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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 41

The Unsung Heroes of 1946

Wednesday 1 October 2008, by Ajeet Jawed

The history of our freedom movement is the saga of innumerable armed struggles. One after another, these struggles kept on challenging the British rule in India. However, during and after the Second World War, these struggles acquired a new momentum and new strength. The revolutionary spirit of the Indian National Army had greatly affected the British Indian armed forces. Between March 1942 and the beginning of 1946 there were nineteen uprisings in the Royal Indian Navy alone. The most important was the RIN revolt of 1946 which rang the death-knell of the mighty British Empire and paved the way for freedom.

The revolt began in Bombay when on February 18, 1946 some ratings at the shore training establishment Talwar refused to eat bad food served to them. They went to the Duty Officer, who was a British, to complain regarding the rotten quality of food. Instead of paying any heed to their complaint, the Duty Officer remarked, “Beggars cannot be choosers” and shouted at them: “You sons of coolies, you sons of Indian bitches.” This attitude and arrogance on the part of the Duty Officer infuriated the ratings and agitated them. For years they had been treated like dirt; they had suffered humiliations, hardships and discriminations. But now things were different. Their outlook had been transformed. They had fought the Germans, the Italians and the Japanese shoulder to shoulder with Allied forces. Their heroism and gallantry had won them the praise of the world. This had increased their self-confidence. Besides, they had seen with their own eyes the freedom struggles of the peoples of the countries they had helped to liberate from the fascists. They had come back to India, a new India fighting for freedom. Many of them had joined the Navy during the Second World War and had come from all over India. Among them were workers, peasants, students and a sizeable proportion was from the lower-middle class. Their links with the people were closer. They saw how the people rallied behind the INA men who had created a new history by launching an armed struggle against British imperialism. Now it was the RIN’s turn to make its contribution in the freedom struggle. Thus, it becomes obvious that the RIN revolt was not a sudden outburst. It was the expression of years of sufferings and the result of a newly acquired political consciousness. They refused to take food and went on hunger strike. The ratings called for disciplinary action against their commanding officer, F.W. King, for insulting them and for arresting a 17-year-old rating, B.C. Dutt, for writing INA slogans on the walls of Talwar. The refusal of the authorities to accept the demands of the ratings led to the spread of the strike. Within 48 hours the strike spread to almost all the ships at anchor and on the sea and establishments ashore in India and abroad. Even the units at far-flung Aden and Bahrain did not remain unaffected. In all 74 ships, four flotillas and 20 shore establishments (including three major naval bases) joined the strike. The ratings pulled down the Union Jack and raised the tricolour (Congress), crescent (Muslim League) and hammer-sickle (Communist Party) flags on the mastheads of the rebel ships.

The ratings unanimously elected a Committee to lead the strike. M.S. Khan, a leading Signaller, and Petty Officer, Telegraphist Madan Singh, both from Punjab, were elected the President and Vice-President. The other members chosen were Leading Signaller Bedi Basant Singh, S.C. Sen Gupta, Chief Petty Officer, School Master Nawaz, Leading Seaman Ashraf Khan, Able Stoker Gomez and Mohammad Hussain. The Committee renamed the RIN as the Indian National Navy and formulated a charter of demands which, along with the economic demands, called for the release of all the political prisoners, including the Indian National Army prisoners, and the withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia and Egypt.

The demands and decisions of the Committee were announced by M.S. Khan through the mike to the ratings amidst wild cheers and anti-British slogans. The Committee then sent some ratings carrying the three flags to help the citizens of Bombay know about their sufferings and to seek the citizens’ help in their struggle. The news of the RIN strike had already spread in the city of Bombay. As the ratings stepped on the shore they were greeted and welcomed by the people with slogans of national unity. They were embraced by the crowd. People gave them baskets of food and showered flowers on them. The Hindu, Muslim and Parsi shopkeepers took the Navy boys in procession through all thoroughfares especially those in the Colaba and Fort areas. The same day, that is, on February 20, different Army units, members of the police force, students and workers organisations went on sympathetic strikes. About 1200 RIAF (Royal Indian Air Force) men went on a procession in support of their strike. They were joined by the Naval Accounts’ civilian staff who also went on strike. Indian officers of the RIAF refused to fly out troops, and the transport units refused to carry British troops to fight the naval ratings and the Indian officers refused to pilot planes to bomb the ships.

The struggle became increasingly political with economic demands taking the back seat. The ratings, in their meetings, recited Mohammad Iqbal’s poem about the poor and the downtrodden. It was a call to the people to rise and fight their oppressors. The British authorities got panicky while witnessing this revolutionary uprising and the wholehearted support of the people to it. Besides, the authorities also came to know that the revolt, though not initiated by the Communist Party of India, was inspired by its literature. Some of the ratings in HMIS Talwar were reported to have Communist leanings and out of the 38 ratings who were arrested in the HMIS New Delhi, 15 were found to be subscribers of CPI literature. (Home Poll Reports. File No. 7/1/46) The Communist influence on the rebels provided the revolt an additional impetus.

The Commander-in-Chief, Godfrey, gave an ultimatum to the ratings by warning them of dire consequences. Attlee, the Labour Prime-Minister of Britain, supported the Commander-in-Chief’s attitude and threatened in Parliament that British vessels were going to Bombay to suppress the revolt. The British Indian Government decided to begin an all-out offensive. All Indian troops were removed. British troops swarmed into the area of Castle Barracks. The Town Hall became their operational headquarters. The troops, armed with sophisticated machine-guns, started firing upon the ratings who retaliated and fired back. There were casualties on both sides.

RIN Revolt in other Parts of the Country: Battle on the Hindustan, Karachi

THE clarion call to rise against imperialism by HMIS Talwar was not confined to Bombay alone. It spread like wildfire to all naval establishments and ships of the RIN in different parts of the country. The news of the RIN strike at Bombay reached Karachi on February 19. ‘It was received with tremendous excitement and suppressed jubiliation,’ reminisces Anil Roy, one of the leaders of revolt at Chamak. There were two RIN ships in the harbour; HMIS Bahadur, Himalaya and Chamak were in Manora island. The news agitated the ratings and they decided to revolt.

On the 20th, the ratings of Hindustan had driven away all the officers, both British and Indian, from their ship and had taken full control of the ship themselves. Thus the Hindustan ship heralded the revolt in Karachi. The moment the news of revolt by the Hindustan ratings reached other ships, the ratings came out in support of Hindustan. They wrote slogans on the walls in Hindi and Urdu— “Hindustan Zindabad”, “Down with British Imperialism”, “Shed Blood to Get Freedom”, “Tyrants, Your Days Are Over”, “Not Mutiny But Unity”, etc. The ratings in a procession passed through the streets of Manora, shouting anti-British slogans. They were joined by the inhabitants of Manora. When the ratings in boats moved towards the ship Hindustan, the General of the Army sent two platoons of Baluch soldiers to suppress the revolt. When the Baluch refused to fire upon their brothers, the British authorities got panicky. Then the White troops were summoned and Hindustan was surrounded from all sides. The British troops started the attack. The ratings on Hindustan retaliated. The firing and attacks and counter-attacks continued for four hours. Six of the ratings had been killed, about 30 were wounded. Their shots were going wide. They had no other alternative but to surrender. A rating, a minor boy, who went up on the bridge with a white flag, was also killed by the British. They occupied Hindustan and arrested all the ratings.

After the surrender of Hindustan, there were disturbances in Karachi. The local branch of the Communist Party gave a call for a general strike on February 23. It also decided to hold a protest meeting at Idgah Maidan. The next day, Karachi witnessed complete hartal (strike). More than 30,000 people—workers, students, lower middle-class people, Hindus and Muslims—gathered at Idgah defying Section 144 which had been imposed by the authorities. To disperse the crowd, the police resorted to firing. More than 25 were reported wounded. The British paratroopers occupied Manora island and surrounded the establishments. Anil Roy, Hira Lal and Akbar Ali were ordered to be tried by court-martial. Eighteen year old boys, Petty Officers Abdul Baqi of Ajmer and Mubark Ahmed of Karachi, were considered to be the ring leaders and were also subjected to court-martial.

A Heroic Venture

THE revolutionary spirit had affected the armed forces everywhere. They too revolted, not for their economic grievances but in support of their brothers in Bombay and Karachi. A small ship, called the Kathiawar, in the Morvi State of Gujarat, demonstrated unique gallantry. The ratings decided to revolt as soon as the ship sailed for the port of Bombay. On February 21, the ship moved and a little later it received a message from Hindustan in Karachi that she was in trouble. The ratings, numbering 120 and led by Ordinary Seaman Abdul Karim, locked the Captain, took control of the ship, armed themselves and diverted from its route and proceeded towards Karachi to help their brothers on the Hindustan ship. Before they reached Karachi, they learnt that Hindustan had surrendered. S.S. Kathiawar was again diverted to Bombay. The ratings then decided to join their revolting brothers there. But by the time they reached, the Bombay ratings too had surrendered. Thus ended the first historic trip of an Indian ship commanded by the Indian ratings in a mission of aiding their comrades in distress.

Countrywide Agitation in Support of RIN Revolt

IN Calcutta, the ratings of the shore establishment, HMIS Hooghly, went on strike on February 22. Their strike continued even after the surrender at Bombay and Karachi on the 23rd. They condemned the British for suppressing the RIN ratings. One lakh workers at Calcutta on the call of the CPI too joined the strike. It continued till the 25th when the British with their full might surrounded the ratings and imprisoned them. The strike came to an end on the 26th.

In Madras, the ratings of HMIS Adyar and in Vizagapatam the ratings of Sonavati and Ahmedabad marched in procession to the city carrying Indian flags and shouting such slogans as “Inquilab Zindabad”. On February 25, there was a complete strike in Madras city. There were strikes by the ratings in Jabalpur, Assam and Delhi also. The naval strikes spread even to establishments in the State. At Jamnagar in Kathiawar, the ratings of the torpedo training school Valsura of the RIN were agitated to hear Godfrey’s threatening broadcast over the wireless. The tone of the speech and the threat of the destruction of the Navy angered them. What annoyed them most, however, was the direct reference to HMIS Valsura as having remained loyal.

The ratings, belonging to different communities and owing allegiance to the Congress or the League, immediately decided to go on strike. They pulled down the white ensign and hoisted the Congress, League and Red flags. Shortly came the news of Sardar Patel’s intervention. The ratings were enraged. Unanimously, they decided to formally withdraw their allegiance to the Congress and the League, who had not come to support their struggle. The Congress and the League flags were pulled down and only the Red flag was kept flying. In Punjab, the news of the RIN revolt led to a demonstration by 600 non-commissioned airmen of the Royal Indian Air Force at Ambala. On February 22, the entire personnel of the RIAF went on a strike in protest against the firings in Bombay and Karachi. Later they marched in a procession through the bazars (markets) shouting anti-British slogans. They warned the government to refrain from firing upon Indians. They also demanded the release of Captain Abdul Rashid and other INA soldiers. They held a meeting, after the conclusion of their march, in a ground at which they emphasised the need for Hindu-Muslim unity for the attainment of India’s freedom.

Attitude of the Indian Political Parties towards RIN Revolt

THE Congress leadership not only dissociated itself from the RIN uprising but also opposed it on the ground of indiscipline. They refused to support the revolt and advised the ratings to surrender. The same advice was given by the Muslim League. This attitude on the part of the national leaders disheartened the ratings. To them, their revolt was an extension of the freedom struggle. They were determined to end the country’s enslavement. People were supporting them but the leaders were not prepared to come forward. Patel and Nehru opposed the revolt on grounds of violation of Army discipline and resorting to violent means. Gandhiji too condemned the ratings for setting “a bad and unbecoming example for India” and advised them to peacefully resign from their jobs if they had any grievances. The ratings, according to Gandhi, should learn “constructive activities, such as using the spinning wheel and thereby keep the love of freedom burning in their mind”. Besides, he decried the unity that Hindus and Muslims had forged in a heroic resistance against the British military and stated that “a combination between Hindus and Muslims and others for the purpose of violent action is unholy...” The unity through militant anti-imperialist struggle from below was dreaded as much by the British as by the Indian political leaders. Gandhi wished to perish in the flames than to live to witness such an achievement. Jinnah too advised the ratings to adopt lawful and peaceful methods. While appealing to the ratings to call off the strike he particularly asked the ‘Muslims to stop’. The British wanted to safeguard their economic investment in independent India and the Indian leaders wanted to have power in their own hands. The two united to compel the ratings to lay down arms. Both Sardar Patel and Jinnah sent messages and appealed to the Naval Central Strike Committee to surrender unconditionally. Both the leaders gave assurance to the ratings that there would be no discrimination and victimisation and the legitimate demands of the ratings would be taken up with the authorities.

It was the Communist Party which supported the revolt and gave a call for a general strike and organised anti-government demonstrations. In contrast Sardar Patel and the provincial head of the Muslim League, Chundrigar, issued a counter- call for “no-strike” and “no-demonstrations” and offered the authorities the services of volunteers to help the police in the maintenance of law and order. Despite the Congress and League’s opposition, 300,000 downed their tools in Bombay on February 22, closing down almost all mills, and violent street fighting between the people and police or military ensued. The masses pulled down and burnt the Union Jack wherever they found it and hoisted the Indian flag. The entire administration came to a standstill. The city was handed over to the Army. A formation of a 19 aircraft flew over the Bombay city and the harbour. In the meantime fighting had broken out between the people and British troops who patrolled the city with machine guns supported by tanks. In the discriminate firing 400 citizens were killed and thousands were wounded.

RIN Surrender

SEEING no support coming from the leaders and to prevent a bloodbath, the NCSC called off the strike and the ratings with anguish and anger surrendered. They, however, stated: “We surrendered to Indians and not to the British.” In its last message to the people the Committee thanked them for their support and said:

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.

Long live our Great People! Jai Hind!

The last words of the NCSC President, M.S. Khan, were:

I do not know where they are taking us. We shall never give in. Goodbye and good luck.

On February 23 itself, nearly 400 ratings were arrested in and around Bombay. In Karachi some 500 ratings were placed under arrest. No official figures of arrest were released.

While the masses supported the RIN revolt and stood for the release of the ratings, both the Congress and League leaders forgot to honour the assurances they had given to the ratings. The arrested ratings, including M.S. Khan and Madan Singh, President and Vice-President of the NCSC, were lodged in the Mulund Camp and quite a large number in the Malir Camp in Karachi. There they were treated as criminals, served bad and insufficient food, abused and received kicks from the British guards. The ratings at Mulund went on a hunger strike in protest and demanded to see Gandhi and Patel who had promised ‘no victimisation’ after their laying down arms. But the leaders never turned up. They were busy negotiating with the Cabinet Mission, which was appointed by the British Prime Minister Attlee on February 19, the very day following the RIN revolt.

The ratings of the Camp held a meeting in which they decided to resume their struggle. They drafted an appeal to all soldiers in the Navy, Army and Air Force, calling upon them to join the struggle. This draft was to be sent outside secretly. But the authorities came to know about it and promptly raided the barracks of the ratings. They tried to remove M.S. Khan. When he refused to go, the military officer, at bayonet point, dragged and bundled him into a lorry. Aslam, a boy rating from the Narbada, got so infuriated by the sight of the military dragging away the President of their Strike Committee that he rushed towards Captain Knott, tore off his apparel and beat him on his face with his shoes. Captain Knott ordered the Marathas to open fire but they downed their rifles and refused to fire upon their brothers. The Mulund Camp, thereafter, was completely sealed off and the strike was crushed.

The ratings in detention at the Malir Camp in Karachi too did not take the atrocities lying down. The resistance they offered was as stiff as at Mulund.

RIN Enquiry Commission Report

MEANWHILE the RIN Enquiry Commission had completed its report. The Viceroy had appointed the Commission. By the time it prepared its report, the national leaders had formed the interim government. The report was submitted on July 19, 1946. In the words of Biswanath Bose, one of the ratings, “No worse betrayal of the heroic struggle of the ratings can be imagined.” The Commission produced a 600-page report, which has not been made public even today. Only a short summary, prepared by the Defence Department, was published in January 1947 and it exonerated the British officers who were responsible for the revolt. Ironically, the Indian leaders accepted the report. The Commission did not say a word about the hundreds who had been dismissed. In fact the Nehru Government held on to the British military policy that a service personnel, once removed on account of his ‘mutinous’ act, should not be taken back. The national leaders, including the Socialists, favoured summary trial for technical offences to satisfy the regulation formalities. They advised the government to desist from trying any man publicly as the people might explode in anger and jeopardise the negotiations for the transfer of power. Some of the leaders literally feasted on their defeat. A cocktail party, hosted by the authorities to celebrate the occasion on the evening of March 1, was joined by K.M. Munshi and his wife, Mirchandani, the Municipal Commissioner, and Chundrigar, the President of the Bombay Muslim League Committee. The government let the ratings rot in the prisons and jobless ex-ratings to wander the streets in search of jobs. The brave freedom fighters led a life of misery for choosing the path of armed struggle for the liberation of India.

The Indian leaders thus failed the revolt which was unitedly fought by the Navy and the masses for a united India. In order to grab power, they preferred to negotiate than fight and agreed to a settlement even at the cost of partition. Had they risen to the occasion India perhaps would have been spared the agony of the country’s vivisection!

The author is a Reader in Political Science, Satyawati College, New Delhi.

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