TRYST WITH DESTINY

Bombay’s little-known role in India’s Independence movement

Quartz india
Quartz india

On 15 August 1947, when independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, delivered his famous “Tryst with Destiny” speech in Parliament House, New Delhi, a parallel celebration was unfolding in Bombay.

The chief minister of the erstwhile Bombay State, Balasaheb Gangadhar Kher, unfurled the Indian tri-colour at the Bombay Civil Secretariat—today the City Civil and Sessions Court, across from the Oval Maidan. His words, though not as memorable as Nehru’s, declared to the assembled crowd: “Citizens of Free India, you are now free.”

Perhaps not too many people caught those words in a city besieged by crowds celebrating for two full days.

Two days later, by August 17, the first battalions of British troops began embarking ships at Ballard Pier in south Bombay, to leave Indian shores forever.

It was a moment of profound symbolism. Bombay was the first British Royal Possession (territory) on the Indian subcontinent. Though the original seven islands were gifted in dowry to King Charles II of England when he married the Portuguese princess Infanta Catarina de Bragança in 1661, the “gift” had to be wrested from the islands’ resident Portuguese community, which was reluctant to let go.

By 1665, a special royal expeditionary force occupied the islands, and Bombay became England’s first territorial acquisition on the subcontinent. Bombay was the first British Royal Possession (territory) on the Indian subcontinent.  

But the British rulers at the time had not yet recognised the geopolitical and geoeconomic significance of the location of the islands. To them, it seemed that Bombay and its surroundings were hopelessly located for trade and ill-equipped even to feed a resident population. The city’s deep and spacious harbour was deemed unsuitable because it was isolated from the main overseas trade routes that culminated at the Mughal êntreport of Surat, located north of Bombay.

It must therefore have been with some relief that the Crown leased the islands to the East India Company for an annual rent of £10 in 1668. Eventually, the strategic importance of Bombay by the late 18th and early 19th centuries as an êntreport, the capital of a Presidency named after it, and the headquarters of the Royal Indian Navy, made it the nerve centre of the Indian nationalist movement.

And the city helped to hasten the departure of Britain from its most cherished colony—India. Many milestones of the country’s struggle for Independence were launched from Bombay—the founding of the Indian National Congress (1885); Mahatma Gandhi’s early residence in the city at Mani Bhavan on Laburnum Road;, the launch of the Non-Cooperation Movement (1920-1922) and the Khilafat Movement (1919-1924); and the Quit India Movement of 8 August 1942.

The Royal Indian Naval uprising in Bombay

However, what really accelerated Britain’s exit from India was the mutiny of sailors of the Royal Indian Naval (RIN) from 18 to 25 February, 1946, in Bombay—a moment in history that is marked by the Indian Navy’s “Naval Uprising Memorial” in Colaba.

British colonialism’s rule in South Asia, as elsewhere across the world, depended greatly on the British-Indian armed forces. When the British government could no longer depend on these forces to enforce its rule, it was a turning point.

The mutiny began innocuously, with a thousand sailors going on a flash sit-down and hunger strike aboard signal training ship, HMIS Talwar on the morning of February 18. The headline of the Times of India of 19 February 1946 stated: “Indian Ratings on Strike in Bombay: Better Conditions Demanded.” But in reality, the simmering tensions had much deeper roots.

It is the timing of this mutiny that explains why it spread like wildfire across every branch of the armed services. Not just across naval ships anchored in Bombay harbour (some of them raised Congress flags), but also across every major naval establishment (Karachi, Calcutta, Visakhapatnam, Cochin, Lonavala, and even New Delhi), Royal Indian Air force stations (Sion, Madras, Kanpur, and Ambala), and even army units in Bombay, Karachi, and Calcutta. Indian soldiers were sent into a war that India did not want to fight. 

It was a time when World War II (1939-1945) had just ended. Indians had been reluctantly dragged into the war—this was unlike the support of nationalist parties for Great Britain during World War I (1914-1919). This time, despite negative public opinion, Indian soldiers were sent into a war that India did not want to fight.

Post-war tensions were further complicated by the unequal terms on which British and Indian military personnel were demobilised or let off. British troops were given better perks and pay, while Indian troops faced losing their livelihood on patently unfair terms.

Another important factor was the ongoing trial at the time of soldiers of Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA) at the Red Fort in Delhi. Many Indian army soldiers were captured by the Japanese army in theatres of war across Burma and Southeast Asia. Many of these prisoners of war chose to join Bose’s INA in Singapore, which had been formed and financed by expatriate Southeast Asian Indians to free India from British rule.

The court martial of roughly 23,000 INA soldiers for high treason, especially of the “Big Three”—Major General Shah Nawaz Khan, Colonel Prem Sahgal, and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dillon—created great unease among the Indian armed forces.

It culminated in the RIN mutiny of 1946.

The high point of the mutiny came on February 21, when, for the first time in Indian naval history, the guns of the RIN warships were trained on the city itself. It was only in the evening that the mutineers hoisted the ceasefire flag.

The mutiny was called off on February 25, after Vallabhbhai Patel and Nehru intervened.

Coincidentally, it was during the week of the RIN mutiny that British prime minister Clement Atlee announced that he would send a Cabinet mission to India to break the deadlock for setting up the Indian Constituent Assembly. The arrival of this last cabinet mission began the countdown to Indian Independence.

This post first appeared on Gateway House.

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