RIN Uprising memorial Colaba, Mumbai

RIN Uprising memorial Colaba, Mumbai

On a busy street in Colaba, Mumbai, just next to the MSLTA courts and opposite to the Taj Wellington Mews, a small garden takes you back in decades. There, in midst of all greenery, stands a staute, Rock Solid frame of a Sailor.

This is the memorial of an inspiring episode in the saga of Indian Freedom struggle- an uprising, that shook the basic foundation of the British Empire and yet, it is relatively unknown to the masses- the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny or Bombay Mutiny, as it is known, or the February 18 revolt, as many would like to call it.

This is the story of the brave young Indians who showed undoubting courage to take on the rulers. Not just common Mumbaikars, students and workers but Naval ratings and servicemen in other cities too stood by their side and their voices stunned the rulers.

The Beginning

It started in the winter of 1945, when the world was just getting to terms with effects of 2nd Great War. Campaign for freedom of India was at its peak and the country was going through turmoil because of widespread movement for Pakistan.

It is in these days, Balai Chandra Dutt along with a small group of naval ratings dreamt of doing something for the country. Dutt was a young Telegraphist aboard the HMIS Talwar- a shore establishment of the British Royal Indian Navy which acted as a Signals School and trained officers and ratings of the RIN in communications and radar. A friend’s journeys through Malay Peninsula and close contact with the Azad Hind Sena Members had inspired the spirit of Nationalism among them. The young boys decided to make their voices heard and on December 1st, when the Navy day celebrations were on, they expressed their emotions through slogans like “Jai Hind” painted on walls of the ship.

It took some time for the British to realise who was behind the graffiti and anti-empire literature distributed across. But finally when they did, Dutt was arrested. The ratings were unhappy about the arrest. over the years, they had suffered ill-treatment and there was simmering discontent over the poor service conditions and humiliation of Indian Leaders by British officers. Dutt’s detention triggered a unanimous call for strike among the Indian ratings on Talwar. several other ships joined in and what started as a non-violent ‘hartal’, turned into a full-fledged revolt.

The Events unfold

On February 18th, the first day of strike, sailors took over Talwar. Since it was like a wireless communication centre, they could spread the word to other ships and establishments. By next day, several other ships in Mumbai, then Bombay, and other ports, notably Karachi joined in the revolt.

In the dusk hours of February 19th, Naval Central Strike Committee (NCSC) was elected. Leading Signalman MS Khan and Petty Officer Telegraphist Madan Singh were unanimously elected as the President and Vice-President. It should be noted that, the choice was made consciously to indicate the religious unity among the rebels.

RIN Revolt

RIN Revolt – March on Mumbai street

The White Ensign was taken down and revolting ships hoisted three flags tied together- those of Congress, Muslim League and CPI. Workers from all ranks, some officers in Castle Barracks and residents of Bombay joined in. on 22nd and 23rd, there were mass agitations on Hornby Road- today’s Dadabhai Novroji Road- near Victoria Terminus (today’s CST station. the demonstrations turned violent and officers opened fire on the ratings.

Indian people, already gripped by the heroics of INA, supported the strike. On 20th February, a general strike was called in Bombay, which later spread to many other cities. The ratings in Calcutta, Madras, Karachi and Vizag also went on strike with the slogans “Strike for Bombay”, “Release 11,000 INA prisoners” and “Jai Hind“.

Many units of the Royal Indian Air Force and Local Police forces went on strike. Naval officers began calling themselves Indian national Navy and offered left-handed salutes. 1000 RIAF men from the Marine Drive and Andheri Camps also joined in sympathy. By the end of the day Baloch and Gurkhas in Karachi had refused to fire on striking sailors.

The Rulers React

Meanwhile, The British government was shell-shocked., Prime Minister Clement Atlee had to order the Royal navy to clench the revolt. British destroyers from Trincomalee in Ceylon (Sri Lank) sailed to Mumbai.

The Flag Officer commanding the RIN, Admiral J.H. Godfrey (yes, the same one on whom Ian Flemming’s “M”- the boss of James Bond is based), gave ultimatum on air “Submit or perish”. A British Bomber planes flew over Bombay Harbour threatening to destroy the mutineers.

Defeat in Karachi 

The clashes between the 2nd British Battalion and ratings holding the Hindustan reached to a tragic conclusion for the mutineers. Sailors decided to hold on and fight back. but by late morning, they had no option but to surrender. Extensive damage had been done to Hindustans superstructure and there were many casualties among the Indian sailors.

Reaction from Political leaders

Both Congress and Muslim League were not prepared for the revolt and got it all wrong. While the movement was appreciated by the masses, no national leader or political party came forward in support. (In fact, Mahatma Gandhi condemned the riots and revolt in his statement on 3rd March 1946)

Only two Leaders –  Aruna Asaf Ali and Achyut Patwardhan assisted the revolutionaries, and Aruna attracted criticism from Gandhi for it. Further, Congress and Muslim league tried to convince the sailors to end their strike

End of Revolt

The leaderless Strikers were disheartened with such political apathy and under the rising pressure, had no option but to give way.  On the evening of February 23rd, after a meeting between Vallab Bhai Patel and MS Khan, President of (NCSC), the revolt was called off. Mohmmed Ali Jinnah supported the action.

Damage to the Empire

The revolt lasted only for 6 days, but was enough to shake the British Empire. It was largest revolt by any of the imperial naval units.  In all, 74 Ships, 20 fleets and 22 units of RIN went on strike.  The Navy was heart of Briton’s success. It was the centre of their pride, the reason for their rise as traders and then rulers around the world.  The same ships and boats had now become a threat.

The World War had hurt the British empire and they were running out of funds. After INA’s heroics and Naval strike, British rulers knew, their armed forces were becoming less and less trustworthy.

Prime Minister Clement Atlee knew the empire would not hold on for long and within two months, on 16th May, Atlee’s Cabinet mission promulgated the plan to decolonize India that paved the way for Independence.

What Happened to the Heroes?

Despite the assurances of the good services, widespread arrests were made. Strikers had to face court martial and most of them were dismissed from service, never to be recalled into either Indian or Pakistani Navies after independence.  The political apathy continued even in the later decades. Till date, History Text books don’t talk much about the revolt.

The recognition finally came in the 1970s when the RIN Revolt was renamed as Naval Uprising and the mutineers were honoured by the government. The Indian Navy named two of its ships after Madan Singh and B.C Dutt. A memorial is built in Mumbai.

Off the main revolutionaries, B C Dutt joined Free Press Journal on S. Sadanand’s offer, but later quit to join an Advertising firm. He spent his years in Mumbai and wrote the book – Mutiny of the Innocents.

Madan Singh, Vice-President of NCSC too joined Free Press Journal as a political correspondent. Within a year, he too quit the job and started business all over the World.  One of his colleagues in the Navy, C.P Ramachandran went on to be an exemplary journalist as the Deputy Editor of the Hindustan Times.

Nothing is known about NCSC president MS Khan- and many others who shed there sweat and blood.

– Janhavee Moole