Sunday, March 21, 2004

Total recall
Witness to history

Madan SinghTHE Royal Indian Navy (RIN) Mutiny of 1946 was a milestone in the history of India’s freedom struggle. Madan Singh, now in his mid-eighties, was then a Petty Officer (telegraphist). As vice-president of the strike committee, Madan Singh led the mutiny from the front. He recalls the stormy days of May 18,1946. To substantiate his claim, Madan Singh produces a photo-copy of The Tribune of February 20, 1946. Page one has two screaming headlines of parallel news items: "Cabinet ministers coming to India for negotiations with Indian leaders" and "7000 R.I.N. Ratings on Strike." He also recalls how at 9.30 pm on February 19, 1946, All India Radio relayed a B.B.C broadcast to the effect that a British Cabinet Mission is being sent to India to negotiate the terms of handing over of power to Indians.

In an exclusive interview with H.J.S. Waraich, Madan Singh describes how the revolt of the naval ratings was the immediate cause of India’s freedom:

What was it that triggered the strike?

There had been a current of deeprooted discontent simmering underneath the surface calm which erupted on February18, almost like a volcano. The beginning was made by H.M.I.S. (His Majesty’s Indian Ship) ‘Talwar,’ a seashore establishment for training wireless operators. This ship’s ratings were better educated as compared to the other Naval Ratings of R.I.N. The egotistical attitude of the officers, particularly the British who were predominant, was further fuelled by the off-the-cuff remarks of the newly arrived Commander King on a routine visit to the Ship. He had commented that Indian Ratings were sons of Indian bitches. When we protested through the official channel we were threatened. The service conditions were pathetic, particulary in contrast to the English Ratings. The last straw on the camel’s back was the breakfast unfit for consumption served to us on February 18. Almost spontaneously, we had shouted in unison "No food no work." By the evening, all semblance of authority on the ship had collapsed. A strike committee was elected with M.S. Khan as the president and I as the vice-president. An impartial man, Khan was totally free of any trace of parochialism or bigotry.

How did you establish communication with the rest of the naval force?

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 estblisments. 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.

What was the attitude of the Congress leaders towards the strike?

It was generally supportive. Although Sardar Patel and Nehru took different positions. I was summoned by Sardar Patel to a flat in Bombay and then by Nehru at his brother-in-law Huthee Sing’s house. The former was rather annoyed with us, while the latter was more understanding. When Nehru was told of our predicament, he remarked, "Agar main bhi aap ki jagah hota to main bhi jazbaat mein beh jaata".

Were there any casualties and how did the civilians get involved?

Many were killed and injured when the tanks of the Army tried to clear the barricades put up by civilians. Besides, there were some casualties even among us as a result of an exhange of fire between us and the British troop. 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.

How did the mutiny conclude?

We decided to surrender after being called upon to do so by the Congress leaders, particularly by Sardar Patel. We were assured that there would be no victimisation.

What sort of treatment did you receive after your surrender?

I forgot to tell you that when we decided to surrender, we made it clear that we shall surrender only to our national leaders and not to the British authorities. However, the promise made to us about "no punishments" was honoured more in the breach. Hundreds of us were dismissed and many were detained. I too remained in solitary confinement for three and a half months.

What did you do after that?

Later, I specialised in avionics engineering and served in leading international airlines including B.O.A.C. I did not accept British citizenship and till date, I remain embedded in and indebted to the soil of my Motherland.