On 18 February 1946, one of the most significant episodes in the history of anti-imperialist mass militancy in late colonial India began. It shook the foundations of the British Empire in its last days and revealed an alternative vision of decolonization from below which contradicted the social interests of the Indian upper classes.
The Ratings of the colonial ‘Royal Indian Navy’, who had survived the slaughter during the Second World War and contributed to the victory over Fascism, started a strike against low wages, poor food and racist harassment. The strike began in the battleship ‘Talwar’ stationed in the Bombay harbour and within 48 hours enveloped the naval bases of Bombay and Karachi. Even ships stationed in Aden and Bahrein responded to the strike. Soon 74 ships, four flotillas and 20 shore establishments had joined the movement in the Arabian Sea. The naval ratings removed the Union Jack and hoisted the flags of the Congress, the Muslim League and the Communist Party of India. Though initially peaceful, the protests turned violent when the colonial authorities termed the strike as a ‘mutiny’ and opened fire. The ratings retaliated in kind. The naval strike now assumed the shape of a mass uprising and affected all major port-cities of British India. In Bombay, Karachi and Calcutta, workers led by the Communist Party observed General Strikes. Solidarity strikes were observed in the Royal Air Force also. Fierce fighting between common people and the colonial army and the police claimed 228 lives in the streets of Bombay; these were three blood-soaked days of optimum class resistance to imperialism which lasted from 21 to 23 February. Though the ratings were forced to surrender in Bombay and Karachi on the 23rd, the working-classes continued to fight and the popular upheaval persisted till 25 February.
The Communist Party of India, the third largest political force at the time, extended full support to the naval ratings and mobilized the working-classes in metropolitan centres. The two prinicipal bourgeois parties of British India, the Congress and the Muslim League, refused to support the rising. The class content of the mass uprising frightened them and they urged the ratings to surrender. Patel and Jinnah, two representative faces of the communal divide, were united on this issue and Gandhi also condemned the ‘Mutineers’. The only prominent leader from nationalist ranks who supported them was Aruna Asaf Ali. Upon surrender, the ratings faced court-martial, imprisonment and victimization.
Even after 1947, the memories of the naval strike, the related massacre and the betrayal of the people evoked uneasy responses among ruling circles of Independent India and Pakistan. These governments refused to reinstate the sacked ratings or offer compensation. The rising was championed by Marxist cultural activists from Bengal and its radical promise was recalled through post-1947 struggles. Salil Chaudhury wrote a revolutionary song (see MS4)
in 1946 on behalf of the Indian People’s Theatre Association. Later, Hemanga Biswas, another veteran of the IPTA, composed a commemorative tribute
. Perhaps the best left representation remains Utpal Dutt’s play Kallol
. Written in the 1960s, it was banned by the Congress government of West Bengal which felt criticized and cornered by rising left-led mass movements against its policies. Dutt himself was briefly jailed
The brutal suppression of the naval rising of 1946 displayed the violence of the British Raj in its dying moments and the complicity of the subcontinental ruling-classes-in-waiting in stemming anti-imperialist assertions from below. However, this episode convinced the European masters that they could no longer depend on the Indian armed forces to continue colonial occupation. They were also worried by a degree of sympathy which the naval strike generated among the war-weary and left-wing segments of the white troops deployed in India. This accelerated the process of negotiated exit from the colony.