THE immediate compulsion for the British to quit India arose with the erosion of loyalty to the Crown among the Indian armed forces’ personnel as a result of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s military activities. The Indian National Army (INA) was founded with the collaboration of Indian soldiers, prisoners of war, expatriates and Japanese allies in Southeast Asia; it also had a women’s regiment, the Jhansi Ki Rani Regiment, led by Lakshmi Sahgal.
Things came to a head when the British committed a grave error — they set about putting on public trial members of the top brass of the INA at the Red Fort in Delhi during 1945-46 on the charge of waging a war against the King-Emperor.
Col Prem Sahgal, Major Gen Shah Nawaz Khan and Col Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon had served as officers in the British Indian Army. They had been taken prisoners of war at Malaya, Singapore and Burma. Later, they joined the INA along with a large number of Indian Army troops and fought for the liberation of India. Their trial spread disenchantment against the British within the armed forces. The public, too, rose in unison.
On February 18, 1946, Indian sailors of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) mutinied; the mutiny spread to over 70 ships. Bringing down the British flag on their ships, the mutineers hoisted flags of the Congress, the Muslim League and the Communist Party. Vociferously raising the demand for Independence, thousands of sailors went around Bombay holding portraits of Netaji. The mutineers were joined by the people of Bombay, who wholeheartedly extended support. Within 48 hours, the British had lost control over the navy, even as the mutineers rechristened RIN as the Indian National Navy.
It is estimated that around 220 people died in police firing and about 1,000 were injured during the unrest. The RIN mutiny was followed by a rebellion in the Royal Indian Air Force and in some Army units, mainly at Jabalpur.
The British painfully realised that a mortal blow had been inflicted on the Raj, and that they no longer controlled the Indian armed forces. They feared more such mass movements. The mutinies, coupled with the uproar in the Indian armed forces and the sacrifices of freedom fighters, convinced the British to expedite the process of quitting India. Clement Attlee, then British Prime Minister and the Leader of the Labour Party from 1935 to 1955, was left with no option but to approve the decision to grant Independence to India.
As World War II ended, Britain had already exhausted Indian resources, finances and manpower for its war effort. Britain’s economy was left severely depleted. The state of affairs had a tremendous impact on British foreign policy, even as the tumultuous events of 1945-46 played a key role in hastening the colonial power’s exit from India.
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