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1946's sepoy mutiny

india Updated: Aug 14, 2010 21:11 IST
Neha Dara
Neha Dara
Hindustan Times
Samuel Augustine

Samuel Augustine was 89 when he died last week. In 1946, he was 25. He worked at the naval dockyard in Mumbai making spare parts. When the Naval Mutiny broke out, he mobilised workers for a sit-down strike in support of the rebel sailors. An order was issued for his arrest, so he went underground.

Mumbai

History: On February 18, 1946, 1,100 ratings at the HMIS Talwar went on a strike to protest bad food and racial treatment by British officers. Sailors across British India, including Karachi, supported the mutiny. By the end of five days, 300 people had died in Bombay and 1,600 were injured.

"In a meeting in Delhi, the authorities claimed he had died during the rioting to break the strike. Baba sent word to the workers that he was alive and they should continue," says Nelson Augustine, Samuel's 53-year-old nephew, a lawyer in New Zealand, after his uncle's funeral. "I wanted to ask Baba about all these things but I never got the chance," he tells his father Paul with regret.

Elsewhere too, the old stories are forgotten. At Bhendi Bazaar, which was one of the hotbeds of civilian support for the uprising, no one remembers the events of 64 years ago. The story goes that burkha-clad women of the area joined in the agitation by throwing pots and pans from the rooftops at the British soldiers patrolling the streets. Walking through the bazaar, now decked up for Ramzan, I can imagine the troops being hemmed in by these narrow lanes. But my hunt for veterans doesn't yield a soul.

In the white-tiled office of the Western Railway Employees Union office at the Grant Road station, I meet 94-year-old Congressman, Jagdish Ajmera. His memory of 1946: "The negotiations between the Congress and the British were at a crucial state at the time of the mutiny. There was a fear it would spread to the army, so after the first two days we stayed away."

I take my search for mutiny's links to the internet. On an online blog, I find a comment by Barry Harwell Michie, who works at the Kansas State University, US. He says his wife, Aruna, is the daughter of two of the original organisers of the mutiny.

"Aruna's father, Pran Nath Nair, was sent from the Army to the Navy during WW2. He was in signals," says the post. "The family story is that a rating, according to the well thought-out plan, dirtied the dal in the ship's mess. When the sailors started complaining, he raised anti-British slogans and got the crew agitated enough to take over the ship — from which it spread elsewhere."

In search of more details, I head to the Naval Uprising Memorial that was constructed in Cooperage in 2001, to give the struggle its proper place in history. Though the marble plaque outside claims it's open to public from 8 am to 6 pm, the gate to the triangular garden is tightly shut. I get a guard to open it. Yellowed cuttings from newspapers that cost two annas give two versions of the events that took place — one that is is pro-British; the other, nationalist.

It is the second version that Ramesh Chandra Patkar, 71, translator of Royal Indian Naval Mutiny by Subrata Banerjee, prescribes to. "The freedom struggle was in top gear in 1946. Mill workers, rail employees, and students supported the strike. But it has not been given its proper place in the story of the Indian freedom struggle." He tells me that the people of Mumbai collected food packets for the striking ratings.

That one detail, at least, seems incontestable, for it is a familiar spirit that has been the city's legacy, piping up every time there has been a need — when the city flooded on July 26, 2005, during the trains blast on July 11 the following year, and the terrorist attack on November 26, 2008.