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.
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.