIS Kumaon

The HMIS Kumaon. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

The Indian National Navy

A newly-formed Naval Central Strike Committee (NCSC) included 12-36 representatives from all the ships and barracks of Bombay. Leading signalman MS Khan and petty officer telegraphist Madan Singh were elected president and vice-president. Years later, their comrades recalled how both were ‘free of the communal virus’. They declared the RIN renamed as the ‘Indian National Navy’. They also decided that their struggle would be a non-violent one and henceforth they would take orders ‘only from the national leaders’.

As the NCSC asked for guidance, however, what they heard was an uneasy silence. Finally, the Left-leaning Congress leader Aruna Asaf Ali advised them to accept the counsel of Sardar Patel. She also informed Nehru, explaining the tense situation that was ‘climaxing to a grim close’. Meanwhile, the ratings marched in discipline at Colaba and Flora Fountain, with slogans of ‘Hindu Muslim ek ho’ and ‘Inquilab Zindabad’. The people of Bombay cheered them. Journalists who visited the Talwar were surprised to find that the primary demand of the ratings was now not better amenities, but freedom from British rule. They even rebuked the journalist of the Times of India for having tried to malign them in the previous day’s reporting. The ratings told the reporters, ‘We shall use the little knowledge they have given us against them. Remember the INA. We too shall teach them a lesson’.

The government had been stunned, but now, deducing that nationalist leaders were not keen to support the uprising, Admiral Godfrey reached Bombay to negotiate with the NCSC. The political inexperience of the young NCSC made them hesitate, and they accepted Godfrey’s demand that they return to their respective ships and barracks. Within an hour, Godfrey had sent the army to surround the barracks. Realizing they had been tricked, the ratings discontinued their hunger-strike, broke open the magazine and prepared for battle.

Battle at Castle Barracks; India’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’ moment

The next morning, the British officers discovered that the Maratha soldiers ordered to attack the barracks, were sympathetic to the ratings. They were replaced with British troops and rating Krishnan became the first martyr of the counter-offensive. In face of spirited resistance, the attacks against both Castle Barracks and the ships were indecisive. That night, a press release from NCSC read, ‘ten ratings and around fifteen British soldiers have been killed’. Prime Minister Attlee, however, had announced that seven ships were heading for Bombay and Admiral Godfrey had demanded unconditional surrender. Realizing the danger, the NCSC earnestly appealed ‘You, our people and our respected political leaders come to our aid…you must support us.’

The leaders were still absent, but the people had come in overwhelming numbers. A rumour that the British were going to starve the ratings into surrender, brought thousands of civilians to the Gateway of India with fruits, milk, bread and vegetables. The ratings came by motorboats and collected all that was offered. Hindu, Muslim and even Iranian shops and eateries asked them to take whatever they needed for free – similar to the famous fraternizing scenes of the classic Battleship Potemkin – and the Indian soldiers on duty did not stop them.

HMIS Hindustan

The HMIS Hindustan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The ‘hartal’ – bloodbath at Bombay and the battle at Karachi

The Bombay Students’ Union and the CPI had called for a general strike and the NCSC had asked people to make it a success. In contrast, Gandhi was clearly unsupportive of the unplanned uprising and Sardar Patel even asked people to ‘go about their work as usual’. For once, the people rejected the great leaders. The strike was ‘total’ and processions rolled across the city. At the seaside, British troops now prevented any food from reaching the ships. In the Fort area, a military truck recklessly ran over couple of protestors. This triggered a general mayhem and, within few hours, at least eleven military trucks were torched. The army responded with indiscriminate firing, especially in working class areas of Parel. By night, the city was under curfew.

At Karachi harbor, HMIS Hindustan had resisted British small-arms throughout the February 21. They had been helped by the once-loyal Gurkha and Baluch regiments, who had refused to fire at them. By the next morning, however, the British had positioned artillery around the ship, and as the tide ebbed, the Hindustan’s levels dropped and made it difficult for the ratings to aim their guns. The artillery opened fire. After thirty minutes, with six ratings dead, the ship surrendered. HMIS Kathiawad, which was in high seas, had responded to the distress calls from Hindustan. However, learning that they would be too late for Karachi, they turned towards Bombay.

Surrender

With no assistance from either the Congress or the League, the NCSC were disheartened. A show of strength by RIAF bombers had only been delayed because an entire squadron from Jodhpur, piloted by Indians, had mysteriously developed engine trouble. Instead a British squadron flew over the ships. Clearly, Admiral Godfrey had firepower at his disposal and he would use it.

Khan, Singh and their colleagues met under the shadow of the slaughter in the city. They agreed that ‘the debt of this blood has to be repaid a hundred-fold’ and made order against any unconditional surrender. Hectic negotiations with Sardar Patel followed. He assured them that the national leadership would look into their grievances and prevent any victimization. A clear divide formed among the ratings – many wanted to fight along with the people, but others cautioned that their military resources were very limited. Besides, having declared that their objective was to do as instructed by the national leaders, how could they go against the same leadership?

At that moment, Jinnah’s message reached the NCSC; he also asked them, especially the Muslim ratings, to surrender. This sealed the fate of the mutiny – thirty out of 36 members of NCSC now voted to stop the struggle.

From private correspondence, it seems Patel’s decision had been influenced by the idea that ‘discipline in the army cannot be tampered with’. A few months later, Patel would refer to the ratings as ‘a bunch of young hotheads messing with things they had no business in.’

Nehru would accept that ‘the gulf that separated the people from the armed forces had once for all been bridged. The janata and soldier have come very close to each other.’ But both leaders had failed to provide the ratings with the political support they needed; and, when hundreds of ratings were imprisoned for months in abominable conditions at the Mulund camp, there would be no one to speak for them. The CPI fared better. Its call for nation-wide strikes clearly demonstrated the solidarity of the people with the ratings. But, their overall alignment with the national movement finally let the RIN mutiny down.

On February 23, at 6am, all ships surrendered. At the Thane-based HMIS Akbar, 3500 ratings and 300 sepoys refused to surrender, but had to capitulate in face of bayonets. When HMIS Kathiawad reached the Bombay coast, it found the royal cruiser Glasgow blocking its way. In a last act of valiant defiance, the little corvette threateningly aimed its puny 12-pounder gun at the giant adversary. ‘Goliath’ Glasgow, perhaps in respect for bravery, allowed them to sail into Bombay harbour – the first Indian-administered ship to ever reach an Indian port to assist Indians. They arrived to the news that it was all over.

The battles rage on

The general public was, however, in no mood to give up. Seething with anger, over the next day, the city raised barricades and fought bullets with stones. In just two days, the official tally recorded 228 civilians and three policemen dead, and 1,046 people and 91 policemen and soldiers injured. By the evening of February 23, Congress, League and CPI volunteers were asking people to disperse. In Calcutta, the strike led by the Union of Tramway Workers extended into the next day and, for the first time, railway workers joined in, paralysing large parts of the country. Notably, at Majerhat in Calcutta, jawans and NCOs of the 1386 Indian Pioneer Company joined the strike. When their angry commanding officer slapped Naik Budhan Sahab, he was slapped back. At his court-martial, a defiant Budhan thundered, ‘What? I should beg of mercy from my enemy?’  – sending shockwaves throughout the military establishment.

In its last statement released on the night of 22nd February, the NCSC concluded, ‘Our strike has been a historic event in the life of our nation. For the first time the blood of men in the Services and in the streets flowed together in a common cause. We in the Services will never forget this. We know also that you, our brothers and sisters, will not forget. Long live our great people. Jai Hind’.

Naval uprising statue in Mumbai. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Naval uprising statue in Mumbai. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In conjunction with the INA trials and the peasant movements of Telengana and Tebhaga, the peoples’ unity during the mutiny had loosened the last pillars of the Raj. Indian leaders may have fumbled, but the British knew that their days were over. On March 15, Prime Minister Attlee accepted that, ‘The tide of nationalism is running very fast in India and indeed all over Asia…the national ideas have spread … among some of the soldiers.’ Historians agree that the one thing the British had consistently feared was united mass movements. They would not risk facing another ‘Quit India’, this time with veterans of the INA and RIN in the country. A year later, they fled before the Empire collapsed on their own heads.

Anirban Mitra is a molecular biologist and a teacher residing in Kolkata.