Thursday, September 22, 2005

Royal Indian Navy Srike, 1946

Few months ago, 65,000 employees of Pakistan united against the privatization of PTCL. This event, at least, will be marked as a historic union in the working class struggle. The workers, once again, expressed a concern to unify in order to protect their rights from the neo-liberal imperial agenda of, specifically, privatization. It would not be late to present one of the immortal stories of the working-class struggle.

The strike by the sailors of the Royal Indian Navy in 1946 is distinguished as a spectacular episode of struggle against the imperialist force of British Raj. Sumit Sarkar refers to the strike as “one of the most truly heroic, if largely forgotten, episodes of our freedom struggle.”

The strike grew out of the entrenched discontent growing calmly inside the sailors against the British officers. Indian sailors were highly disturbed by the discriminatory attitude of British targeted towards them. This attitude was complemented by off-the-cuff remarks of the newly arrived Commander King. He made a remark about Indian Ratings as sons of Indian bitches on a routine visit to the ship known as H.M.I.S (Her Majesty’s Indian Ship) Talwaar, posted to the Bombay Harbor. The arrogant behavior of the officers was becoming unbearable for the well-educated ratings of Talwaar. They tried to protest through the official chancel, and were subsequently threatened.

The spark was the breakfast, unfit for consumption, served on the morning of 18th February 1946 on H.M.I.S Talwaar. The sailors of the ship united and shouted “No food no work”, and launched a peaceful hunger strike. The possibility of a forthcoming rebellion against the rulers was evident to emerge from the nonviolent strike because it was not a matter of food alone.

On 19 February the strike was officially announced to the naval personnel. Sailors on strike started patrolling in Bombay on the captured naval trucks hoisting Red Flag to invite the anti-British sentiments. The news of rebellion came pouring out of the radio station that the rebels managed to take over. The number of naval personnel involved in the revolt saw a sharp incline. Within 48 hours the British government was facing the largest ever revolt in the naval units. 74 ships, 20 fleets, 22 units with 20,000 sailors joined the rebellion. The naval stations included important locations like Bombay, Calcutta, Karachi, Madras, Cochin and Vishapatam. On 20 February, just ten ships and two naval stations were not in complete revolt.

Union Jacks on most of the ships had been replaced by Red Flags, along with flags of other political parties involved in the independence struggle, by the eve of 19 February. A 36 member Naval Central Strike Committee (NCSC) was elected with Signalman M.S. Khan as the President and telegraph operator Madan Singh as the vice-president. The election of a Muslim and a Sikh was a conscious _expression of rejection of division on religious grounds. The committee instantly drew its agenda and put forward demands to the government. One of the priorities of the strike committee agenda was to involve political parties in the movement to gain support.

The role played by the political parties in the rebellion was very disappointing. Instead of connecting this revolt with other strikes taking place in the textile industry, railways, and other industrial sectors, they actively supported the British in suppressing the strike. The Communist Party of India (CPI) lacked the support, strength, and leadership to take any effective measure. Although certain factions supported the rebellion, both Congress and Muslim League detested the event.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah issued a statement from Calcutta, on behalf of Muslim League, calling the strikers to end their action. An important figure of the independence movement, and a leader of the Indian National Congress, Sardar Patel, came up as a negotiator from the British side. According to the Patel, the rebels were “only a small band of insolents, hot headed and insane youngsters (who) are trying to get involved in politics through these acts, when they have nothing to do with politics”.

On 21 and 22 February, the strike committee called for a general strike that received a huge response from public. The influence of the sailors was being perceived as a genuine challenge to the government. As a direct result, the displeasure in the British government in London was increasing. The messages to crush the uprising at once came out from the office of the British Labour Prime Minister Clement Atlee. Admiral Godfrey, the commander of the Royal Indian Navy threatened the rebels to “surrender or perish”.

The British government started an armed struggle against the sailors on 21 February. On February 22 and 23, the imperialist forces martyred 250 sailors and workers. The peaceful strike transformed into an armed struggle. With the chances of an armed suppression increasing, the sailors pointed the guns on ships towards the British Naval Installations and command centers along the coast. They threatened to destroy these bases and installations to defend their comrades in the cities and harbor in case of an armed attack.

Back on the Talwaar the situation gained intensity and tension. Disheartened by the attitude of the leaders of the independence movement, NCSC started to narrow down its options. Assured and persuaded by the Sardar Patel, M. S. Khan proposed surrender that was first rejected by the strike committee. Absolutely demoralized, and isolated, the strike committee later on announced surrender by raising black flags on the morning of 24 February 1946. That marked an end to a chapter that showed the British what laid ahead, if they choose to stay in India.

In a resolution announcing surrender, the revolutionary sailors sent their last message to the general public of India: “Our uprising was an important historical event in the lives of our people. For the first time the blood of the uniformed and non-uniformed workers flowed in one current for the same collective cause. We the workers in uniform shall never forget this. We also know that you, our proletarian brother and sisters shall also never forget this. The coming generations, learning a lesson shall accomplish what we have not been able to achieve. Long live the working masses. Long live the Revolution”.(emphasis added)

No comments: