Analysis History & Theory Imperialism Partition South Asia

The 1946 Revolution — History’s Loss!

By Lal Khan

Truth, as they say, is the first casualty of war. The situation of the ruling classes of India and Pakistan is so disdainful that they cannot go to a full-fledged war nor can they sustain a genuine peace. However, in the prevalent crisis sharp border clashes, lethal surgical strikes or some dangerous militaristic act by the Modi regime cannot be ruled out. The rhetoric with which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime has whipped up hysteria so close to the forthcoming elections in weeks, with mounting international pressure, the restraint from carrying out such belligerent acts would be extremely difficult for the reactionary Indian state and the Modi Sarkar. In the last few decades, they have contrived virtual wars and hoaxes of peace. In the ongoing rhetoric of war and the Hindutva chauvinism being propped up by the subcontinent’s elite, once again truth and sanity are the foremost victims. It’s the organic nature of the region’s post-colonial bourgeoisie being reflected in their hypocrisy, crookedness and deceit of their politics, ethics, morality and character. These odious characteristics stem from their origins.

The so-called independence of the South Asian subcontinent was won not through a struggle led by the national bourgeois leaders but through negotiations and deals with the British Raj’s wily bureaucrats. Such ‘liberations’ never transform the lives of the populace or ensure social prosperity. The old rotten system continues to coerce the masses only with superficially shaped contours and colours of the elite and the state. India and Pakistan were artificially grafted and imposed by the ruling elites and the British imperialists. This resulted in the continuance of the rule of the capitalist caricature set up by the Raj. These upstart elites continued to practise the British ploy of ‘divide and rule’ to perpetuate their exploitative rulership. With capitalism surviving in this subcontinent, the imperialist plunder persisted even after the end of direct colonial rule. Hence the war mongering and whipping up of religious and nationalistic chauvinism that we have witnessed for the last seven decades is a necessary manoeuvre for the elites if they are to maintain their rulership.

History is witness to the fact that the British, in connivance with their toady native elites, could only enforce this set up after the betrayal and defeat of one of the most glorious episodes of mass upheaval for liberation-the 1946 revolution, distorted as the “Sailors’ Mutiny”. These bourgeois historians have repeatedly falsified the true facts and events that led to independence. Internationally and regionally, these narratives proclaimed that this independence was won by the Indian National Congress led by Gandhi, Patel, Nehru and the Muslim League led by Jinnah. While they conveniently conceal the struggles and the formidable role of workers, the youth and peasants. But above all, by the revolts of the soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Indian army, navy and air force in the struggle for independence. Marx had elaborated that during and after the first Indian war of Independence in 1857, the British conquered India by using the Indian troops. However by 1946, the British could no longer confidently rely on the Indian troops to sustain their coercive rule. There was a volcanic rebellion starting with the sailors of the Royal Indian Navy that shocked the wily strategists of the Raj.

This revolt led by the sailors and workers had forced the British to an early departure from the subcontinent and the movement was on the verge of abolishing the socioeconomic system that has enslaved the oppressed masses for generations. This protraction of the capitalist caricature imposed by the Raj has been the root cause of the misery, deprivation, tyranny, bigotry and bloodshed that has been ravaging the subcontinent’s masses. The largest concentration of poverty on the planet in South Asia proves the dismal failure of this system. The atrocious counter-revolution to crush the 1946 revolution was inflicted through the bloodied partition of 1947, the wounds of which are still festering.

Seventy-two years ago in this week of February 1946, a revolutionary spark triggered a heroic uprising that engulfed the South Asian subcontinent where the masses were up in arms defying the might of the imperialists and the repressive colonial state. The ebbing of this revolutionary wave and its defeat through the deceit and sabotage of the local leaders led to the horrors of this Partition based on sectarian barbarity that drenched particularly Punjab and Bengal in innocent blood. Carving up of the Indian subcontinent on religious lines resulted in massacres, with the killing of over one and a half million souls and enforced migration of over twenty million.

The gallant episode of the Sailors’ Revolt offers enormous lessons and examples of the audacious role and courage that it instilled in the hearts and minds of the ordinary people in such revolutionary periods that are historical exceptions. The naval revolt of February 1946 erupted due to the accumulation of resentment over a long period among the sailors. The salary of the British sailors was 10 times more than that of the Indian sailors, as were their perks and privileges. However, the major cause of the revolt was political. The trial of the Indian National Army (INA) leaders and its struggle during the siege of Imphal, where the INA inflicted massive damage on the British army gave the sailors a profound belief that the mighty British Empire was not all that invincible.

The revolt started on February 18, 1946, when 1100 sailors on the HMS Talwar at the Bombay harbour, stopped work and declared an official strike at dawn. The sailors unanimously elected signalman MS Khan as President and petty officer telegraphist Madan Singh as Vice-President. Leading signaller Bedi Basant Singh, SC Sen Gupta, Chief Petty Officer, School Master Nawaz, Seaman Ashraf Khan, Able Stokers Gomez and Mohammad Hussain to the Central Strike Committee. This Committee had a resolute destiny for their struggle in action-complete political and socio-economic liberation.

In the Bombay Harbour, the revolt quickly spread to 22 ships, the Castle and Fort Barracks in the shore bases. The strikes spread like wildfire to the naval establishments in Karachi, Madras, Vishakhapatnam, Calcutta, Delhi, Cochin, Jamnagar, and the Andaman Islands on to the shores of the Middle East in Bahrain and Aden. They were able to win over almost all the 70 ships and all the 20 seashore naval cantonments with over 30,000 sailors actively participating in the revolt. The next morning, Indian sailors seized military vehicles in the dockyards and drove around Bombay chanting slogans, ‘Hindu-Muslim eik hain’ (Hindus and Muslims are one). The Central Strike Committee issued a leaflet that ended with the call, ‘Long live the solidarity of workers, soldiers, students and peasants. Long live Revolution’. A mass fervour of support swept across united India in support of the striking sailors. On the morning of February 21, 1946, British guards opened fire at Indian sailors in the Bombay Naval base’s Castle Barracks and this transformed the revolt into a violent armed uprising.

Hundreds of strikers from ships, minesweepers and shore establishments demonstrated near Bombay’s Victoria Terminus of the Indian Railways. When the British ordered Indian soldiers to fire at the striking sailors, the latter refused to shoot at their fellow brothers.

On February 20 and 21, the striking sailors gave a call for a general strike, which evoked an incredible response. Three hundred thousand workers put down their tools and walked out of textile factories, mills, railways, postal services, docks and other industrial and service setups in Bombay as well as other cities and towns in the country. Barricades were set up on the streets that were pitched battles of youth and workers with the police and army. The strike was a direct challenge to British rule. In Calcutta, over 120,000 people came out and other Indian cities and towns were brought to a standstill by similar strikes and demonstrations.

In Karachi, striking sailors took over the HMS. Hindustan and Bahadur ships anchored at Manora Island. The sailors then took out a procession through the streets of Karachi and were joined a large number of the city’s residents. Karachi’s British army commander sent two platoons of Baloch soldiers to suppress the revolt. The Baloch refused to fire upon their brothers. The British then called on their ‘super-loyal’ Gurkha troops to put down the revolt but were shocked when even they refused to fire upon the striking sailors. Finally, the British troops were summoned, who started firing to be met with retaliation. The firing and attacks and counter-attacks continued for four hours. Six of the sailors were killed, more than 30 were wounded. Trade unions in Karachi called a general strike, and the whole city was shut down. More than 35,000 people, including Hindus and Muslims, marched towards Eidgah and held a massive rally despite intimidation, harassment, arrests, baton charges and live firing. More than 50 protestors were arrested.

As World War II was coming to an end, India was entering a period of stormy resurgence of the working-class movement. Industrial strikes in virtually all the major cities – Bombay, Calcutta, Allahabad, Delhi, Madras, Lahore and Karachi erupted with full force. The Indian working class courageously jumped into the fray ignoring massive state oppression, arrests, beatings and even bullets as the decisive force in the struggle for liberation. Towards the end of 1945, the Bombay and Calcutta dockworkers refused to load ships going to Indonesia with supplies for troops meant to suppress the national liberation struggles there.

At the beginning of 1946, this strike wave assumed a highly political character. On January 24, 1946, 175,000 textile and industrial workers went on strike in Bombay to protest the shooting of demonstrators celebrating the birthday of Subhash Chandra Bose, leader of the “Azad (Free) Indian Government” and organiser of the Indian National Army. Railway workers’ strikes, series of student demonstrations throughout India brought large swathes of the Indian proletariat in other sectors of industry and services into a militant struggle. Throughout these demonstrations the inspiring and fiery slogan “Long Live the Revolution!” was echoing across united India.

The last years of colonial rule also saw a remarkably sharp increase in strikes on economic issues all over the country – the all-India strike of the Post and Telegraph Department employees being the most prominent. The pent-up economic grievances during the war, combined with the high prices, scarcity of food and other essentials and a drop in real wages, drove the working class to the limits of its tolerance. In anticipation of freedom, expectations were rocketing to the skies. The people saw Independence as an end to their miseries. The workers were now struggling for what they hoped freedom would bring them as a matter of right.

As the weeks passed, the mass upheaval of 1946 spread to the other Indian armed forces of the Raj. Nearly 2000 men in the Royal Indian Army Signal Corps mutinied near Jabalpur. There were mini-revolts by Indian gunners in Madras, signallers at Allahabad, and clerical staff at army headquarters in Delhi. Indian officers of the Royal Air Force (RAF) refused to fly out British troops to attack the sailors and to pilot planes to bomb the ships. Felled trees blocked train tracks and roads. The RAF strikes spread to airbases in Allahabad, Mauripur (Karachi), Dum-Dum (Calcutta), Cawnpore, Palam (Delhi), Poona, Vizagapatam, Kallang, Chaklala (Rawalpindi), Lahore and Negombo. The strike also spread to South East Asia where 4000 airmen struck at Seletar, Singapore.

This was a scenario the British never expected to be faced with and it was this movement of the proletariat that forced them to retreat. In an interview in March 1976, Clement Atlee, the post-war British prime minister of the times reminisced, “The RIN Mutiny which made the British realise that the Indian armed forces could no longer be trusted to prop up the British.” When asked about the extent to which the British decision to quit India was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s and his movement, Attlee’s lips widened in a smile of disdain and he uttered, slowly, “Minimal.” Sir Stafford Cripps in the debate at the British House of Commons had said, “The Indians in the (Royal Indian) Army are not obeying the British officers… In these conditions, if we have to rule India for a long time, we have to keep a permanent British army for a long time in a vast country of four hundred million. We have no such army and money….”

It’s a historical irony that Congress and the Muslim League, the so-called implacable rivals both condemned the Royal Indian Navy revolt. These indigenous bourgeois leaders condemned the striking sailors and workers. Mahatma Gandhi issued a statement criticising the rebels. The Muslim League too denounced the strikers, arguing that ‘unrest on the streets was not the best way to deal with grievances and that protest should be through constitutional methods only’. Valabhbhai Patel demanded that the sailors surrender and summoned the vice-president of the sailors strike committee, Petty Officer Madan Singh in a flat in Bombay. Patel demanded that he should sabotage the revolt. Nehru, who did not want to be left behind Patel, in another meeting with Madan, advised him and his comrades to surrender and bring the naval revolt to an end. Nehru even held a press conference to reprimand the revolting sailors.

The Communist Party of India was in a dilemma due to the flawed ideological concepts of the leaders. On the one hand, they wanted to ‘be with the people’, in order to restore some of CPI’s credibility which was lost during the war, when the party overtly supported the British Raj in the name of ‘People’s War’. Their rank-and-file, particularly amongst the students, enthusiastically joined the uprisings in Bombay and Calcutta. Ultimately this contrast in policy led to the beginning of the split of the CPI after differences emerged between its two main leaders Bhalchandra Trimbak Ranadive and P.S. Joshi the General Secretary in the aftermath of the stormy events.

Ranadive was the party’s main trade union leader and was active in strike action. He was deeply influenced and moved by the uprising and wanted the party to take up the leadership of the revolutionary movement. While Joshi as the party’s general secretary was more receptive to instructions from Moscow under Stalin. However, at the second Party Congress held in Calcutta in February 1948, the party elected Ranadive in place of PC Joshi as CPI’s general secretary. But in 1950 Ranadive was deposed, and denounced by the party as a “left adventurist”. The factional disputes continued and finally, the split materialised in 1964 when two parties that emerged were the CPI and CPI (M). Ranadive was the founder and leader of the CPI (M) that is today the largest communist party in India.

The betrayal of the political leadership ultimately led the movement into disarray and it scattered. On February 24, 1946, white flags were raised from the decks of all ships to announce surrender. In its last session, the strike committee passed a resolution that stated, “Our uprising was an important historical event in the lives of our people. For the first time, the blood of 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 brothers and sisters shall also never forget this. The coming generations, learning its lessons shall accomplish what we have not been able to achieve. Long live the working masses. Long, lives Revolution”. With a revolutionary party having cadres tempered in the foundations of Marxism could have provided the leadership to the sailors, soldiers and millions of workers who came out on the streets across united India to the path of a socialist revolution. Soviets could easily have been established in Bombay, Lahore, Calcutta, Karachi, Allahabad, Peshawar, Madras, Kanpur, Delhi and many other major metropolitan cities, towns and villages. Unfortunately due to the criminal role played by the Comintern and the leadership of the CPI with the disastrous policy of forming ‘people’s front’ with the “progressive bourgeois” of Congress and the Muslim League an historic opportunity was missed. Despite the CPI leaderships overtures to the British by supporting the imperialist war, when the actual time for the transfer of power came, the preferred option for British imperialism were of course the bourgeois parties, Congress and the Muslim League, as they wanted to ensure continuity of capitalist plunder.

The victory of the 1946 revolution could have changed the course of history. During liberation struggle, the rising mass movement would have neither paused at the stage of national independence nor it would have accepted capitalist exploitation and coercion. It would have gone the whole hog by not just shoving the imperialists out of India but by overthrowing their system of exploitation and coercion. The hatred emanating from harrowing genocides and flowing of innocent human blood during the sweltering, humid and stifling summer of 1947; are still tearing apart the social fabric of South Asia. These would have never transpired had a united class struggle led the national liberation into the realm of social emancipation. It would have gone forward for the socio-economic transformation through a socialist revolution. With the revolutionary storm sweeping through China and most of East Asia, at the time, a revolutionary victory in South Asia would have become the precursor of the red dawn setting the Asian continent alight with the flames of the revolution. Capitalism and Imperialism on a world scale would have suffered a fatal blow. Its revolutionary impacts and the dawn of liberation would have shone across the planet. The destiny of putting an end to want, deprivation, misery and exploitation along with the reality of humanity’s emancipation would have been within the sights of the human race.

Published in Daily Times, February 26th-27th 2019.