Three Upsurges - Winter of 1945-46

In the winter of 1945-46, there were three upsurges

  1. One on 21 November 1945 in Calcutta over the INA trials;
  2. The second on 11 February 1946 in Calcutta to protest against the seven year sentence given to an INA officer, Rashid Mi;
  3. The third in Bombay of 18 February 1946 when the ratings of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) went on strike.

The upsurges followed a fairly similar pattern an initial stage when a group (such as students or ratings) defied authority and was repressed, a second stage when people in the city joined in, and finally a third stage when people in other parts of the country expressed sympathy and solidarity.

The first stage began with the students and ratings challenge to authority and ended in repression. On 21 November 1945, a procession of students, consisting of Forward Bloc sympathisers and joined by Students Federation activists and Islamia College students, marched to Dalhousie Square, the seat of the Government in Calcutta, and refused to disperse. Upon a lathi-charge., the processionists retaliated with stones and brickbats which the police, in turn, met with firing and two persons died, while fifty- two were injured. On 11 February 1946, Muslim League students led the procession, Congress and Communist student organisations joined in and this time some arrests were made on Dharamatola Street. This provoked the large body of students to defy Section 144 imposed in the Dalhousie Square area and more arrests, in addition to a lathi-charge, ensued.

The RIN revolt started on 18 February when 1100 naval ratings of HMIS Talwar struck work at Bombay to protest against the treatment meted out to them flagrant racial discrimination, unpalatable food and abuses to boot. The arrest of B.C. Dutt, a rating, for scrawling Quit India on the HMIS Talwar, was sorely resented. The next day, ratings from Castle and Fort Barracks joined the strike and on hearing that the HUJS Talwar ratings had been fired upon (which was incorrect) left their posts and went around Bombay in lorries, holding aloft Congress flags, threatening Europeans and policemen and occasionally tweaking a shop window or two.

The second stage of these upsurges, when people in the city joined in was marked by a virulent anti-British mood and resulted in the virtual paralysis of the two great cities of Calcutta and Bombay. Meetings and processions to express sympathy, as also strikes and hartals, were quickly overshadowed by the barricades that came up. The pitched battles fought from housetops and by-lanes, the attacks on Europeans, and the burning of police stations, post offices, shops, tram depots, railway stations, banks, grain shops, and even a YMCA centre. This was the pattern that was visible in all the three cases. The RIN revolt and popular fbry in Bombay alone accounted for, according to official estimates, the destruction of thirty shops, ten post offices, ten police chowkis, sixty-four food grains shops and 200 street lamps. Normal life in the city was completely disrupted. The Communist call for a genera) strike brought lakhs of workers out of their factories into the streets. Hartals by shopkeepers, merchants and hotel-owners and strikes by student workers, both in industry and public transport services almost brought the whole city to a grinding halt. Forcible stopping of trains by squatting on rail-tracks, stoning and burning of police and military lorries and barricading of streets did the rest.

The third phase was characterised by a display of solidarity by people in other parts of the county. Students boycotted classes, hartals and processions were organized to express sympathy with the students and ratings and to condemn official repression. In the RIN revolt, Karachi was a major centre, second only to Bombay. The news reached Karachi on 19 February, upon which the HMIS Hindustan along with one more ship and three shore establishments, went on a lightning strike. Sympathetic token strikes took place in military establishments in Madras. Vishakhapatnam. Calcutta, Delhi, Cochin, Jamnagar, the Andamans, Bahrain and Aden Seventy eight ships and 20 shore establishments, involving 20,000 ratings, were affected. RJAF men went on sympathetic strikes in the Marine Drive, Andheri and Sion areas of Bombay and in Poona, Calcutta, Jessore and Ambala units. Sepoys at Jabalpur went on strike while the Colaba cantonment showed ominous restlessness.

What was the significance of these events?

There is no doubt that these three upsurges were significant in as much as they gave expression to the militancy in the popular mind. Action, however reckless, was fearless and the crowds which faced police firing by temporarily retreating, only to return to their posts, won the Bengal Governor s grudging admiration. The RIN revolt remains a legend to this day. When it took place, it had a dramatic impact on popular Consciousness. A revolt in the armed forces, even if soon suppressed, had a great liberating effect on the minds of people. The RIN revolt was seen as an event which marked the end of British rule almost as finally as Independence Day, 1947. But reality and how men perceive that reality often proves to be different, and this was true of these dramatic moments in 1945-46. Contemporary perceptions and later radical scholarship have infused these historical events with more than a symbolic significance. These events are imbued with an unrealized potential and a realized impact which is quite out of touch with reality. A larger than life picture is drawn of their militancy, reach and effectiveness. India is seen to be on the brink of a revolution. The argument goes that the communal unity witnessed during these events could, if built upon, have offered a way out of the communal deadlock.

When we examine these upsurges closely we find that the form they took, that of an extreme, direct and violent conflict with authority, had certain limitations. Only the most militant sections of society could participate. There was no place for the liberal and conservative groups which had rallied to the INA cause earlier or for the men and women of small towns and villages who had formed the backbone of the mass movements in earlier decades. Besides, these upsurges were short-lived, as the tide of popular fury- surged forth, only to subside all too quickly. Interestingly, Calcutta, the scene of tremendous enthusiasm from 11 to 13 February 1946, was relatively quiet during the RIN revolt a week later. One lakh workers went on a one day strike, but the rest of the city, barring the organised working class, remained subdued, despite a seven-thy ratings strike in Calcutta which had to be broken by a siege by troops. In addition, the upheavals were confined to a few urban centres, while the general INA agitation reached the remotest villages. This urban concentration made it easy for the authorities to deploy troops and effectively suppress the upsurge.

The communal unity witnessed was more organisational unity than unity of the people. Moreover, the organisations came together only for a specific agitation that lasted a few days, as was the case in Calcutta on the issue of Rashid's trial. Calcutta, the scene of the almost revolution in February 1946, according to Gautam Chattopadhaya , became the battle ground of communal frenzy only six months later, on 16 August 1946. The communal unity evident in the RIN revolt was limited, despite the Congress, League and Communist flags being jointly hoisted on the ships masts. Muslim ratings went to the League to seek advice on future action, while the rest went to the Congress and the Socialists; Jinnah's advice to surrender was addressed to Muslim ratings alone, who duly heeded It. The view that communal unity forged in the struggles of 1945- 46 could, if taken further, have averted partition, seems to be based on wishful thinking rather than concrete historical possibility. The unity at the barricades did not show this promise.

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