The Forgotten Mutiny That Shook The British Empire
The naval mutiny of 1946 convinced the British that their hold on the British-Indian armed forces was badly weakened. Here is the story of the famous Royal Indian Navy ‘mutiny’.
The naval mutiny of 1946 was among the hardest blows the British received during their brutal 200 year occupation of India. The unexpected revolt by more than 25,000 ratings of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) achieved what two generations of nonviolent political struggle couldn’t – it drove a stake of fear through British hearts.
The mutiny proved the British could not continue to hold on to India with the help of Indian soldiers any longer. It started in Bombay on February 18 and spread like wildfire to naval establishments countrywide, ending on the 23rd. The following day the British started packing their bags.
Without the support of the navy, over 100,000 British troops, administrators and civilians and their families were in no position to make it to Britain safely. At the very least, a large number of them would have been slaughtered. The British knew this, and they quit India post-haste.
British caste system
Poor service conditions, racial discrimination and anger at the court martial of rebel soldiers of the Indian Nation Army (INA) were the primary reasons for the mutiny. Telegraphist B.C. Dutt, who joined the RIN in the Communication Branch in 1941, wrote a book titled Mutiny of the Innocents in which he provides a graphic account of the events, including the discrimination suffered by Indian ratings at the hands of the Europeans.
Says Dutt: “We found ourselves working alongside white servicemen from the army. In the Indian Army, British servicemen received preferential treatment. Whether at base or in a combat zone, they had better accommodation, better amenities. They were paid five to ten times more for the same jobs that Indian servicemen did. They travelled more comfortably. They could, if they wished, use Indian servicemen’s canteens, mess rooms and baths, but the Indians had no access to theirs.”
“The British servicemen were not required to salute the viceroy’s commissioned officers. The discrimination was crude and was calculated to make the Indians feel inferior to the British.”
Dutt refers to a Beach Signal Unit outside Greater Bombay where a vast training camp was located under army administration at that time. There were facilities for training over 10,000 men in that camp. He notes: “The caste system practised in the camp was merely an extension of the system long established by the Raj in its administrative setup and its whole existence in India. Besides the gradation of ranks into officers and Other Ranks, the camp was broadly divided into two pairs – the British and other white personnel called the BOR, the privileged section, the Brahmins; the Indian Army personnel and RIN ratings known as IOR (Indian Other Ranks), the under-privileged, the untouchables.”
He refers to this division being an open one and says that no effort was made to conceal this fact. According to him, “We resented the superior airs of the BORs. We despised the foul language they used while speaking to Indians. But we could do nothing about it. It was a system, well established and accepted by the men of the Indian Army. They did not complain. By and large they were an uncomplaining lot, anyway. Also, they had inherited more than a century-old tradition of loyalty and obedience and they were a part of it.”
In the book Under Two Ensigns: The Indian Navy 1945-1950, former Rear Admiral Satyindra Singh quotes Admiral and Chief of the Naval Staff B.S. Soman, who was Lt Commander during the mutiny. “There were many cases of injustice and ill-treatment in the RIN and these were believed by the ratings to be the outward manifestation of racial arrogance on the part of the European personnel (Dutch, French, Norwegian, Russian, Swede, Australian, Canadian, New Zealander and even South African) in the service. The ratings and even many of the Indian officers genuinely felt that colour bar in all its grim nakedness was present and influenced the conduct of the Europeans towards the Indians.”
Petty Officer Telegraphist Madan Singh’s opinion was that the causes of the mutiny were bad service conditions, in which bad food took the first place. Intolerable and insulting language used by some British officers who seemed to get more brazen by the day was another important factor.
He states, “Whereas everything seemed to go reasonably well at Talwar (the navy’s wireless communication establishment in Bombay) at the time of its inception, racial discrimination became evident in the years following. Anglo-Indians got the most of everything and to a small degree, even the Christians seemed to be favoured….”
Rear Admiral Singh points out that in matters of diet, which can be of religious significance for many Indians, the British simply did not care. First up, there were no vegetarian rations. In certain ships English rations were limited to white polished rice and beef curry. The Indian cooks refused to supply India curry because in their own words they had become “gore ka bachcha” or the “boy of the white man”.
“Food in general was of low quality. Only poorest quality rice, garnished with stone chips and mud pieces, was supplied. The rating’s uniform was made of cheap and coarse material. The winter garments were rough woollen stuff, which we were ashamed of wearing because they appeared to have been made out of blankets. It was nick-named ‘Pereira’ because the supply officer in charge of clothing was a commissioned stores officer by that name.”
There was another, intensely personal, reason. With the end of World War II, there was going to be a contraction of the RIN with the attendant rushed demobilisation. This is normal procedure after any war and soldiers return to civilian life. But two centuries of British loot and economic strangulation had destroyed Indian industry, agriculture and education. The military had offered a steady – albeit meagre – income to millions of Indians, and now they were going to lose their jobs. World War I had shown Indians that the British would soon throw loyal Indian troops to the unemployment heap.
Freedom fighter Aruna Asaf Ali, who secretly advised the naval ratings during the mutiny, does not agree with the British authorities that the uprising was a mutiny in the strict sense of the term. In the book Under Two Ensigns: The Indian Navy 1945-1950, she is quoted as saying: “The RIN ratings’ strike was a ‘strike’ in as much as it was a protest against their unsatisfactory conditions of work, the outrageous racial discrimination practised by the British officers against Indians and humiliation heaped upon them.”
At the same time, it was not just a question of discrimination against service rules. “They were angry men, who felt that Britain’s colonial rulers had dared to swoop down on their national leaders at every level, arrested them and had unleashed violence on masses of unarmed men and women for the ‘sin’ of demanding freedom and independence of their motherland.”
She adds, “To be called Indian dogs who should be treated as mad dogs hurt their patriotic sentiments.”
The mutiny began on February 18 on the Talway. According to Lieutenant S.N. Kohli – later admiral of the Indian Navy – who was serving in Talwar at the time of the mutiny: “The mutiny started in Talwar firstly because the communication ratings were more educated and intelligent and secondly because the mutiny could spread throughout the Navy very rapidly as they could control all wireless and other means of communication and pass orders and information to all the Naval ships in all ports of India.”
Secondly, the equipment at their disposal allowed the Indian ratings to keep abreast of the thrilling adventures of Subhas Chandra Bose and his INA and later the controversial trials of INA soldiers in New Delhi. This fired up their patriotic sentiments.
Like all major conflagrations, the naval mutiny began with a tiny spark. It was limited to a peaceful protest hunger strike against the atrocious living conditions and the rotten food being served daily to the Indian ratings. But when the British officers ignored the protests – like they had done on numerous occasions in the past – the fuse was lit.
On February 19, the sailors announced the strike to the naval personnel stationed in the Bombay fortress and to those in the barracks. Hundreds of strikers from the naval vessels and shore establishments in Bombay demonstrated in what is today Dadabhai Naoroji Road. They commandeered navy trucks and started patrolling the city, holding aloft the tricolour and pictures of Subhash Chandra Bose.
Starting from the lowly ratings and “boys”, the strike encompassed wider layers of navy’s Indian personnel. The Union Jacks on most of the ships in Bombay harbour were torn down and the rebel sailors hoisted Congress and Muslim League flags.
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’,” writes Rear Admiral Singh.
“The British government in London was in shock,” writes Rear Admiral Singh. “Prime Minister Clement Atlee in sheer desperation ordered the uprising to be crushed through brute military force. The commander of the British Indian Navy, Admiral Godfrey threatened the rebellious sailors with ‘surrender or be perished’.”
The striking ratings were initially not disposed towards force. The strike committee had broadcast a message that Indian officers would not be harmed if they did not interfere. It was clear that the virus of nonviolence preached by Mohandas Gandhi had affected the Indian military too.
Unlike the First War of Independence in 1857, when Indian mercenaries bailed out the British by mercilessly mowing down the revolutionaries, this time Indian soldiers were not favourably disposed towards their colonial masters. In Karachi, for instance, Gurkha troops refused to fire on the sailors.
On February 21 the British deployed their shock troops who opened fire on the sailors as they came out of their barracks in Bombay. This turned a peaceful uprising into an armed rebellion. Indian ratings and British troops fought pitched battles throughout the day in Bombay and Karachi.
By February 23 the country’s harbours wore the look of a war zone. Indian ratings and British soldiers clashed in harbours, ships’ sirens were blaring and strikers were using loudspeakers to call ordinary citizens and Indian troops to throw the British back into the sea.
The British police and the army resorted to firing on thousands of people who demonstrated in support of the strike. They shot dead 250 sailors as well as industrial workers who had joined the strikers. Commander S.G. Karmarkar (later rear admiral) who received orders to take over the command of Talwar the evening before the mutiny says: “As a result of the mutiny the Communist Party of India in Bombay went completely berserk, stopped the textile mills from working and they started actively participating in arson and destruction in Bombay especially in the working class areas starting from Bhendi Bazar to Dadar.”
The atmosphere was further poisoned by Admiral Godfrey’s order to completely destroy the Indian Navy. This led to a complete breakdown of law and order in Bombay, and there was unprecedented arson.
Discontent was simmering in all wings of the armed forces. Airmen of the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) expressed support for the strikers and several garrisons of the Indian Army mutinied as well.
Britain had assured Indians of independence in order to get them to fight for the Empire in two world wars, accelerating the loot of India to fuel Britain’s war economy. After the wars ended, the British said India wasn’t ready for freedom. Despite this, the Indian political leadership remained hopeful.
However, there was a back channel to the revolutionaries. Aruna Asaf Ali says: “The 1942 open rebellion against British rule had, by and large, aroused, as never before, the sense of patriotism of Indians serving in the British Army, Navy and Air Force. Till then, they felt they were no more than mercenaries. Now, they felt like patriots. My personal ‘reaction’ was naturally one of elation because I felt that if the British offer of freedom proved to be a hoax, the RIAF and RIN protest actions were an indication that if negotiations with the Cabinet Mission would end in failure, the next phase of India’s struggle for freedom would be final, and colonial rule would be buried once and for all.”
Aruna was among a growing number of Indians who had realised that Gandhi’s nonviolence wasn’t working for India, but was in fact working to the advantage of the hated British. According to her, “I certainly did think that since nonviolence practised by most Congressmen since 1930, with hardly any impact on the British colonialists’ attitude towards the demand for Swaraj; I, rightly or wrongly, came to the conclusion that nonviolent action was not enough and, therefore, had to be supplemented by more effective actions which could be described as violent. Yes, I was aware of Gandhiji’s disapproval of my encouragement to the RIN boys and at that point of time I openly disagreed with him.”
Aruna adds that after Indian political leaders were placed under house arrest by the British, “units of our underground organisation in several parts of the country were contacted by individuals in the British Armed Forces – secretly of course – under assumed names. They came to us for advice about their desire to take part in patriotic activities. Our advice to them was to organise, to begin with, such elements of their units as are truly patriotic and be prepared to do or die”.
Mutiny winds down
The British surrounded the rebel fleets with the few remaining loyal vessels. A reinforcement of battleships from Trincomalee in Sri Lanka reached the Gateway of India in Bombay. British bombers and fighter aircraft of the RIAF carried out threatening sorties over the rebellious fleet.
In Karachi, realising that little hope or trust could be put on the Indian troops, the British sent in the murderous Black Watch, an infantry battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
As British and rebel ships lobbed shells at each other, the situation grew ugly. In Bombay, the gun crew of a 25-pounder gun fitted in an old ship had by the end of the day fired many salvos towards the British barracks.
Meanwhile, Indian political leaders had been negotiating with the mutineers. Sardar Patel’s assurance that the sailors’ grievances would be addressed did improve matters considerably. By February 21, 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 INA prisoners. Despite Admiral Godfrey’s provocative statement that the rebel fleet should be annihilated, a grave situation was defused.
However, agitations, mass strikes, demonstrations and support for the mutineers continued several days after the mutiny had been called off.
Post-World War was a harrowing time for the British. The highly professional Wehrmacht, the German armed forces, had routed the British Army in several battles around the world. Adolf Hitler’s V2 rockets had reduced London to a mass or rubble, and its population had been cowering in subterranean shelters for more than five years. In the Asian theatre, Japan had soundly thrashed Britain, exposing British weakness before subject Asian nations.
The British were shamed and demoralised and desperately wanted to hold on to India. For 200 years, India was the endless money pit that Britain could dip into whenever it needed. Indian science and technology plus the unparalleled wealth looted from the colony had kickstarted the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Losing it was a scary thought. In this backdrop, a mutiny in India sent shivers down the collective spine of the British.
In a despatch dated March 22, 1946 to King George VI, Lord Wavell then Viceroy of India, had the following to say: “The last three months have been anxious and depressing. They have been marked by continuous and unbridled abuse of the Government, of the British, of officials and police, in political speeches, in practically the whole of the press, and in the Assembly; by serious rioting in Bombay; by a mutiny in the RIN, much indiscipline in the RIAF, some unrest in the Indian Army; by an unprecedented drought and famine conditions over many parts of India; by threatened strikes on the railways, and in the post and telegraphs; by a general sense of insecurity and lawlessness. It is a sorry tale of misfortune and of folly….”
“The most disturbing feature of all is that unrest is beginning to appear in some units of the Indian Army; so far almost entirely in the technical arms. Auchinleck (commander of the Indian Army) thinks that the great mass of the Indian Army is still sound, and I believe that this is so. It may not take long, however, to shake their steadiness if the Congress and Muslim League determine to use the whole power of propaganda at their command to do so.”
Without the support of the Indian military, continued British rule in India was out of the question. Says Lieutenant Kohli: “It is my view that the naval mutiny coming as the culmination of a number of similar incidents in the Indian defence services was largely instrumental in convincing the British that holding India was no longer feasible without the use of large-scale British force and was, inter alia, responsible for ushering in freedom.”
Dismissal and recognition
All navy personnel who took part in the mutiny were dismissed and many faced court martial. Despite having rocked the foundations of the British Empire, these brave young men, who were barely in their 20s, became – to borrow a word from George Orwell’s 1984 – unpersons. That is, for India’s political leadership they did not exist.
The cavalier attitude towards freedom fighters is best illustrated by the views of former Prime Minister Morarji Desai, a diehard Gandhian, who took over as the Home Minister of Bombay a couple of months after the mutiny.
Desai was categorical that the ratings had no right to revolt irrespective of whether they were serving under a foreign power, as they were volunteers and not conscripts. With regard to his views regarding freedom fighters’ pensions for ratings who took part in the mutiny, he was emphatic that they are not entitled to any such pension. He said he was against the ratings being taken back into the service after they had mutinied.
Desai did not agree with the claim of the ratings that their action hastened the freedom of the country. In his view, the INA was not the harbinger of independence and it was Gandhi who brought independence for the country.
However, in 1972, 476 sailors of the RIN who were discharged, dismissed or ‘released’ from service as a result of the mutiny were granted freedom fighters’ pension. This decision was based on the appreciation that these categories of ex-sailors of RIN lost their livelihood as a result of their participation in the mutiny.
To understand the importance of the INA and the naval mutiny in kicking the British out of India, one has to understand the attitude of the British towards India.
According to Valentine Chirol, head of the foreign department of The Times, London, it is “impossible that we would ever concede to India the rights of self-government which we have willingly conceded to the great English communities of our own race….We must continue to govern India as the greatest of the dependencies of the British Crown”.
To Robert Crewe, secretary of state for India 1910-14, the idea of a free India was “a world as remote as any as Atlantis or Erewhon (anagram of nowhere) that ever was thought of by the ingenious brain of an imaginative writer”.
And finally, what was the ultra racist Winston Churchill’s reaction to Gandhi’s nonviolent approach? The British Prime Minister said: “Gandhi ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new viceroy seated on its back.”
Do you need any more convincing that the British retreated from India only because of violent struggle?