Royal Indian Naval Mutiny: On the Threshold of Freedom

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In Feb 1946, Indian sailors in the Royal Indian Navy dealt the British Empire a mortal blow. Around 20,000 sailors went on strike across Bombay, Calcutta, Karachi, Madras, Jamnagar, Visakhapatnam, Cochin and even Aden and Bahrain. This was the Royal Indian Naval Mutiny.

Karachi Map 1911| Wikimedia commons
Karachi Map 1911 | Wikimedia commons

What led to this unprecedented situation? On one hand, India was in turmoil. Trials were underway of the Indian National Army soldiers who had fought with Subhas Chandra Bose against the British during World War II.

The War effort in India 1941 | Wikimedia Commons
The War effort in India 1941 | Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, Indian forces were greatly demoralized. The war had led to the Royal Indian Navy's expansion by 10 times, and while British soldiers were awarded medals, Indian troops faced.

The final trigger came on 17th Feb 1946. When Indian sailors on board the HMIS Talwar in Bombay demanded decent food, British officers told them: “Beggars can't be choosers.”

At first, the sailors resorted to a ‘go-slow’ protest. But when they were referred to as “sons of coolies”, they altogether stopped work and raised the slogan 'Quit India'.

The message spread like wildfire, and 11 shore establishments and 60 other Royal Indian Navy ships joined the protest. The strike, which began as a protest against ill-treatment, now took the shape of a nationalist movement.

On 19 Feb, a Charter of Demands was drawn up, which included the release of all political prisoners, equal pay and eviction of British nationals from India. Radio messages were sent to all Indian naval establishments and ships at sea, urging them to join the strike.

80 ships, four flotillas, 20 shore establishments and more than 20,000 sailors joined the strike. The Union Jack was pulled down and three flags – of the Congress, Muslim League and Communist Party – were hoisted in its place.

Naval Mutiny Memorial in Colaba, Mumbai | Wikimedia Commons
Naval Mutiny Memorial in Colaba, Mumbai | Wikimedia Commons

The masses supported the striking soldiers and, in Bombay, a day-long general strike was called. However, the mutiny lacked political backing as political leaders felt a mutiny would backfire on the freedom movement on the eve of independence.

The British issued an ultimatum. The strike committee met Congress leader Sardar Patel, who said their demands would be examined once they called off the strike. The protest ended on 23 Feb 1946 and the committee released a statement. It read...

Our strike has been a historic event in the life of our nation. For the first time, the blood of men in the Services and in the streets flowed together for a common cause. We, in the Services, will never forget this... Jai Hind.

Sailors being arrested in Bombay in March 1946 | Getty Images
Sailors being arrested in Bombay in March 1946 | Getty Images

Though 300-500 Indian sailors were either dismissed, arrested or court-martialled, the Naval Mutiny, which raged for five days, is considered the final push towards India’s freedom.

Cover Image: Indian Express

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