April 12, 2020

Communists and the RIN Mutiny

THE growing nationalist sentiment that reached a crescendo around the INA trials developed into violent confrontations with British imperialism in the winter of 1945-46. Indian soldiers and young officers serving in the British armed forces in India were greatly influenced by these mass protests. A section of them were skilled professionals and hence were different from the earlier generation of Indians who had served in the British forces. Moreover, during the Second World War, they fought along with the Allied Armies and particularly the Red Army of the Soviet Union. The ideas of anti-fascism, freedom, democracy and socialism rubbed on them due to this interaction.

Inspired by the national movement and the INA, a section of the Indian personnel serving in the navy started a secret organisation, Azad Hind. This organisation played an important role in rousing the naval ratings into the mutiny. There was an upsurge in Bombay when the ratings of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) went on strike.

On 18 February, 1,100 naval ratings of HMIS Talwar struck work and were joined by 5,000 men in the Indian navy posted at Bombay to protest against the treatment meted out to them. The ratings removed the Union Jack from the ship’s masts and instead hoisted Congress, Muslim League and Red flags. They took up arms and arrested their superior officers. The next day ratings from Castle and Fort barracks joined the strike and demonstrations holding Congress, Muslim League and Red Flags took place in the city. Among the ratings were Hindus, Muslims, Christians, men from all provinces and speaking all languages.

Indians employed in any branch of the government services were racially discriminated. Their pay was very low, food was often uneatable. There were many instances of suicides and desertions, many of which were said to spring from such maltreatment. The arrest of BC Dutt a rating for scrawling ‘Quit India’, ‘Down with Imperialism’, on the HMIS Talwar was sorely resented. The main demands of the naval ratings were: decent food and adequate rations; action against the commanding officer of HMIS Talwar for abusing Indian ratings; end maltreatment by officers; speedy demobilisation, resettlement and gratuity; immediate release of all political prisoners, including INA prisoners; immediate withdrawal of all Indian troops from Indonesia and impartial judicial enquiry into the police shootings that have taken place all over India.

Apart from Bombay, Karachi was another major centre of the naval ratings mutiny. The news reached Karachi on February 19, upon which the HMIS Hindustan (which was later involved in armed action), along with one more ship and three shore establishments went on a lightening strike. Apart from these two centres, personnel from Madras, Karachi, Visakhapatnam, Calcutta, Delhi, Cochin, Jamnagar, the Andamans, Bahrain and Aden came out in support of the naval strikers, when the British commander in chief, Admiral Godfrey delivered his ultimatum threatening to blow to pieces all the ships of Indian navy. 78 ships and 28 shore establishments involving 20,000 ratings were effected. Royal Air Force (RAF) men went on a solidarity strike in the Marine Drive, Andheri and Sion areas of Bombay and in Pune, Calcutta, Jessore and Ambala units. Sepoys at Jabalpur went on strike, while the Colaba cantonment also showed ‘ominous restlessness’.

The Communist Party immediately extended its support to the naval ratings and their just demands. It issued a leaflet on February 19 asking the people to support the strike and again through its paper, called on the people to participate in a general strike on February 22 – a reply to Rear Admiral Godfrey’s insolent threat to destroy the navy and India’s sons who manned it. Throughout the country, students boycotted classes, hartals and processions were organised to express solidarity with the ratings and to condemn official repression. Everyone in the country supported the mutiny as a part of the common freedom struggle.

Communist Party called upon all the political parties to bury their differences and support the demands of the naval ratings. The communist call for general strike brought out lakhs of workers out of the factories and into the streets. Hartals by shopkeepers, merchants, hotel owners and strikes by students and workers both in industry and public transport services brought the whole of Bombay to a grinding halt. Bombay witnessed the greatest strike and hartal ever seen.

The British authorities replied by parading British soldiers through the streets in armoured cars. Without even giving the slightest of warnings, they shot indiscriminately and vindictively at crowds, especially wherever people were found in large numbers. They have thus murdered several innocent workers, men and women, among whom was Kamal Donde, a communist and leader of the Parel Mahila Sangh. Official figures reported that over the three days, February 21-23, 250 people were killed. The Party declared that the days when ‘guns, tanks and bombers could terrify India are gone forever’ and that the bloodbaths carried out by imperialists, will further ‘cement unity and determination to end the regime of terror’.

The Communist Party appealed to all parties and to the people to observe a complete hartal in all shops, schools, colleges and mills as a mark of their disapproval of government repression, demand an immediate stop to the repression, opening of negotiations and concession of the just demands of the strikers. Workers and citizens of Bombay supported these demands and observed a complete hartal and demonstrated their solidarity with the brave actions of the ratings of the RIN.

The Party also called for the formation of a Citizen’s Peace and Relief Committee to give relief to the wounded and families of the killed. It called upon the Congress leaders to take up the issue of the thousands of RIN strikers, which had become ‘as important as the question of Azad Hind Fauz’ and see that it was settled on the basis of ‘justice and without any discrimination’. The Party also appealed to the Congress and League leaders to take up the issue in the Central Assembly and see that the demands of ratings were met.

The Party demanded the government to set up an enquiry commission and also initiate requisite measures to satisfy the demands of the strikers. But for that mutiny by the ratings, the enquiry commission would never have been appointed and all the grisly stories of injustice, discrimination, cruelty, etc., would never have seen the light. It is because of the Party’s actions that the destruction of the RIN and its personnel was prevented and led to an eventual agreement. The Party condemned the government’s actions when it had violated the agreement, as after promising that there will be no victimisation, it had arrested and victimised the main strike leaders.

There were certain weaknesses in the Indian national front. The upper class leadership of the Congress and Muslim League feared popular uprising and were not for the spread of this mutiny on an all India scale and into all other sections of the armed forces – the army and the air force. They officially opposed the mass strike and the hartal which took place with universal support in spite of their prohibition. They looked at the naval mutiny as an issue of ‘rice and daal’, were blind to the demand against racial discrimination and refused to look at it as a part of the larger national struggle.

Leaders of the Congress and League did not condemn the violence of the imperialist authorities whose firing had slaughtered hundreds, but criticised the unarmed people who were shot. In condemning the naval ratings’ strike, they positioned themselves as the representatives of law and order. Vallabhbhai Patel declared that he endorsed the “remarks of the commander in chief that there ought to be discipline in the navy”. And Gandhiji in a significant statement condemned what he called the ‘unholy combination of Hindus and Muslims for a violent purpose’. Their only counsel to the RIN ratings was to surrender. It was on the advice of the Congress leader Vallabhbhai Patel, with the subsequent message from Jinnah that the central naval strike committee finally surrendered on February 23 with the declaration that “we surrendered to India, not to Britain”.

The Communist Party regretted that the Party was not strong enough to rally the stronger parties – Congress and Muslim League – in its attempts to save the striking ratings, prevent their surrender and victimisation. In spite of this, the Communist Party can rightly claim that it had put all its “strength behind our brothers of the RIN, thus helping to prevent their annihilation”.