History revisited

Remembering the naval mutiny 70 years ago when the British nearly blew up Bombay

An uprising that started on a ship at Bombay dockyard sent out tremors of revolts to port cities across India, particularly to Karachi.

Bombay and Karachi, separated by a distance of just 800 kilometres, have always been twin cities. The two have their shared communities and their shared histories. But the moment in time when they appeared most bonded, almost conjoined, was the mid-1940s.

On February 18, 1946, when ratings of the Royal Indian Navy mutinied on the signal training ship HMIS Talwar at Bombay’s dockyards, to protest against racism and bad food, the uprising spread alarmingly fast. There was a euphoric violence in Bombay and other port cities. The tremors were felt especially in Karachi, where ratings took over the ship Hindustan and the navy’s offshore installations on Manora Island, south of Karachi.

The naval mutiny lasted just four days, but its brevity did not prevent its attendant events from becoming a part of a larger narrative. With passage of time, it was recognised as one of a series of events – Quit India, the Indian National Army’s heroism, workers’ strikes and peasant upsurges – that occurred in the 1940s, and left the British with no option but to concede independence.

The forgotten wars

Early in 1946, months after the end of the Second World War, a tide of impatience and anger took over. Everywhere citizens were facing continued privations of wartime shortages and rationing, and in places soldiers who longed to go home found themselves snared in new conflicts. Besides the forgotten war in Burma, there were fresh battles in Indonesia, where the Dutch government expected the South East Asian Command (comprising British, Indian and, in some cases, surrendered Japanese soldiers) to restore order. Then there was a war on the hands of the French colonial government in Vietnam.

In January 1946, the airmen of the Royal Air Force mutinied first – albeit largely peacefully – to vent their ire at their slow demobilisation and over the continuing wars in Southeast Asia. Like the navy mutineers would do a month later, the airmen seized the signalling equipment to inform other servicemen of their act. From Karachi the disaffection spread to bases like Kanpur (the largest Royal Air Force base in South Asia) and even Singapore.

A later inquiry would seek to prove that the strike was part of a “larger communist conspiracy raging from the Middle East to the Far East”, but in the immediate term the British government did meet the airmen’s demands. Alarmed at the mutiny, the then Viceroy, Lord Archibald Wavell, sounded an ominous warning about disaffected soldiers and their future utility.

Meanwhile, riots had broken out in India in denunciation of the trial of officers of Indian National Army at the Red Fort. INA literature and accounts were being passed within units around this time, an act that constituted treason. A young naval rating BC Dutt on the signal training ship HMIS Talwar received documents on the Indian National Army from a friend who had served in Southeast Asia. It was around this time too that Dutt began his secret work of painting on ships and dockyard walls slogans that were in common usage by this time – Quit India and Jai Hind.

The Bombay dockyard itself was recovering from the explosion of the Fort Stikine in April 1945. As for the Royal Indian Navy, it had grown in size but somewhat haphazardly during the war years of 1939-’45. Besides the addition of numerous trawlers and frigates, thousands of men were recruited, as ratings (most of whom were in their early 20s) and officers.

Many protests

BC Dutt’s suspension and his being placed in custody, after the finding of incriminating material, coincided with a protest by some ratings at the poor quality of food served at Castle Barracks in Bombay. On February 18, in a first sign of mutiny, the naval ensign was lowered on HMIS Talwar, and flags of the Congress, Muslim League and the communists raised in its place. Ratings, meanwhile, used the signalling equipment on board the ship to communicate to other vessels and comrades in other ports. Their grievances were not just limited to bad food or the rudeness of superiors but included larger issues relating to equity of service pay and withdrawal of troops from Indonesia and Egypt.

In a matter of a few hours, there were demonstrations on Bombay’s streets close to the port area, as ratings on board other ships trained their guns on the shoreline. By the next day, the city’s millworkers had struck work as well. And over the next two days, the mutiny spread to 70 more ships across bases, involving more than 20,000 ratings. While national leaders such as Gandhi, Jinnah and Vallabhbhai Patel reacted with shock and advised nonviolence – Patel would negotiate with the central strike committee – local leaders in Bombay such as Aruna Asaf Ali, Tara Reddy, Achyut Patwardhan expressed support for the mutiny. Support also came from a little-known left wing party called the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India.

The establishment reacted all too soon. The navy’s head, Admiral John H Godfrey (his assistant Ian Fleming would later base the character ‘M’ in his Bond novels on Godfrey) had fighter planes flying low over the harbour, and soon, a more superior naval fleet was summoned from Trincomalee, Sri Lanka.

The mutiny in Karachi

The most serious impact of all this was felt in Karachi and more particularly on board the ship Hindustani, which had seen war action in Rangoon. As the word of the Bombay mutiny spread, ratings from the offshore bases of Bahadur, Himalaya and Chamak began marching toward Karachi. When their commanding officer declared the city off-limits, the ratings commandeered motor launches anchored by the bay and moved towards the Hindustan and seized its armoury. Among these ratings was Anand Bakshi, an aspiring poet who would make it big as a lyricist in Bombay’s film industry a decade or so later. Bakshi was among the ratings sacked later. Still, he was fortunate. At least six ratings were killed as the British battalion opened fire on the ship, after a Baloch regiment refused to do so. A widespread strike followed in Karachi the next day.

The mutiny ended on February 23 after the strike naval committee in Bombay met with Sardar Patel. Though the committee was unhappy with his response, they were promised no victimisation. There were other rumours too. According to Madan Singh, a mutiny leader, the British reinforcement troops were ready to adopt scorched earth tactics: an “iron gate” close to the Town Hall was “wired to the system”, and in the event of a threat a “press of the switch” would have blown up the city.

The ratings were court-martialled, for evidently the British didn’t want a repeat of the court trials that followed in the INA instance. More than 500 ratings were interned in Mulund, a suburb of Bombay, and Maliar in Karachi. They were dismissed and later sent home. In 1973, the Indian government recognised some of them as freedom fighters and awarded them a pension, although it continues to disregard the pension claims filed by 70 other surviving ratings from Kerala. In the late 1990s, two of the navy’s tugboats were named after Madan Singh and BC Dutt. And in 2001, the uprising was commemorated with a statue in Colaba that was sculpted by Bombay-based artist Neelkanth Khandwilkar.

Memories of 1946

For all the general amnesia over the mutiny, it still inspired some creative efforts. Salil Chowdhury, then part of the Indian People’s Theatre Association, wrote a song in July 1946 that spoke of the popular upsurge of the times.

On September 25, 1965, Utpal Dutt, who had written the play Kallol (Sound of the Waves) based on the mutiny, was arrested under the Defence of India Act. He remained imprisoned for a few months. But till November that year, the play continued to be staged for three nights a week at Calcutta’s Minerva theatre. It was praised for the authenticity of its stage settings, the warship on stage reconstructed by the master puppeteer Suresh Dutta. It was restaged in 2005, ironically as an extravaganza, on an offshore stage on River Hooghly.

In Salman Rushdie’s 1995 novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, the narrator, Moraes Zogoiby or the "Moor", tells of his artist mother Aurora as she painted the strikers and the city that month in 1946:

“In February 1946, when Bombay, that super epic motion picture of a city, was transformed overnight into a motionless tableau by the great naval and landlubber strikes, when ships did not sail, steel was not milled, textile mills neither warped nor woofed, and in the movie studios there was neither turnover nor cut – the twenty one year old Aurora began to zoom around the paralyzed town in her curtained Buick, directing her driver Hanuman to the heart of the action, or rather of all that grand inaction, being set down outside factory gates and dockyards, venturing alone into the slum city of Dharavi, the rum-dens of Dhobi Talao, and the neon flesh pots of Falkland Road, armed only with a folding wooden stool and a sketchbook. Opening them both up, she set about capturing history in charcoal.”

Aurora never signed her pictures but sketched a lizard at the corner and these were exhibited as “Chipkali” pictures. She drew the “elated tension” of the strikers, the “kiddie pride on their faces as they munched chana at Apollo Bunder”, and the “shipwrecked arrogance of the British officers as power ebbed from them in waves”.

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