18 February 1946: Mutiny against the British began in the Royal Indian Navy

Among the famous events of Indian freedom movement that contributed to the end of British rule in the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the Royal Indian Navy mutiny deserves a special mention. It began on 18 February 1946 by Indian sailors working in Royal Indian Navy in Mumbai. The strike, which assumed mammoth proportion, soon spread to other parts of the country. It eventually involved 20,000 sailors, 20 shore establishments as, well as 78 ships of the navy.

The tipping point for the mutiny were the poor conditions the naval staff were subjected to, particularly food. However, at its roots were other pressing issues, such as racist treatment meted out to Indian sailors by their Royal Navy superiors. The mutiny, which sent tremors across the British monarchy, was eventually repressed by force by the ruling government.

Two days before the mutiny broke out, a contingent gathered at Fort Bombay from HMIS Akbar, a basic training establishment. The sailors were allegedly given poor-quality food that evening, which compelled several of them to eat from outside. Such acts of defiance were rather usual and hence complaints to senior navy officials didn't evoke a response. This gradually gave birth to the dissent which assumed giant proportions. The incidents, coupled with reports of patriotic movements and the INA's feats in Burma and Imphal (led by Netaji Bose) provided the momentum.

In Karachi, the sailors started the mutiny on board HMIS Hindustan, a ship belonging to the Royal Indian Navy. Along with the ship, shore establishments were acquired by rebellious sailors. Later the mutiny spread to another ship named HMIS Bahadur. The strike was led by Madan Singh and M.S. Khan, in a rare show of inter-religious integrity in freedom movement in India. On 19 February, ratings from Bombay Fort Barracks joined the renegade sailors. Soon, ratings reached Bombay by various means, carrying images of Subhash Chandra Bose to join the mutiny. The rebel sailors even threw off Indian naval officers who disapproved of the strike. The rebels used wireless communication sets present in HMIS Talwar to co-ordinate with other sailors in various parts of India.

Thousands of sailors soon joined the mutiny. British nationals serving in forces were attacked in many places. The sailors were also joined by RIAF personnel from Andheri and Marine Drive camps. The gurkhas serving in Karachi disobeyed orders to fire on these sailors. The strike spread to Vizag and Kolkata as well.

While the mutiny was growing and the number of supporters was also on rise, the ruling British government pressed the panic button. The then PM of Britain, Clement Attlee, became seriously worried about this and the Royal Navy was pressed into service to control the revolt. The RIN Flag Officer Admiral J.H. Godfrey issued a "submit or perish" order to the rebel sailors. The rebelling sailors were somewhat confused regarding the best possible course of action and rumors about Royal Navy gathering support from other countries led to the chaos.

The Royal Air Force bombers flew over the Bombay harbour to spread a message of fear and strength on third day of the strike. Admiral Arthur Rullion Rattray gave an ultimatum to the sailors to surrender immediately. The British forces secured Manora Island first, despite resistance from sailors. Next, the destroyer Hindustan was targeted and after prolonged gunfiring from both sides, the mutineers had to surrender amidst heavy casualties. HMIS Bahadur was also secured by the battalion after some time.

While the mutiny did not last long, its effects were far from limited. Prompt steps were adopted to improve food-quality served to the ratings in the RIN post the mutiny. The British Government was shaken by the mutiny as its resemblance to the mutiny of 1857 was conspicuous.

It was somewhat surprising that the mutiny was criticised by the majority of freedom movement leaders and parties. Mahatma Gandhi came down heavily on this mutiny and said it lacked "guidance and intervention" of "political leaders of their choice". However, the Communist Party of India was more positive in its reaction. The event was referred to later as the Naval Uprising and Indian Navy ships were named after prominent mutineers such as B.C. Dutt and Madan Singh.


Also on this day:

1894 -- Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, politician, was born

1927 -- Khayyam, music composer, was born

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