Mainstream, VOL LIV No 11 New Delhi March 5, 2016
Role of Karachi in the 1946 Naval Rebellion
Wednesday 9 March 2016
by Aslam Khwaja
The following is a paper presented by the author at an international conference on Karachi at Karachi in November 2015. February 2016 marked the seventieth anniversary of the Royal India Navy’s Mutiny.
The Royal Indian Navy’s Mutiny was a total strike and subsequent revolt by the Indian sailors of the Royal Indian Navy on board ship and shore establishments at Mumbai harbour on February 18, 1946. Though the initial flashpoint was in Bombay, the revolt spread in a matter of hours throughout British India, from Karachi to Kolkata. It involved 78 ships, 20 shore establishments and 20,000 sailors. The strike found support amongst the Indian population, though it was condemned by the Congress and Muslim League. Only the Communist Party of India supported it.
The Royal Indian Navy’s Mutiny, often wrongly called the Bombay Mutiny, was repressed with force by the British Royal Navy leaving seven dead and thirtythree wounded. The strikers gave way on getting no support from the Congress and Muslim League. Despite assurances by the Congress and Muslim League of no victimisation, widespread arrests were made followed by court martials and large-scale dismissals from the service. None of those dismissed was reinstated into either the Indian or Pakistani navies after independence.
The Bengali community residing in Karachi used to celebrate Durga Puja on the lawns of Mama Parsi Girls School. During the Puja celebrations of 1945-46, the Indian Naval ratings (a number of them had been members of the All India Students Federation during their student life) posted in Karachi contacted the puja committee to allot them some time for a variety programme. A slot and time was readily allotted to them. This programme was held on Saptami, the second day of the puja.
At that time, there were five shore establish-ments in Karachi, namely, H.M.I.S. Monze-Local Naval Defence Base, H.M.I.S. Himalaya-Gunnery School, H.M.I.S. Bahadur-Boys’ Training School, H.M.I.S. Dilawar-Boys’ Training School, and H.M.I.S. Chamak-Radar Training School. All these establishments were situated in an island called Manora. At the far south of Karachi city was the Keamari Jetty. Manora was separated from the city by a small inlet of the Arabian Sea.
The first resentment among the Indian ratings surfaced during August 1945, when their application to hold a cultural programme on August 7 to commemorate the death anniversary of Tagore was rejected by the Commanding Officer. They were however allowed to pay their respects to him in their class room.
On the first Sunday after the Durga Puja, the Indian ratings assembled at the beach and formed the Sailors Association, Manora. Their first task was to raise funds for the INA Relief Fund, but they never intended any sort of mutiny, as the island was separated from the mainland and sufficient arms were not available to sustain such a mutiny.
The news of the Bombay Mutiny reached the Naval establishments and Karachi city on the morning of February 19 through newspapers and was received with tremendous excitement and suppressed jubilation at both places. Group discussions in whispers started among ratings about the course they should take. At lunch-break the Sailors Association members of Chamak gathered and decided to hold a meeting of all establishments at the sea beach in the late evening.
At the meeting all participants agreed to join the mutiny but there was no unanimity at the beginning. After long discussions consensus developed for February 21, following which a six-point programme was chalked out; it read:
1. To assemble at Keamari Jetty at 10.00 am.
2. To take out a procession through the streets of Karachi in support of the Bombay ratings.
3. To invite the Dock workers of the Keamari Jetty to join in the procession.
4. Raise slogans denouncing the British Imperia-lists and urge the Congress and Muslim League to unite.
5. Complete abstention from work.
6. The ratings of Bahadur to march over at Chamak and ratings of these two establishments to proceed jointly to Keamari.
Ten ratings were selected to represent their respective establishments. It was decided that work should be carried out as silently as possible. After deciding to assemble on the same spot again on February 20 at 8.00 pm, the participants dispersed.
The day of February 20 broke without a pipe call to wake up the ratings. The morning papers, particularly the Sind Observer, carried the news of the dramatic turn the Bombay Mutiny was taking. At this moment the Commanding Officer broke the news of the Bombay uprising officially to the ratings and warned of the consequences for following suit. Meanwhile, the ratings of Hindustan were ordered to leave Karachi on the morning of February 21 and by lunch-time they drove away all the officers, both British and Indian, from their ship and took full control of the ship themselves. Thus Hindustan got the distinction of heralding the mutiny in Karachi. In their evening meeting, members of the Indian Association finalised next day’s programme and decided to write eight slogans in Hindi and Urdu on the city walls and placards they would carry. These slogans were:
1. Ratings of Himalaya—Unite
2. Ratings of Chamak—Unite
3. Ratings of Bahadur—Unite
4. Hindustan Zindabad
5. Down with British Imperialism
6. Give blood to get freedom
7. We shall live as a free nation
8. Tyrants, your days are over.
It was decided that the ratings of Himalaya would proceed from their own jetty while the ratings of Chamak and Bahadur would proceed from the Manora Jetty. The ratings of Himalaya should have with them the ratings of Hindustan and Travancore and all would assemble just outside the Jetty at about 10.30 am. It was also decided that a complete hunger strike will be observed in solidarity with the rebels of Bombay.
As the night was over, the morning sky was filled with the slogans of hundreds of vigorous youthful voices. The R.I.N. ratings in Manora had rebelled. The Commanding Officer started frighte-ning the ratings by saying that the military had been deployed at Keamari Jetty with shoot to kill orders. The marching ratings were greeted with clapping by the residents of inhabitants of Manora island, most of them fisherfolk or boat vendors. To show their solidarity with the rebels, the local boatmen refused to charge the fare from the ratings to ferry them to the Jetty.
During this commuting process, some British troops riding on a motor boat opened fire on the ratings of Hindustan, killing two of them on the spot and wounding a few others. Other ratings of Hindustan, still at their establishment, fired back to the British troops with twelve pounders and forced the enemy to retreat.
As the Dock Labour Union members heard the sound of firing, they rushed to the Communist Party of India and All India Trade Union Congress offices situated at the Light House area of Bundar Road, where Comrades Sobho Gianchandani, A.K. Hangal (later IPTA Chairman and veteran actor), Ainshi Vidyarthi and other comrades were busy with their routine work.
Comrade Sobho immediately left the office and walked to the Native Jetty Bridge. On the way he met people who curiously asked him about the details of the firing and the number of casualties from either side.
As the CPI’s Sindh Secretary Comrade Jamaludin Bukhari was in Bombay, so Comrade Sobho was the virtual leader of the party in Sindh; after consultation with progressive Sindhi fiction writer Gobind Malhi and I.K. Gujral (later Prime Minister of India), Sobho called for a public meeting in the evening at the Eidgah Maidan ground, and for the mobilisation of workers from different factories and localities. In the late afternoon, Asif Karvani informed the Karachi comrades that CPI leader Comrade S. A. Dange had given a general strike call for next day.
At 6 in the evening the public meeting started with five chairs on the stage, with about four hundred participants and more than half of them were students. The meeting started with Comrade Relaram Lilaram reciting an Urdu poem, ‘Chhute aseer to badla hua zamana tha’ [when the imprisoned were relased, the times had changed], followed by Sheikh Ayaz’s Sindhi poem, ‘Ghai inqilab...Ghai inqilab’.
As the meeting, chaired by Professor Karvani, progressed, workers from different factories also joined in solidarity and the number of participants soared to eight thousand. Comrades Sobho, A.K. Hangal and Professor Karvani in their speeches paid rich tributes to the Naval rebels and appealed for next day’s general strike. During the meeting Qazi Mohammed Mujtaba, the provincial President of the All India Trade Union Congress, who was seriously ill, reached the venue and gave the concluding speech.
Although the active workers decided to spend the following night at different places to avoid expected arrests, the local police with the help of the C.I.D. conducted late night raids at different places and arrested Sobho, Hangal and Karvani and kept them at the Saddar Police Station lock-up.
Next morning Karachi responded with a complete shut-down, while Comrade Ainshi and Gobind Malhi established the protest headquarter at Eid Gah Maidan by hoisting the flags of the CPI, INC and ML. At about ten, workers of the West Wharf, under the leadership of Gulab Bhagwani, and the workers of dockyard, trams, buses and different factories under their respective union leaders began reaching at Eid Gah Maidan, where the police and military failed to stop the people pouring from Saeed Manzil to Dow Medical College and D.J. College to Ranchore Lane.
As the people refused to disperse despite the warnings by the police and military, the administration brought in the Sindh Assembly member, Swami Kirshna, and Congress leader Doctor Tarachand in a police vehicle but people instead of dispersing on their appeal, asked them to join the protest. Thereafter the Muslim League leader, Mahmood Haroon, was also brought there in a police vehicle but he too got the same response.
As the situation came to a boil, on the request of Sindh Chief Minister Sir Ghulam Hussain Hidayatullah, the founder of modern Karachi Jamshed Mehta arrived to appeal for dispersal but for the first time citizens of Karachi refused to listen to Mehta and the police was forced to take him away from the hostile mob.
Meanwhile the police attacked the protest camp and arrested Malhi, Ainshi and Gulab and tried to remove the flags which antagonised the people who started throwing stones at the police. Initially the police fired teargas shells but later opened firing on the people. Women threw wet clothes from the windows and galleries of their houses to the people to lessen the impact of the teargas. At some places they threw chilies and boiling water on the police.
Over a dozen citizens were martyred and dozens injured in the police firing that continued for over one hour. The first civilian martyr of that day was the young son of a local trader, Hassan Ali Soda Waterwala. The arrested comrades, kept in the police lock-up, got to know about the police action of the day through police wireless relays, according to which clashes between the masses and police continued till 6.00 in the evening.
On the other hand, the British troops took the dead bodies of the fallen comrades and injured to Hindustan, and they were followed by three to four hundred ratings of Himalaya in a procession. The rest of the ratings, after reaching Himalaya, started consultations about their future course. Meanwhile, as the ratings started raising slogans, the dock workers also shouted slogans with equal vehemence. For over two hours, the ratings and dock workers raised slogans in front of the pointed guns of the British troops. During that time many city journalists reached the spot and a reporter of daily Sind Observer informed the ratings that the access to Hindustan had been blocked and so the exact figure of the dead and injured could not be known.
At 6.30 the ratings started their open meeting, which decided that they will initiate indefinite hunger strike if the British troops were not called back. They also decided to reassemble between 9.30 to 10.00 the following morning at the Jetty. The meeting decided for relay slogans at nine at the night, which was implemented. Late at night, the British command issued an ultimatum to the Indian ratings that if they did not end their mutiny by 10 in the morning, their ships would be directly bombed.
In the morning of February 22 all the ratings of Chamak assembled at the Parade Ground at 8.30 ready to march towards Manora Jetty when they saw the ratings of Himalaya running towards them. The British soldiers had scared away all the boatmen threatening to kill anybody who would come within a mile of Hindustan.
In the morning all the officers of Chamak, visited the striking ratings and the Commanding Officer in his brief address announced that if the protesters follow the discipline, the British troops would be removed.
Later he allowed representatives of the ratings to join in the last rituals of the martyred ratings, for which the bodies of seven Hindu, four Muslim and three Sikh ratings were brought to the other end of the city. The faces of the martyrs were not shown to their comrades.
Consequently, active leaders of the Sailors Association were arrested and three of them, namely, Anil Roy, Harilal from Ajmer and Akbar Ali from Punjab, were ordered to be tried by Court Martial. Not one of them was sentenced and in the second week of June, the orders for Court Martial were withdrawn.
The Karachi-based arrested Communist workers Sobho Gianchandani, A. K. Hangal and Professor Karvani were also released after a couple of weeks.
1. Anil Roy, ‘Royal Indian Navy and the Naval Mutiny (1946), Karachi Chapter’ in Challenge: A Saga of India’s Struggle for Freedom.
2. Sobho Gianchandani, Roshni Jo Safar (Autobiography in Sindhi).
3. Sobho Gianchandani, Sindhi newspaper columns.
Aslam Khwaja is an independent Pakistani researcher and writer with several books to his credit. He is also a translator and has translated more than forty books from English and Urdu to Sindhi. He lives in Karachi.