The 1946 rebellion of the sailors of the British Indian Navy

One of the most spectacular episodes of the intense revolt against the British Raj was the uprising of the sailors of the British Indian Navy in 1946. On February 18 of that year the sailors and shipmen of the British Indian Navy battleship HMS “Talwaar” went on strike. They invited  the masses of Bombay to join in the struggle they had started. As a result, anti- British imperialist sentiments started to spread like wildfire throughout the region.

One of the most spectacular episodes of the intense revolt against the British Raj was the uprising of the sailors of the British Indian Navy in 1946. On February 18 of that year the sailors and shipmen of the British Indian Navy battleship HMS “Talwaar”, who were at the time posted to the Bombay harbour, went on strike. They were protesting against the bad food and adverse conditions.

Although on the first day it was limited to a peaceful hunger strike, the signs of an imminent and much bigger rebellion against the British rulers were evident. On February 19, the sailors announced the strike to the Naval personnel stationed in the fortress and to those in the Naval Barracks. They took over the Naval trucks, boarded them, hoisted red flags on them and started patrolling the city of Bombay. They were inviting the masses of the city to join in the struggle they had started. As a result, anti British imperialist sentiments started to spread like wildfire throughout the region.

On the eve of February 19 1946, much wider layers of the Naval personnel had joined in this revolt. The union jacks on most of the ships of the Royal Indian Navy in the Bombay harbour were torn down and the rebel sailors hoisted red flags along with the flags of the political parties that were involved in the struggle for independence.

Within 48 hours the British imperialists were faced with the largest revolt ever of their Naval units. The message of this rebellion started to spread by word of mouth and then over the radio (the radio station had been taken over by the rebels) to military garrisons and barracks across India. Some of the leaders of the sailors broadcast the message of the uprising and revolutionary songs and poetry were also broadcast round the clock. The revolt spread to 74 ships, 20 fleets and 22 units of the Navy along the coast. It involved Bombay, Calcutta, Karachi, Madras, Cochin and Vishapatam. On February 20 only 10 ships and 2 naval stations were not in complete revolt.

In the beginning this revolt was considered to be spontaneous but that is not completely true. On the eve of February 19 a strike committee had been formally set-up. Signalman M.S Khan and petty officer telegraph operator Madan Singh were elected unanimously to the positions of president and vice president of the committee. Both of them were under the age of 25. One was a Muslim and the other a Sikh, and this was a conscious act to reject the religious divide being injected into the liberation movement by the native bourgeois leaders and their British masters.

Apart from the other tasks charted out for the strike committee, one of the important objectives agreed upon was to involve the political parties in this movement and gain their support. Tragically the Communist Party of India (CPI) had lost the leadership of the independence movement due to its disastrous policy of supporting the British imperialists under the so-called “anti fascist front” policy dictated by the Stalinist elite in the Kremlin. This had led to a rapid diminishing of support for the CPI in the liberation movement. The nascent Indian bourgeoisie and their leaders were at that time negotiating a settlement with the British. They were as hostile as the British to any revolutionary upsurge at this delicate juncture in the history of the subcontinent.

Gandhi reflected this by openly condemning the uprising of the sailors. The CPI leaders once again lost the opportunity to link up with the revolutionary masses. They did nothing to connect the Naval revolt with the strikes which were taking place in the textile industry, on the railways and in other sectors throughout India. Even leaders like Subhash Chandra Bose were unable to connect this movement with the revolt taking place in the British Indian army. He was rather more involved in an adventurist binge and had gone too far in launching the INA (Indian National Army) to fight British forces, under the auspices of the reactionary Japanese regime!

Congress and the Muslim League were not prepared to back the revolt for they feared the penetration of revolutionary and class struggle ideas into the movement which they had done so much to tear apart along religious lines with cunning and deception. In spite of this betrayal and contemptuous attitude of the national bourgeois leaders, the revolutionary momentum of the uprising gave it an impetus of its own. Revolutionary zeal, sentiment and passion were booming. The whole country was filled with the echoes of the slogan, “long live the revolution”.

These slogans electrified the whole of Bombay. One of the poets of the era, Josh Malihabadi wrote enthralling verses an example of which was,

My task is my growth; my name is martyr
My slogan is revolution, revolution revolution.

On the February 21 the British shock troops opened fire with live ammunition on the sailors as they came out of their barracks in the Bombay fortress. This provocation changed a peaceful uprising into an armed rebellion. There were armed clashes between the British elite troops and the rebellious sailors throughout the day. On the first day one death was reported in Bombay, but on the second day 14 sailors were martyred in Karachi. The industrial workers who had joined the revolt with the sailors were subjected to brutal attacks by the British forces.

On February 22 and 23, 250 sailors and workers were slaughtered by the imperialist forces. According to various eyewitnesses interviewed, on February 21 it seemed that the oppressed masses of the whole subcontinent had risen up in a revolutionary movement against British rule. In these events the revolutionary strike committee had shifted its command to the “Narba” fleet. The sailors had now aimed the barrels of their guns on the ships and were now targeting the British Naval installations and command centres on the coast. Sirens were being sounded from all the ship decks. They were announcing through the loud speakers that to defend their comrades in the cities and in the harbour they would destroy the British military bases and installations if they dared to attack.

The British government in London was in shock. The British Labour Prime Minister Clement Atlee, in sheer desperation ordered the uprising to be crushed through brute military force. The commander of the British Indian Navy, admiral Godfrey threatened the rebellious sailors with “surrender or be perished”. The so-called leader of the independence movement and one of the stalwarts of the Indian National Congress, Sardar Vallabhbai Patel, openly came out on the side of the British. He denounced the uprising and supported the imperialists’ ultimatum. In this uprising the national leadership of India, both Hindu and Muslim, became allies of the British imperialists. This exposed their real class character and their collaborationist role in the saga of transition from British to native rule to independence.

Meanwhile the British fighter aircraft were carrying out threatening sorties over the rebellious fleet. In such conditions Sardar Patel gave the following infamous statement: “Only a small band of insolent, hot headed and insane youngsters are trying to get involved in politics through these acts, when they have nothing to do with politics”.

Isolated, disillusioned and desperate after the treacherous role and attitude displayed by the “national leadership” towards the uprising, M.S. Khan put before the strike committee, the proposal of surrender. But the 36-member committee rejected this plea. Several tense hours passed. The mainstream “national leadership” intensified its efforts to isolate the Naval uprising from the mass movement for independence that was surging across the subcontinent. Demoralization was setting in amongst the members of the strike committee.

Another session of the committee commenced in the early hours of February 24 on the battleship HMS Talwaar. Now it had become more evident that there was no option but to surrender and lay down arms. At 0600 hrs on February 24, 1946 black flags were raised from the deck to announce surrender. In its last session the strike committee passed a resolution that was the last message of the revolutionary sailors to the toiling masses of the South Asian subcontinent. The resolution stated, “Our uprising was an important historical event in the lives of our people. For the first time the blood of uniformed and non-uniformed workers flowed in one current for the same collective cause. We the workers in uniform shall never forget this. We also know that you, our proletarian brothers and sisters shall also never forget this. The coming generations, learning its lessons shall accomplish what we have not been able to achieve. Long live the working masses. Long live the Revolution”.

After the surrender most leaders and activists of this uprising were prosecuted incarcerated and executed inspite of their surrender. The nationalist bourgeois leaders refused to raise any protest. Not a squeak not a whimper came out from these nationalist parties masquerading as the stalwarts of independence.

However, this episode stands as one of the greatest chapters in the story of the struggle for independence from British rule. In spite of the fact that this uprising was defeated the movement showed the British what was in store for them in the future. One of the effects of this uprising was that the British Prime Minister Clement Atlee was forced to announce that the British would leave India before June 1948. Such was the blow inflicted upon the confidence of the British rulers by this naval uprising that they were forced to beat a retreat. The British, in connivance with the native bourgeois leaders, hastened the process of partition along ethnic and religious lines. After this episode they manoeuvred in such a way as not to leave the subcontinent united in any form whatsoever, either as a confederation or whatever political superstructure they may have envisaged before these revolutionary events.

The policy of divide and rule, that the British had learned from the emperors of Rome, now came into full play. The living body of a culture that was thousands of years old was cut in half and the blood of 2.7 million innocent souls was shed.

There is a criminal silence and elusiveness about the details of this glorious episode in the education syllabi in both India and Pakistan. Several other similar events and great episodes have yet to see the light of the day. Still, the memory of that naval uprising haunts the echelons of power from London to Islamabad to Delhi. The task of learning and carrying out the message and the aspirations of the sailors’ strike committee of the February 1946 falls to today’s rising generation of youth and workers. This can only be accomplished by carrying out a successful Socialist Revolution in any of the present day countries of the subcontinent. A socialist victory in any of these states would inevitably lead to the formation of a voluntary Socialist Federation of the South Asian Subcontinent.