On 17 February 1946, the ratings of the Royal Indian Navy based at HMIS Talwar in Bombay pushed for their demand for decent food, only to be subjected to the British officers’ sneer that ‘beggars cannot be choosers’. This was the last straw. On the 18th morning, 1500 ratings walked out of the mess hall in protest in a clear act of revolt and declared that ‘this is not a mere food riot. [We] are about to create history…a heritage of pride for free India.’ By the following evening, a naval central strike committee had been elected led by Signalman Lieutenant M.S. Khan and Petty Officer Telegraphist Madan Singh. The ‘strike committee’ decided their task was to take over the RIN and place it in the command of national leaders. A formal list of demands called for release of all Indian political prisoners including INA Prisoners of War and naval detainees, withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia and Egypt, equal status of pay and allowances and best class of Indian food. It also formally asked the British to quit India. By that night, AIR and BBC had to broadcast the news of the RIN strike and it spread like wildfire across the country. The next morning, sixty RIN ships harboured at Bombay – including the flagship HMIS Narbada, HMIS Madras, Sind, Mahratta, Teer, Dhanush, Khyber, Clive, Punjab, Gondawana, Berar, Moti, Jamna, Kumaon, Oudh – and eleven shore establishments, including the large Castle Barracks and Fort Barracks, pulled down the Union Jack and hoisted the three flags of the Congress, the Muslim League and the Communist Party. Under the ‘joint banner’ of Charka-Crescent-Hammer and Sickle, the ratings marched in thousands towards the epicentre, the Talwar. It soon involved 20,000 sailors, 78 ships and 20 shore establishments. A rumour that the British were going to starve the ratings into surrender, brought thousands of civilians to the Gateway of India with fruits, milk, bread and vegetables. The ratings came by motorboats and collected all that was offered. Shops and eateries offered them to take whatever they needed for free.
By the morning of February 20, the strike had spread to Calcutta, Karachi, Madras, Jamnagar, Vishakapatnam, Cochin and other navy stations leading upto a one-day general strike being called by the Bombay Students’ Union and the CPI in Bombay on 22 February in solidarity. Sardar Patel asked people to ‘go about their work as usual’ but working people rejected this and joined the strike and processions rolled across the city. At the seaside, British troops prevented any food from reaching the ships and in the Fort area, a military truck recklessly ran over protestors triggering mayhem and, within a few hours, eleven military trucks were torched. The army responded with indiscriminate firing, especially in working class areas of Parel. By night, the city was under curfew. Three days later Bombay was quiet, but 228 civilians had died and 1,046 were injured – the largest number of Indians directly murdered by the colonial state since the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of 1919. No one remembers this bloodshed anymore.
Notably, the revolting ships hoisted three flags tied together – those of the Congress, Muslim League, and the Red Flag of the Communist Party of India (CPI). While the League and Congress flags symbolised communal unity, the CPI flag underlined the sympathy the protesting ratings (A naval rating is an enlisted member of a country’s navy, subordinate to officers) had with the working classes. The demands advanced by the naval central strike committee combined service grievances with wider national concerns. The latter included the release of INA (Indian National Army) personnel and other political prisoners; withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia; and the acceptance of Indian officers only as superiors. With no political support from the Congress or the League on 23 February, at 6 am, all ships surrendered.
Though the Congress supported the INA, it did not rise to defend the RIN as (i) it was preparing for the transfer of power in 1945 and was in no mood for militant struggles that could have a domino effect and derail the electoral process and (ii) the INA had been appropriated by the Congress while the RIN was largely led by the communists. Both Patel and Jinnah promised the RIN support on the condition of surrender but these promises were forgotten later and upon surrender, the ratings faced court-martial, imprisonment and victimisation. More than 500 ratings were interned in Mulund, a suburb of Bombay, and Maliar in Karachi. They were dismissed and later sent home. Even after 1947, the governments of Independent India and Pakistan refused to reinstate them or offer compensation.
This though was arguably the single most important event in convincing the British government that it could no longer hold on to India, today remains mostly forgotten.