Royal Indian Navy mutiny
The Royal Indian Navy mutiny (also called the Royal Indian Revolt or Bombay Mutiny) encompasses a total strike and subsequent revolt 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 revolt 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.
It was repressed by force by the British Royal Navy. Only the Communist Party supported the strikers; the Congress and the Muslim League condemned it. Nationalist historians on the far left have looked at the mutiny as a revolt against the British Raj and imperial rule.
The RIN Revolt: a brief history
The RIN Revolt started as a strike by ratings of the Royal Indian Navy on 18 February in protest against general conditions. The immediate issues of the revolt were conditions and food. 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. The strike found immense support among the Indian population, already gripped by the stories of the Indian National Army. The actions of the mutineers was 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. Widespread rioting took place from Karachi to Calcutta. Notably, the revolting ships hoisted three flags tied together — those of the Congress, Muslim League, and the Red Flag of the Communist Party of India (CPI), signifying the unity and downplaying of communal issues among the mutineers.
The revolt 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 the Indian or Pakistani navies after independence.
Events of the revolt
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After the Second World War, three officers of the Indian National Army (I.N.A.), General Shah Nawaz Khan, Colonel Prem Sahgal 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 fort, the trials inspired protests and discontent among the Indian population, who came to view the defendants as revolutionaries who had fought for their country. In January 1946 British airmen stationed in India took part in the Royal Air Force Revolt of 1946 largely over the speed of their demobilisation, but also in some cases issuing demands against being used to continue British Imperialism. The Viceroy at the time, Lord Wavell, noted that the actions of the British airmen inspired both the RIAF and RIN mutinies.
The revolt was initiated by the ratings of the Royal 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. The ratings of the communication branch in the shore establishment, HMIS Talwar, drawn from higher strata of society, harboured a high level of revulsion towards the authorities, having complained of neglect of their facilities fruitlessly.
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, revolt 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 revolt 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 Subhas 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 Revolt 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 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 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 revolt 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.
Confrontation with the Hindustan
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 revolt 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 revolt 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 fervently, and his assurances did improve matters considerably However, it was clear that the revolt 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.
The controversy: political abandonment of the mutineers
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’ revolt, his statement on 3 March 1946 criticised the strikers for revolting 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, 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. 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".
The Muslim League issued similar attacks on the mutiny which 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  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.
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. The two principal bourgeois parties of British India, the Congress and the Muslim League, refused to support the ratings. The class content of the mass uprising frightened them and they urged the ratings to surrender. Patel and Jinnah, two representative faces of the communal divide, were united on this issue and Gandhi also condemned the ‘Mutineers’. Upon surrender, the ratings faced court-martial, imprisonment and victimization. Even after 1947, the governments of Independent India and Pakistan refused to reinstate them or offer compensation. The only prominent leader from nationalist ranks who supported them was Aruna Asaf Ali.
The only major political segment that still mentions the revolt are the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The literature of the communist party, certainly see the RIN Revolt 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.
More recently, the RIN Revolt has been renamed the Naval Uprising and the mutineers 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 Revolt
The grievances focused on the slow pace of demobilization. British units were near mutiny and it was feared that Indian units might follow suit.  The weekly intelligence summary issued on the 25th of March, 1946 admitted that the Indian army, navy and air force units were no longer trustworthy, and, for the army, "only day to day estimates of steadiness could be made". The situation has been thus been deemed the "Point of No Return."
However, probably just as important remains the question as to what the implications would have been for India's internal politics had the revolt continued. The Indian nationalist leaders, most notably Gandhi and the Congress leadership apparently had been concerned that the revolt 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. By March 1947, the Congress had limited partition to only Punjab and Bengal (thus Jinnah’s famous moth-eaten Pakistan remark).
In popular culture
The rising was championed by Marxist cultural activists from Bengal. Salil Chaudhury wrote a revolutionary song in 1946 on behalf of the Indian People’s Theatre Association. Later, Hemanga Biswas, another veteran of the IPTA, penned a commemorative tribute. A Bengali play based on the incident, Kallol (Sound of the Wave), by radical playwright Utpal Dutt, became an important anti-establishment statement, when it was first performed in 1965 in Calcutta. It drew large crowds to the Minerva Theatre where it was being performed; soon it was banned by the Congress government of West Bengal and its writer imprisoned for several months.
The revolt is part of the background to John Masters' "Bhowani Junction" whose plot is set at this time. Several Indian and British characters in the book discuss and debate the revolt and its implications.
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Notes and references
- Notes on India By Robert Bohm.pp213
- Ronald Spector, "The Royal Indian Navy Strike of 1946," Armed Forces and Society (Winter 1981) 7#2 pp 271-284
- Encyclopaedia of Political Parties. By O.P Ralhan pp1011 ISBN 81-7488-865-9
- Glimpses of Indian National Movement. By Abel M. pp257.ISBN 81-7881-420-X
- Chandra, Bipan and others (1989). India's Struggle for Independence 1857-1947, New Delhi:Penguin, ISBN 0-14-010781-9, p.485
- Jawaharlal Nehru, a Biography. By Sankar Ghose. pp141
- Bipan Chandra and others, ‘Indian Struggle for Independence’ (New Delhi, Penguin, 1988), p. 486
- Subrata Banerjee, The RIN Strike (New Delhi, People’s Publishing House,1954).
- James L. Raj; Making and unmaking of British India. Abacus. 1997. p598
- 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
- James L. Raj; Making and unmaking of British India. Abacus. 1997. p596
- Unpublished, Public Relations Office, London. War Office. 208/761A; James L. Raj; Making and unmaking of British India. Abacus. 1997. p598.
- 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
- Bipan Chandra and others, ‘Indian Struggle for Independence’ (New Delhi, Penguin, 1988), p. 486
- Inside the actor’s mind Mint (newspaper), Jul 3, 2009.
- Remembering Utpal Dutt Shoma A Chatterji, Screen (magazine), August 20, 2004.
- Spector, Ronald. "The Royal Indian Navy Strike of 1946," Armed Forces and Society (Winter 1981) 7#2 pp 271–284
- Bell, Christopher M. Naval Mutinies of the Twentieth Century: An International Perspective pp212–232. ISBN 0-7146-8468-6
- Metcalf, Barbara Daly, and Thomas R. Metcalf. A Concise History of Modern India ISBN 0-521-86362-7
- 'The Tribune: RIN Revolt - The lesser known revolt
- '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 revolt'
- 'A marxist interpretation of the Events'
- Centre for South Asian Studies, School of Social & Political Studies, University of Edinburgh, http://www.csas.ed.ac.uk/index.php.
- 'The Bombay Revolt, 1946', Beyond the Broadcast, BBC
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