The mutiny in the RIN (Royal Indian Navy) in February 1946 was unique in many ways. Mutinies are usually confined to a particular station, establishment or ship. However, this was the first instance when the entire service joined the revolt. The closest parallel was the Great Mutiny of 1857, when almost the whole of the Bengal Army was involved; the Madras and Bombay Armies remained virtually unaffected. This was also probably the first time after 1857 when the general public was caught up in a mutiny in an armed service, leading to mass protests and ‘hartals’, especially in Bombay. This was in spite of the fact that few Indians were aware of the existence of the Indian Navy, whose role during World War was relatively insignificant and therefore unpublicized. Another feature of the mutiny was that it was directed against the British government and not against superior officers – not a single officer, British or Indian, was harmed.
The Naval mutiny was easily suppressed by the use of force and there were some casualties. Though almost the all ships and shore establishments were drawn in, the most important events took place in Bombay and Karachi, two of the largest and most populated cities in the sub-continent. The involvement of the political parties, especially the National Congress, and its leaders – Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Aruna Asaf Ali – ensured that the mutiny received wide publicity. Though the Naval mutiny failed to achieve its immediate objectives, its fall-outs were considerable. Along with the mutinies in the Air Force and the Army that occurred almost simultaneously, it led to the realisation that Britain could no longer depend on Indian soldiers, sailors and airmen to uphold her authority over her colonies in the East. This contributed not only to the British decision to grant independence to India but to advance the date from June 1948 to August 1947.
The mutiny of 1946 was by no means the first that occurred in the Royal Indian Navy. Sailors in merchant vessels as well as men of war have mutinied since the time humans began to cross the seas, and their stories are an important part of the history and folklore of seafaring nations. Mutinies on ships have had a tremendous impact on several issues, some totally unrelated with sailing. It has spawned its own genre in literature, and forms the central theme of some of the most well known writing in all languages, the most famous being Mutiny on the Bounty. Mutinies have also caused demographic and social changes, and the creation of new civilizations. To escape the gallows, mutineers often took refuge on remote islands, including some that were at one time bereft of human habitation. Many others escaped and settled down in then virtually unexplored regions, assimilating with the local population. Not surprisingly, residents of some islands in the Pacific claim their ancestry in countries half way round the globe.
When World War II started in September 1939 the Royal Indian Navy was a miniscule force, consisting of about 1,500 sailors and 150 officers. By the time the War ended, its strength had multiplied almost fifteen times. In December 1945, it had 2,438 officers, 214 warrant officers and 21,193 ratings. During this period, there were several mutinies in the service. In March 1942, ratings at the Mechanics Training Establishment at Bombay mutinied demanding higher pay, resulting in seven being sentenced to three months imprisonment. In June 1942 the ratings of HMIS Konkan, which was then in the UK, went on hunger strike, due to problems connected with food, accommodation and the scale of rations. Seventeen sailors were awarded three months rigorous imprisonment. Three months later, there was a major case of indiscipline on board the HMIS Orissa, again in the UK. This time, not only the men but also the officers were punished. The Commanding Officer was tried by a general court martial and sentenced to lose a year’s seniority. The 2nd officer and the gunnery officer also lost three months seniority. Thirteen ratings were disrated, and awarded imprisonment terms ranging from three to seven years. Almost at the same time, there was a less serious case of indiscipline on the HMIS Khyber in the UK, after which three men were discharged.
After the four cases in 1942, there were no revolts for almost two years, when there were several incidents with religious overtones. In June 1944, Muslim sailors of the HMIS Akbar in Bombay revolted, demanding a mosque, resulting in the discharge of 100 Pathans. A month later, Muslim sailors on board the HMIS Hamlawar at Bombay assaulted a sub-lieutenant, alleging that he had insulted the Koran. The officer was found guilty and lost three months seniority. Thirteen men were discharged and ten sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment. In July 1944 the men on board HMIS Shivaji at Lonavla refused to eat meat that they suspected was contaminated with pork and four had to be discharged. In March 1945 three men on board HMIS Himalaya in Karachi went to a mosque after being refused permission. They were declared absent without leave and sentenced to a year’s rigorous imprisonment. A month later, there was another revolt on the HMIS Shivaji when 51 ratings refused to clean the ship. Thirty-eight were awarded three months rigorous imprisonment.1
After the end of World War II, the bulk of the Royal Indian Navy was located at Bombay, with smaller complements at Karachi, Madras, Calcutta, Vizagapatnam, Cochin and several other stations. The establishment at Bombay comprised the Royal Indian Navy Depot, which included the Castle Barracks that housed about 900 ratings awaiting appointment to ships or shore establishments; the Fort Barracks that housed the HO (Hostilities Only) ratings; the CCO (Central Communications Office) that handled all signal traffic at Bombay; the Colaba Receiving Station; the Mahul Wireless Station in Trombay Island and the RIN Hospital at Sewri. The other shore establishments at Bombay were HMIS Talwar, the training school for communication ratings; HMIS Machlimar at Versova, the anti-submarine training school; HMIS Hamla at Marve that held the landing craft; HMIS Kakauri, the demobilisation centre that held about 1400 ratings; HMIS Cheetah, the second demobilisation centre and training school for Special Service ratings; and HMIS Feroze on Malabar Hill that functioned as a training school and demobilisation centre for officers. There was a large number of ships: HMIS Narbada and Jumna (sloops); Dhanush and Shamsher (frigates); Gondwana, Assam, Mahratta and Sind (corvettes); Kumaon, Kathiawar, Khyber, Punjab, Bombay, Madras, Orissa and Oudh (minesweepers); Clive and Lawrence (old sloops); Agra, Cuttack, Karachi, Lahore, Madura, Nautilus, Nasik, Patna, Poona, Rampur, Berar, Amritsar, and Cochin (trawlers); Nilam, Moti, Lal and Heera (Persian gun boats); Kalawati, Ramdas, Dipawati and Bhadrawati (auxiliary vessels) and a few motor minesweepers. All the ships and establishments were involved in the mutiny, the lone exception being the Frigate HMIS Shamsher. 2
One of the important establishments at Bombay was the HMIS Talwar, the Communication Ratings Training School. When World War II ended, the Talwar was under the command of Lieutenant Commander E.M. Shaw. In September 1945, Shaw was transferred as Staff Communication Officer, being relieved by Lieutenant Commander A.T.J. Cole. Both Shaw and Cole were experienced officers and popular with the men. At that time, apart from the 200 communication ratings there were about 700 men under training and about 300 ratings of the draft reserve awaiting demobilization, housed in the Talwar. As a result, there was an accommodation crunch. Though the number of ratings was fairly large, there were very few officers. The overcrowding in the barracks, with a large number of men having nothing to do, and an almost complete lack of supervision, all contributed to the dissatisfaction and unrest. On 30 November 1945, on the eve of Navy Day, slogans such as ‘Quit India’, ‘Revolt Now’, ‘Kill the White Dogs’ and ‘Down with the Imperialists’ were found written on walls. An inquiry was held but the perpetrators could not be traced. However, a rating named Deb was suspected and discharged on grounds of ‘services no longer required’. 3
On 21 January 1946, HMIS Talwar got a new commanding officer, Commander F.W. King. Like many British officers in the Royal Indian Navy at that time, King had never served in India earlier and was unfamiliar with the customs, castes and religious prejudices that are so important in this country. The appointment of King was resented by the ship’s company, especially since he was not a Communication Officer, and known for his rough treatment of ratings. It was generally believed that King was sent to the Talwar to set things in order since his predecessor, Cole, was lenient and regarded as pro-Indian. On 1 February 1946, slogans similar to those that had been seen two months earlier reappeared on a platform on the Talwarfrom which the Commander-in-Chief was to take the salute on the next day. The originator, Leading Telegraphist B.C. Dutt was caught and placed under close arrest. However, the slogans continued and one day the tyres of the Commanding Officer’s car were deflated. A few anonymous letters addressed to Commander King also reached his office.
The incident that triggered the mutiny occurred on 8 Feb 1946 when King entered the barrack where several off-duty ratings from the Central Communications Office were resting after having finished their breakfast. Reportedly, King heard some catcalls from the barrack at some WRINs (Women’s Royal Indian Navy) who were passing by and was annoyed by the uncivilized behaviour of the ratings, who he thought were abstaining from duty. The men did not notice his presence and continued talking, instead of coming to their feet and paying compliments to the Commanding Officer. King lost his temper and lashed out at the men, using abusive terms such as ‘sons of bitches’, ‘junglees’ and ‘coolies’, before stomping out of the barrack. The men were agitated, and the next day, fourteen ratings put in a complaint against Commander King for using foul language. On 9 February 1946, a Saturday, they were seen by Lieutenant Commander Shaw, who told them that he would forward their complaint to the Commanding Officer. On Monday, Shaw informed King, who agreed to see the men next Saturday, the day on which personal interviews were granted by the Commanding Officer. Shaw tried to impress upon King that in view of the seriousness and urgency of the matter, it would be better to see them earlier and not wait until Saturday, but the latter did not agree. When King saw the men, he warned them that it was a serious offence to make a false complaint against a senior officer. In accordance with regulations, he would give them 24 hours to think over the matter, after which they could, if they wished, put their request in writing. On the same day, Dutt was summarily tried, and a report sent to Naval Headquarters. The ratings did exactly what they were told to do, presenting their written complaints on the morning of 18 February. By this time, the mutiny had already broken out.
The situation on HMIS Talwar had deteriorated considerably during the week, and all that was needed was a spark to ignite the mutiny. As on several earlier occasions, it was provided by the galley. On 17 February 1946, a Sunday, cooks in two vegetarian messes mixed dal (lentils) and vegetables for the evening meal, which the men refused to eat, complaining that it was inedible. The duty officer came to know of the incident, but did not report it. The ratings went to bed hungry, but did not create any trouble. Next morning, a large number of men refused to eat breakfast and shouted slogans. King was informed when he reached his office at about 9 a.m., but he left soon afterwards to have his breakfast, without leaving any instructions. He returned to his office after about half an hour. When divisions were piped, Indian ratings did not come to the parade ground and began shouting and jeering. The Flag Officer Bombay was informed on telephone that the men were not listening to the officers and were completely out of control. King held a conference that was attended by all officers and warrant officers. However, no plans were made or instructions given for dealing with the situation. Lieutenants S.N. Kohli and S.M. Nanda – both were destined to become Chiefs of Naval Staff – volunteered to act as trouble shooters and made another attempt to speak to the men. However, they were hooted down.4
At midday, the Flag Officer Bombay, Rear Admiral A.R. Rattray arrived and spoke to the men, asking them to return to duty and then left. However, the men did not obey his orders, and the situation worsened. By this time all other establishments that were manned by communication ratings had been affected. This included the Central Communication Office that was manned by ratings from the Talwar, as well as the Receiving Station at Colaba and the Dockyard Signal Station. B.C. Dutt, who was under detention, was sent by King to try and pacify the deserters, but they were in no mood to listen. In the evening at about 5 pm Admiral Rattray again visited HMIS Talwar and spoke to the men. He asked them to appoint representatives who should meet him next morning with the list of grievances. He also informed them that Commander King was being replaced by Captain Inigo-Jones. This only added fuel to the fire, since Inigo-Jones was known for his anti-Indian bias and repressive measures, an example of which he had exhibited when dealing with a similar outbreak at the Mechanical Training Establishment, resulting in him being given the pseudonym ‘butcher of the RIN’.5
On 19 February Rear Admiral Rattray arrived at about 0930 a.m. and met the representatives of the ratings. However, by this time some ratings from other establishments had also arrived and a few of them tried to disrupt the meeting. The ratings handed over to Rattray a list of 14 demands, as given below:-
- No victimization
- Release of RK Singh, who had been detained earlier
- Speeding up demobilization
- Action against Commander King
- Improvement in the standard of food
- Indian ratings to be given the same scale of pay and allowances as personnel of the Royal Navy, along with access to NAAFI canteens.
- Kit not to be taken back at the time of release.
- Grant of higher terminal benefits on release.
- Good behaviour by officers towards ratings.
- Regular promotion of lower deck personnel as officers
- Appointment of a new Commanding Officer.
- Immediate release of INA prisoners and Captain Rashid, who had been sentenced to rigorous imprisonment.
- Enquiry into incidents of firing on public all over India.
- Withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia and Middle East. 6
While the first eleven demands pertained to the Navy, the last three were of a political nature, which were probably added as an afterthought. All that Admiral Rattray could do was to assure the men that he would forward their request to the FOCRIN (Flag Officer Commanding Royal Indian Navy) at Delhi. Some ratings had hauled down the Naval Ensign while the meeting was going on, but it was quickly hoisted again. Admiral Rattray left the Talwar at about 11.40 a.m., returning at 3.45 p.m. for a second brief visit. By this time the unrest had spread to other establishments inBombay. About 2000 ratings came to the breakwater and asked the sailors manning the ships to join a ‘sit down’ strike. Some ratings joined a procession in the streets, taken out by ratings from other establishments. This did not go unnoticed and soon everyone in the city came to know of the strike. The news was also broadcast by All India Radio and reached other stations around the country. Accompanied by the Area Commander and the Commissioner, Admiral Rattray visited the Talwar again at 10.20 p.m.. After spending a few minutes they left for the Castle Barracks, where the situation appeared to be more serious.
Captain Inigo-Jones was in command of the Castle Barracks up to 19 February 1946 when he was transferred to HMIS Talwar, handing over to Commander E.C. Streatfield-James. When the latter arrived at Castle Barracks in the morning at about 8.30 a.m., he found his way barred by several jostling ratings. He forced his way in and held a conference with the men. He had almost succeeded in convincing them to give up the strike when a rating from another establishment arrived and asked the men to follow him. More than 200 ratings agreed to go with him and left in a procession to the Talwar. This was immediately conveyed to the Flag Officer Bombay. Soon after this when some officers arrived and were entering the gates the ratings crowded round them and made them remove their caps, shouting ‘topi utaro’. Most of them complied, but Lieutenant Commander B.S. Soman, who was later to head the Indian Navy, apparently refused, telling them that since he had not put on his cap with the permission of the ratings he saw no reason to take it off on their orders. 7
Around midday a rating hauled down the Ensign, but it was re-hoisted by Lieutenant Sassoon. Commander Streatfield-James tried to open a dialogue with the men but they were in no mood to listen to the Indian officers, including Soman, who were sent to talk to them. Nothing noteworthy happened after this and the men had their lunch as usual. In the evening Streatfield-James went to Vithal House and pleaded with the Flag Officer Bombay for military aid. Later that night, two chief petty officers from Fort Barracks entered Castle Barracks and demanded the release of about 150 ratings who had been arrested in the bazaar by the military and police during the day. When this was refused, they left, threatening that they would secure the release of the prisoners by force. At 11 p.m. the Flag Officer Bombay arrived, accompanied by the Area Commander, Major General Beard and Brigadier Southgate. Commander Streatfield-James asked for the Army to be called in, but the Flag Officer Bombay did not agree.
Apart from the Talwar and Castle Barracks where the major events occurred on 19 February 1946, there were some incidents on other ships and establishments also. About 250 to 300 ratings from HMIS Kakaur broke into HMISMachlimar shouting slogans. They asked the ratings of the Machlimar to join them. Some agreed while a couple of reluctant ratings were forcibly dragged out. Some ratings of HMIS Assam hoisted a Congress flag and refused work in sympathy with the ratings of the Talwar. They also took out some weapons and indulged in looting. One such incident has been described by described by Trilochan Singh Trewn, whose ship was alongside the outer breakwater:
One fine early morning, I noticed about 20 junior ratings surrounding the main duty-free canteen located close to the smithy shop inside the naval dockyard in Mumbai. This large canteen was a part of an international chain of canteens run by the Royal Navy and was well-stocked with choicest brands of foreign liquor, cheeses, caviar, cigarettes etc mostly imported. About four ratings forced themselves into the store and came out with cartons of cigarettes, cameras and electric irons etc. It was followed by another rush of ratings who now were holding boxes of scotch whisky in both hands and sported imported umbrellas slinging (sic) on their shoulders. Soon the canteen staff also arrived but was helpless and terrified as some of the ratings carried arms.8
Seeing the Congress flag flying on the Assam the ratings of HMIS Sind and HMIS Mahratta also refused work. On HMIS Shivaji flags of both the Congress and the Muslim League were hoisted and the ratings shouted slogans such as ‘Quit India’ and ‘Quit Indonesia’. On HMIS Clive the communication branch ratings went on strike, with six leading telegraphists and forty-six ordinary telegraphists refusing to turn out. The HMIS Punjab and HMIS Berar were in the dockyard. A crowd of about 2000 ratings appeared on the breakwater and boarded both ships, pulling down the Ensigns and the Union Jacks. The ratings of the ships did not join them but refused work.
On 20 February 1946 at about 2 a.m. a party of 150 ratings from HMIS Hamla forced their way into the Castle Barracks, led by Lieutenant Sobhani, who had joined the striking ratings. Sobhani asked the ratings in Castle Barracks to join him and left after twenty minutes. Streatfield-James immediately called for military aid. The Area Commander, in consultation with the Flag Officer Bombay, decided to place a platoon each at the Central Communication Office, Colaba Receiving Station and Mahaul Wireless Station. At 6 a.m. a platoon of the Mahratta Light Infantry (MLI) arrived. Two hours later a lorry full of ratings drove inside the Castle Barracks. All hands were called to the quarterdeck where a spokesman addressed them. They were informed that a Central Strike Committee had been formed with Leading Seaman M.S. Khan as the President and Petty Officer (Telegraphist) Madan Singh as the Vice President. The ratings of Castle Barracks were asked to elect two representatives for the Central Strike Committee, who were later taken to the Talwarin the lorry.
The FOCRIN (Flag Officer Commanding Royal Indian Navy), Vice Admiral J.H. Godfrey flew down to Bombay fromDelhi in the morning. After consulting the Flag Officer Bombay and General Rob Lockhart, the GOC-in-C Southern Command, he agreed that help from the military was essential to quell the unrest. Before returning to Delhi the FOCRIN met some members of the Strike Committee, led by Leading Seaman Khan. According to B.C. Dutt, who was then in custody, ‘…I do not recall if Godfrey wanted to meet the members or whether the Central Committee turned to Godfrey, There was little choice considering that the Committee could not get to first base with the National leadership. In any case, Godfrey made no attempt to come inside the Talwar to meet us: our men went to meet him.’9
At about 2.30 p.m. two additional platoons of the MLI arrived at Castle Barracks, bringing up their strength to a company. Some of the ratings threw stones at the troops, who soon established machine gun posts to cover the entry and exit gates. About 150 ratings were arrested outside Castle Barracks. In the afternoon at 4 p.m. M.S. Khan, the president of the Strike Committee arrived and addressed the men. Soon afterwards the men watched a cinema show that had been organised by for the ratings. Things were relatively quiet until 6.30 p.m. when the ratings who were outside returned and demanded that the troops be withdrawn. The situation appeared to be worsening but the troops maintained their cool and did not fire.
The situation on Talwar seemed to be calm until about 2.45 p.m. when troops from the MLI arrived and were posted at the gates. A sailor who wanted to go out was prevented from doing so, leading to some violence that subsided after the guard fired one shot. A crowd of about 300 ratings broke into the Machlimar, hauled down the White Ensign, tore it up and hoisted a ‘Jai Hind’ flag. They damaged vehicles and broke window-panes. When they left, all ratings joined them. On Clive the seamen and stokers also joined the telegraphists, who had mutinied the previous day. They took over a motor-boat that was used to ferry them ashore.
The mutiny reached its peak on 21 February 1946, a day that was characterised by violence and high drama. In the morning some of the mutineers in Castle Barracks asked for permission to go to the Talwar, to contact their leaders and get instructions. They were given transport and left at about 7.30 am They returned after some time and told the others that it has been decided that the strike will continue. At about 9 am the ratings tried to force their way out of the main gate. A crowd of civilians and ratings had gathered near the gate. The commander of the guard, a British major, warned them but when this did not have any effect, he ordered the guard to open fire. The MLI troops were reluctant to fire on the ratings and this resulted in some delay before fire was opened. The troops fired one round each, and a total of 18 rounds in all were fired, most of them directed not at the ratings but at the ground in front of them. The ratings immediately closed the gate, placed motor vehicles across it, rushed back towards the barracks, broke open the armory and took out weapons and ammunition. Soon they were firing back at the troops from the ramparts.
The military cordoned off the area around the Castle Barracks and cleared the roads passing along the Mint and Town Hall. All offices and establishment were closed and the workers who arrived for work were turned back. The MLI platoons were replaced by troops of the Leicestershire Regiment. British troops and Royal Marines were deployed to guard all approaches to Castle Barracks and the waterfront at the Gateway of India. The firing from Castle Barracks intensified and one RAF airman in the CCO was injured. In addition to rifles, the ratings began using light machine guns and grenades. The firing continued for almost six hours and ceased only when a ‘cease fire’ came into effect later in the day.
The sound of firing was heard by the men aboard the ships, who were all on the decks, looking anxiously towards the Castle Barracks from where messages were being transmitted informing them of the firing. At about 10.30 am Khan, the President of the Strike Committee came to the bridge of the Kumaon and addressed the men. Speaking in both Urdu and English he exhorted the men to raise steam, load guns and stand by for action. He warned the men that they might have to take up battle positions to defend themselves and the dockyard. He also asked them to order all British officers to leave their ships, asserting that the ratings could do without them. Indian officers could also leave, in case they wished to. His inflammatory speech had the desired effect, and the men promptly armed themselves with whatever weapons they could lay their hands on. The officers were ordered to hand over the keys to magazines and leave the ships. In the flagship of the RIN, the Narbada, the ratings did not bother to ask for the keys – they simply broke open the magazine and loaded the guns.
Around midday the CCO was evacuated and control of Castle Barracks was handed over to the Army. However, five naval officers, including two medical officers in the Depot Sick Quarters, were trapped inside. After some rough treatment at the hands of the ratings, they were permitted to leave in the evening. Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Martin, the Senior Medical Officer, offered to talk to the Flag Officer Bombay and arrange for a truce. The ratings were initially suspicious but later agreed. Martin spoke to Commander Payne at Vithal House, who informed him that they had already contacted the Central Strike Committee, which was planning to send a truce party to Castle Barracks.
The situation in Talwar became tense after the firing in Castle Barracks. At about 10 am Captain Inigo-Jones, accompanied by Leading Seaman Khan and two other members of the Strike committee, left for Castle Barracks to persuade the ratings to stop firing. Jones returned alone after an hour, leading to excitement and rumours that persisted until Khan came back in the evening. At 2.20 pm the FOCRIN broadcast a message on All India Radio, which was relayed to all ships at 5.45 pm. He ended his broadcast with the chilling message: ‘…I want again to make it quite plain that the Government of India will never give in to violence. To continue the struggle is the height of folly when you take into account the overwhelming forces at the disposal of the Government at this time and which will be used to their utmost even if it means the destruction of the Navy of which we have been so proud’. 10
After the firing at Castle Barracks, the situation was critical because there was a grave danger of the ships under control of the mutineers opening fire on the city and causing casualties to civilians. Some ships did open fire with machine guns and Oerlikons in the direction of Castle Barracks but fortunately there was little effect. In some cases the weapons were being manned by untrained personnel such as ships clerks, cooks and wireless operators who had never handled them before. Due to lack of coordination and communication there was considerable confusion and a spate of rumours. This sometimes resulted in comic situations, such as the one concerning HMIS Kumaon, which was moored adjacent to the breakwater and being used by the Central Strike Committee for its deliberations. After Khan came on board and addressed the men, the officers left the ship. The Oerlikon was loaded and the ship put out to sea. However, after sailing about 100 feet it returned and was secured. Trewn describes the incident thus:
The morning news on the radio indicated that fully-armed destroyers of British Navy had already steamed out of Trincomalee harbour and were heading towards Mumbai to quell the Mutiny. The naval ratings’ strike committee decided, in a confused manner, the HMIS Kumaon had to leave Mumbai harbour while HMISKathiawar was already in the Arabian Sea under the command of a striking rating. At about 10.30 HMISKumaon 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. So the wooden gangway, six-metre-long was protruding out of the ship’s starboard waist when the ship moved away from the jetty under command of a revolver bearing senior rating. However, within two hours fresh instructions were received from the strikers’ control room and the ship returned to the same berth.11
After the call for the officers to leave their ships most of them were allowed to go after handing over their weapons. Some of the Indian officers remained on board, but stayed below decks. In most cases, the officers left without any difficulty, the ratings themselves assisting them. Meanwhile, the FOCRIN asked the Commander-in-Chief East Indies to send a naval force to assist in putting down the mutiny. In London, Prime Minister Atlee informed the House of Commons that several warships including a cruiser of the Royal Navy were speeding towards Bombay in response to an urgent request from India. Overall command of the situation was now in the hands of Lieutenant General Rob Lockhart, GOC-in-C Southern Command, who had received instructions from the Commander-in-Chief, General Claude Auchinleck. By the evening a regiment of artillery equipped with 12-pounder guns, two British infantry battalions and several armoured cars had reached the city. RAF bombers had already arrived at Santa Cruz and the cruiser Glasgowwas expected soon from Trincomalee.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, a member of the Congress Working Committee was in Bombay at that time. The mutineers contacted him and requested his help. But Sardar Patel refused to interfere, making it clear that it was wrong on their part to take up arms against their superiors. He termed it as an act of indiscipline, which could not be condoned in an armed service like the Navy. This was a set back to the mutineers, who had been counting on support of the political leaders. The ultimatum in the FOCRIN’s broadcast also dampened their spirits, and many started having second thoughts about the strike. At 4.30 pm Khan sent a message to all ships to cease fire and await further instructions, which would be communicated after his meeting with the FOCRIN and Flag Officer Bombay. In the evening a truce party of officers visited the Castle Barracks and told them to give up their arms since talks were now going on between the government and the national leaders, and the matter would be resolved soon. The ratings were reluctant to surrender their arms but agreed when they were informed that this would result in loss of support from the political parties. Eventually they decided to hand over the weapons and ammunition and release the detained officers.
By dusk the firing had stopped but the troops were not withdrawn. The supply of food and water had also not been restored. It was made clear to the mutineers that troops would be withdrawn only after they surrendered unconditionally. The Strike Committee met in the Talwar to review the situation and decide its next move. It drew up an appeal to the people and all political parties to come to their aid. Drawing attention to their demands and the brutal methods being adopted by the authorities to crush their ‘peaceful strike’, they called for a hartal (general strike). Pointing to the threat of the FOCRIN to destroy the Indian Navy, the Committee said:
You do not want your Indian brothers to be destroyed by British bullets. You know our demands are just, you must support us. We appeal to you all, particularly to the leaders of the Congress, League and Communist parties: Use all you might to prevent a blood bath in Bombay! Force the naval authorities to stop shooting and threats and to negotiate with us! Rally our people to support us, through a peacefulhartal and peaceful strikes! We appeal to you, brothers ands sisters, to respond. 12
On 22 February 1946 the situation remained critical, and incidents of looting and hooliganism continued. At about 10 am the FOCRIN arrived at HMIS Talwar and was received outside the gate by Captain Inigo-Jones. Shortly afterwards command of Talwar was handed over to Commander S.G. Karmakar. The Wireless Telegraphy station at Mahul was handed over to the Army. At about 11 am a message from the FOCRIN was delivered to the mutineers over a loud hailer, informing them that the C-in-C Southern Command has assumed control in Bombay. To show them that ample forces were available in Bombay, the C-in-C had ordered a formation of RAF aircraft to fly over the harbour in the afternoon. The aircraft would not take any offensive action, provided no action was taken against them. If the mutineers decided to surrender, they were to hoist a black or blue flag and muster all hands on deck on the side facing Bombay and await further orders. At about 2.30 pm a formation of bombers flew over the harbour.
The citizens of Bombay had shown their sympathy with the ratings from the day the strike began. On 19 February the people were amazed to see the ratings parading through the streets, shouting slogans. Many of them cheered the ratings and some even joined the processions. The spectacle was repeated next morning, with larger crowds watching and cheering the ratings. The same afternoon troops were positioned at the gates of the naval barracks. A large crowd collected outside and many of them passed on food packets to the ratings confined inside. On 21 February when the situation escalated and the ratings attacked the guards, the civilian crowd joined them. The firing by the guards caused considerable excitement in the city and a large crowd collected around the Gateway of India and several other places. In many places there were scenes of hooliganism and looting, and the Police had to open fire to control the mobs. By the evening, the people came to know of the Strike Committee’s call for a hartal next day. In spite of Sardar Patel’s appeal not to observe the hartal, many people responded. Among them were 30,000 mill hands who downed tools, as well as workers in other establishments such as offices, workshops and tramway depots. The city transport system collapsed and unruly crowds attacked Europeans at several places, setting fire to their shops, offices and cars. The situation was beyond the control of the Police and British troops were brought in to restore order. The crowds paced barricades on roads to impede the movement of military vehicles and resorted to violence, leading to fire being opened at several places. Finally, curfew had to be imposed in the dockyard and the adjoining areas
Sardar Patel, who the mutineers had met a day earlier, sent the following message to the mutineers: ‘The strikers should lay down all arms and should go through the formality of a surrender and the Congress would do its level best to see that there is no victimization and the legitimate demands of Naval ratings are met as soon as possible’.13
Because of the curfew imposed during the previous night, the city appeared calm in the morning on 23 February 1946. But as the day advanced, crowds began to collect on the streets. The newspapers carried the news that the strike had been called off at the instance of Sardar Patel and Jinnah, but most people refused to believe this and took to the streets. During the day, violence occurred at several places in the heavily populated working class areas. Rioters looted shops selling foodgrains and textiles, and set fire to factories, including the Kohinoor and Usha Woollen Mills. The entire city seemed to be in flames, with hundreds of motor-cars, buses, trams and train coaches being set on fire. A three thousand strong crowd attacked the Police Station at Mahim, and almost lynched the Inspector in charge. The living quarters of policemen were ransacked at Two Tanks and Null Bazaar and their belongings thrown on the streets. Clashes between the rioters and the Police and Military left about 150 people dead and over 1,500 injured. Citizens recalled that this was the worst rioting that the city had witnessed in living memory.
As the day wore on the pressure on the leaders of the mutiny increased to resolve the impasse. The shortage of food and water had begun to tell on their endurance. The stern warning from the authorities, the military presence and the snub from the political leaders left them with little choice. The Central Strike Committee met on Talwar and deliberated on the message received from Sardar Patel. Without the support of the Congress, they realised that they could not achieve anything and it was decided to call of the strike. There were many who did not agree, and wanted to carry on the struggle. Shortly afterwards, a message arrived from Jinnah that echoed the advice given by Patel, asking them to surrender, and promising to see that justice was done. At 4.30 pm representatives of all ships were brought to the Talwar and met the Strike Committee, which apprised them of this decision. At 6.15 pm, the representatives informed Commodore Karmakar that they were ready to surrender unconditionally. The information was conveyed to all other stations and ships outside Bombay. The mutiny was over.
Other than Bombay, the station most affected by the mutiny was Karachi. Though the number of ships and establishments was smaller, in terms of violence and casualties Karachi surpassed Bombay. The mutiny affected the two ships that were anchored in the harbour at Keamari – HMIS Hindustan and HMIS Travancore – and the three shore establishments at Manora – HMIS Bahadur, the Boys’ Training Establishment; HMIS Chamak, the Radar School and HMISHimalaya, the Gunnery School. All the ships and establishments were affected with the Hindustan witnessing the heaviest exchange of fire between the mutineers and troops of the Indian Army. When the mutiny ended at Karachi on 23 February 1946, eight lives had been lost and 33 persons lay wounded, including some British soldiers.
The mutiny in Bombay started on 19 February but it was only on the next day that the effect was felt in Karachi. Since the mutiny had been initiated by ratings from the communication branch in Bombay, it was easy for them to convey the information to their colleagues manning communications in other ships and establishments. However, the signal that triggered the mutiny at Karachi came not from Bombay but from Delhi. At about 10 am a message was received from Naval Headquarters ordering HMIS Travancore and HMIS Hindustan to proceed to sea at 5 pm. The former proceeded to the buoy, and waited for the latter to sail, as ordered. However, the ratings manning the Hindustan had other ideas. At 2.15 pm 11 ratings walked ashore without permission, shouting and gesticulating, followed by another five about two hours later. They were joined by 28 ratings from the Travancore and several others from the Himalaya, the Gunnery School. The ratings proceeded to the market at Keamari and urged the shop owners to down shutters. Shouting slogans such as ‘Jai Hind’ and ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ they marched in a procession to the Jackson Bazaar and the railway station, declaring that they were proceeding to Delhi. By 6 pm, most of them returned to their ships but refused to go on board. Shortly afterwards, when the Captain of the Hindustan returned after meeting the Naval Officer-in-Charge, the ratings demanded the removal of the First Lieutenant for his insulting behaviour.
At about 7 am on 21 February 1946, the ratings of the Hindustan were mustered. Four of them gave complaints to the Captain. At about 9 am, two of the men who had complaints accompanied the Captain to meet the Naval Officer-in-Charge, returning to the ship shortly afterwards. Meanwhile, about forty ratings of HMIS Bahadur proceeded to the quarter deck, pulled down and tore the Ensign, hoisting in its pace a ‘Jai Hind’ flag. They made their way to HMISChamak, the Radar Training School. However, when they tried to enter, the boys from Chamak resisted, but gave in after a while. The crowd then proceeded to HMIS Himalaya, which was similarly invaded. The Ensign was hauled down, window-panes broken, vehicles damaged and cells opened. The mob, which now had men from three ships – Bahadur, Chamak and Himalaya – then seized two landing craft and started moving towards Keamari from where they intended to go to Karachi.
When the two landing craft packed with ratings from Manora were about two hundred yards from the shore they were intercepted by two motor-boats carrying British parachutists. The Army captain in command ordered the landing craft to proceed towards China Creek but the ratings continued moving towards Keamari. At about 10 am the landing craft with about 50 ratings, armed with hockey sticks and canes, came alongside the Hindustan. As the ratings were trying to board the Hindustan the parachutists from one of the boats opened fire. This was followed by firing from the quayside, which had been occupied by the military. The ratings of Hindustan loaded the Oerlikons and fired at the motor-boats, which moved towards China Creek. Some shots were also directed at a BOAC aircraft that was parked nearby. Two British soldiers were wounded, while two ratings from the Bahadur and three ratings from the Himalaya who were in the crowd on board the Hindustan died in the firing.
To prevent the ratings from marching intro the city as they had done on the previous day, the Army and Police had cordoned off the bridge connecting Keamari with Karachi. The ratings on board the Hindustan tried to break the cordon and enter the city but did not succeed. The enraged ratings gave an ultimatum that if the British troops were not withdrawn from the harbour they would be open fire with the Oerlikons and other armament on board the ships. However, this did not have any effect and the Army pickets remained. During the night additional troops were moved in to the harbour. Troops were deployed on the terrace of the buildings near the wharf and mounted artillery was positioned nearby.
At about 9 am on 22 February 1946, Commodore Curtis went on board the Hindustan and asked the men to surrender, warning them that the Army action would begin at 9.30 if they did not surrender. At 10 am another warning was issued giving a deadline of 10.30 am for surrender. The ratings the Hindustan responded by manning the ship’s guns. They had decided not to give up without a fight. At 10.30 am the British troops opened fire with 75 mm howitzers and mortars. The ratings retaliated with all armaments on board the ship, including the 4-inch guns. It was an unequal battle but the firing continued for about twenty minutes before the ratings gave up. At 1050 a white flag was hoisted on the Hindustan, whose upper deck was on fire. Firing was stopped and the ratings surrendered to the Army. One rating each of Hindustan, Travancore, and Chamak, two of Bahadur and three of Himalaya were killed and several others wounded. 14
Though the major events concerning the mutiny occurred at Bombay and Karachi, ships and establishments at other locations were also affected. HMIS Kathiawar, a minesweeper, was on a good will cruise along the Western Coastwhen the mutiny broke out at Bombay. The ship was at Porbander on 20 and 21 February, when the ratings learned of the incidents at Bombay and Karachi on the wireless, with the officers remaining unaware of the mutiny. On 22 February the ship sailed for Veraval, its next port of call. However, without warning, the ratings seized control of the ship, confining all officers to the wardroom. The ship was turned around and set course for Karachi when information was received that the Hindustan had surrendered. The commanding officer resumed command but the ratings insisted that the goodwill cruise be called of and the ship should sail to Bombay, so that they could learn for themselves the true state of affairs. By the time the ship reached Bombay on 23 February the strike had been called off.15
The 37th Minesweeping Flotilla comprising the Rohilkhnad, Hongkong, Deccan, Bengal, Bihar, Baluchistan andKistna, was in the Andamans when the mutiny started in Bombay. The ships were anchored in Semaris Bay at Port Blaircarrying out ‘boiler cleaning’, and were to resume minesweeping operations as soon as this was over. The ratings heard the news of the mutiny on BBC and All India Radio. They also received wireless messages asking them to join the strike. After the broadcast of Admiral Godfrey’s message on 21 February tempers ran high and there was considerable unrest on all the ships. Next morning the ratings of the Kistna stopped work, and a motor-boat went around the harbour asking others to join the strike. In the evening a concert was arranged on the Deccan, which was attended by ratings from other ships also. The performance was interrupted by one of the ratings who announced that it was shameful that they were enjoying themselves while their brothers in Bombay were being killed. The concert was stopped and there was a lot of slogan shouting, which continued when the men returned to their ships. On 23 February the ratings of all the ships refused to fall in. They refused the orders of their officers and daily routine was not carried out. Though the mutiny was over the same evening, the men refused to resume work and insisted that the flotilla sail for Bombay. Commander Bailey, the senior officer present, visited all the ships and talked to the men but they were adamant. He had no choice and ordered the flotilla to sail for Bombay.16 Commodore RP Khanna, who was then serving on the Rohilkhand, recalls that the men did not harm the officers, and when they reached Bombay, the Chief Bosun’s Mate escorted them to the Taj Mahal Hotel.
HMIS Valsura, the Electrical and Torpedo Training School at Jamnagar, had about three hundred ratings. The ratings did not join the mutiny, but held a meeting on 21 February and passed some resolutions, which included a demand for the release of all sailors arrested at Bombay. On 23 February, papers were found containing slogans such as ‘Join the Talwar Strike’, and ‘Death to White Skins’. The same day some ratings from Bombay arrived with copies of theFree Press Journal, which had given wide coverage to the mutiny. After the mutiny ended at Bombay, a news broadcast on 24 February mentioned that the personnel of HMIS Valsura had not joined the strike. This agitated the ratings, who felt that it showed that they had no sympathy with their colleagues in Bombay. They decided to make amends and struck work on 25 February, refusing to fall in. They surrendered on 26 February after a platoon of 26th Sikhs arrived to restore order. 17
At Calcutta, the ratings of the HMIS Hooghly, a shore establishment, refused duty on 19 February in sympathy with the men of the Talwar. The Commodore, Bay of Bengal spoke to the men who said that it was a peaceful strike. Next morning the sentries refused duty. The WRINs were sent away in view of the deteriorating situation. On 21 February the stewards, cooks and topasses at Lord Sinha road went on strike, instigated by the Hooghly men. The next two days passed off peacefully, but the strike continued. Finally, a military guard was posted on 24 February, after which the strike ended.18
In HMIS India at Delhi, some ratings in the Naval Barracks refused work on 20 February. The men were assembled but refused commands when called to attention on the arrival of the commanding officer. They were asked to nominate a representative who could put up their grievances. Finally, 56 men agreed to join duty while the rest refused. Next morning a platoon of Gurkhas arrived and placed 38 men under arrest.19
At Vizakhapatnam, the naval units comprised the HMIS Circars, a shore establishment; three ships – HMISsSonavati, Ahmedabad and Shillong – and certain flotillas. Effects of the mutiny in Bombay were felt only on 21 February. Ratings of the Circars hauled down the Ensign and shouted slogans in front of the Navy Office. They went to the golf course and shouted at the officers. The harbour signal centre hoisted a ‘Jai Hind’ flag. This was seen by the ratings of the Sonawati and Shillong who followed suit. Ratings from other ships boarded the Ahmedabad and asking the men to join them, pulled down the Ensign, which was promptly re-hoisted by the Quartermaster. Seventeen ratings left the ship to join the others. About half the ratings of the Sonavati also left. On 22 February a conference was held in the Sub Area Headquarters and the Army took over all naval establishments in Vizakhapatnam. The mutineers were rounded up and taken in military custody. By 25 February all the ratings who had left their ships returned. The ring-leaders were detained, with the rest being permitted to join their ships.20
Similar incidents occurred at several other stations. At Cochin the ratings of the HMIS Baroda struck work for 24 hours, with those of the HMIS Venduruthy, a shore establishment, remained unaffected. At Madras the ratings of the shore establishment HMIS Adyar decided to show their sympathy to the Bombay mutineers. Donning No. 10 dress they took out a procession and shouted slogans. An officer who asked them to go back was struck with a belt by a rating. However, they went back and joined duty. At the Wireless Telegraphy Station at Aden the ratings went on a hunger strike on 20 February when they heard about the strike at Bombay. Next day the three watches refused to carry out their duties, resulting in disruption in communications. 21
In accordance with the rules, a Board of Inquiry was held by the naval authorities to enquire into the incidents on board every ship and shore establishment. In addition, the government constituted a Commission of Inquiry, which was chaired by Sir S. Fazl Ali, Chief Justice of the Patna High Court. The two judicial members were Justice K.S. Krishnaswami Iyengar, Chief Justice of Cochin State, and Justice Mehr Chand Mahajan, of the Lahore High Court. The two service members were Vice Admiral W.R. Patterson, Flag Officer Commanding the Cruiser Squadron in East Indies Fleet, and Major General T.W. Rees, General Officer Commanding 4th Indian Division. The Commission began its deliberations in April and submitted its report in July 1946.
In its report, the Commission identified four main causes of the mutiny. These were discontent due to long standing grievances; low state of morale, bad management and unsuitability of a large number of ratings; politics and the incidents that occurred on the Talwar. In its concluding remarks, the Commission commented: ‘The basic cause of the mutiny in our opinion was widespread discontent among the Naval men arising mainly from a number of service grievances which had remained unredressed for some time and were aggravated by the political situation. Without this discontent, the mutiny would not have taken place.’22
Though politics was listed as one of the causes of the mutiny, it was not among the major ones. It is true that the mutineers did approach several politicians, but their response was lukewarm. The first person they contacted was Aruna Asaf Ali, who was requested by the ratings of the Talwar to be their spokesman and take up their cause with national leaders. Not wishing to get involved in the strike, she advised them to remain calm and contact the ‘highest Congress authority in Bombay, Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel’. When contacted by Aruna, Patel replied that since the ratings did not take his advice before resorting to the strike, he saw no reason why he or she should interfere. Patel’s views were supported by the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee whose President, S.K. Patil, advised the ratings ‘to observe perfect discipline in their conduct and maintain an atmosphere of non-violence in all circumstances’.23
Alarmed by the events that occurred on 21 and 22 February, Aruna Asaf Ali wired Nehru, requesting him to come down to Bombay immediately to ‘control and avoid tragedy’. Sardar Patel was equally perturbed by the violent turn of events, and wrote to the Governor of Bombay assuring him that the Congress Party would do its bit to control the violence and end the strike. The leaders of the Muslim League, M.A. Jinnah and Liaqat Ali Khan, also felt it necessary to advise the mutineers to call off the strike. The issue was discussed in the Central Legislative Assembly on 22 and 23 February 1946. On 26 February 1946 Nehru and Patel addressed a gathering at Chowpatty in Bombay, decrying the violence, while commending the ratings for their patriotic spirit. The only leader who came out unequivocally against the mutiny was Mahatma Gandhi. Unlike most other political leaders who preferred to call it a strike, Gandhi was very clear that it was a mutiny. In a scathing comment on the action of the ratings, he said: ‘If they mutinied for the freedom of India, they were doubly wrong. They could not do so without a call from a prepared revolutionary party. They were thoughtless and ignorant, if they believed that by their might they would deliver India from foreign domination’. 24
However, according to B.C. Dutt, who was in custody at that time, the aim of the mutiny was to end British rule, and the refusal to eat food was chosen as a convenient excuse. ‘We decided to incite the ratings on the bad food issue. They must refuse to eat. That would constitute a corporate offence – Mutiny’.25 Dutt’s claim is not supported by others, including some of his closest associates. While there is no doubt that Dutt was the first one to raise the banner of revolt by writing slogans before the FOCRIN’s inspection on 2 February 1946, there is no evidence of this act being in any way connected with the mutiny. After his arrest a search of his papers revealed that he was in possession of revolutionary literature. He called himself an ‘Azad Hindi’ and tried to persuade others to join him, but apparently found few supporters. Throughout the mutiny he was in detention and had no contact with leaders of the Strike Committee. In fact, when Commander King tried to take his help and sent him to talk to the mutineers, they sent him back, making it clear that they had no faith in him. One of his close friends called him a sycophant and a devoted follower of Mir Jafar (i.e. a traitor).26
The reasons for the mutiny have been spelt out by one of the leaders, Petty Officer (Telegraphist) Madan Singh, who was Vice President of the Strike Committee. During an interview he said: 27
There had been a current of deep-rooted discontent simmering underneath the surface calm which erupted on February 18, almost like a volcano. The beginning was made by HMIS Talwar, a sea shore establishment for training wireless operators. The ship’s ratings were better educated as compared to the other Naval ratings of RIN. The egotistical attitude of the officers, particularly British who were predominant, was further fuelled by the off-the-cuff remarks of the newly arrived Commander King on a routine visit to the Ship. He had commented that Indian Ratings were sons of Indian bitches. When we protested through the official channel we were threatened. The service conditions were pathetic, particularly in contrast to the English Ratings. The last straw on the camel was the breakfast unfit for consumption served to us on February 18.
Though not inspired by political reasons, the RIN mutiny did have political consequences. It was preceded by the RIAF mutiny and followed by several mutinies in the Army, including one at the Signal Training Centre at Jubbulpore. Together, these caused consternation and alarm in Delhi and London. The realisation that Britain could no longer depend on the Indian Armed Forces was partly responsible for her decision to quit India in 1947. Recognising this contribution, the Government of India subsequently agreed to accord the ratings who participated in the mutiny the status of freedom fighters. In June 1973 the Government approved the grant of freedom fighters’ pension to 476 personnel who had lost their jobs, being dismissed or discharged from service because of their role in the mutiny. 28
This chapter is largely based on Dilip Kumar Das’ Revisiting Talwar – A Study in the Royal Indian Navy Uprising of February 1946, (New Delhi, 1993); Rear Admiral Satyindra Singh’s Under Two Ensigns – The Indian Navy 1945-1950, (New Delhi, 1986); BC Dutt’s Mutiny of the Innocents, (Bombay, 1971); and ‘Report of the Commission of Inquiry – RIN Mutiny 1946’, (Ministry of Defence, History Division, New Delhi). Specific references are given below:-
- Report of the Commission of Inquiry – RIN Mutiny 1946, Ministry of Defence, History Division, (MODHD), New Delhi, Document 601/7968/1, pp. 20-27.
- Rear Admiral Satyindra Singh,Under Two Ensigns – The Indian Navy 1945-1950, (New Delhi, 1986), p. 55.
- Dilip Kumar Das, Revisiting Talwar – A Study in the Royal Indian Navy Uprising of February 1946, (New Delhi, 1993), p.63
- Das, p.74
- Das, pp.77-78
- Report of the Commission of Inquiry, p.53.
- Das, p. 164
- Trilochan Singh Trewn, ‘The lesser-known Mutiny’,The Tribune, Chandigarh, 24 February 2002.
- BC Dutt,Mutiny of the Innocents, (Bombay, 1971), p.137
- Report of the Commission of Inquiry, p. 56
- Trewn, ‘The lesser-known Mutiny’.
- Das, pp. 217-18, quotingThe Free Press Journal, Bombay, 22 February 1946.
- Report of the Commission of Inquiry, p. 59
- Report of the Commission of Inquiry, p. 100
- Das, pp. 180-3.
- Das, pp. 187-8
- Report of the Commission of Inquiry, pp. 102-04
- Report of the Commission of Inquiry, p. 105
- Report of the Commission of Inquiry, pp. 106-07
- Report of the Commission of Inquiry, pp.109-112
- Report of the Commission of Inquiry, p. 113
- Report of the Commission of Inquiry, p. 498
- Das, p. 211, quotingThe Free Press Journal, Bombay, 22 February 1946.
- Das, p.263, quoting Mahatma Gandhi,Collected Works, Vol. 83, p. 184
- BC Dutt,Mutiny of the Innocents, Bombay, 1971, p.109.
- Das, p.235
- HJS Waraich, ‘Total Recall – Witness to History’,The Sunday Tribune, Chandigarh, 21 March 2004.
28 Satyindra Singh, p. 90