Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Forgotten Mutiny

When one talks about a Mutiny in India one is immediately reminded of the Revolt of 1857 or as it is now called “The First War of Indian Independence”. However another mutiny that took place just before our independence is largely ignored.

This was the Naval Mutiny that started on February 18, 1946 in Bombay.

Like most revolts the Naval Mutiny too had a rather innocuous beginning. About a thousand ratings of HMIS TALWAR, the signal Training ship of the Royal Indian Navy in Bombay went on a hartal and a hunger strike. The incident which precipitated this unusual action was the alleged insult to an Indian rating by a British officer when the rating drew the officer’s attention to some of the problems they were facing.

This hartal was ignored by the Britishers and before they knew it they had a full fledged mutiny on their hands. Moreover unlike earlier this was a mutiny that received unprecedented public support.
That the British chose to ignore this hartal by a 1000 naval ratings was a bit surprising because just twelve days earlier 600 members, including officers of the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) camp situated close by on Marine Drive went on a hunger strike as a protest against an insult by the Camp Commander. This hunger strike was supported by the RIAF men at Delhi, Lahore and Karachi forcing the British to take remedial measures.

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 only with hammers, crowbars and hockey sticks. The Union Jack was lowered from the ships and Congress and Muslim League flags were hoisted.

A reign of terror prevailed in Flora Fountain for an hour. 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”. Guns were trained on the Taj Mahal hotel, the Yacht Club and other buildings from morning till evening.

Absolute chaos prevailed for the next few days. 2000 men of HMIS AKBAR joined the strike. There was firing on the naval ratings in Castle Barracks. 1000 RIAF men from the Marine Drive and Andheri Camps also joined in sympathy.

The strike soon spread to other parts of India. The ratings in Calcutta, Madras, Karachi and Vizag also went on strike shouting slogans “Strike for Bombay” “Release 11,000 INA prisoners” and “Jai Hind”.

Four days later, on the 22nd February, there was complete break down of law and order in Bombay. There was unprecedented arson and looting.

The most significant factor was that Hindus and Muslims combined to fight the British. And remember this was just before independence at the height of the movement for Pakistan. Even the burhka-clad women of Bhendi Bazaar, which was the worst affected area, joined in the agitation throwing pots and pans, from the roof tops, at the British soldiers who were called out to patrol the streets.

Shockingly this Mutiny in the armed forces got no support from the national leaders and like all mutinies before it was largely leaderless. Mahatma Gandhi, in fact, condemned the riots and the ratings’ mutiny. He said, “A combination between Hindus and Muslims for the purpose of violent actions is unholy and will lead to and would probably be a precursor to mutual violence – bad for India and the world.” Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who was in Bombay, appealed to the agitators to give up violence and agreed to intervene only if they did so.

The British Government on the other hand clearly saw the writing on the wall. They realised that if the men of the Defence forces could not be relied upon then their hold on India would be very shaky. Also a hostile Navy would mean that the links with Britain would be severed.

On the 19th February, a day after the naval mutiny broke out, the British Government announced that a Cabinet Mission would come to India to work out details of Independence of the country from foreign rule.

The 60th anniversary of this amazing event passed by last month and not a pip about it either in the mainstream media or elsewhere. This despite the fact that the Naval Mutiny might have had a greater impact on the British than the Revolt of 1857. Sadly yet another instance of ignoring the contributions by our Defence forces.

17 comments:

Pankaj said...

Interesting. Indeed a forgotten chapter, like so many! Where did you do all your research, dude?

The Arbit Council said...

neat.. thanks for writing about it..

Anonymous said...

Next to Hitler the only man who could fool a lot of people for a lot of time was Gandhi. No I am not a R.S.S, member nor any Hindu organisation. Gandhi thought of his name and fame only. It suited the British have a mole like this among the freedom fighters.

Raghu said...

Very interesting Gautam! You probably have quite a bunch of stories about India that bear telling in your interesting coversational style (as opposed to Govt. issued textbooks).

Please do one on Independence Day for Hyderabad being much much later than Aug 15, 1947: The Nizam, Razakars, Vallabhai Patel and the Indian Army annexing Hyd(!) - I look forward to a fascinating read.

Anonymous said...

It was an interesting read, the narration was intriguing. Two of the few reasons why this mutiny was suppresed in the public domain by the national leaders could be that India was on the verge of the much awaited"Midnight Hour" - the leaders unwilling to take an aggessive stance and the second reason might be Gandhi's Non - Violence mantra.

Nonetheless it was an interesting brush with an intriguing past.

Bala

Anonymous said...

The forgotten mutiny was forgotten even by those who are currently enjoying the fruits of the sacrifices made by the naval ratings. Many of them died unsung and unrecognized. It was this mutiny which made the British advance the date of Independence as they felt they could not rely on the armed forces any longer. Dissatisfaction in the Navy meant jeopardizing their sailing back home.

Saikrishna Budamgunta said...

Hmm..nice work dude.

Kuldip D Gandhi said...

Interesting Fact About Naval Mutiny.

Barry & Aruna Michie said...

Just found your posting while working on family history.

My wife Aruna's parents were ring leaders of the Bombay Naval Mutiny. Her father, Pran Nath Nair (latter changed to Nayyar - deceased), was seconded from the army to the navy during WWII and was in signals. He and his wife, Kusum Nair (a journalist and author "Blossoms in the Dust" - also deceased), along with 5 other Indian naval personnel hatched the plot - one went on to become an admiral in the Pakistani navy (name forgotten unfortunately).

The family story is that a rating -according to the well thought-out plan - threw a handful of khankar into the dal in the ship's mess. When the sailors started crunching down and complaining he raised anti-British slogans and got the crew agitated enough to take over the ship --- from which it spread. The Talwar was the obvious and deliberate choice as it was a nodal point for naval communications with the fleet, Bombay and beyond. Pran's wife, Kusum, was the go-between with Congress officials and the British - making the case then and in subsequent hearings that this was not a mutiny but only a "strike". She often said she lied through her teeth about this, in order to avoid the mutineers being tried and executed. Both confirmed that their aim was to make the point that the British could not count on the loyalty/support of Indian military personnel for their continued presence in India. WWII was over, and now it was time for the Brits to leave, thank you. And the point was well made and understood!

Both also confirmed that the Congress leaders were not very pleased with the mutiny - seeing it as an ill-advised act by young, brash, idealistic freedom fighters. This is how it is usually referred to in most history books.

Yes, it is too bad this is almost a forgotten footnote in history as it was so important. We could never get my mother-in-law to sit down and write up the incident ... she more interested in rural economic development.

Years later, Aruna Asafali (I think while mayor of Delhi)attempted to bring the mutineers and participants together for a reunion. Don't know if this was successful or not as much of the family had left India.

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Anonymous said...

it will not be bad if we can sincerly remember the mutiny
......will be thankful if every details on the mutiny will be published free and true

Vivek Golikeri said...

Much as I despise Gandhi's goody-goodyism and pacifism, I disagree with Anonymous that he was a mole among the freedom fighters. He was a well-intentioned damn fool, and his damnfoolishness eventually earned him Godse's bullet when he needless handed an obscenely large sum of rupees to Pakistan.

Gandhi did NOT secure India's freedom; that is exactly the myth that has been nurtured in postwar India and globally. World War Two weakened Britain's military might, while Subash Chandra Bose created the INA with German help. Then the INA subverted the Raj's rank-and-file troops against their foreign officers.

India was too heavily populated to control with foreign troops alone.The Raj had no choice but to depend on Indian troops, who joined because they needed a livelihood. Subash instilled them with nationalistic ideology. Moreover, he warned that someday when India was free,any Indian soldier who kept on doing the Englishman's dirty work would be tried and executed for treason!

This combination of offensive treatment by white officers, plus the fear of being hanged someday by their own people, caused Indian troops to turn their rifles against the same foreigners who had created the British Indian military. It was nothing other than VIOLENCE and fear of violence that ended the Raj.

SD said...

The 'Radioactive Rebel' Article in the latest issue of Outlook made me read your article. You know why? That contain a picture of the naval mutiny 1946. In that I saw the picture of my father (must be that time 20 years old) marching past with other rebels . That compelled me to go to net and start looking fer the details of the mutiny. Indeed , I thank you for all the gen in the article. Really it is a forgotten story.

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Anonymous said...

Ramachandran Nair
I am in search of the details of one of the participants in the Mutiny of 1946, who is no more> His name is Mr. KSB Pillai from Kerala. Can the son-in-law of Mr. PN Nair or some one in the know of the things throw some light on the subject?
Pl contact : krnair0022@gmail.com