Royal Indian Navy (RIN): 1946 uprising
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Freedom-Fighters Or Mutineers
By Najeeb Anjum
The story of India at war from 1939 to 1945 has been pushed aside by the story of Independence and the partition of British India into the republics of India and Pakistan. If it were not for the Indians, the prestige and grandeur of the British would not have survived the onslaught of the Japanese in the South East Asia.
The Indian National Army (INA), the Bengal famine and, above all, the WWII had made independence inevitable. The British decision to put the former officers of the INA on trial in Delhi also contributed to the Indian freedom movement.
Around the same time as the INA upheavals, other parts of India witnessed violent clashes for various reasons, including rising prices and cuts in rations as food shortages increased. Railway and postal workers all over India were on strike and a mob of 80,000 stormed ration centres in Allahabad. Royal Air Force (RAF), at Dum Dum airfield near Calcutta and at other bases throughout India, mutinied in mid-January, demanding early demobilization. Their comrades-in-arms in RAIF staged their own mutiny, demanding equal privileges as that of RAF. And in early February 1946, trouble erupted in India Pioneer Unit in Calcutta and in various centres at Jabbulpur. However, the episode of the intense revolt which shook the British Raj was the uprising of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) in 1946.
RIN was formed in 1934 and it expanded rapidly during the war years. It had recruited all educated, English-speaking personals and of a considerably higher social level than the peasants recruited for the Indian Army. The Indian navy recruits had been promised a superior standard of living to that of the army, and the naval administration had failed to live up to it.
The Indian officers, with their superior education and social background, outperformed their British counterparts, yet their pay and allowances were half of what the British counterparts got. The quality of food provided to them was inferior too. Their entry in Navy Army Air Force Institute Concession Canteen was banned.
In this backdrop, the communication sailors of the Royal Indian Navy at HMIS Talwar fired the first salvo for freedom on February 2, 1946, on board HMIS Talwar, the signal school on the eve of the visit of Vice Admiral John Godfrey, Flag Officer Commanding Royal Indian Navy (FOCRIN). Just before the morning assembly it was found that the halyard of the main mast where the FOCRIN flag and naval ensign were to be hoisted had been cut and ‘Quit India’ slogans had been painted on the outer walls of the classrooms overlooking the parade ground. This was an unpardonable offence and an explanation from Commander A.T.J. Cole, Commanding Officer HMIS Talwar, a fair-minded officer, was sought by the FOCRIN. Not satisfied with the explanation, he, upon his return to Delhi, transferred Cole and replaced him with Cdr. F.W. King, a gunnery officer, to install the discipline.
One day, on the mess deck in Talwar Cdr. King found some sailors eating their lunch before going on watch at the Signal Centre near Castle Barracks. The men did not stand to attention, which infuriated King and he shrieked: “Suar Key bachche” (Sons of swine) and ordered the regulating staff to put them “on charge”. The men who were put “on charge” made a representation against the CO on unreasonable and discriminatory treatment. The adamant behaviour of Cdr. King created more unrest among the sailors.
The dissatisfaction simmered for ten days before boiling over on the morning of February 18, 1946, over the poor quality of food. About 1500 sailors gathered in the mess for breakfast and suddenly a murmur went around about the quality of food. Everyone walked out of the mess in silent protest. Two Indian officers Lt. S.N. Kohli and Lt S.M. Nanda (both officers later rose to the rank of admiral and went on to become chief-of-the-naval-staff, Indian Navy), were sent to mediate with the sailors. The sailors did not talk to these officers, as they were disliked since they never socialized with the sailors.
The initial effort for maintaining peace having failed, the flag officer Bombay (FOB), Rear Admiral Ratrey, came to the Talwar along with Captain Inigo-Jones. FOB promised that Cdr. King would be removed and replaced by Capt Inigo-Jones, but the sailors refused to accept this as they knew very well that it was Capt Jones who, in 1944, ruthlessly suppressed a similar strike at the M.T. Barracks. However, Admiral Ratrey expressed his willingness to talk to the sailors if they would send 12 representatives to him.
The sailors, having lost faith in the British, were doubtful and suspicious. They replied, “If we send 12 representatives to you, you will punish them as you did before. We are not prepared to send any body. We want a national leader, either from the Congres, the Muslim League or the Communist party to negotiate between us”.
This seemed an impossible demand. He promised that the representative sailors would not be punished. He gave his word of honour, saying there was no point in bringing outsiders to settle a dispute, which was, after all, their own affair. The sailors agreed. By evening, the news of the strike in Talwar had spread all over India. Bombay, the home of RIN, remained the focal point with 60 ships in the harbour and 11 shore establishments joined in the strike. The news of the strike spread to RIN ships abroad too and it now involved nearly 20,000 sailors.
By dusk on February 19, the Naval Central Strike Committee (NCSC) was formed to coordinate the activities of the various units outside the Talwar. The committee’s strength varied from 12 on the first day to 36 members on the last, all below 26 years of age. Leading Signalman M.S. Khan, a Muslim from Upper Punjab, and Petty Officer Telegraphist Madan Singh, a tall Sikh, were unanimously elected President and Vice President of the NCSC. They were fluent speakers in English, Urdu and Punjabi.
Naval Central Strike Committee drew up a list of 40 grievances to be presented to FOB, ranging from complaints about racial insults and discrimination to demands for equal pay with British naval personnel, the release of INA prisoners and the withdrawal of all Indian troops from Indonesia. All the 11 shore establishments in Bombay and all the ships in the harbour hauled down the Union Jack. Some flags were burned, including white Ensigns and the Stars and Stripes flying outside the USIS, and were replaced by Congres, Muslim League and Communist Party flags. Soon, the whole city came to a standstill as the civilian population showed its support with the strikers while shopkeepers provided the strikers with free food and drink.
Freedom fighters or mutineers
By Cdr. (Retd.) Najeeb Anjum
The news of the strike reached Karachi on the afternoon of February 19, and soon it became the other main centre of confrontation. The sailors took over HMIS Hindustan and three shore establishments, namely HMIS Bahadur (now Pakistan Naval Academy PNS RAHBAR), Himalaya Gunnery School and Chamak Radar School (now part of PNS Himalaya New Entry Training Establishment).
On February 20, HMIS Hindustan put up a brave and heroic resistance, losing a number of men in the battle, including six dead and 25 wounded, when the British troops attempted to board the ship. For the British, the events in Bombay and Karachi once again revived the memories of 1857. There were even closer echoes of the mutiny of the Black Sea Fleet in the First Russian Revolution of 1905. That, too, had started with complaints about inedible food and ended with the shooting of civilian sympathizers.
On February 22, the NCSC called upon the people to observe a strike to show solidarity with the sailors. The Communist party called for a general strike. Sardar Patel had also issued a statement instructing the public not to observe a hartal. These contradictory statements from the two prominent political parties created confusion in peoples’ mind. On the other hand, the broadcast message on AIR by Admiral Godfrey (FOCRIN) had left little doubt about the future course of action of the Britishers.
The Admiral declared: “I must tell you that the Government has vast forces at its disposal with which to crush the mutiny. It will accept nothing but unconditional surrender on your part. If this is not forthcoming immediately, the Government will proceed to employ all its forces against those who are still at mutiny. I warn you against further resistance.” The Admiral went on, “even if it means the destruction of the Navy of which we have all been so proud.”
At this last statement, a gasp of incredulity swept across the entire assembly, including the officers. It was all over! A profound sense of disillusionment was unavoidable. The virtual disavowal of the mutiny by the Congres leaders was also a source of disappointment. However, some of the hotheaded among the strikers believed that indignant public opinion would force the Congres leaders to support their cause.
M.S. Khan and members of the negotiating Committee were anxiously rushing about meeting Sardar Patel or Mr Chundrigar of the Muslim League in their last attempt to get the leaders to intervene and stop the wanton bloodshed which seemed inevitable. But these ideas were harshly dispelled when 10 RAF planes flew over Bombay as the admiral issued another proclamation: “Should you now have decided, in accordance with my warning, to surrender unconditionally, you are to hoist a large black or blue flag and muster all hands on deck on the side facing Bombay city and await furthers orders.”
The President of the NCSC sent a desperate message to all ships and establishment: “Do not surrender unconditionally. Be peaceful and carry on strike. Come what may. Let anything happen.” The message was greeted with shouts of “Jai Hind and “Inquilab Zindabad”.
Everyone seemed assured that the strike was going to continue, but at six Khan came to the breakwater with the members of the Negotiating Committee and addressed the sailors. He read out Sardar Patel’s message, which asked the RIN sailors to lay down the arms and go through the formality of surrender. The Congres will do its level best to see that there is no victimization and their legitimate demands are accepted as soon as possible.
It was at this moment that a sailor came in with a message that Mr Jinnah, in a statement at Calcutta, had expressed his sympathy with the sailors. Mr Jinnah had said: “I appeal to all RIN men not to play into the hands of those who want to create trouble and exploit those on strike for their own ends. I, therefore, appeal to the men of the RIN and the sailors to call off the strike. Particularly, I call upon the Muslims to stop and to create no further trouble.”
The sailors were confused, completely shattered and indecisive. The Congres and the Muslim League both condemned the mutineers and strikers, and made no complain when Wavell and Auchinleck acted firmly to suppress the mutiny. Political parties had opposed the disturbances for the very good reason that they were about to assume power and had no wish to inherit rebellious and undisciplined armed forces.
On February 23, at 1:30 am, a meeting of NCSC was called to deliberate the proposal of surrender. A tired and beleaguered Khan rose and said that both the Congres and Muslim League has given assurances to provide justice and support to their legitimate demands and to ensure that no victimization would take place if the sailors surrendered. A vote was thereafter taken. Only six members opposed the decision to surrender. One by one the three flags of the Congres, League and Communist Parties came down from the flag masts. The black flags went up. It was all over.
Khan’s last message ended with, “A last word to our people: Our strike has been a historic event in the life of our 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. Long live our great people. Jai Hind!”
Within 10 hours of the surrender, nearly 400 sailors were under arrest in and around Bombay, and taken to Mulund military camp in an isolated area in Thana district. In Karachi, 500 sailors were arrested on the first day. Khan and Madan Singh were also removed to unknown destination. “We surrendered to India and not to the British. We shall never give in,” were Khan’s last words to his comrades as he was taken in detention.
It was probably no coincidence that the British Prime Minister Clement Attlee announced on February 19, 1946, the decision to send a Cabinet Mission to India. This event was probably the single most contributory factor in hastening the process of independence. In any case, from that day the independence of India was assured — only the date had to be fixed. The mutiny was the culmination of the erosion of imperial authority but curiously this incredible feat has been erased from history.
The War Department made the formal announcement on the appointment of a Commission Enquiry in March 1946. It produced a 600-pages report after holding sessions in Bombay, Karachi, Madras and Calcutta. As expected, the report was withheld from the public. After a great deal of public agitation, a truncated 2000-word report was released to the press almost a year after the mutiny.
After independence, many of the RIN Muslim mutineers came to Pakistan in search of a new identity, but their hopes were shattered as they were considered unsuitable for re-employment in the then Royal Pakistan Navy (RPN). The fate of their counterparts in India was no different. Nonetheless, in 1973, the Government of India accorded official recognition to the ex-personnel of RIN who participated in mutiny and granted them freedom fighters’ pension.
There is a curious silence and elusiveness concerning this glorious episode in the history books in Pakistan. The axiom, “History is written to please and flatter the ruler of the day”, certainly holds true in this case.
Last secular uprising of Indian National Movement/ 1946
In India, the Second World War is not remembered much, and Indians, by and large, don’t care much about who won and who lost.
But there are three reasons for paying attention to mutiny. First, the uprising, also known as the Royal Indian Navy Revolt and Bombay Mutiny, had its roots in the Second World War and the Congress-led freedom movement that ran parallel to it. And the most dominant slogan of the Indian freedom fighters of that time as also of the RIN ratings was ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ (Hail Revolution), which was inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution. And many of the ratings were directly inspired by the Soviet Union’s fight against Nazi Germany. Second, while everyone debates nationalism in India today, this last spontaneous and secular fight against colonialism has been largely forgotten.
Third, one mustn’t leave any chance to meet Professor Deshpande for luncheon and munch on history. So, at a restaurant in Connaught Place, with chicken tikkas and steaks to keep our bellies full, talking about his book, ‘Hope and Despair: Mutiny, Rebellion, and Death in India, 1946’ on the anniversary of the total capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Allies led by the Soviet Union in Berlin.
Following are the excerpts:
Q. The India of 1946 was one of hope and despair, you say. Nationalism shaped the national narrative while popular discontent was also rife. Do you see any parallel in the India of today?
There can be no direct parallels, but there are similarities in the sense that India today is a demographically young country full of hope and alienation, both at the same time. The nationalism of Indian National Army and Royal Indian Navy was secular; its slogans, symbols and actions were inclusive and resolutely anti-imperialist. Communal political parties were quite active and flourished during the War because they supported the British, but the mass upsurges of 1942, 1945 and 1946 were largely secular. The crowd turned communal during the summer of 1946.
Please remember an important fact: in the RIN Revolt, the naval ratings hoisted the flags of the Congress, Muslim League and Communist Party of India on their ships in deference to the three most important parties of the day. While the League and Congress flags symbolised communal unity, the CPI flag underlined the sympathy the ratings had with the working classes.
Nationalism remains important to Indian people even today, but its historical context and meaning has changed. Most young Indians are intensely nationalist and have great hopes of the establishment. They repose trust in parliamentary democracy, but if their hopes are belied and the establishment fails to curb unemployment and inflation, who knows what might happen in the near future.
Q. To what extent do you think the post-Second World War demobilisation added to the feeling of discontent? Any modern parallels, again?
Post-War demobilisation was a resounding failure. The British recruited millions of Indian volunteers for the armed forces during the war and lured them with a variety of promises. These promises were not kept even as the Indian economy came out of recession because of the wartime demand. While the hoarders and speculators made big money during the war the people faced the brunt of famine, inflation and unemployment in the aftermath of the war. From August 1945, wartime demand declined rapidly and unemployment started rising and this increased the competition in the labour market.
Without enough jobs outside the military, the demobilised men crowded the cities and either became the foot soldiers of revolution or reaction. In these conditions the naval authorities proved incompetent and insensitive to the anxieties of the ratings awaiting demobilisation. The promises made to the young recruits during the war stood betrayed, and the colonial state was rightly seen as a dishonest state by the rebels.
In 1945-46 the colonial state lost whatever little political legitimacy it commanded among the Indians, and that was the reason why the British made haste in departing from India in 1947. Speaking of parallels, see the developments since 2014. The Modi government rode on a media orchestrated anti-UPA wave and numerous promises were made to the electorate in 2014. Then demonetisation was imposed on the people in the name of destroying the shadow economy. Yet, there remains some hope among the votaries of the Prime Minister that things will become better. I suspect the remnant of this hope might turn to despair by 2019. Hope is a risky proposition with which politicians play.
Q. The INA received popular support, even political. But the ratings of RIN didn’t. Why?
The INA was appropriated by the Congress and Nehru, usually a supporter of rebel causes, defended the INA undertrials. The naval ratings, inspired by this, expected Congress support. They described themselves as satyagrahis in the Gandhian sense. In doing so, they misjudged the political situation in February 1946. By the end of 1945, it had become clear to the prescient that the Congress leadership was preparing itself for the impending transfer of power and was opposed to a popular movement which would derail the process of electoral politics.
The morale of the rebels was bound to collapse in such conditions. Both Patel and Jinnah promised them help on the condition of surrender. But these promises were forgotten later. In fact, the two-nation theory seemed to have triumphed over secular nationalism in February, and both India and Pakistan were desirous of inheriting apolitical professional militaries from the Raj. The RIN rebels did not fit into this future. Upon its political isolation, the colonial state crushed the revolt by deploying British battalions, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.
Nevertheless, the working poor of Bombay rose in an insurrection, first in support of the ratings and later to turn their world upside down. This civil uprising was drowned in blood by the British Army that shot dead more than 250 people – the largest number of Indians directly murdered by the colonial state since the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of 1919. No one remembers this bloodshed now.
Q. The military was the lifeblood of the colonial state. Yet there was discontent in the ranks at that time also. How do you see the military in the present context?
During peace time, the British usually confined the Indian Army to the barracks, and its expansion and contraction were related to its participation in the two world wars. Both wars produced discontent in sections of the Indian Army but, by and large, the colonial military remained a professional standing force subordinated to civil authority in the time-honoured British tradition.
History shows that the more time an army spends outside the barracks in tending to political conflicts, the less professional and apolitical it becomes. The military is an institution, like other institutions in a political system, and the less ideological it is, the better it is for democracy. The financial and political subordination of the military society to civil society is the sine qua non of democracy and that is how things must be; the success of the Westminster model of governance is based on this premise.
That, in essence, has been the difference between Pakistan and India since the early 1950s. Unfortunately, the Indian politicians, especially since the 1980s, have increasingly deployed the Indian Army to manage the state in conditions which call for political and not military solutions. This does not augur well for Indian democracy.