HT This Day: Feb 23, 1946 -- Bombay in revolt: city a battlefield
Bombay witnessed for 12 hours on Friday the fiercest mob fury in its history leading to repeated clashes between the police and military armed with rifles, machine-guns and armoured cars on the one side and angry mobs on the other. The police and military resorted to repeated firing at frequent intervals.
All the city’s workers were on the streets and the disturbance became more and more widespread as the day wore on till it enveloped the entire city from the Fort to Dadar and Mahim, a distance of 10 miles.
Unofficial casualty figures estimate the total killed at 60 and injured at over 600 of which about 400 are bullet cases.
A high police official declared: “An absolute rebellion is going on in Bombay.”
Widespread arson, looting, burning and road-blocking were the order of the day from an early hour in the morning till late in the evening.
Nearly 40 military lorries were burnt, a dozen post offices looted and burnt, several banks attacked, looted and their records destroyed, and 30 grain shops were either looted or burnt. Wine, cloth, jewellery, provision and other shops were also looted.
A squadron of high-flying planes, apparently bombers, flew over the harbour and city and disappeared. The army had announced on Thursday that aerial as well as naval and military reinforcements were coming to beleaguered Bombay.
The disturbances began early in the day. Though Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee had advised on Thursday night against a hartal, Communists and other organizations called a total stoppage of work.
Workers of 60 mills came out. They were joined by thousands of men from the G.I.P. and B.B. and C.I. Railway workshops, B.E.S.T. bus drivers and conductors and students. Processions went round all over the city calling upon all people to observe hartal.
All traffic came to a standstill. Attempts were made to prevent the running of trains but these did not succeed.
The morning’s first cases of firing occurred in the Kalbadevi, Bhuleshwar and Girgaum areas, where mobs broke open a number of shops looted them and set fire to furniture. The number of casualties seems to be heavy Over a dozen persons have were removed to hospital with bullet wounds.
In the Fort area there was repeated firing by the police between 11 a.m. and noon when crowds attacked military Lorries and set fire to a post office. Police opened fire nearly twenty times at short intervals.
Shortly before midday British troops were called out in the Fort area following a conference between the Chief Presidency Magistrate and the police authorities and steel-helmeted British troops began patrolling the area.
The tommies fired with a machinegun at a crowd which had smashed the huge plate glass windows of Whiteway Laidlaw, the British owned department store, after having also smashed the windows of National City Bank of New York and thrown a blazing torch through the gaping hole.
The gunfire dispersed the crowd, but only briefly. The bank closed but those in the building could not return to their homes because of the threatening mob. The worst trouble of the day was witnessed on Pherozshhh Mehta Road where a number, of military lorries were attacked, burnt and shops broken open. This is the road that leads to the dockyards. Since the arrival of I the military in this area the situation has been brought under control.
There were repeated firings by police in the Pydhonie and Tamba kanta area at one end of Kalbadevi Road.
Passing trains on G.I.P. lines were stoned near Parel workshop and a number of passengers are reported to have received injuries.
At Prarthana Samaj which was the scene of serious disturbances in connection with the Netaji’ birthday celebrations, a month ago, a police chowkie was set on fire and burnt.
The first- disturbances in the mill area were at 1 p.m. north of Lal Baug when the police fired at a crowd which defied the police and stoned them. The-trouble spread from this area southwards and by 3 p.m. a huge mob numbering about 30.000 collected at Lal Baug and attacked a police picket killing one policeman and injuring two police officers. Police reinforcements which arrived on the scene opened Are a number of times as a result of which several persons were injured.
The mob receded as a result of the firing but again returned to the attack and set Are to a wooden tram shelter, a police van and two military lorries. In the meantime a military patrol arrived and opened fire. Several persons were injured in this firing also. Nearly two hundred and fifty casualties were taken to K.E.M. Hospital where 30 were found dead and 50 in a serious condition.
Attacks were also made by hooligan elements on three branches of the Imperial Bank of India. The branch at Duncan Road was broken into and furniture thrown out into the streets and set on fire. Here the police opened fire to disperse the crowds. Six persons were injured. The other branches attacked were at Abdur Rehman Street and at Sandhurst Road.
Grain Shops Looted
About midday large mobs collected all along the Mohammad Ali Road from its junction with Sir Ibrahim Rahimtulla Road and up to J. J. Hospital. They set fire to two wooden team shelters, stoned the police and military, set on fire a post once and looted a number of grain shops between Bhendi Bazar and J. J. Hospital. The military, after repeated warnings, went into action and fired several rounds.
Simultaneously, another mob attacked a police chowki at Two Tanks and attempted to set fire to it. The police were also heavily stoned. The police opened fire repeatedly, resulting in heavy casualties.
A procession of students in the afternoon was dispersed by the police in the Parel labour area. A police sergeant opened revolver fire twice but no one was injured. Some persons were injured as a result of a lathi charge which preceded the firing.
The disturbances soon spread to the entire city and the streets presented appearance of a battle field with abandoned burnt out military lorries, smashed-up doors and windows, littered all over and ambulances and military lorries rushing to and fro.
Additional police and military reinforcements were summoned and a continual conference was taking place at Police Headquarters between the civil and military authorities and soon platoons of British troops armed with tommy guns and rifles were placed at all strategic points throughout the city.
The headquarters of the Salvation Army situated at Byculla was attacked, set on fire and burnt.
Fire At Worli
Late at night there was a report of a fire at Worli which is outside the curfew area.
The enforcement of curfew did not deter bands of hooligans from breaking open two banks, the Devkaras Nanji Bank at Thakurdwar and the Habib Bank at Javeri Bazar - and looting the cash. Four goldsmiths’ shops in the Javeri Bazar area were also broken open. The miscreants made good their escape before the police arrived.
Armoured cars, bren-gun carriers and army tanks returned to Army H.Q at Colaba round about 1 a.m. after having continually patrolled the disturbed areas for nearly 14 hours.
As evening advanced, mob violence increased in intensity and police and military resorted to repeated firings and also, on one of two occasions, machine-gunning. Firing either by military or by police occurred in widely scattered areas ranging from Crawford Market at the south to Lal Baug and De Lisle Road at Parel and Tilak Bridge at Dadar, a distance of nearly eight to ten miles.
Southern Command ‘Communiqué’
A Press communiqué issued by Joint H.Q., Southern Command at 7 p.m. on Friday says:
“Vice-Admiral Godfrey, Flag Officer Commanding R.I.N., issued the following proclamation by loud hailer to all mutineers on ships: ‘I told you on Thursday that ample forces are avail- ‘ able to restore order. The G.O.C.in-C., Southern Command, has been ordered by C.-in-C. to assume supreme control in Bombay. To show you that ample forces are available he has ordered a formation of R.A.F. aircraft to fly over the harbour. “
‘These aircraft will ,not fly over the ships nor take any offensive action provided there is no action taken against them. Should you now have decided in accordance with my warning to surrender unconditionally, you are to hoist a large black or blue flag and muster all hands on deck on side facing Bombay City and await further orders.’
“There have been no incidents from R.I.N. ships or establishments apart from stone-throwing from H.M.I.S. Talwar and the passing of signals from ships to shore establishments. Thursday’s casualties among the mutineers in Castle Barracks are reported to--be one killed and three injured.
“Serious civil rioting broke out m the city this morning. In several cases troops assisted the civil police in dispersing rioters. In some cases they were forced to open fire. Casualty reports have not yet been received. Some military vehicles have been attacked and burnt. Two merchant navy officers and two army B.O.R.s, have been admitted to hospital as a result of injuries sustained in the civil riots today.
“The 2nd Leicester and Essex Regiments are in the city assisting in restoring order.”
Owing to the tension in the city and the orders of Police Commissioner about assemblies, the public meeting scheduled to take place on Friday evening at Chaupathi over which Sardar Patel-was to preside was cancelled.
Rioting spread through a wide area in downtown Bombay on Thursday night, in sympathy with the R.I.N. revolt. Police fired repeatedly upon civilian crowds. Three trams and three buses were stopped in streets and set on fire after the passengers were forced out. Gas street lights were extinguished in some sections and in the resulting darkness and confusion demonstrators are reported to have looted jewellery shops and restaurants.
Police opened fire near the Metro Cinema, at -Dhobitalao to disperse a violent mob which attacked the Metro Cinema House, and shops situated on the ground floor of the cinema building. As a result of the police firing three persons were injured.
Police opened fire a second time on Thursday in the Kalbadevi Road area, when a mob broke open a Goverament grain shop and looted its contents. Three persons were injured as a result of this firing. Large crowds collected all along Kalbadevi and Girguam roads, scenes of recent disturbances, placed roadblocks, started bonfires and smashed up street lamps and show windows.
Trouble increased as the night advanced. A mob made an attempt ‘to set fire to a wooden police chowki at Madhavbaug tank.
Simultaneously in another Part of the city three British soldiers were attacked by crowds with sticks and stones and they had to be removed to hospital with injuries.
Two more grain shops were broken open and looted. At Ramwadi off Kalbadevi Road, a post office was set on fire.
Earlier there was trouble in the Girguam area when tramcars were stopped, street lights were switched off, showroom glasses broken and a provisions shop near Dhobitalao sacked.
Rowdy elements compelled passengers travelling in tramcars and buses to abandon them and walk the rest of the distance.
Later the civil police drove the waterfront watchers back from points of vantage, where earlier the watchers had cheered each R.I.N. officer and enlisted man who stepped ashore from launches plying from ships to the very foot of the Gateway of India arch.