The forgotten mutinies of the armed forces in British India did much more for the cause of India’s freedom than they are widely credited for. February 18 was the 70th anniversary of the Naval Mutiny of 1946.
In March 1976, PV Chakraborty, former Chief Justice of the Kolkata High Court, wrote a letter where he described a correspondence between him and the British Prime Minister Clement Attlee in 1956. Attlee, often mocked by Churchill as a “modest man with much to be modest about”, was visiting India in 1956 after it became independent and met Chakraborty who was then Acting Governor of West Bengal. Chakraborty asked, “The Quit India Movement of Gandhi practically died out long before 1947 and there was nothing in the Indian situation at that time which made it necessary for the British to leave India in a hurry. Why then did they do so?” Attlee gave out several reasons: one was Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, which weakened the British Army, and the other was the Royal Indian Navy mutiny. When Chakraborty asked him about the impact of Gandhiji’s 1942 Quit India movement, Attlee wryly remarked with a smile, “minimal”.
This was noted in the following excerpt from an article on Netaji about the impact of the Indian National Army (INA):
“But it could not prevent mutinies from breaking out in the British Army, especially the one by the Indian soldiers of the Royal Navy. Chennai, Pune, Jabalpur all saw the Indian soldiers rising in mutiny. The British often used the Indian soldiers as cannon fodder; they did all the dirty work, were the persons on the front line in conflict and in many World Wars, many Indian soldiers died fighting for the British Empire. Yet in return for this, the British treated the Indian soldiers as second class citizens and exploited them. It was Bose’s Indian National Army which sparked the uprising. Years later, Clement Attlee cited the revolts of the Indian Army as a major decision to grant independence. Britain, already economically and militarily weakened after World War 2, knew that it could no longer trust the Indian armed forces to prop up its Raj. So in a way, Bose contributed significantly to the end of the Raj.”
Royal Naval Ratings Mutiny - often called the ‘forgotten mutiny’ in India’s history - is an event which does not really strike as much resonance in the public imagination as the 1857 mutiny or the Quit India movement
Like the Mutiny of 1857, the 1946 Royal Naval Ratings Mutiny had a rather mundane beginning. It was not an overnight event however as resentment was already building up among the naval ratings and other Indian members of the Army. The INA mutiny was the most serious of all and really shook the faith of the British. Not as well known is the Royal Air Force Mutiny which also took place in 1946, over working conditions of Indians in the Air Force, and the demobilization of British troops after the end of the war.
The beginnings of the Naval Ratings Mutiny were in an event that occurred on 16 January 1946 when a contingent of naval ratings arrived at the Castle Barracks on Mint Road of Mumbai’s Fort Area. The contingent was from the training ship HMIS Akbar, docked at Thane, and arrived at around four in the evening. On being informed of the arrival of the contingent, the galley cook took out 20 loaves of bread, casually added some water to the mutton curry as well as the dal (preserved from the previous day) and served it. The food was so tasteless and substandard that only 17 of the ratings took it while the rest of them went ashore.
This was not a one-off incident. Such neglect was quite common and worse, repeated complaints to senior officers of the dreadful working conditions did not elicit any response. As the complaints grew, the ratings became increasingly frustrated, both with the conditions as well as with the indifference of the chiefs. Adding fuel to the fire was the trial of the INA leaders. Stories of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose’s fight for freedom and the exploits of INA during the Siege of Imphal began to be fed to the ratings. It gave them inspiration and belief that the mighty British Empire was not all that invincible.
On 18 February 1946, Naval Rating MS Khan led a revolt on HMIS Talwar and a strike committee was formed. In Karachi, ratings began a revolt on HMIS Hindustan, anchored off the Manora Island. MS Khan and fellow Naval Rating Madan Singh had by now taken control of the mutiny, which began to spread. By 19 February 1946, ratings from Castle and Fort Barracks had joined the revolt. Ratings left their posts and travelled around Bombay in trucks, carrying pictures of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose who by now had become their inspiration.
And soon it spread - to Kochi, Vizag and Kolkata. Officers who opposed the strike were thrown off ships and the mutineers used radio sets to communicate among themselves. HMIS Talwar became the epicenter of the mutiny as the strikers used radio sets to send messages to and fro between themselves. It was a perfectly coordinated revolt that was now striking back. Soon, other workers in the Navy joined as well from the sloops, the minesweepers and the offshore establishments in Mumbai, along Hornby Road (near Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), now the Dadabhai Naoroji Road. The White Ensign of the British was lowered from all ships and British officers were singled out for attack by mutineers using hockey sticks, crowbars and whatever else they could lay their hands on.
Flora Fountain soon reverberated with cries of “jai hind” and slogans of liberation. British officers and their wives were forced to shout “jai hind” by the protesters. The Taj Mahal Hotel and Yacht Club, all had guns trained on them throughout the day. The Royal Indian Air Force joined in solidarity with the striking ratings and 1000 men from the Andheri and Marine Drive camps came in. The Gurkhas in Karachi, one of the sword arms of the British Army, refused to fire on the mutineers. The mutiny now began to spread like wildfire as Kolkata, Vizag, Chennai and Karachi reverberated with slogans of “Strike for Bombay”, “Release 11,000 INA prisoners” and “jai hind”.
The tricolor was now flying on all the ships and by 20 February, British destroyers positioned themselves near the Gateway of India. The British Government, now headed by Clement Attlee, was alarmed and orders were given to the Royal Navy to put out the revolt. Admiral JH Godfrey, the Flag Officer in command of the Royal Indian Navy, gave an ultimatum to the mutineers to submit or perish. On the other side, a wave of patriotic fervor swept in favor of the mutineers. The mutineers had taken control of all the ships and were prepared for a last ditch stand. From the clerks to the cleaning hands, cooks and wireless operators, every single Indian was ready for battle.
On day 3, the Royal Air Force flew a squadron of bombers near Mumbai Harbor, while Admiral Arthur Rullion issued an ultimatum asking the mutineers to surrender unconditionally. In the meantime, the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch silently managed to secure the island of Manora near Karachi.
Soon, a decision was taken to engage HMIS Hindustan - which was now under the control of the mutineers - in a straight confrontation. An ultimatum was given by the Royal Artillery on Manora island to either surrender or prepare for war. At 10:33 AM, the guns began to fire on HMIS Hindustan and the naval ratings returned the fire. However they could not hold fort for long and by 10:51, the mutineers surrendered and HMIS Hindustan was taken over by the British. Soon, HMIS Bahadur and HMIS Himalaya were subdued as well and the revolt at Karachi was put out.
With increasing bombardment and not much hope of winning a long drawn war, the mutineers began to surrender and on day 4, negotiations took place where most of the strikers’ demands were conceded in principle. Immediate steps were taken to improve the quality of food and living conditions and an assurance was given that the petition for the release of INA prisoners would be considered favorably. 7 Royal Indian Navy sailors and 1 officer were killed while around 34 were injured and 476 were discharged from duty.
Sadly, the mutineers got no support at all from the Indian National Congress. Far from it, they were in fact condemned for their actions. Mahatma Gandhi issued a statement criticizing the mutineers for revolting without any guidance from a political party. One of the lone voices in the Congress who supported the mutineers was Aruna Asaf Ali, who said she would rather unite Hindus and Muslims on the barricades. The Muslim League too denounced the mutineers, arguing that unrest on the streets was not the best way to deal with grievances and that protest should be through constitutional methods only.
One reason for these unfavorable reactions could be that spontaneous uprisings like these threatened the centralized political authority of both the Congress and the Muslim League and affected their dealings with the British Government. Another reason was that neither the Congress nor the Muslim League was a genuinely mass-based party. Both still remained a preserve of the upper class and upper caste elite, and these kinds of mass uprisings left them uncomfortable.
The only political party that supported the mutineers was the Communist Party of India while the others just left them in the lurch. Both Sardar Patel and Muhammad Ali Jinnah were united in their condemnation of the mutineers’ actions, and Aruna Asaf Ali was the lone voice from the Congress in support of them. The mutineers faced court martial and imprisonment on surrender. Worse, even after independence, the mutineers received no support from either the Government of India or that of Pakistan.
The Royal Naval Ratings Mutiny lasted only for 4 days and was put down swiftly. However, the impact went much beyond. The British were now fully convinced that they could no longer trust the armed forces to help maintain their control over India. So far the British managed to hold on to India only through the armed forces, but when the soldiers too began to revolt, the British knew that their time was up. First, it was the INA revolts and then the Naval Ratings Mutiny. Add to these the revolts in the Air Force too, and the fact that Britain was effectively pauperized by World War II. All of these influenced the British decision to quit India much more than the movement of 1942. This article was first published in the blog ‘History Under Your Feet’.