Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The (unsung) mutiny (1946)

A 94 year old recounts his vivid memories of those momentous events 68 years ago when the soldiers raised by the British to keep their own countrymen in chains finally revolted and (as the British saw it) the empire game was suddenly up. As a shameful and terrible consequence the mutineers were never employed by either Indian or Pakistan Navy. As they say, a good act never goes unpunished.

It’s difficult to recall a day 68 years ago when you are 94. But the RIN mutiny, which many believe was the last nail in the Raj’s coffin, wasn’t just any other day. And I happened to be a proximate eyewitness to this momentous event. 

On February 18, 1946, ratings at the HMIS Talwar, a shore establishment for signals training, went on strike, protesting against the inedible meals and searing insults to which they were regularly subjected. The revolt spread like wildfire. Some mutineers took up arms; others took to the streets of Bombay. Ratings famously pulled down the Union Jack on rebel ships, replacing it with flags of the Congress, the Muslim League and the Communist Party of India.

Unlike the sepoys of 1857, who were a heterogeneous group, the RIN ratings were by and large educated, well-trained and well-armed. The British adm­i­nis­tration was not so much perturbed by the peaceful civil disobedience movement (satyagraha) launched by Maha­tma Gan­dhi as by the spectre of an insur­rection in the modern Indian armed forces, which they had themselves trained.

Later that evening, I went to Apollo Bunder—the Gateway of India. Everything was quiet. Thereafter, I was taken by some friends to the flat of one of the activist supporters of the mutiny. I learnt that the morning’s event I witnessed was but a small part of a well-orchestrated chain of strikes and demonstrations. No wonder the British government was rattled.  

By February 22, the mutiny had spread to naval units across the country. Some 20,000 sailors, 20 offshore establishments and over 70 ships are believed to have been involved. That British prime minister Clement Attlee announced the Cabinet Mission to India just a day after the mutiny erupted is testimony to the mutiny’s perceived threat.

The revolt was as spectacular as it was short-lived. Nei­ther the Congress nor the Muslim League supported it; the strike committee surrendered after talks with Vallabhbhai Patel. Hundreds of mutineers were jailed or dismissed, never to be reabsorbed by the armed forces of independent India or Pakistan. Never were the ratings celebrated as heroes.

Within a year and a half of that day, India became free and the RIN became the Indian navy. On the day of independence, I was with my wife-to-be on a little hillock called Antop Hill. Suddenly, the sky lit up with fireworks and I knew we had become free. I owned a small car, a dkw two-seater. It had seen many owners, and wouldn’t start without pushing. That day, I had kept it on the slope of the hill so it would start easily. My wife and I jumped into the car, which dutifully rolled down the hill. Jubilant, we drove to Marine Drive and joined the stream of cars going to the secretariat. 


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