A short, but critical event that hastened the end of British colonial rule on the Indian subcontinent took place on February 18th, 1946: the largely forgotten Royal Indian Navy (RIN) Mutiny.
During World War II, the RIN had rapidly expanded from a small naval force composed of sloops to become a full-fledged part of the Armed Forces and for the first time recruited men from different social strata.
It played an instrumental role in halting the progress of Japanese forces and was involved in escorting Allied convoys in the Indian Ocean, defending the Indian shoreline against invasions and supporting allied military operations through coastlines and rivers.
At the same time, the Communist Party of India (CPI), founded in 1925 and still a relevant political force in the country, had continuously infiltrated the RIN.
Between 1943 and 1945, there were nine mutinies on board various individual ships in response to poor living conditions, arbitrary treatment, inadequate pay and a perception of an uncaring leadership.
Once Germany and Japan were defeated, those activists started agitating against the British Empire, which had run their homeland since 1858 and initially had the intention to continue doing so.
The first incident occurred on December 1st, 1945 at the HMIS Talwar, a naval establishment on land in Bombay in use from 1943 to 1947 to which around 1,000 communications operators from (lower) middle class backgrounds with a certain level of education had been assigned.
Around 20 of these, with a dozen sympathizers frustrated with racial discrimination, vandalized the premises by littering the parade ground for a public event with burnt flags and buntings as well as prominently displaying brooms and buckets at the tower.
The senior officers cleaned up the premises before the visitors arrived without further action, emboldening the conspirators to continue with similar activities over the course of the following weeks.
Rating Balai Chandra Dutt, an enlisted low ranking sailor, laid the ground for revolt by painting slogans like “Quit India” and “Jai Hind” («Victory to India») on the wooden platform leading up to the HMIS Talwar in the early hours of February 2nd, when the Commander-in-chief of the Indian Army, Claude Auchinleck (1884-1981), was to address the officers and men. The long-serving Field Marshall spoke several Indian languages and was very familiar with local customs.
Dutt was arrested, interrogated and imprisoned in solitary confinement on board. While he actually had claimed sole responsibility for all acts of vandalism, they continued unabated.
Others were court-martialed for insubordination and verbally abused by the commanding officer Arthur King (1917-2015). As their complaints against such an insensitive leadership style were no taken seriously, on February 17th a large number of ratings began refusing food and orders for military parades.
Released on the same day, Dutt would become one of the primary instigators when on February 18th the rebellion spread among two anchored vessels and Bombay Castle, an old defensive structure.
After ratings armed with hockey sticks and fire axes poured in the metropolis on February 19th, demonstrations and agitations broke out in support of their cause.
By dusk, Lieutenant M. S. Khan and Petty Officer Madan Singh were unanimously elected president and vice-president of a central strike committee.
RNI Commander-in-chief Admiral John Henry Godfrey (1888-1970) sent out a communication stating that the most stringent measures would be utilized, including if necessary the destruction of the Navy itself.
Nevertheless, on the morning of February 20th, 1946 apparently Bombay Harbour had been completely overtaken by the mutineers, which had also occupied nearby facilities.
By bringing the wireless system under their control, the rebels secured control over the civilian telephone exchange, the cable network and the transmission center, the channel of communication between the Indian government and the British.
So the mutiny of about 20,000 sailors quickly spread to 74 ships – from Indonesia to Aden in the south of contemporary Yemen, and Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, as well as 20 shore establishments in total.
“Liberated ships” replaced the British ensign with the flags of the three leading political parties, the Indian National Congress, All-India Muslim League and CPI. But as the neither the provincial nor the national leadership of the first two approved of the actions taken, soon only the red flags kept aloft.
Referring to freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945), their leaders called themselves “Azad Hindi” (Free Indians) and had one main cause: the rapid departure of the victorious, though impoverished British.
Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Dalits, Brahmins, with different mother tongues, of all class and caste, were united by the injustice they had suffered for so long.
Their growing discontent was charged with an ever-increasing spirit of anti-Colonialism and anti-Imperialism. A key demand of the mutineers was the withdrawal of Indian soldiers from the Dutch East Indies, which had been fighting a war of independence against the Netherlands since Nippon’s unconditional surrender in 1945.
On February 22nd Admiral Godfrey repeated his threat of immediate surrender or complete destruction. A Royal Navy flotilla was called in from Singapore and bombers from the Royal Air Force (RAF) were flown over the port as a show of strength.
Still, Bombay went on strike on February 22nd. The public transport network was brought to a halt, trains were burnt, roadblocks erected and shops shut down.
Students’ unions and mill workers instigated by the Communists joined the upheaval, leading to widespread arson, looting and vandalizing of anything British.
In consequence, a curfew was imposed. Fearing a wider, leftist rebellion, the authorities decided to crack down on the agitators. Eight servicemen were killed and 33 wounded. Civilian casualties amounted to around 230.
Abandoned and criticized even by Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) for their lack of guidance, the strike committee decided to surrender on February 23rd after being called upon to do so by Sardar Patel (1875-1950), the future first Deputy Prime Minister of India.
Despite assurances that there would be no victimization, many of those arrested were sent to detention camps and later dismissed from service. None of those discharged were pardoned or reinstated after independence.
The absence of support for those brave young men could be explained by the fear that any mass uprising inevitably carries the risk of not being amenable to centralized direction and control.
Besides that, at a time when liberation and power were finally in sight, the prospective new rulers of India were probably eager not to encourage indiscipline in the Armed Forces.
Although the whole episode definitely had a strong Communist aftertaste and happened at the beginning of the Cold War, it’s never too late to remember the idealists who dared to defy a crumbling Empire and its openly racist representatives.