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Thursday, 18 February 2021

Madan Singh — The man who led last mutiny against the British

Amarjot Kaur

Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, February 17

The Royal Indian Navy Mutiny commands a special mention among the many valorous revolts of India's freedom movement for it was spearheaded by the ratings of minority communities, with no political backing, who challenged the colonial rule, waged a one-day general strike in Bombay, shot left-handed salutes to British officials and took up cudgels with a leading daily for "negative reporting".

Into its 75th year now, the memoirs of the mutiny unfurl with the words of Annurag Dhillon, daughter of Madan Singh, the feisty rebel, freedom fighter and then petty officer telegraphist of a shore establishment, HMIS Talwar.

In an attempt to recreate the events of February 18, 1946, Dhillon unknowingly paints the portrait of a nationalist, evoking a passionate narrative of India's nationalist movement where religious identities blurred and people of India united to boot out the 'divide and rule' politics of the British.

For one, she mentions, Leading Signalman Lieutenant MS Khan. "My father, a Sikh, was the first choice for the president of the Naval Central Strike Committee (NCSC). But he declined the offer because there were many Muslims in the establishment. It would have made it easier for the British to divide us on religious grounds, he would tell us. So, MS Khan was chosen as the president, my father became the vice-president," recalls Dhillon on the verandah of her house in Sector 16.

"You see, back then, Commander Bailey was replaced by Lieutenant Commander King. He was anti-Indian. One day, while taking a round, he chided the Indians at the establishment and called them 'sons of Indian b*tches'. This language wasn't acceptable to the staff," she narrates.

Her son Zorawar Singh Dhillon joins in. "They wanted to complain against King, but he was the final authority. Left with no option, ultimately BC Dutta was chosen to speak with King. Expectedly, King replied: 'Do you know the consequences about lying to the commander?' King went back on his words and then detained Dutta. That further infuriated them," he says.

Dhillon recounts her father's words as she adds: "The following day, they were served terrible breakfast and most of them walked out of the dining room in disgust. Together, they decided not to fall in. My father stopped the ratings to go to the parade ground at one of the three entrance tunnels. People from Royal Indian Navy Voluntary Reserve came to appease them, but in vain. They didn't talk to them as they were doubtful of their intentions."

In a couple hours, she said, "Commander Rattray held a meeting with them and asked them to choose their leaders so that they can talk to him. That's when the NCSC came into being."

Narrating tales of how they took possession of telephones, cables, ammunition at Butcher Island and wireless office to contacting about 70 ships and other establishments, Dhillon states, "The next day, a call for general strike was given. On the evening of February 18, my father had sent out a press statement regarding the strike by all unions of Bombay. The next day, all papers mentioned the strike, except one, which was against it."

She recalls how Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Indian Muslim League objected to the strike, but the members refused to give in. "However, it was strange that a leading daily had reported negatively. Sir Francis Lyod, who headed the daily, called HMIS Talwar and sent a message to my dad: 'Help us, we are in trouble'. The naval people had lined their guns on the newspaper's building and my father had no idea about it. As he went to meet Sir Francis, he reassured him that they had no intention of hurting anyone. However, he did tell him to report the truth. He said: 'You write what you see, what you hear, and do what you know'."

In retrospect, Dhillon wonders if one could still do that now. "My father also took up journalism. He was reporting for a journal, but resigned because he didn't want to write what the journal's authorities wanted him to. That's the kind of man my father was," she says.

The Madan Singh class of tugboats, a series of service watercraft built by Tebma Shipyard Limited (a subsidiary of Bharati Shipyard Ltd), were launched for Indian Navy in 1999.

My nephew Sebastian Raj Pender, an eminent historian in the UK, who is half British, half Indian, is writing a book on the mutiny," informs Dhillon.

from The Tribune—-the-man-who-led-last-mutiny-against-the-british-214044

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