The RIN Mutiny 1946

Posted by Maddy Labels: , ,

We went through events that transpired with the capture of some INA agents a few months ago and learnt of the sad fate that befell TP Kumaran Nair. In fact following those events and the wars fought in Burma, Malaya and Assam, many INA agents were arrested and treated badly. The INA movement did not quite take the Indian populace by storm and the British bureaucracy were careful in ensuring that much of that information remained behind closed doors or in sealed files. Some of them remain sealed even today.

The details of one such loosely connected event which resulted in 1946 saw the light of the day, many years after the fact. Even today it is not talked about or well known, though we did see a curious mention of it in an recent Malayalam movie ‘Iyobinte pusthakam’ where Fahad Fazil playing the protagonist Aloshi, is Iyob’s son and a RIN rating, who returns to Kerala after the Royal Indian Naval mutiny on February 18, 1946.

Preceding the RIN mutiny was the RIAF strike where some 1200 airmen at Delhi and Calcutta went on strike on 15th Feb 1946 protesting against racial discrimination and demanding gratuity, pay, bonus and pension. The RIN mutiny which happened shortly thereafter was more complex, involved rioting and largescale involvement of the naval top brass and the Indian political units as well as the bureaucracy in London. Later Salil Chowdhury composed his famous Dheu uthchhe, kara tutchhe song in its memory. Many books followed, written both by major participators in the revolt as well as one by a British officer, caught in the melee. The event was first termed a mutiny (a mutiny is defined in the armed forces as an event when two or more men present the same grievance at the same time!), then a revolt and finally revised in historic annals as a leftist supported strike. I presume there were legal minds at work during those renaming occasions, but whatever said and done, it was a revolt of sorts and violent at times, involving arms and armaments. A number of Malayali’s were also involved who after the event suffered in silence for the rest of their lives, forgotten and discarded from the mainstream. Their fight for rights and equality later flared out in support of Indian freedom, though originating from a multitude of localized causes and some of the participants are still alive, perhaps in the small group of nonagenarians. But to get to their story, we have to travel northwest, to Colaba in Bombay where HMIS Talwar, the signals training school was located. The people who revolted were mainly ratings, and you must note here that this name rating applied to the so called non-commissioned class such as seaman, petty officer etc. working below the officer category. Talwar incidentally was opened in late 1943 as a Signals School and trained officers and ratings of the RIN in communications and radar.

On September 2nd 1945 the Japanese formally surrendered in Tokyo Bay. Demobilization issues were the reasons which made the people who served the British army nervous. Some were worried about loss of livelihood (Indians), some (the Brits who were unhappy and many qualified Indians) on the other hand were worried about the slow rate of demobilization resulting in overcrowded and horrible living conditions and the fact that being stuck in the forces could mean that the plum civilian jobs were lost and so they wanted to get out quickly.

As Collins explains - Unfortunately there was a strong tendency, amongst officers and ratings alike, to believe that a man was only to sit back and wait for the Government to find a job. Steps were taken to inculcate into all ranks the correct outlook on resettlement, which was that every man was expected to do everything possible himself to resettle, and that the function of the Government was to advice and to assist. In one direction the R.I.N. suffered a severe disappointment. It was hoped that many released ratings would be given official preference when seeking employment in India's Mercantile Marine. When the matter was mooted, however, the Seamen's Union refused unconditionally to agree, the reason given being that the number of jobs available was not sufficient even for the non-Service members of the Unions.

What followed in Jan 1946 was the first of the demobilization strikes at Karachi, rapidly spreading to a number of units all around, including Kanpur. Interestingly, this involved British airmen, not Indians and shook up the top brass. But it quickly influenced on to the Navy and influenced many affected ratings who took up the example, as Lord Wavell himself admitted later. What followed was the infamous 1946 naval mutiny and the ransacking of Bombay.

A number of articles written since then detail the events at Bombay starting from the 18th Feb and lasting 5 torrid days. While the reasons range from bad food, discrimination and pay differences and transfer of officers from Royal navy to RIN, abuse by the senior officer FW King, officer King’s wolf whistling of the ladies in a WRIN parade, BC Dutt’s solitary confinement and so on, other aspects such as INA solidarity and patriotism were also mentioned. The INA trials, general discontent against the British etc further augmented the matter. What followed was a largely leaderless revolt which at first shook Bombay, but later on spread all over India and invited the attention of the rulers at Delhi. The revolt however found little support from the Muslim League and the INC, while the leftists lent a proverbial shoulder for the rioters to cry. In fact none of them was prepared for this event which came out of the blues and Indian politicians were not too quick on the take.

Atlee speaking at the House of Commons on 22nd explained it thus - On Monday, 18th February, all ratings except chief petty officers and petty officers in h. M.I.S. Talwar, R.I.N. Signal School, Bombay, refused duty. The ratings demanded that a political leader be allowed to address them and shouted political slogans. On Tuesday, the trouble spread to the Royal Indian Navy Depot (Castle Barracks) Bombay, and to ships in Bombay harbor. Ratings in the streets became rowdy and civil police made arrests of ratings involved in acts of violence. The flag officer, Bombay, received 14 delegates from the mutineers and was presented with a list of demands, including the following: Speedy demobilization according to age and service groups; disciplinary action against the commanding officer of H.M.I.S. Talwar for alleged improper treatment of ratings; best class of Indian food; Royal Navy scales of pay and family allowance; retention of kit on release; higher gratuity and Treasury pay on release; all demands to be decided in conjunction with a national leader whose name would be communicated.

Many years later, when asked about the extent to which the British decision to quit India was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s 1942 movement, Attlee’s lips widened in smile of disdain and he uttered, slowly, ‘Minimal’." But as they say, it was the RIN Mutiny of 1946 which made the British realize that the Indian armed forces could no longer be trusted to prop up the British and thus proved to be the proverbial straw which broke the camel’s back.

As it is oft stated, the mutiny involved the whole navy covering some 78 ships at Bombay, Karachi, Madras, Calcutta, Vizagapatnam, Mandapam, Jamnagar, Andaman’s and almost all the naval shore establishments in the country joined in, including that at Southerly Cochin (Venduruthy). Some 10 ships and 2 establishments remained unaffected, but even ships at Bahrain and far off Aden were briefly affected. Members of the air force and army had sympathizers for the strike, which made the authorities quite nervous indeed.

Things were not looking up at Talwar prior to the event, as one can imagine. The unit housed 1500 officers and men out of which 700 were communications ratings. In addition there were another 300 draft reserve ratings around. The pay scales were vastly different, so also the food served to the Indians as compared to the British. While the Indians had watery dal, two chapattis, rice with lots of stones and some smelly meat, the British had bread, eggs, butter and all kinds of other items. Complaints about the food fell on deaf ears. Lt Commander Cole, a fairly benevolent officer, had just been replaced by a nasty replacement named FW King who had little exposure to India and possessed a definite racial bent. BC Dutt was arrested for writing slogans on the wall and somebody went on to deflate King’s car tires and paint slogans on his car. This broke his resolve, and he went on to publically abuse the ratings as sons of coolies and bitches. A written complaint submitted after this verbal abuse was ordered to be withdrawn while the petty officer in the mess grandly stated that beggars (Indians) can’t be choosers. All this was behind the start of the revolt which was waiting to erupt from years of pent up frustration. Thus on Feb 18th 1946, the ratings went on strike. Officers brought in new ratings from HMS Braganza, but that did not help. Soon the news was broadcast on the AIR and by 19th the ratings decided to meet and make plans for the next steps.

By 19th most of the shore units and ships had joined the strike and some 20,000 ratings were united. Soon the ratings hit the streets and marched, sparing no whites in sight. They were trashed and stores burnt and looted. The US flag at the USIS was burnt, and Bombay was a mess. Three new flags were hoisted, Red, Muslim league, and Congress. Formal demands included release of INA prisoners, action against FW King, quicker demobilization, same pay and allowances as for the Royal Navy ratings, better food and canteen access, retention of kit after demobilization, and finally withdrawal of Indian troops in Indonesia.

On 20th MS Khan was elected strike president and the ratings had started to prepare their own food as the systems and routines broke down. Some 3000 ratings from HMIS Akbar marched down to Bombay from Thane, and the British were by now alarmed and planning a quick offensive to stop the mutiny.

On 21st shooting as resorted to at Castle barracks as the Maratha forces were found to be siding with the strikers. It is said that among the signal men, many were Malayali’s and the first to die was perhaps one, a sick berth attendant named Krishnan. Other ships from British fleet moved in and all out shelling was expected in Colaba.

The situation was changing fast and rumors went around that Australian and Canadian armed battalions were arriving to encircle the dockyard where most ships were berthed. The Royal Air Force flew bombers over Bombay harbor in a show of force, and Arthur Rattray, Flag Officer issued an ultimatum asking the ratings to raise black flags and surrender unconditionally. Things were going from bad to worse in Karachi with shelling of ships and by now 7 ratings and some 240 civilians were dead.

Negotiations moved fast, keeping in view the extreme sensitivity of the situation and most of the demands of the strikers regarding welfare measures were conceded in principle. The mutiny was called off following a meeting between the President of the Naval Central Strike Committee (NCSC), M. S. Khan, and Vallabhai Patel of the Congress, who had been sent to Bombay to settle the crisis. Sardar Patel and Jinnah advised the strikers to surrender and promised that there would be no victimization, while Gandhiji deplored the event and Nehru avoided it. Aruna Asaf Ali was the only supportive politician initially.

Immediate steps were taken to improve the quality of food served in the ratings’ kitchen and their living conditions. But the promises about victimization were never kept (Patel himself said later that there should be no questions about discipline in the armed forces) and these were followed up by court-martials and large-scale dismissals from the service. None of those dismissed were reinstated. Some 500-600 of these strikers were rounded up and interned at Mulund prison camp in inhuman conditions. They had to go on a hunger strike before being released and dismissed from service.

As one could infer, the naval mutiny was easily suppressed by the use of force with minimal casualties. But it made its mark, for as is repeatedly uttered - it led to the realization that Britain could no longer depend on Indian soldiers, sailors and airmen to uphold her authority over her colonies in the East. This perhaps contributed in the advancement of the date of Indian independence from June 1948 to August 1947.

FW King was apparently reprimanded and dismissed from Talwar after the trial in July. Arthur King another officer was sympathetic and we see from a recent ‘Telegraph’ report - Afterwards suspected ring-leaders were placed in a camp at Mulund outside Bombay and King was put in charge with a guard drawn from the Mahratta regiment. He was pained that among the sailors were many he knew personally, though it was some consolation that a few weeks later he was allowed to drive his prisoners to the railway station at Thane where they were given tickets and allowed to go home.

The Nehru Government also held on to the British military policy that service personnel, once removed on account of ‘mutinous’ acts, should never be taken back. As the Indian government let the ratings rot in the prisons other jobless ex-ratings wandered around the streets in search of jobs. Many of these brave men thence led a life of misery for choosing the path of armed struggle for the liberation of India. One of the people who left the navy following the rebellion is the famous Malayalam writer Kovilan (Kandanisseri Vattomparambil Velappan Ayyappan).

The Commission produced a 600-page report, which has not been made public. A short summary, was published in January 1947 and it exonerated most British officers who were responsible for the revolt. The 600 page report which has never been aired did not make pretty reading according to Wavell – he said that it showed that men were treated badly by a ‘not very good lot’ of officers.

Some of those who were thrown out were lucky as an article by Bharadwaj at Purpleberets reveals - Post partition, the newly formed Pakistan Navy absorbed the 27-year-old, Mohammed Shariff Khan as an officer. He expanded and tweaked his name from MS Khan to read as Mohammed Sharif. Surely, MS Khan was smart and intelligent; he was quickly promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral. During the 1971 war, he commanded the Eastern Naval Command. Immediately after signing the ‘Instrument of Surrender’ he was taken as Prisoner of War (POW) by the Indians. On his return to Pakistan, Mohammed Sharif was promoted to Vice Admiral’s rank and in March 1975, was catapulted to be the chief of Pakistan navy as a four star Admiral.

Politically the timing was wrong for the negotiating congress and league who were close to a handover solution, they wanted the officers around after transfer and did not want a disintegration in the naval ranks. So I presume a decision was taken to mothball the mutiny, and that was what happened. In addition the new rulers did not want leftists to gain any mileage from all this.
Cdr SG Karmarkar who was in INS Shivaji at Lonavala, doing routine work was rushed to INS Talwar to mediate as the mutiny was diffused. He was promoted later as Rear Admiral and Flag Officer Bombay in the Indian navy.

A bright person who read this painstakingly would ask – why was Indonesia mentioned in the demands? Therein lies another interesting tale. By the end of August 1945, a central Republican government had been established in Jakarta, and adopted a constitution drafted during the Japanese occupation. The British Indian army participated in this campaign against the Republicans, but many of the soldiers started to wonder why they should fight somebody trying to move out of the imperialistic yoke. Anyway while they were there, the event took a religious turn and some 600 Indian Muslim soldiers inspired by the republican religious war cry, defected to the republic with their weapons. 75 of these soldiers survived the war; some decided to stay in Indonesia when others returned to India or Pakistan. This news of course reached India and the Muslim league possibly wanted to show their brotherhood, hence their timely demand during the revolt.

The Indian naval revolt of 1946 – Percy S Gourgey
The RIN Strike Subrata Banerjee
RIN mutiny 1946 Biswanath Bose
A sudy in the royal indian uprising of February 1946 Dipak Kumar das