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 (striking work) 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 year but there was 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 the contributions by the Indian Defence forces being ignored. Check out http://theindiastory.blogspot.com/ my take on all things Indian. The Lonely Planet says, “India will sideswipe you with its size, clamour and diversity”. Absolutely true! India is a land of stunning contrasts, many moods & diverse cultures. The India Story blog is an attempt to capture India in all its varied hues. It will have a bit of everything: interesting anecdotes from history, political & social slugfests, perennially underperforming sportspersons, good food & hopefully a travelogue. Hop on & I promise you an interesting ride.