Thursday, February 17, 2011

When the big guns threatened the Bombay yacht club

FRIENDS in India are commemorating an event 65 years ago which helped bring a nation (or two) to birth, by shaking a mighty empire. This was the mutiny of the Royal Indian Navy, which began on 18 February 1946. It boiled up from a mixture of rising national feeling and social discontent.

Like other such events, it began in a small way, over what might otherwise have become a forgotten issue, and not unlike the Potemkin mutiny.

On 16 January 1946, a contingent of 67 naval ratings of various branches arrived at Castle Barracks, Mint Road, in Fort Mumbai. They had come from the basic training establishment, HMIS Akbar, located at Thane, a suburb of Bombay. They reported to the officer on duty, who informed the galley staff of their arrival. Quite casually, the duty cook took out 20 loaves of bread from the large cupboard and added three litres of tap water to the mutton curry as well as the gram dal which was lying already cooked before. That evening only 17 ratings ate the watery, tasteless meal, while the rest went ashore and ate, a quiet but open act of defiance.

When reported to senior officers present, this grievances practically evoked no response and the discontentment continued to build up. The crews felt the way their wellbeing and conditions were neglected reflected their status in the King's navy.
This came with the upsurge of the independence movement, and news about the trials of officers of Bhose's Indian National Army(INA), who had fought the British during the war.

Much of the political news passed from port to port and ship to ship by radio. The ratings of the communication branch in the shore establishment, HMIS Talwar, drawn from more educated and often higher social strata, particularly resented their treatment as inferiors by the authorities, and the way complaints about facilities were ignored by those in charge.

On February 18, 1946, a meeting of ratings was held to air their grievances, and by dusk on 19 February, a Naval Central Strike committee was elected. Leading Signalman M.S Khan and Petty Officer Telegraphist Madan Singh were unanimously elected President and Vice-President respectively.

Starting in Bombay, the naval strike spread across British India, from Karachi to Calcutta and ultimately came to involve 78 ships, 20 shore establishments and 20,000 sailors. The ratings in Calcutta, Madras, Karachi and Vizag went on strike with the slogans "Strike for Bombay", "Release 11,000 INA prisoners" and "Jai Hind" (Victory to India). The mutineers kept in touch via the radio relayed from HMIS Talwar. The White Ensign was hauled down. Signifying their unity and wish to overcome the divisions among Indian political leaders, the mutinying ships hoisted three flags tied together — those of the Congress, Muslim League, and the Red Flag of the Communist Party of India (CPI).

Hundreds of strikers from the sloops, minesweepers and shore establishments in Bombay demonstrated for 2 hours along Hornby Road. Many of the men had armed themselves with spanners and iron bars. But they had wide support, and there were many spontaneous actions. In some places 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). Meanwhile the navy's big guns were trained on the Taj Mahal Hotel, the Yacht Club and other buildings from morning till evening.

Onshore the mutineers were supported by demonstrations which included a one-day general strike in Bombay. The strike spread to other cities, and was joined by the Royal Indian Air Force and local police forces. Naval officers and men began calling themselves the "Indian National Navy" and offered left-handed salutes to British officers. At some places, NCOs in the British Indian Army ignored and defied orders from British superiors. In Madras and Pune, the British garrisons had to face revolts within the ranks of the Indian Army. A Gurkha unit refused orders to fire on strikers.

We might note that the sailors' grievance over food was but small compared with what many civilians had endured. While the Indian army and navy had been expected to help defend India and serve the British empire during the War, the British authorities had let three million people die from famine in Bengal in 1943. Small wonder that now, taking the naval mutiny as signal that their time had come, people took part in widespread rioting in Calcutta and elsewhere.

But the mutineers received no support from the national leaders. Mahatma Gandhi in a 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". He further criticised the local Indian National Congress leader Aruna Asaf Ali, 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.

The Muslim League argued that the unrest of the sailors was not best expressed on the streets, however serious the grievance may be. Legitimacy could only be conferred by a recognised political leadership. Spontaneous upsurges could only disrupt political consensus. Thus the two main parties, on course to accept British backed partition, with all the bloodshed that followed, were united for once in asserting their authority, against the sailors who mounted such a powerful show of unity and threat to British rule, and against the masses who were ready to support the sailors.

The Communist Party of India, the third largest political force at the time, extended full support to the naval ratings and mobilized the workers in their support, though in the end, accepting that India's struggle must remain at the national bourgeois 'stage', it would not challenge the national leaders and could not halt division.

By February 20, the third day, British destroyers had positioned themselves off Bombay. The British prime minister, Labour's Clement Attlee, 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". Rumours spread that Australian and Canadian armed battalions had been stationed outside the Lion gate and the Gun gate 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 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, 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.

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.

The negotiations lasted some days, and it seemed as though 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. 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 the Indian or Pakistani navies after independence, nor were they offered compensation.

Disturbances continued on shore after the strike had ended, and a British intelligence summary issued on March 25, 1946 admitted that the Indian army, navy and air force units were no longer trust worthy, and 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. Coupled with the strikes that erupted across the Royal Air Force that year, the Indian navy mutiny was therefore a key factor in the British government's decision to get out of India.
Clement Attlee admitted as much.

The Indian and Pakistani governments were less honest in acknowledging this debt,and in West Bengal in 1965, a play based on the events, Kallol (Sound of the Wave), was banned by the Congress government, and playwright Utpal Dutt imprisoned. In later years India felt it safer to adopt the history. The RIN Mutiny was renamed the Naval Uprising, a statue erected in Mumbai, and Navy ships named after two prominent mutineers, Madan Singh and B.C Dutt. We might compare this with the way Dublin has a railway station named after the socialist James Connolly, though Ireland's bourgeois governments would dread his reappearance.

For the rest of the world, educated as we have been by Western cinema's version of India's road to independence, those who fight oppression are periodically advised to follow the path of Gandhi,and stick to non-violent civil disobedience (and usually the emphasis is on civil, rather than disobedience). Without detracting either from the Mahatma's greatness or that of the masses who followed him, let us remember also the persuasive part played by the guns of the Indian navy when they were trained on the Bombay yacht club!

Here is one commemorative event I have heard of, there may be others:

Commemorative Event

Now postponed to

21 February · 16:30 - 19:00

Sahawas Hall, Sinhagad road, near Dandekar bridge, opposite to Ramkrishna math, Pune

This is the 2nd of special annual events organized by the New Wave in Pune. The 19th of February 2010 marks the 65th anniversary of the glorious naval revolt of 1946 which shook the British rule over India to the core. It was the final straw which broke the back of the Empire finally paving the way for India's independence and starting off a chain of national liberation movements throughout South East Asia and the middle east.

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At 12:20 AM, Anonymous Mikey said...

I came to your blog thinking you might have something to say about Libya. You have done in the past. I see it is all quiet now.

At 9:26 PM, Blogger Charlie Pottins said...

Give us time, Mikey. This is only a blog, not a daily paper!. Like you no doubt, I am watching the news from Libya, and horrified by the bloodshed inflicted by the regime's forces.
And like me, no doubt, you are anxious that the outcome will be a better state of affairs for the Libyan people.
I appreciate your interest in what I might have to say. But
if you have read what I have said pertaining to Libya in this blog before you will realise that it only concerned Libya's international relations -e.g. the Lockerbie affair and al Megrahi, or the arrest of some Libyans in my home town, Manchester. I have not written about Libya's internal regime and cannot claim to have anticipated the current upheaval. Nor would I pretend to have any idea how things may turn out.
I have written about Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Israel and Palestine because I had things to say and/ or information and news, sometimes via friends en situ, which seemed to have passed the UK media by.
I have not written about Libya yet, nor indeed Tunisia, because I have no contacts on either and am not particularly well-informed. I am hoping to remedy these gaps.
Sometimes I write about bits of history that interest me, sometimes I respond to requests from friends who want an issue or activity they are engaged in publicised. In this piece about India, I was doing both.
Sorry if that wasn't what you were looking for, but like I say, this isn't a newspaper, only a blog.

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