SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 195 February 2016

The 1946 Bombay mutiny

The role of mass movements by workers, soldiers and peasants in the struggle for Indian independence is downplayed or missed out altogether in ‘official’ history. Yet they were instrumental in breaking the hold of British colonial rule. One of the most significant was the Bombay mutiny, writes SAJITH ATTEPURAM on the 70th anniversary of this historic revolt.

Often, great struggles against oppression are buried deep by bourgeois historians. The 1946 uprising by the Royal Indian Navy, also known as the Bombay mutiny, is a remarkable example of such a struggle. The then British Raj repressed the upsurge with the support of the privileged sections of India. They are now a full-blown state establishment, the strings pulled by big business, which continues the cover-up of that spirited struggle. At the same time, the lack of a clear leadership meant that the historic revolt did not take a revolutionary path, based on the working class and aiming to gain political power and smash the shackles of oppression forever.

The mutiny in Bombay (now Mumbai) was a watershed event in pre-independence Indian history and was instrumental in the struggle for national liberation. It also helped shape the concept of the modern Indian state. Mutinies of its armed forces are nightmares for any ruling class, and the Bombay mutiny was by no means the first on the subcontinent. In 1857, the sepoys (infantry privates) revolted against the East India Company. The East India Company was originally set up as a joint-stock firm to trade in the region, but it became a mega-corporation nearly monopolising the governance of large areas of the subcontinent.

The direct consequence for the deprived masses under the ‘company Raj’ was naked super-exploitation. Great famines, discontented masses, peasant uprisings, conflict with the dispossessed rulers of the princely states, increased militarisation, colonial expeditions, the abuse of the sepoys as cannon fodder, and many other factors, led to the first major revolt across India. It sparked a great demonstration of unity among Hindus and Muslims, and was hailed as the ‘first war of independence’. The East India Company reported it as the ‘sepoy mutiny’.

The imperialist masters used terminology like ‘mutiny’, ‘coup’, ‘riot’, etc, to dismiss such resistance as spontaneous events and, more importantly, to mask the underlying class antagonisms. Interestingly, when Karl Marx reported this anti-colonial struggle in the New York Daily Tribune, he recognised and described the 1857 uprising as a ‘national revolt’. Following the uprising, the administration of colonial India was taken up by the British crown directly. Amid the growing anti-colonial sentiment, there was a surge in national consciousness further unifying Hindus and Muslims. Subsequently, the Raj institutionalised the policy of divide-and-rule to weaken the resisting forces, although resistance flared up nevertheless.

Meanwhile, the landlords and the weak Indian capitalist class were actively securing their political interests. They held the leadership of the Indian National Congress (set up in 1885), which was in the forefront of the liberation struggle, rallying behind them millions of people on the fertile terrain of want and deprivation. The struggle for national independence galvanised the desperate masses to fight their wretched conditions. This was exploited cynically by the emerging national bourgeoisie, whose interests were intrinsically linked with the landlords and, to some extent, with the colonial masters themselves.

Fighting against colonial rule

The need to link the struggle for national liberation, and against landlordism and capitalism, with a socialist programme had long been a key issue for socialists and revolutionaries. Vladimir Lenin, co-leader with Leon Trotsky of the 1917 Russian revolution, led an unrelenting campaign in the Second (Socialist) International against all kinds of opportunism, including on the colonial question. He affirmed the importance of the struggle for the liberation of oppressed nations. The theory of permanent revolution, developed in 1906 by Trotsky, exposed the inability of the capitalists in underdeveloped countries to overthrow imperialism, or to lead the democratic revolution and end feudalism.

In ‘An Open Letter to the Workers of India’ (1939), Trotsky wrote that this was because, "… an independent Indian republic is indissolubly linked up with the agrarian revolution, with the nationalisation of banks and trusts, with a number of other economic measures aiming to raise the living standard of the country and to make the toiling masses the masters of their own destiny. Only the proletariat in an alliance with the peasantry is capable of executing these tasks".

Notwithstanding the heroic sacrifices of the rank and file in leading the struggles of peasants and workers, the leadership of the Communist Party of India (CPI) lost sight of the revolutionary role of the Indian working class, under the influence of the Stalinised Comintern – the Third (Communist) International. Under Stalin, the Comintern had been turned from an organisation for international socialist revolution to an instrument of the Russian bureaucracy’s foreign policy.

The second world war further exposed the political bankruptcy of the degenerated Comintern. Stalinist Russia’s shift to an alliance with Britain, the US and France in the war against Nazi Germany compelled the CPI to downplay the struggle against British imperialism. After the war, the CPI effectively handed over the leadership of the independence struggle to the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Muslim League parties. Meanwhile, the INC, particularly its Gandhian leadership, restricted the mass movements, ensuring they did not threaten landlordism and capitalism.

Gandhian philosophy substituted pacifism instead of class struggle. Advocating a truce with Indian capitalists, and underplaying the role of the workers’ movement, the utopianism of Gandhi did not challenge class-based exploitation and oppression. Gandhian methods were a hindrance to the revolutionary struggle of the working class. In addition, the ossified religious and social traditions, such as the caste system, gave rise to various political offshoots. Hindu and Muslim establishment parties and organisations consolidated their positions – with the monstrous consequences made evident during the partition of India, as its social fabric was torn apart.

Amid the huge political upheavals of the Quit India Movement, launched by Gandhi in 1942, the British ruling class organised the trials of the officers of the Indian National Army (INA), led by Nethaji Subhas Chandra Bose, a militant nationalist. Under his leadership, the INA tactic was to fight British imperialism by appealing for support – and getting it – from brutal Nazi Germany and Japan, on the basis that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. It was a fatal mistake, of course, for any working-class or oppressed people’s organisation to ally itself with the fascist regime in Germany or with imperial Japan. After their defeat, more than 11,000 INA soldiers were imprisoned for waging war against the British sovereign. Nonetheless, the masses recognised the bravery of Bose and the INA, and the trials shook the consciousness of hundreds and thousands of Indians.

Central strike committee

Even after the second world war, many thousands of British troops remained stationed overseas in an attempt to secure Britain’s colonial territories. Unrest among the troops was mounting, however, particularly over the slow rate of demobilisation, at a time of increased radicalisation in the armed forces. In January 1946, a mutiny in the Royal Air Force (RAF) involved more than 50,000 men in over 60 RAF stations in India and South Asia, showing the level of discontent.

The extreme brutality of war often forces soldiers to question the established order. Indian troops had been thrust with bloody savagery into battle in defence of the British empire. They endured the most gruelling and dangerous conditions, especially on board ship. Between March 1942 and April 1946 there were more than 15 mutinies in the Royal Indian Navy alone.

Although the immediate issues were often the appalling conditions, including the poor quality of food, the reasons behind those revolts were deeply ingrained, flowing from the decades of systematic oppression they had been subjected to. With over 20,000 sailors taking part, across 78 ships (out of 88) and 20 land bases, the naval revolt in February 1946 shook to the core the empire ‘on which the sun never sets’. If it was the maggot-ridden meat and ruthless officers that triggered the great mutiny on the battleship Potemkin, a prelude to the first Russian revolution of 1905, it was the watered down curry and racial abuse of the arrogant British officers that sparked off this naval mutiny!

On 18 February 1946, 1,100 personnel on the signal training ship, HMIS Talwar, declared a strike. A central strike committee was elected, with leading signalman MS Khan as its president, and petty officer telegraphist Madan Singh vice-president. Swift communication was established with the rest of the naval command, and the committee brought the operations under the complete control of its lower-deck democracy.

The strike committee got rid of the ‘Royal’ prefix, renaming the force the Indian National Navy. It framed a charter of demands, calling for the release of all political prisoners, the withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia and Egypt, for immediate improvements in their conditions, and for the provision of equal status with British officers. The charter was passed by the committee in the midst of huge support and cheers from their fellow sailors.

In an interview to the Tribune (Chandigarh), Madan Singh recalled those events: "We did this with the help of the wireless system under our control. We were able to win over almost all the 70 ships and all the 20 seashore establishments. We had secured control over the civilian telephone exchange, the cable network and, above all, over the transmission centre at Kirkee manned by the navy, which was the channel of communication between the Indian government and the British… on February 20 and 21, we gave a call for a general strike which evoked a tremendous response. It was perceived as a challenge to the government’s authority".

Mutiny spreads

Raising the slogan of independence and hoisting the Indian tricolour flag on the ships and naval establishments, the revolt inspired the rest of the country, cutting across the Hindu-Muslim religious divide. From their posts the sailors went round Mumbai in trucks and they were supported by the ratings from the naval establishments in Karachi, Cochin and Vizag. Trotskyists and radical activists organised with students to distribute material supporting the mutiny to major factories in Mumbai.

Local police forces, along with many other striking workers from the sloops and minesweepers, demonstrated in solidarity, including 1,000 Royal Indian Air Force personnel. When orders were given to contain and confront the mutineers, the Gurkhas, whom the British state always counted to be on its side, refused to fire on the striking sailors! This reflects the fact that the state’s bodies of armed men and women are drawn from the working class and the oppressed masses.

The newspapers of the day carried siren headline warnings for Clement Attlee’s Labour government in London. The spectres of the October 1917 revolution in Russia and the 1919 revolution in Germany were evoked by journalists to compare the political significance of this turnaround. Although Attlee’s administration, under mass pressure, had introduced welfare measures improving the lives of millions of people, it was nonetheless overseeing the empire for British capitalism, betraying the interests of the workers’ movement and the struggle against colonialism.

In desperation, the machinery of British imperialism sought the help of the local political elites of the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League to tackle the revolts which were getting out of hand. Attlee ordered that the revolt be put down. The rebels were given an ultimatum to surrender. Rear admiral JH Godfrey (apparently the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s character M in his James Bond books) went on air to order: "Submit or perish!" Armed attacks were organised against the sailors.

Sell-out and legacy

All through the upsurge the mutineers, who were from different backgrounds and levels of political consciousness, showed their support to their respective political parties by hoisting, at the onshore establishments, the flags of Congress, the Muslim League and the CPI, instead of the imperial White Ensign. Unfortunately, they were about to face the political opportunism of their leaders, based as ever on selling out the sacrifice of countless lives.

The ‘popular heads’ of the Congress and Muslim League parties were clearly aware of their role as inheritors of the state apparatus from the British once independence was won. They did everything possible to isolate the masses from the naval revolt. Although the CPI supported the uprising and even called for a general strike, its Stalinist leadership was indecisive in this most important phase of the national liberation struggle.

The betrayal by the main political parties and by the so-called ‘national leaders’, the threat of further open confrontation from the British navy command, and the absence of a revolutionary leadership to take the struggle forward, all led to the isolation of the revolt. The central strike committee accepted the proposal for surrender – after an initial rejection by committee members on 24 February 1946. Black flags were hoisted to announce the surrender.

News of the naval revolt and subsequent arrests and trials spread like wildfire around the country, including the tightly controlled ranks of the army units. Within a couple of days, soldiers mutinied at the signals training centre at Jabalpur, central India. Around 1,700 troops were involved in this uprising which lasted two weeks before it was brutally suppressed. Nevertheless, the British ruling class finally came round to the conclusion that it could not pursue its open imperial rule in the subcontinent. Attlee announced a cabinet mission to India, hastening the process of independence.

The great naval revolt of 1946 advanced the movement for national liberation. It promoted solidarity among the masses, side-lining communal and caste divisions. Tragically, the ruling classes would sponsor the partition-based independence of India and Pakistan, which saw over a million people die in one of the largest and deadliest population exchanges in history.

Hundreds of rebel sailors were dismissed, many detained and their units disbanded. Their extraordinary tale of struggle was suppressed. Indian and Pakistani administrations refused to let them back into the armed forces. Much worse, decades after independence, millions of people in India are still under the yoke of oppression and less than subsistence wage slavery. Today, however, it is the big corporations and their cronies who are the new masters.

Whether it’s the British Raj or the present corporate Raj, the lives of ordinary people are a living hell. The ever increasing social inequality, deprivation, extreme violence against women, farmers’ suicides and many other miseries make the compelling case for a radical change in an underdeveloped country like India. Nevertheless, with a 500-million strong working-class base, the Indian capitalist establishment will be confronted. The legacy of the Bombay mutiny will be a guiding light for the colossal struggles to come. The heroic battles and the struggle and sacrifice of those fighters for our class will not be in vain. They will be enshrined, not in the lifeless pages of bourgeois historians, but in the fighting traditions of the working class.

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