One of the defining movements that is believed to have expedited the exit of the British from India and convinced them that there was no future for them here, took place in Mumbai in 1946. The Great Indian Naval Mutiny spread like wildfire from the Naval base in Mumbai and shook up Westminster. It was for the first time since 1857, that a sizable section of the Indian armed forces had revolted turning the guns on the British. Between 18th and 23rd February 1946, Naval ships, along the docks in Mumbai carried banners demanding that the British ‘Quit India’. Over 60 ships and shore establishments and 10,000 sailors took up the fight. Though both the Congress and the Muslim League condemned it, the revolt received widespread support from the residents of Mumbai.
– The Great Indian Naval Mutiny spread like wildfire from the Naval base in Mumbai and shook up Westminster
It was a chain of events that led to this mutiny. On one hand, the country was in turmoil because of the trial and subsequent Court Martial of the soldiers of the INA or Indian National Army, who had fought with Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose against the British. The trigger was the treatment of the Indian troops in the navy. World War II had caused the rapid expansion of the Royal Indian Navy. In 1945, it was 10 times larger than its size in 1939. When the war ended, the British troops were given medals and recommendation but the Indian troops had to face unemployment besides inedible food, worse living conditions and racial slurs.
The immediate events leading to the Mutiny are described well in the book ‘The Indian Naval Revolt of 1946’ By Percy S. Gourgey.
HMIS Talwar was the signal-training establishment of the Navy located at Colaba. On 17th February 1946, when over a thousand ratings (enlisted members of the Navy) at the establishment demanded decent food, they were sneered at. On 18th February, they decided to do a ’slow down’ protest at work, during which they carried out their duties ‘slowly’. The commanding officer of HMIS Talwar Commander F W King, was incensed and shouted ‘Hurry, you sons of coolies and bitches!’ The word spread around the establishment and all hell broke loose. All work stopped and the ratings went about shouting ‘Quit India’. With great difficulty, the Commander was able to send messages to the Naval Headquarters.
– When over a thousand ratings demanded decent food, they were sneered at
By 19th morning, the ratings had sent radio messages to all the naval establishments across India and beyond, to Aden, Bahrain, and also Royal Indian Navy ships at sea, urging all hands to join the strike. Indian flags of the Congress, Muslim League and Communist Party took over positions in all ships and naval establishments. The tremors were even felt in Karachi, where mutineers took over the ship HMIS Hindustan and the Navy's offshore installations on Manora Island. The list of demands called for the release of all Indian political prisoners and naval detainees, withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia and Egypt, revision of pay and allowances and better food. It also formally asked the British to ‘Quit India’.
The support for the Indian sailors came from the mainland and how! A rumour that the British were going to starve the sailors into surrender, brought thousands of civilians to the Gateway of India with fruits, milk, bread and vegetables. The sailors came by motorboats and collected all that was offered.
In the followings days, the sailors left their posts, and with the public, jumped in lorries and marched in procession on all thoroughfares especially in the Colaba and Fort areas of Bombay. The working class went on strikes too. The Bombay Students’ Union was asked to distribute revolutionary literature.
Though the mutiny received popular support, Mahatma Gandhi denounced the unplanned uprising. Sardar Patel asked people to ‘go about their work as usual’. Jinnah asked the Muslim sailors to give up arms. British Prime minister Attlee gave orders to put down the revolt and the rebels were given an ultimatum to surrender. The Navy Chief, Admiral John Henry Godfrey had fighter planes flying low over the harbour, and soon, a large Naval fleet was summoned from Trincomalee, Sri Lanka.
Thus, the lack of political support and the risk of further confrontations from the British Commanders led to the isolation of the revolt. Sardar Patel met the strike Naval committee and the mutiny finally ended after all ships surrendered on February 23, 1946, at 6 a.m. The sailors were later court-martialed and dismissed. Sadly, it was only in 1973, that the government of India recognised some of these brave sailors as freedom fighters.
But the impact of this short mutiny was tremendous. In 1956, when the former British Prime Minister, Clement Atlee came to India on a state visit, he reportedly told the Governor of West Bengal, Justice PB Chakraborthy that it was the formation of INA by Netaji Bose and the Naval Mutiny of 1946, that finally convinced the British that there was no hope for them in India.