Royal Indian Navy Mutiny

Royal Indian Navy Mutiny

The Royal Indian Navy mutiny (also called the Bombay Mutiny) encompasses a total strike and subsequent mutiny by Indian sailors of the Royal Indian Navy on board ship and shore establishments at Bombay (Mumbai) harbour on 18 February 1946. From the initial flashpoint in Bombay, the mutiny spread and found support throughout British India, from Karachi to Calcutta and ultimately came to involve 78 ships, 20 shore establishments and 20,000 sailors. [Notes on India By Robert Bohm.pp213]

The RIN Mutiny: a brief history

issues among the mutineers.

The mutiny was called off following a meeting between the President of the Naval Central Strike Committee (NCSC), M. S. Khan, and Vallab Bhai Patel of the Congress, who had been sent to Bombay to settle the crisis. Patel issued a statement calling on the strikers to end their action, which was later echoed by a statement issued in Calcutta by Mohammed Ali Jinnah on behalf of the Muslim League. Under these considerable pressures, the strikers gave way. However, despite assurances of the good services of the Congress and the Muslim League widespread arrests were made. These were followed up by courts martial and large scale dismissals from the service. None of those dismissed were reinstated into either of the Indian or Pakistani navies after independence.

Events of the Mutiny

After the Second World War, three officers of the Indian National Army (I.N.A.), General Shah Nawaz Khan, Colonel Prem Sehgal and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon were put on trial at the Red Fort in Delhi for "waging war against the King Emperor", i.e. the British sovereign personifying British rule. The three defendants were defended at the trial by Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhulabhai Desai and others. Outside the court, the trials inspired protests and discontent among the Indian population, who came to view the defendants as revolutionaries who had fought for their country.The mutiny was initiated by the ratings of Indian Navy on 18 February 1946. It was a reaction to the treatment meted out to ratings in general and the lack of service facilities in particular. On 16 January 1946, a contingent of 67 ratings of various branches arrived at Castle Barracks, Mint Road, in Fort Mumbai. This contingent had arrived from the basic training establishment, HMIS "Akbar", located at Thane, a suburb of Bombay, at 1600 in the evening. One of them Syed Maqsood Bokhari went to the officer on duty informed him about the galley (kitchen) staff of this arrival. The sailors were that evening alleged to have been served sub-standard food. Only 17 ratings took the meal, the rest of the contingent went ashore to eat in an open act of defiance. It has since been said that such acts of neglect were fairly regular, and when reported to senior officers present practically evoked no response, which certainly was a factor in the buildup of discontent.Fact|date=February 2008 The ratings of the communication branch in the shore establishment, HMIS "Talwar", drawn from a relatively higher strata, harboured a high level of revulsion towards the authorities, having complained of neglect of their facilities fruitlessly.Fact|date=February 2008

The INA trials, the stories of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, as well as the stories of INA's fight during the Siege of Imphal and in Burma were seeping into the glaring public-eye at the time. These, received through the wireless sets and the media, fed discontent and ultimately inspired the sailors to strike. In Karachi, mutiny broke out on board the Royal Indian Navy ship, HMIS "Hindustan" off Manora Island. The ship, as well as shore establishments were taken over by mutineers. Later, it spread to the HMIS "Bahadur". A naval central strike committee was formed on 19 February 1946, led by M. S. Khan and Madan Singh. The next day, ratings from Castle and Fort Barracks in Bombay, joined in the mutiny when rumours (which were untrue) spread that HMIS "Talwar"'s ratings had been fired upon. Ratings left their posts and went around Bombay in lorries, holding aloft flags containing the picture of Subhash Chandra Bose. Several Indian naval officers who opposed the strike and sided with the British were thrown off the ship by ratings. Soon, the mutineers were joined by thousands of disgruntled ratings from Bombay, Karachi, Cochin and Vizag. Communication between the various mutinies was maintained through the wireless communication sets available in HMIS "Talwar". Thus, the entire revolt was coordinated. The strike by the Naval ratings soon took serious proportions. Hundreds of strikers from the sloops, minesweepers and shore establishments in Bombay demonstrated for 2 hours along Hornby Road near VT (now the very busy D.N. Road near CST). British personnel of the Defence forces were singled out for attacks by the strikers who were armed with hammers, crowbars and hockey sticks. The White Ensign was lowered from the ships.

Signs of liberation started to occur in Flora Fountain. Vehicles carrying mail were stopped and the mail burnt. British men and women going in cars and victorias were made to get down and shout "Jai Hind" (Victory to India). Guns were trained on the Taj Mahal Hotel, the Yacht Club and other buildings from morning till evening.

1000 RIAF men from the Marine Drive and Andheri Camps also joined in sympathy. By the end of the day Gurkhas in Karachi had refused to fire on striking sailors.

The strike soon spread to other parts of India. The ratings in Calcutta, Madras, Karachi and Vizag also went on strike with the slogans "Strike for Bombay", "Release 11,000 INA prisoners" and "Jai Hind". On 19 February, the Tricolour was hoisted by the ratings on most of the ships and establishments. By 20 February, the third day, armed British destroyers had positioned themselves off the Gateway of India. The RIN Mutiny had become a serious crisis for the British government. An alarmed Clement Attlee, the British Prime Minister, ordered the Royal Navy to put down the revolt. Admiral J.H. Godfrey, the Flag Officer commanding the RIN, went on air with his order to "Submit or perish". The movement had, by this time, inspired by the patriotic fervour sweeping the country, started taking a political turn.

The naval ratings’ strike committee decided, in a confused manner, that the HMIS "Kumaon" had to leave Bombay harbour while HMIS "Kathiawar" was already in the Arabian Sea under the control of mutineering ratings. At about 1030 "Kumaon" suddenly let go the shore ropes, without even removing the ships’ gangway while officers were discussing the law and order situation on the outer breakwater jetty.However, within two hours fresh instructions were received from the strikers’ control room and the ship returned to the same berth.

The situation was changing fast and rumours spread that Australian and Canadian armed battalions had been stationed outside the Lion gate and the Gungate to encircle the dockyard where most ships were berthed. However, by this time, all the armouries of the ships and establishments had been seized by the striking ratings. The clerks, cleaning hands, cooks and wireless operators of the striking ship armed themselves with whatever weapon was available to resist the British Destroyers that had sailed from Trincomalee in Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

The third day dawned charged with fresh emotions. The Royal Air Force flew a squadron of bombers low over Bombay harbour in a show of force, as Admiral Rattray, Flag Officer, Bombay, RIN, issued an ultimatum asking the ratings to raise black flags and surrender unconditionally.

In Karachi, by this time, realising that little hope or trust could be put on the Indian troops, the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch had been called from their barracks. The first priority was to deal with the mutiny on Manora Island. Ratings holding the "Hindustan" opened fire when attempts were made to board the ship. At midnight, the 2nd Battalion was ordered to proceed to Manora, expecting resistance from the Indian naval ratings who had taken over the shore establishments HMIS "Bahadur", "Chamak" and "Himalaya" and from the Royal Naval Anti-Aircraft School on the island. The Battalion was ferried silently across in launches and landing craft. D company was the first across, and they immediately proceeded to the southern end of the island to "Chamak". The remainder of the Battalion stayed at the southern end of the Island. By the morning, the British soldiers had secured the island.

The decision was made to confront the Indian naval ratings on board the destroyer "Hindustan", armed with 4-in. guns. During the morning three guns (caliber unknown) from the Royal Artillery C. Troop arrived on the island. The Royal Artillery positioned the battery within point blank range of the "Hindustan" on the dockside. An ultimatum was delivered to the mutineers aboard "Hindustan", stating that if they did not the leave the ship and put down their weapons by 10:30 they would have to face the consequences. The deadline came and went and there was no message from the ship or any movement. Orders were given to open fire at 10:33. The gunners' first round was on target. On board the "Hindustan" the Indian naval ratings began to return gunfire and several shells whistled over the Royal Artillery guns. Most of the shells fired by the Indian ratings went harmlessly overhead and fell on Karachi itself. They had not been primed so there were no casualties. However, the mutineers could not hold on. At 10:51 the white flag was raised. British naval personnel boarded the ship to remove casualties and the remainder of the mutinous crew. Extensive damage had been done to "Hindustan"'s superstructure and there were many casualties among the Indian sailors.

HMIS "Bahadur" was still under the control of mutineers. Several Indian naval officers who had attempted or argued in favour of putting down the mutiny were thrown off the ship by ratings. The 2nd Battalion was ordered to storm the "Bahadur" and then proceed to storm the shore establishments on Manora island. By the evening D company was in possession of the A A school and Chamak, B company had taken the "Himalaya", while the rest of the Battalion had secured "Bahadur". The mutiny in Karachi had been put down.

In Bombay, the guncrew of a 25-pounder gun fitted in an old ship had by the end of the day fired salvos towards the Castle barracks. Patel had been negotiating ferevently, and his assurances did improve matters considerably However, it was clear that the mutiny was fast developing into a spontaneous movement with its own momentum. By this time the British destroyers from Trincomalee had positioned themselves off the Gateway of India. The negotiations moved fast, keeping in view the extreme sensitivity of the situation and on the fourth day most of the demands of the strikers were conceded in principle.

Immediate steps were taken to improve the quality of food served in the ratings’ kitchen and their living conditions. The national leaders also assured that favourable consideration would be accorded to the release of all the prisoners of the Indian National Army.A very grave situation was tackled in a very timely manner and a real disaster was averted by the prudent action both by the strikers and the country’s leadership.

The mutiny caused a great deal of panic in the British Government. The connections of this mutiny with the popular perceptions and changing attitudes with the activities of the INA and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was taken note of and its resemblance of the revolt of 1857 also caused alarm among the British administration of the time. The fact that the mutiny of 1857 sparked off from a seemingly trivial and unexpected issue of greased cartridges, and that later historical analysis had revealed deep seated resentment among the then subjects of the East India Company led to fears that an identical situation was developing in India.

The Controversy: Political abandonment of the Mutineers

Surprisingly for events of the magnitude and reach that the mutinies came to be, the mutineers in the armed forces got no support from the national leaders and was largely leaderless. Mahatma Gandhi, in fact, condemned the riots and the ratings’ mutiny, his statement on 3 March 1946 criticised the strikers for mutinying without the call of a "prepared revolutionary party" and without the "guidance and intervention" of "political leaders of their choice" [Chandra, Bipan and others (1989). "India's Struggle for Independence 1857-1947", New Delhi:Penguin, ISBN 0-14-010781-9, p.485] . He further criticised the local Indian National Congress leader Aruna Asaf Ali, who was one of the few prominent political leaders of the time to offer her support for the mutineers, stating she would rather unite Hindus and Muslims on the barricades than on the constitutional front. [Jawaharlal Nehru, a Biography. By Sankar Ghose. pp141] Gandhi's criticism also belies the submissions to the looming reality of Partition of India, having stated "If the union at the barricade is honest then there must be union also at the constitutional front" [Bipan Chandra and others, ‘Indian Struggle for Independence’ (New Delhi, Penguin, 1988), p. 486] . The Muslim League issued similar statements which essentially argued that the unrest of the sailors was not best expressed on the streets, however serious the grievance may be. Legitimacy could only, probably, be conferred by a recognised political leadership as the head of any kind of movement. Spontaneous and unregulated upsurges, as the RIN strikers were viewed, could only disrupt and, at worst, destroy consensus at the political level. This may be Gandhi's (and the Congress's) conclusions from the Quit India Movement in 1942 when central control quickly dissolved under the impact of British repression, and localised actions, including widespread acts of sabotage, continued well into 1943. It may have been the conclusion that the rapid emergence of militant mass demonstrations in support of the sailors would erode central political authority if and when transfer of power occurred. The Muslim League had observed passive support for the "Quit India" campaign among its supporters and, devoid of communal clashes despite the fact that it was opposed by the then collaborationist Muslim League. It is possible that the League also realised the likelihood of a destabilised authority as and when power was transferred. This certainly is reflected on the opinion of the sailors who participated in the strike [Subrata Banerjee, The RIN Strike (New Delhi, People’s Publishing House,1954).] It has been concluded by later historians that the discomfiture of the Mainstream political parties was because the public outpourings indicated their weakening hold over the masses at a time when they could show no success in reaching agreement with the British Indian government. [James L. "Raj; Making and unmaking of British India. Abacus. 1997. p598"]

Possibly the only political segment that unconditionally supported the revolt and still mentions it is the Communist Party of India. The literature of the communist party, certainly see the RIN Mutiny as a spontaneous nationalist uprising that was one of the few episodes at the time that had the potential to prevent the partition of India, and one that was essentially betrayed by the leaders of the nationalist movement [ Subrata Banerjee, The RIN Strike (New Delhi, People’s Publishing House,1954) The RIN uprising would have developed in a different direction; had it not been for the policy pursued by them in relation to every struggle that broke out in that period, we would have seen something different from the 1947 transfer of power, according to which the iron grip of British rule was allowed to continue. p.xvii, Introduction by E. M. S. Namboodiripad ] .

More recently, the RIN Mutiny has been renamed the Naval Uprising and the mutineer's honoured for the part they played in India's Freedom. In addition to the statue which stands in Mumbai opposite the sprawling Taj Wellingdon Mews, two prominent mutineers, Madan Singh and B.C Dutt, have each had ships named after them by the Indian Navy.

Legacy and assessments of the effects of the Mutiny

The most significant factor of this mutiny, with hind-sight, came to be that Hindus and Muslims united to resist the British, even at a time that saw the peak of the movement for Pakistan. This critical assessment starts from events at the time of the mutiny. The mutiny came to receive widespread militant support, even for the short period that it lasted, not only in Bombay, but also in Karachi and Calcutta on 23 February, in Ahmedabad, Madras and Trichinopoly on the 25th, at Kanpur on the 26th, and at Madurai and several places in Assam on the 26th. The agitations, mass strikes, demonstrations and consequently support for the mutineers, therefore continued several days even after the mutiny had been called off. Along with this, the assessment may be made that it described in crystal clear terms to the government that the British Indian Armed forces could no longer be universally relied upon for support in crisis, and even more it was more likely itself to be the source of the sparks that would ignite trouble in a country fast slipping out of the scenario of political settlement. [James L. "Raj; Making and unmaking of British India. Abacus. 1997. p571, p598" and; Unpublished, Public Relations Office, London. War Office. 208/819A 25C ] It is therefore arguable that the mutiny, had it continued and confronted the threat of the RIN commander Admiral Godfrey to destroy the fleet, would have put the British Raj on the path of a maelstrom of popular movement which would have seen British exit from south-east Asia under very different circumstances than eventually happened. Certainly, the forces at Godfrey's disposal was sufficient for him to carry out his threat of destroying the RIN. However, to control the result of those actions, compounded by the outpourings of the INA trials was beyond the capabilities of the British Indian forces on whom any British General or politician (including Indian leaders) could reliably trust. The navy itself was marginal in terms of state power; Indian service personnel were at this time being swept by a wave of nationalist sentiments, as would be proved by the mutinies that occurred in the Royal Indian Air Force. In the after-effect of the mutiny, a Weekly intelligence summary issued on 25 March 1946 admitted that the Indian army, navy and air force units were no longer trust worthy, and, for the army, "only day to day estimates of steadiness could be made". [ Unpublished, Public Relations Office, London. War Office. 208/761A; James L. Raj; Making and unmaking of British India. Abacus. 1997. p598. ] . It came to the situation where, if wide-scale public unrest took shape, the armed forces could not be relied upon to support counter-insurgency operations as they had been during the "Quit India" movement of 1942. [James L. Raj; Making and unmaking of British India. Abacus. 1997. p571, p598 and; Unpublished, Public Relations Office, London. War Office. 208/819A 25C] The mutiny has been thus been deemed "Point of No Return" [Ends of British Imperialism: The Scramble for Empire, Suez, and Decolonization. By William Roger Louis.pp405] [Britain Since 1945: A Political History By David Childs.pp 28]

Also, the USA's historic hostility towards Imperialism certainly made it unlikely that Atlee's government would have sought solution by force. The involvement of the Communist Party also cast a very red tinge to this ultimately mass movement that, if confronted, had the potential to have been the flashpoint for the post-war powers, as was seen in Vietnam.

However, probably just as important remains the question as to what the implications would have been for India's internal politics had the mutiny continued. This had became a movement characterised by a significant amount of inter-communal co-operation. The Indian nationalist leaders, most notably Gandhi and the Congress leadership apparently had been concerned that the mutiny would compromise the strategy of a negotiated and constitutional settlement, but they sought to negotiate with the British and not within the two prominent symbols of respective nationalism- the Congress and the Muslim League. [Bipan Chandra and others, ‘Indian Struggle for Independence’ (New Delhi, Penguin, 1988), p. 486] . By March 1947, the Congress had limited partition to only Punjab and Bengal (thus Jinnah’s famous "moth-eaten Pakistan" remark).

Notes and references

*Naval Mutinies of the Twentieth Century: An International Perspective By Christopher M. Bell. pp212-232.ISBN: 0714684686
* A Concise History of Modern India. Barbara Daly Metcalf, Thomas R. Metcalf.pp 212.ISBN: 0521863627

External links

# [ 'The Tribune: RIN Mutiny - The lesser known mutiny]
# [ 'Madan Singh and B.C Dutt honoured at last']
# [ 'Interview with Madan Singh, Vice president of the Central Strike Committee']
# [ 'Goodbye to Madan the Mutineer']
# [ 'A Statue of Stature']
# [ '60th anniversary of RIN mutiny']
# [ 'A marxist interpretation of the Events']
#Centre for South Asian Studies, School of Social & Political Studies,University of Edinburgh,
# [ 'The Bombay Mutiny, 1946', "Beyond the Broadcast", BBC]

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