Seventy-four years ago on this date, on February 18, 1946, some 1,100 Indian sailors or “ratings” of the HMIS Talwar and the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) Signal School in Bombay declared a hunger strike, triggered by the conditions and treatment of Indians in the Navy. A “slow down” the strike was also called, which meant that the ratings would carry out their duties slowly.
Infuriated, the commander of HMIS Talwar, F M King, reportedly addressed the naval ratings as “sons of coolies and bitches”, which inflamed the situation further.
1946 naval mutiny: Strike and demands
The morning after February 18, somewhere between 10,000-20,000 sailors joined the strike, as did shore establishments in Karachi, Madras, Calcutta, Mandapam, Visakhapatnam, and the Andaman Islands.
While the immediate trigger was the demand for better food and working conditions, the agitation soon turned into a wider demand for independence from British rule.
The protesting sailors demanded the release of all political prisoners including those from Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA), action against the commander for ill-treatment and using insulting language, revision of pay and allowances to put RIN employees on a par with their counterparts in the Royal Navy, demobilisation of RIN personnel with provisions for peacetime employment, release of Indian forces stationed in Indonesia, and better treatment of subordinates by their officers.
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1946 navy mutiny: Upsurge of nationalism
The RIN strike came at a time when the Indian nationalist sentiment had reached fever pitch across the country. The winter of 1945-46 saw three violent upsurges: in Calcutta in November 1945 over the INA trials; in February 1946, also in Calcutta, over the sentencing of INA officer Rashid Ali; and, in that same month, the ratings’ uprising in Bombay.
In his short book, ‘The Indian Naval Report of 1946′, Percy S Gourgey, a former lieutenant of the Royal Indian Naval Volunteer Reserve, wrote that the chain of events led to the “mounting fever of excitement affecting the whole political climate”.
One of the triggers for the RIN strike was the arrest of a rating, BC Dutt, who had scrawled “Quit India” on the HMIS Talwar. The day after the strike began, the ratings went around Bombay in lorries, waving the Congress flag, and getting into scraps with Europeans and policemen who tried to confront them.
Soon, ordinary people joined the ratings, and life came to a virtual standstill in both Bombay and Calcutta. There were meetings, processions, strikes, and hartals. In Bombay, labourers participated in a general strike called by the Communist Party of India and the Bombay Students’ Union. In many cities across India, students boycotted classes in solidarity.
The response of the state was brutal. It is estimated that over 220 people died in police firing, while roughly 1,000 were injured.
Significance of the events
The RIN revolt remains a legend today. It was an event that strengthened further the determination among all sections of the Indian people to see the end of British rule. Deep solidarity and amity among religious groups was in evidence, which appeared to run counter to the rapidly spreading atmosphere of commuanal hatred and animosity.
However, communal unity was more in the nature of organisational unity than a unity among the two major communities. Within months, India was to be devoured by a terrible communal conflagration.
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