Often the great struggles against oppression are drilled deep into insignificance by the capitalist historians. The 1946 uprising of 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, which now as a fully blown up state establishment with its strings in the hands of big business corporations continuing the cover-up act of that spirited struggle. At the same time it’s also the lack of determined leadership of the working class in not leading the historic revolt through a revolutionary path seizing the working class the political power to smash the shackles of oppression forever!
The Bombay Mutiny is a watershed event in the pre independence Indian history which having played an important role in its national liberation also shaped the conception of modern Indian state which amidst of severe poverty and social crises celebrating its 68th anniversary of independence from British rule.
Imperialism and the rising national struggle
Mutinies of its armed men are nightmares for any ruling class. Less than 100 years, the 1946 uprising of the naval ratings, the ‘Sepoys’ (Indian infantry Soldiers) revolted against the East India Company.
The East India Company, originally a joint-stock firm to trade in the East Indies became a mega-corporation nearly monopolising the actual governance of large areas of the sub-continent. The direct consequence for those deprived masses under the ‘Company Raj’ is naked super-exploitation. Great famines, discontented masses, peasant uprisings, frequent conflicts from the dispossessed rulers of the princely states, increased militarisation, colonial expeditions, heavy handedness with the abuse of the ‘Sepoys’ as mere cannon fodder and many other fuelling factors lead to the first major revolt across India. It sparked off a great demonstration of unity amongst Hindus and Muslims. Patriots hailed the revolt as the ‘First War of independence’ whereas the Company reported it as the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’.
The imperialist masters are keen to use the terminologies like ‘mutiny’ ‘coup’ etc., to refer any resistance essentially to gloss it with a character of spontaneity but primarily to mask the underlying class antagonisms. Interestingly Marx while reporting this significant anti-colonial struggle of the 19th century in the New York Daily Tribune declared the 1857 uprising as a ‘national revolt’! Consequently the administration of colonial India was taken up by the British Crown from the Company’s rule.
Amidst of the growing anti-colonial sentiments there was a surge in national consciousness further unifying Hindus and Muslims. The ‘Raj’ subsequently had institutionalised the policy of ‘divide and rule’ to perpetually weaken the resisting forces which nevertheless flared off heavy agitations against the regime.
Meanwhile the landlords and the capitalist classes of British India were actively securing their interests in politics and took the leadership early on in the Indian National Congress (INC) which was on the forefront of the freedom struggle rallying behind them millions of people! Patriotism found its fertile terrain amongst wants and deprivation. The struggle for national independence galvanised the desperate masses to fight the wretched conditions of their existence and this was unscrupulously abused by the emerging national bourgeois’ whose interests are intrinsically linked with the landlords; and to some extent with the colonial masters itself!
The Colonial Question and permanent revolution:
Lenin who declared imperialism as the highest stage of capitalist development, lead an unrelenting struggle in the Second Internationali against all kinds of opportunisms including the colonial question and affirmed the importance of the liberation of oppressed nations. The theory of permanent revolution by Trotsky exposes the inability of the bourgeoisie in the backward countries to overthrow imperialism, to lead the democratic revolution, liquidating feudalism and its perils. In ‘an Open Letter to the Workers of India’ Trotsky clearly outlined “for an independent Indian republic is indissolubly linked up with the agrarian revolution, with the nationalization 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.”
The Communist Party of India (CPI) formed to lead the toiling masses towards a revolutionary path was nevertheless in its early days ridden with organisational difficulties and in practice several loose groups nationally working without adequate coordination and heavily suppressed by the colonial authorities. Notwithstanding the heroic sacrifices of the rank and file in leading the struggles of peasants and the workers, the leadership of the Communist Party of India lacked the resoluteness and the consistent vision of the revolutionary task of the Indian proletariat and later succumbed to Stalinist Comintern.
World War II furthermore exposed the political bankruptcy of the degenerated Comintern and its influence on the mass workers’ organisations. The opportunist diktats of the Comintern influenced the CPI’s strategy to subordinate the struggle to British Imperialism and after the world war handing over the leadership of the independence struggle to the Congress and the Muslim League parties. The unyielding program of Stalinist CPI failed to specifically consider the contradictions and the peculiarities of India. Into that vacuum poured social reformist mass movements lead by Ambedkar, Periyar etc.
After the Stalinist degeneration of the Third International (Comintern) by the rise of bureaucracy, Trotsky and his supporters in 1938 formed the Fourth International to continue the struggle of the international working-class. The Bolshevik Leninist Party of India (BLPI) formed in 1942 by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and Indian Trotskyist leaders. Political circumstances in India unlike in Sri Lanka lacked the subjective factors which had propelled the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in Sri Lanka as a mass party of toilers and workers’ in Sri Lanka. Moreover the role played by the Indian National Congress particularly Gandhianii leadership in misleading and reducing the mass movements within the confines of landlordism and capitalism.
Also the ossified religious and social traditions were off-shooting reactionary political developments, with the Hindu and Muslim establishment parties and organisations consolidating; the monstrosity of which will be orchestrated during the partition of India tearing its social fabric forever.
Mighty revolutionary waves swept across the world on the aftermath of the Second World War and this along with the threat of Stalinism subsequently forced huge concessions from the bourgeoisie across the world. In India the small forces of Trotskyists nonetheless boldly intervened and supported the rising tide of workers and peasants struggles.
Amidst huge political upheavals of the ‘Quit India movement’ the British ruling class organised the trials of the officers of the Indian national Army (INA).
Indian National Army (INA) was led by Nethaji Subhas Chandra Bose a militant nationalist leader. It followed the tactics of fighting British imperialism by appealing to its adversary imperialists. INA got the support of the axis powers but after its defeat in the war, more than 11,000 INA soldiers were imprisoned and the INA officers were put into trials for waging a war against the British sovereign. However the masses esteemed the gallantry of the Indian National Army and its leader, Subhas Chandra Bose. The INA trials shook the consciousness of hundreds and thousands of patriotic Indians, penetrating into the souls and the lives of Indian soldiers serving imperialism.
The fatigue of War
Even after the Second World War, there were nearly five million men and women in the British armed services. The imperialist anxiety of stationing troops to secure its colonial territories were in direct contrast to the grievances of soldiers particularly over the conditions of slow demobilisation of their troops back home. In 1946 January the Royal Air Force (RAF) mutiny involving more than 50,000 men in over 60 RAF stations in India and South Asia shows the levels of discontent amongst the soldiers.
War a test of conditions, brings into sharp conflicts the patriotic fervour flowing from the reactionary propaganda of one nation. The encountering brutalities force the soldiers to question the established order, thrusting them with bloody savagery, especially in navy ships amongst gruelling conditions.
Reportedly between March 1942 and April 1946 there were more than fifteen mutinies just in the Royal Indian navy (RIN)!
Although often the immediate issues were the appalling conditions including the poor quality of food, the reasons behind those revolts are deeply ingrained and flowed from the systematic oppression they been subjected to over the years.
Indeed with over 20,000 sailors across 78 ships, and 20 bases on land involving strategic areas, the February 1946 Great naval revolt decisively shook “the empire on which the sun never sets”!
Naval Central strike committee
If it was the maggot-ridden meat and the ruthless superior officers that triggered the great mutiny of the Russian battleship Potemkin preluding the Russian Revolution of 1905, it was the watered down curry and the racial abuse of the arrogant British officers sparked off this naval mutiny!
On the 18th February 1946, 1100 naval personnel of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) signal training ship HMIS Talwar declared strike. A Naval Central Strike Committee was elected with M.S. Khan as the president and Madan Singh the vice-president.
A committee is an efficient structure to organise activities in a structured and persistent manner. Systematically developed by the bourgeoisie, those committee formations are not free from the fetters of capitalism with its crucial limitations due to the exclusivity, hierarchal structure and the intrinsic lack of democracy. On the contrary through independent democratic workers control, the committee will be an organisation of true solidarity, with a wide range of collective initiatives. The leadership provided by the most resolute and dedicated layers of the workers committees’ will result in a combativeness that will take any estimation by sheer surprise!
Straightaway the Strike Committee knocked off the ‘Royal’ prefix and called themselves the ‘Indian National Navy’ and framed a charter of demands calling the release of all the political prisoners, the withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia and Egypt, for immediate improvement in their conditions, and the provision of equal status with the British officers. The charter was passed by the committee in the midst of huge support and cheers from their fellow sailors. Swift communication established with the rest of the naval command and the naval strike committee formed by those in operations brought the state of affairs under the complete control of its lower-deck democracy!
In an interview to the Tribune (Chandigarh), the vice president of the strike committee, Madan Singh recalled those events with its magnitude “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.” In that interview Madan Singh also said “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.”
The needs of World War II hysterically fed the growth of the Royal Indian Navy to a considerable force capable of a great level of co-ordination, which can be threaten any military might!
With the slogans of independence, hoisting of the Indian Tricolour flags on the ships and naval establishments, the revolt had inspired the rest of country with a huge patriotic fervour cutting across the Hindu-Muslim religious divide. From their posts the sailors went around Bombay in Lorries and they were supported by the ratings from the naval establishments in Karachi, Cochin and Vizag. Trotskyists and militant radical activists organised with students to distribute literatures supporting the mutiny to major factories in Bombay.
The local police forces along with many other striking workers from the sloops, minesweepers demonstrated in solidarity with the striking naval ratings. About 1000 Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) men supported the striking naval ratings in solidarity. When orders were given to contain and confront the mutineers the Gurkhas whom the British always counted to be on their side plainly refused to fire on the striking sailors!
Indeed the special bodies of armed men are at the same time a layer of the oppressed masses though their uniforms are provisioned by the state. The loyalty of the men clearly shifted from their imperialist uniform provider to the socio-economic roots they could identify them with!
The newspaper copies of the day carried the siren headlines for the Clement Attlee’s Labour Cabinet. The spectres of October Revolution and the 1919 revolution of Germany were flashed as headline news by the journalists to compare the political significance of this turnaround of events.
Attlee’s ministry though introduced many welfare measures uplifting the lives of millions of ordinary people was nonetheless overseeing the empire for British capitalism largely betraying the interests of the British Labour movement which was on the forefront of the struggle against colonialism.
Despite all its experience in tackling impressment and previous mutinies the machinery of imperialism sought the help of the local political elites of the Congress and the Muslim-League to tackle the revolts which were clearly getting out of hand. British Prime minister Attlee ordered to put down the revolt and the rebels were given the ultimatum to surrender. The Flag officer J.H. Godfrey (who apparently is the inspiration of the fictional character ‘M’ in Ian Fleming’s James Bond book) commanding the RIN, went on air threatening those brave rebels with his order to “Submit or perish”! Armed attacks against the naval ratings and sailors were triggered to force surrender.
All through the upsurge the mutineers who were apparently from different backgrounds and level of consciousness, showed their support to their respective political parties by enthusiastically hoisting on the shore establishments the flags of Congress, Muslim League and the Communist Parties instead the imperial White Ensign. Unfortunately they were about to face the political opportunism of their leaders based as ever on the betrayal of countless sacrifices and lives!
The ‘popular heads’ of the Congress and the Muslim League parties were clearly aware of their role as inheritors of the state apparatus from the British and they did everything possible to insulate the masses from the naval revolt. Though the Communist Party of India (CPI) supported the naval revolt and even called for a general strike, largely its leadership castrated by Stalinismiii was just a spectator in this most important phase of the national liberation struggle appallingly had squandered its dedicated cadres and the influence on the trade unions.
The let-down by the main political parties and it’s so called ‘national leaders’, the perils of further open confrontations from the British navy Commanders, and the absence of a revolutionary leadership to take the struggle forward, have all lead to the isolation of the revolt. The naval strike committee accepted the proposal for surrender after the initial rejections from the committee members on February 24th 1946. The black flags were hoisted to announce the surrender.
The news of the naval revolt spread like wild fire around the country including the tightly controlled ranks of the army units. Within a couple of days the army men of the Signals Training Centre (STC) at Jabalpur in central India, mutinied soon after the Navy revolt. Apparently 1700 soldiers were involved in this uprising which lasted two weeks and subsequently suppressed by brutal force by the British.
Nevertheless the British Empire finally came to the conclusion that they cannot pursue their imperial ambitions in the sub-continent anymore. Clement Attlee was forced to immediately announce the Cabinet Mission to India and hastened the process of independence.
The great naval revolt of 1946 forced the national liberation from the hands of the uncanny British ruling class and promoted solidarity amongst the masses overriding communal, and caste divisions, but those ruling classes sponsored partition based independence of India and Pakistan saw over a million people die in the largest and deadliest population exchange in history and the abortion of democratic revolution.
The legends of our class
Hundreds of rebel soldiers got dismissed, their units disbanded and several detained and their extraordinary tale of struggle was denied the worthy acknowledgement! Respective Indian and Pakistani ruling class refused the entry of those mutineers back into defence services. Worse, decades after the independence, still millions of ordinary people in India are still under the yoke of oppression and less than subsistence wage slavery, but it’s the business corporations and their cronies that are the new masters!
Whether it’s the’ British Raj’ or the present ‘Corporate Raj’ the lives of ordinary people is a living hell! The ever increasing social inequality, deprivation, extreme violence against women, farmers’ suicide and many other miseries compel the case for a radical change in a backward country like India. Nevertheless with a 500 million strong working class base the Indian capitalist establishment can be forced to the pages of history. In 2013 over 100 million workers all over India took a 48 hours general strike action protesting against the neo-liberal market reforms. The importance of building a genuine Marxist revolutionary organisation is an important task for the most resolute and the combative layers of the Indian working class.
The legacy of the ‘Bombay mutiny’ will definitely be a guiding light for the colossal struggles to come. Heroic class battles and those fighters of our class their lives and sacrifices will not be in vain and it will be enshrined forever in the glorious history and the traditions of the working class.
i The Second International (1889–1916) was an organisation of international workers and socialist parties.
ii Gandhian philosophy substituted pacifism instead of class struggle. Advocating truce with capitalism and stripping the working class from its arsenals, the utopianism of Gandhi accepts the statuesque of exploitation and oppression. Gandhian methods were a hindrance to the revolutionary struggle of the working class; in some way could be comparable to that of the gradualists and the reformists in the Western Europe who likewise nurtured their idealistic quest to an egalitarian society ignoring the material basis of social relations.
iii After Lenin’s death in 1924, the Soviet Union witnessed the development and the rise of the Stalinist tendency which supported bureaucratic control over the workers and the economy. Stalinism espoused the two stage theory/ stages theory of revolution (a Menshevik idea originally) to safeguard the interests of the bureaucracy within the power structures of the Soviet Union. Socialism, in which an important element is workers’ democracy and control over the means of production and distribution, was suppressed by the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The rise of Stalinism also lead to widespread persecution and mass murder of dissidents, including the assassination of Leon Trotsky, who along with Vladimir Lenin led the great October Revolution of 1917.