Some events and people are remembered more than others, which is likely the natural flow of history. The struggle for independence in India is no different. While famous leaders and the movements they led are revered, there are many unsung heroes whose contributions have only been documented in scholarly works. The Royal Indian Navy (RIN) Mutiny, which began on February 18, 1946, and ended five days later, dealt a fatal blow to the British Raj’s entire structure, is an oft-forgotten tragedy. It deserves to be remembered.
The 1946 Royal Naval Ratings Mutiny began in a similar manner to the 1857 Royal Naval Ratings Mutiny. However, it was not an overnight affair, since resentment among the naval ratings and other Indian Army troops was already building up. The INA rebellion was the most serious of them all, and it seriously damaged the British faith. The Royal Air Force Mutiny, which occurred in 1946 over working conditions for Indians in the Air Force and the demobilisation of British forces following the war, is less widely known.
The Royal Indian Navy (RIN) Mutiny of February 1946 was possibly the single most important incident in pushing the British to hurry their leave from India, despite the fact that it lasted less than a week and is mostly forgotten in popular memory today.
The mutiny began with a group of 20 young Indian ratings (low-ranking sailors) of the RIN stationed on the His Majesty’s Indian Ship (HMIS) Talwar, and 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, known as ‘Azad Hindi’ (Free Indians), were united by the same goal: the British evacuation from India as quickly as possible. But what prompted 20 young Indian ratings to take such a risk on the morning of February 18?
There are numerous answers. The British coffers were practically empty at the end of World War II. They couldn’t afford to keep a huge Navy in India, therefore they let go of a lot of Indians, especially ratings, despite their valour in the war.
Those ratings who continued to work were paid badly, given substandard housing, forced to perform unpleasant chores like cleaning toilets, sweeping floors, and bringing tea for British officers, and then subjected to racist remarks. With a brutal and insensitive commander like Commander Arthur Frederick King commanding the HMIS Talwar, the insurrection was inevitable.
Even when inflicted on divergent individuals with a common cause, torture and injustice can act as powerful glue. The young ratings—Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Dalits, Brahmins, of all classes and castes—were forced to sit around a big wooden vessel filled with indigestible daal and were given half-cooked rotis to dip into the common vessel and eat as a communal meal. Regardless of their religious or social divides, eating bread together united them as brothers in arms. Inadvertently, British naval commanders had brought them together to make them rebels.
Their experiences in the War, however, sparked a rising discontent with the institution, which was further infused with an anti-colonial and anti-imperialist mentality.
Serving Indian servicemen observed various countries fight for independence from their colonial overlords while liberating different countries from fascism. BC Dutt, one of the mutiny’s primary characters, pondered questions such as “What did I fight for?” and “Whose battle did I fight?”
The mutineers’ main demand was the removal of Indian troops from Indonesia, which was fighting its own independence war. Another major demand was the release of soldiers from the Indian National Army who had served under Subhash Chandra Bose. Because they were as much sons of the soil as the nationalist Indians striving for independence, their goal was ‘revolutionary action’ against the British.
In the early hours of February 2, 1946, Dutt painted phrases like ‘Quit India’ and ‘Jai Hind’ on the wooden platform leading up to the HMIS Talwar, where the RIN’s commander-in-chief was to address the officers and troops, laying the groundwork for insurrection. Dutt was apprehended but held on board, raising tensions between the commanding officer and the crew.
Meanwhile, Dutt and his colleague’s conspirators, including MS Khan and Madan Singh, persuaded his fellow ratings to join them in a hunger strike. Finally, on the morning of February 18th, 1500 ratings went on strike at the HMIS Talwar mess, chanting “No food! No job!”
Madan Singh tells how the rebel ratings conveyed their message of rebellion to colleagues embarked on different ships in an interview with The Tribune.
“With the support of our wireless system, we were able to do this.” We were able to get control of nearly all of the 70 ships and 20 beachfront facilities. “We had taken control of the civilian telephone exchange, the cable network, and, most importantly, the Navy-manned transmission centre at Kirkee, which served as the line of communication between the Indian government and the British,” Singh explains.
The rebels took possession of 74 other RIN ships stationed in Bombay, Karachi, and other parts of the world within a few days. The three colours of the Congress, Muslim League, and Communist Party had replaced the British ensign on all of these “liberated ships.”
“The most notable aspect of this brief revolt was the outpouring of public support for the mutineers.” On February 22, the city of Bombay, particularly the working classes, went on strike in solidarity. For Mint, military historian Srinath Raghavan writes, “The public transportation network was brought to a standstill, trains were burned, barricades were established, and commercial institutions were shut down.”
Not just naval ratings, but also students’ unions and mill employees inspired by the Communists joined the mutiny and took to the streets of Bombay, resulting in widespread fire, looting, and vandalism of British property. The retribution was unavoidable, and when police opened fire, approximately 300 civilians died and over 1,500 were injured. The rage against the British was so deep, and the insurrection was so swift and widespread, that it took months for peace and sanity to recover… Officially, HMIS Talwar and other neighbouring ships surrendered on February 23, but the mutiny at Karachi lasted until February 25.
The Naval Central Strike Committee, which was formed on 19 February and chose Leading Signalman Lieutenant MS Khan and Petty Officer Telegraphist Madan Singh as President and Vice-President, made the decision to surrender on February 23.
They had hoped that the national leadership would join them in their fight, but they were met with a lacklustre answer. The committee, which had been abandoned and left for dead, feared that more people would die indiscriminately, so they chose to submit.
“After being pressured by Congress leaders, particularly Sardar Patel, we agreed to surrender.” We were guaranteed that we would not be victimised, and we stated that we would only surrender to our national leaders, not to British authorities. However, the promise of ‘no sanctions’ was kept more in the breach, according to Madan Singh, speaking to The Tribune.
Many were taken to detention camps, were discharged from the army, disappeared, and were court-martialed.
With the probable exception of Aruna Asaf Ali, the reason why they were left at the altar by the leaders of the freedom struggle is up to interpretation.
The Communist Group of India was the only political party to support the mutineers, while the rest simply ignored them. The mutineers’ acts were universally condemned by both Sardar Patel and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, with Aruna Asaf Ali from Congress being the lone supporter. On capitulation, the mutineers faced a court-martial and imprisonment. Worse, the mutineers received no help from either the Indian or Pakistani governments after independence.
Some claim that the Congress leadership didn’t want a walkout that had escalated into violence to disrupt the urgent negotiations for independence with the British. The commanders also realised that any major insurrection would unavoidably pose the possibility of being resistant to centralised command and control. They also didn’t want to foster indiscipline in the military services now that independence and power were in sight.
Whatever their motivations, it is past time for us to remember 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, and citizens, writes Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, the former Chief of Naval Staff.
The Royal Naval Ratings Mutiny only lasted four days and was quickly put down. However, the impact was far-reaching. The British had come to the realisation that they could no longer rely on the armed forces to assist them to maintain control over India. The British had only been able to hold on to India through their armed forces up until now, but as the soldiers began to mutiny, the British knew their time was up. The INA revolts came first, followed by the Naval Rating Mutiny. Add to that the revolts in the Air Force, as well as the reality that World War II completely bankrupted Britain. All of these factors had a greater impact on the British decision to leave India than the movement of 1942.