The revolt of the Royal Indian Navy in 1946 has a special place in the revolutionary history of Indian people. The sailors of the Royal Indian Navy started this mutiny which spread to all parts of India and intensified the revolutionary tide. It shook the very foundation of the British colonialism.
18 February 2016 marks 70 years of this uprising. However, very little is talked about this uprising in the history of the independence movement. There are many reasons. When the real history of this great uprising will be taught and read, it will also have to be told how the leaders of the Congress and Muslim League misled the courageous fighters of this movement and spread lies about it to defame their struggle.
Exactly one year and five months after this revolt broke out the British colonialists had to transfer the political power in India to the capitalists and landlords. The British colonialists were scared that such a revolt may break out again. The level of political consciousness displayed by the masses of people following the outbreak of the revolt clearly showed that revolution could break out any time. The people began to understand that the leaders of Congress and the Muslim league were fooling the people. It became evident that these parties were in support of the British. They had no interest in the true independence of Indian people.
The Naval Mutiny
The revolt started on 18 February from the naval ship “Talwar”. This ship was a signal training school. Barbaric exploitation of oppression of the Indian people by the British colonialists had enraged the sailors. Barbaric exploitation and oppression of the people by the British colonialists around the world had affected them. The fact that there was a conspiracy to hang the prisoners of war from Azad Hind Fauz who were being tried in Red Fort in Delhi, had also influenced them. This inspired them to take up arms to liberate their motherland. Initiating their revolt they wrote slogans “Jai hind”, “Quit India” on the walls of the “Talwaar” ship. Looking at the slogans painted on the walls of the sheep it was evident that they had developed a deep national conscious and anger against the regime.
The sailors were secretly preparing for the uprising and a revolutionary fervor was developing across the country. The defeat of fascist forces in the II world war and the decisive role played by Soviet Union enthused the workers, peasants, and youth of the country with the possibility of revolution, ending rule of the British and establishing the rule of workers and peasants. Revolutionary situation was developing in India.
On 17 February the sailors of “Talwar” ship were served contaminated food. When they approached the British commander he insulted them saying that “they should be thankful that they are getting something to eat; anyway beggars don’t have right to choose! If you dirty dogs do not leave immediately, I will have you thrown into the dust bin.” This event created the grounds for a revolt to break out.
On 18 February morning the sailors began their hunger strike. When they were called to the parade ground they raised slogans – “We are on strike!”, “We are on hunger strike!”, “We will not tolerate discrimination!”, “Release the patriots of Azad Hind Fauz!” Hearing the slogans, the British colonialists understood that this is a political strike. When they called the striking sailors for a discussion, the sailors demanded that they need some political party leader to mediate, and they will not go to the British to get arrested.
The news of revolt of the Indian sailors against the British colonialist spread like wild fire across the country and the world. In no time, the revolt assumed a massive scale. Many small and big ships in Mumbai joined the sailors in their revolt. Smaller ships included “Assam”, “Bengal”, “Punjab”, “Travancore”, “Kathiawaad”, “Rajput”, etc. Besides this, naval training ships like “Dalhousie”, “Kalavati”, “Neelam”, and “Heera” also joined the revolt.
The revolt grew rapidly and spread to all naval training centers, ships, and residential areas, where people threw the British flag and hoisted the red communist flag and flags of other two parties. In the course of the revolt the sailors gave slogans reiterating Hindu-Muslim unity so that people’s unity could be preserved. The revolt spread to naval stations and ships in other areas including Karachi, Vishakhapatnam, Madras, Kochi, Kolkatta etc. When the sailors of ship “Baroda” which had gone to Colombo, came to know of the revolt, they also started a hunger strike.
When the sailors of five ships docked in Karachi – “Mauj”, “Himalaya”, “Bahadur”, “Dilawar” and “Chamak” came to know of the revolt in Mumbai, they too declared revolt against the British. They took out a procession in the market and streets of Karachi and drew massive support from the people. They raised slogans like “Inquilaab Zindabad!”, “British Imperialism - Down!” and “Long live the unity of all sailors!”
The revolt was so widespread that it took under its control 20,000 Navy men, 11 docks near Mumbai, 78 ships, 4 frigates, and 20 other docks nearby. In all these places they pulled down the Union Jack and instead unfurled the red communist flag and flags of two other parties. They heralded the end of control Royal Indian Navy by the British. To organize the strike in coordinated way they formed “Nausainik Kendriya Hadtaal Samti”. They elected MS Khan as president and Madan Singh as vice president of the committee. They also renamed the Royal Indian Navy as “Indian Navy”.
The revolt become so wide spread that the police, pilots and employees of air force, expressed their support to the sailors. The Coast Guards located in Delhi, Thane and Pune went on strike in support of RIN sailors.
By this time, entire Mumbai was engulfed by the revolt. When the British ordered the soldiers of Maratha Guard to fire upon the sailors, they refused to do so. The sailors appealed to the soldiers of Maratha Guard – “Brothers, we are not fighting for good food and our own well-being. Our struggle is for liberation of our country. We want to destroy the British imperialism. Like us you are also sons of this land and if you shoot at us, the coming generations will never forgive you!” Hearing this appeal, Maratha Guards stopped firing on the sailors. When the British officer admonished them, one of the soldiers’ retorted “Gone are the days when you could make brothers fight against each other, now you will not be able to shed our blood anymore!”
The sailors had full support of the communist party. They hoped that the Congress and the Muslim League will also support them. But the leaders of these two parties gave statements against the sailors’ strike. Condemning the strike Mohandas Gandhi declared the strike to be an act of “few goonda elements”. The top leaders of both these parties tried to defame the struggle and it became clear from their statements that they were as shaken up by the strike as the British themselves.
On 26 January in a public meeting held with the approval of the British government in Mumbai Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel severely condemned the “mass violence in Mumbai” i.e., daring act of the sailors and people against the British imperialism. Next day speaking to the press, Jawaharlal Nehru very arrogantly said that “the central committee of the Royal Indian Navy had no right to release appeal to the people (to support the sailors strike). I will not tolerate this kind of act.”
From this it becomes amply clear that the aim of parties of the Indian capitalist and landlords set up by the British was to divert the people from the path of freedom and independence. Whereas from the support for the strike from the people of Mumbai and India, it became clear that British colonialists could be thrown out of the country, and needed one more push.
Massive Support of the Working Class
The Communist Party of India called for a general strike in Mumbai on 22 February. Lakhs of workers participated in the general strike.
On the other side, as the striking sailors were moving towards the ship “Talwaar” in support of their strike, workers across Mumbai started joining them. In no time it became a huge rally. Whichever route the rally took, workers and ordinary people left their work and joined it.
In Karachi also the trade union leaders declared strike and people participated in huge numbers. People from all religions joined in the strike. However the leaders of Congress and the Muslim League did not like that people were uniting irrespective of their religion. They asked people to put a halt to the agitation. However the people shouted slogans against these leaders and they had to retreat and runaway.
When the British realized that Indian army also will not fire on the striking sailors, they called in the British platoon. When the British platoon attacked the striking sailors, people of Mumbai climbing on the roofs of their houses attacked the British soldiers with stones and bricks. The British soldiers had to retreat and run away. Many people of Mumbai were martyred in this attack. The blood of Indian soldiers and the people was flowing together on the streets for liberation of our country.
When the British cut off the food supply to the ship to starve out the sailors, the people of Mumbai came to the rescue. Students and workers took charge and supplied food to the sailors loading it on small jetties and taking it to the ships where the workers were striking.
The British unleashed a massive repression on the people to crush the revolt. On 21 February one sailor was martyred resisting the repression. Next day 21 sailors were martyred in Karachi. On 23 February 250 sailors and workers were martyred in the fight against the British soldiers.
Betrayal by the Congress and Muslim League
After failing to crush the revolt through force of arms, the British handed this responsibility to the top leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League. Vallabhabhai Patel from the Congress and Muhammad Ali Jinnah from Muslim League took up the responsibility to break the strike.
They both together played the role of breaking and diffusing the strike. They made false promise to the striking sailors that all their demands will be met and their services will be reinstated. But this never happened. After the independence the sailors were not reinstated in the navy, nor were they given the honour and entitlements of freedom fighter. Very cleverly these parties of the capitalists betrayed the struggle of the people and threw their sacrifice into the mud.
The 1946 revolt of the sailors of Royal Indian Navy is a glorious chapter in the revolutionary history of our country. But the capitalist ruling class of our country is afraid of telling the complete and true story of this struggle to our people and the children. They are scared that if the youth of this country come to know the true story of this struggle of our sailors they will be inspired to build their unity and stand up against the current oppressive state. The courage of these sailors and unity of working people in this struggle is a living example for the youth of our country. The ruling capitalist class is scared that the traitorous role of the Congress Party during the freedom struggle will be exposed. We are told a false history that Congress Party led the struggle for independence, while it becomes clear from the naval mutiny that the Congress Party played the role of protecting the British rule against the struggle of workers, peasants, army and the navy.
While the people of India wanted to overthrow the British rule and establish the rule of working people, the Congress Party betrayed the people again in 1947 and established the rule of the class they represented – the capitalist class, which was nurtured by the British, and which had loyally served their interest. The Congress Party and the Muslim league fully participated in the communal division of our land and drowned the revolutionary struggle of Indian people in a pool of blood.
We must bring out this truth out in open to the youth and working people of our country, so that they learn correct lessons from our history. In 1946 the sailors our country shook the world’s largest colonial power of the time. Same way if the workers, peasants, women and youth, and all the oppressed of our country unite together we can overthrow the present oppressive state of the capitalist and establish the rule of working class, which will guarantee sukh and suraksha to all working people.