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Editorial Articles


volume-30, 26 October-01 November 2019

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel the architect of modern India

Vallabhbhai Jhaverbhai Patel occupies a prominent place among those heroic men and women who worked for India's freedom and helped not only to win it, but also to consolidate it. Although, he came to public life only in his early forties, his thirty-three years of work for the cause of the nation is full of many-splendoured achievements. Along with Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru and some other leaders, he dominated the politics of the country during the crucial thirty years from 1920 to 1950.

He was not only a great leader of the masses, but also a far-seeing statesman and an able administrator who handled with consummate mastery and finesse, the complex problems facing the new Government. In the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, "History will record many things about him in its pages and call him the builder and consolidator of new India..." Vallabhbhai Patel was born on October 31 , 1875 at Nadiad in Kheda district of Gujarat. His parents Jhaverbhai Patel and Ladbai came from peasant background. It is said that his father had in early life enrolled himself in the army of Rani of Jhansi and fought against the British.

Vallabhbhai was the fourth son in a family of five brothers and a sister. He received his early education at Karamsad and then at Petlad, a small town about eleven kilometres away, in a school where English was taught up to the fifth standard. He matriculated from the Nadiad High School. His family could not finance his college education and therefore, he prepared for the District Pleaders' examination for which he had to borrow most of the books. He passed the examination and took up law practice at Godhra, later shifting to Borsad, where he became quite proficient in handling criminal cases.

Like the illustrious American President Abraham Lincoln, Vallabh-bhai Patel was a self-made man who had worked with his father in the fields till he was seventeen.

In 1893, when only 18, he married Jhaverbai. In 1909 at the age of 34, his wife died after an operation in a Bombay hospital. When the news reached him at Borsad, he was in court arguing in a murder case. Totally unruffled, he went on arguing the case. But the news had stunned him. He never married again. Vallabhbhai was keen on going to England and studying for the Bar and saved money for the purpose. He wrote to a travel agency to arrange his passage. The firm addressed its reply to V.J. Patel and, as chance would have it, the letter was delivered to his elder

brother Vithalbhai, who also wanted to go to England but had no money. Vallabhbhai not only let him go but also undertook to support his family during his absence.

Vallabhbhai himself went to England later. He passed his final Bar-at-Law examination with first position and distinction for which he was awarded a cash prize of £50. He returned to India in February 1913 as a full-fledged barrister. On Vallabhbhai's arrival, Sir Basil Scott, the Chief Justice of Bombay, offered him an appointment in the Government Law School which Vallabhbhai declined. He did not want to serve the British Government. Patel specialised in criminal cases and soon had a flourishing practice. At that time, Patel's mode of living and dressing up was like that of a European. He was fond of playing bridge. He decorated his office with up-to-date furniture which, according to Sheth Kasturbhai, a leading businessman of those days, was unique. He was a member of the Gujarat Club, rendezvous of Ahmedabad's fashionable society.

It was in 1917 that Patel first came in contact with Gandhiji, having been impressed by his leadership in the Champaran satyagraha. About this time, Gandhiji became the President of the Gujarat Sabha which held its first Political Conference at Godhra in November. Vallabhbhai was appointed as its Secretary. The same year, he was elected as a member of the Ahmedabad Municipal Board. Later, he became its President. He organised very successful relief operations during floods, drought and epidemics. Vallabhbhai's political career had a modest beginning. The first campaign organized jointly by Gandhiji and Patel was the Kheda satyagraha from March to June, 1918, in which, though the victory was not decisive, the sturdy peasantry of Vallabhbhai's home district learnt the lesson of fearlessness. A year later, when Gandhiji was arrested in April 1919, the people of Nadiad and Kheda soon showed the Government that they were not as weak as they looked.

The non-cooperation movement which Gandhiji launched on August 1, 1920 was a novel experiment in human history. No wonder, opinion even in the nationalist ranks was not united in support of it. Vallabhbhai, however, gave his whole-hearted support to Gandhiji's programme and even before the special session of the Congress was held at Calcutta in September, he used his influence with the provincial leaders at the Gujarat Political Conference in August 1920 to persuade them to commit themselves to Gandhiji's programme and to recommend its adoption by the Congress. Though the movement failed in its political objective, Vallabhbhai's work had a deep impact by changing the climate of opinion in Gujarat, and eliminating from it the influence of old-style moderate politicians.

The non-cooperation movement was a watershed in India's long struggle to achieve freedom. For the first time after 1857, the British again felt their hold over India shaken. However, after the withdrawal of the movement following the Chauri Chaura incident in February 1922 and Gandhiji's arrest in March, the British Government seemed to be as firmly in control as ever.

Then came the Borsad satyagraha of 1923, when Gandhiji was in jail, and later in 1928, on a much more impressive scale, the Bardoli satyagraha. The epic struggle of Bardoli, which constitutes one of the most glorious chapters in the history of India's struggle for freedom, brought out in bold relief the basic traits of Vallabhbhai's personality-an indomitable will and perseverance, a fine sense of strategy and calculation, complete identification with the espoused cause, total disregard of sentimentalism, an iron discipline imposed upon himself and those working with him and selflessness to the point of self-denial. Bardoli, in fact, was a unique personal triumph for Vallabhbhai. It was in acknowledgment of the efficiency with which he conducted the movement that he was acclaimed as the 'Sardar'-the leader, a title by which he came to be known to the nation ever since.

The Dandi March, in 1930, electrified the people with a new self-confidence. Hundreds of young soldiers of Gandhiji's non-violent movement braved police assaults as they raided the Government salt depots at Dharasana and demonstrated a type of courage and self- restraint which the world had never seen before. Prominent women of Gujarat organised picketing of foreign cloth shops and liquor booths and, by their disciplined strength, brought about a change in women's status which even a century of reform movement had failed to achieve. The achievement was largely Vallabhbhai's.

Even before he entered politics, Vallabhbhai had become known for his sturdy independence both as a lawyer and a city father. He had humbled two arrogant British civilians and a British engineer foisted on the municipality by the British authorities and had obliged all three to leave. During the non-cooperation movement, Vallabhbhai had persuaded the Municipal Council with the support of the teachers, to make the primary schools independent of government control. After Gandhiji's arrest in March 1922, Vallabhbhai remained a firm' no-changer' in the controversy over the formation of the Swaraj Party, led by C.R. Das and Motilal Nehru. He demonstrated the effectiveness of direct action, by taking up the leadership of the Flag satyagraha in Nagpur in July 1923, and organising the people of the Borsad taluka in the Kheda district to resist payment of an unjust punitive tax imposed on the taluka by the British Government. Re-entering the municipality in 1924, Vallabhbhai became the President of the Council, and during his four years in this office set an example of rectitude and efficiency which won the admiration even of his critics. During the unprecedented Gujarat floods of July 1927, the Sardar was on his feet from the very first night of the deluge and worked tirelessly week after week. Gandhiji was then in Bangalore, but Vallabhbhai and his band of workers had already learnt the art of disciplined service and did their work so well that even Lord Irwin, during his visit to Gujarat in December, publicly acknowledged the superb efficiency of the relief operations organised by the Gujarat Congress.

When Civil Disobedience Movement came, Sardar Patel was among the first national leaders to be arrested. That was on March 7, 1930, a few days before the Dandi March commenced. But whether in jail or out of it, he received unstinted co-operation from the volunteers who had responded to his call, and they made a complete success of Gandhiji's programme of defiance of salt laws and boycott of foreign cloth.

Gujarat's massive contribution to the national movement was gratefully recognised by the nation when Sardar was made President of the Congress which met at Karachi in the last week of March 1931 to consider and approve the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. It was an extremely difficult situation for any Congress President to handle, for the execution a few days earlier of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru, had enraged the nation beyond measure and ratification by the Congress of the Gandhi-Irwin agreement seemed almost an impossibility. But Vallabhbhai softened the opposition by himself condemning the execution as "heartless" and promising resumption of the struggle after six months, if the parleys at the Round Table Conference failed. They did and Gandhiji returned empty-handed. The Government had made advance preparations to crush the Civil Disobedience Movement, and within a week of Gandhiji's landing in Bombay, all the leaders were arrested. This time Vallabhbhai was lodged in Yeravda jail with Gandhiji. Their days together in jail from March 1932 to April 1933 have been delightfully chronicled by Mahadev Desai who joined them later. He has described Vallabhbhai's mother-like concern for Gandhiji's comfort and his infectious humour about which Gandhiji remarked,"I have in my little camp of four a special privileged jester in Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. He succeeds in bending me almost double with laughter over his unexpected sallies. Gloom hides her fiendish face in his presence. No disappointment, however great, can make him gloomy for long. And he will not let me be serious for two consecutive minutes. He will not spare even my saintliness." Gandhiji, after release from jail, spoke of the tender feelings of Sardar Patel. In his words, ..."I was well aware of his matchless bravery but... I never knew him to possess motherly qualities. If the slightest thing happened to me, he would be out of his bed. He superintended every detail in connection with my comforts."

The Sardar's loyalty and affection did not, however, stand in the way of his disagreeing with the Mahatma when occasion demanded. For example, Vallabhbhai insisted on getting back the Gujarat Vidyapith library which, with Gandhiji's consent, had been handed over to the Ahmedabad Municipality while Vallabhbhai was in jail. Vallabhbhai had come to the aid of the Vidyapith when it was in financial difficulties during the twenties and had collected for it as much as ten lakh rupees. The Vidyapith had all along been rendering invaluable national service by producing alumni, qualified and willing to do work in the villages. When after the withdrawal of the Civil Disobedience  Movement in 1934 the Vidyapith was revived, Vallabhbhai was made its Vice- Chancellor and later, after Gandhiji's death, Chancellor.

The collection of books which Vallabhbhai thus saved in 1934 have now become one of the biggest libraries in Ahmedabad and Gujarat Vidyapith continues to supply well-trained village workers. Sardar Patel was among the front-rank leaders who appreciated Gandhiji's intention of resigning from the Congress in 1934, to devote himself to the revival of village industries, and rendered all possible assistance to the new programme. When the Congress decided to contest the elections to the Central Legislative Assembly in November 1934, the main burden of the election campaign fell on Vallabhbhai and, though he himself had never been a whole-hearted supporter of the parliamentary programme, he became, since then more and more involved in parliamentary activities. Later, as Chairman of the Parliamentary Board, Vallabhbhai was overall in charge of the Congress election campaigns both in 1937 and 1946. He established an efficient machinery not only for winning the elections but also for co-ordinating the work of the ministries and ensuring that they faithfully carried out Congress' policies and worked under the direction of the national organisation.

The Sardar's work during this early phase of the parliamentary programme was of inestimable value in creating an all-India framework for the functioning of provincial ministries and thereby preparing the ground for the evolution in post-independence India of a truly national political outlook. Another sensitive problem which required most careful handling was, that of the freedom struggle in the Indian states. With the winds of change blowing in British India, the subjects of the princely states were getting restive and beginning to organise themselves for civil and political rights. The Congress policy, laid down at Gandhiji's instance, had been one of avoiding direct interference in the affairs of the states and till then Gandhiji had even discouraged satyagraha in the states. This policy had the support of Vallabhbhai. They both knew that once the protection of the British Government ended, the Indian princes would not be able to resist the demands of their subjects, and they also felt that the princes would be patriotic enough to co-operate with the leaders of British India as soon as they were free to do so. But when Congress ministries started functioning in the provinces, the atmosphere in the country changed and the political organisations in Indian states began to demand affiliation with the National Congress and its support in their struggle against their rulers. At the Haripura Congress Session in February 1938, the Congress agreed to recognise organisations of the states' subjects and guide their movements. At the Tripuri Congress Session in March 1939, the policy was further revised and the struggle of the states' subjects was made part and parcel of the national struggle for freedom. The Sardar had all the time been in close contact with the leaders of the states' subjects in Gujarat and now began to take more active interest in guiding them. He presided over the conferences of the Prajamandals of Baroda and Bhavnagar states and entered into negotiations with the Rajkot ruler on behalf of the states' subjects. The struggle in Rajkot became an all-India issue and brought Gandhiji too on the scene. With the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, the national struggle entered its last phase and the Muslim League's demand for Pakistan added to it a dimension which was a challenge even for the phenomenal moral influence of the Mahatma. The events took such a turn and communal unrest reached such proportions that the majority of the national leaders became convinced that the choice was between partition, as demanded by the Muslim league, and anarchy in the country. Vallabhbhai had all along opposed the demand for Pakistan, but he also accepted the Mountbatten plan for partition in the prevailing circumstances. Accordingly, the Congress Working Committee took the fateful decision to accept it. The 'finest hour' in the life of Sardar Patel came when, as the first Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, he had to deal with the incorporation of over 560 princely states in the Indian Union. Lord Mountbatten, who had frequently discussed this subject with him, had written, "We were, ofcourse, particularly closely associated in dealing with the future of the 565 princely states. My instructions from the British Government were to hand back paramountcy to all the rulers on the transfer of power to British India. This would then in theory, have created 565 entirely independent sovereign states within the borders of the Indian subcontinent... There is no doubt that the high-minded statesmanship which Vallabhbhai Patel displayed throughout these very difficult negotiations made it possible to find a solution."

All the princes had entered into agreements with the paramount power and all were jealous of their rights and privileges. To persuade such a motley crowd to come to terms with the new India was a Herculean task. Sardar Patel appealed to their sense of patriotism and said, "We are at a momentous stage in the history of India. By common endeavour, we can raise the country to a new greatness while lack of unity will expose us to fresh calamities. I hope the Indian states will bear in mind that the alternative to co-operation in the general interest is anarchy and chaos which will overwhelm great and small in a common ruin if we are unable to act together in the minimum of common tasks."

On October 15, 1950 Sardar Patel died of cardiac arrest in Mumbai. The grateful nation conferred upon him the honour of Bharat Ratna in 1991. U.N. Dhebar, renowned freedom fighter in a commemorative lecture on Sardar Patel on September 5, 1975 said, "His contribution is often times compared to that of Bismarck of Germany. If one goes, however, into the history of Germany as related by H.G. Wells, one would understand the great difference between the two. First, the integration of states, that took place in India was on a much vast scale. Secondly, it had to be worked out in much greater depth in India. Thirdly, there was a qualitative difference in the process adopted in the two countries... What was achieved in the brief span of two or three years and what we have inherited is something which everyone can be proud of-a united country under a single constitution, under a single parliamentary forum elected on the basis of adult suffrage, a united economic framework and a united army...." Once when a seasoned worker was facing some domestic problem and wanted to retire, the Sardar said, 'When I joined Gandhiji, I collected some firewood, lit a fire, put all considerations of my family, my career, my reputation and everything in the fire. I do not know what would be left of all these except the ashes.' True to his words, when he died, his personal clothing was his only belonging. Paying tributes to Sardar Patel, the Manchester Guardian wrote, 'Patel was not only the organiser of the fight for freedom but also the architect of the new State when the fight was over. The same man is seldom successful as a rebel and a statesman. Sardar Patel was the exception'.

Excerpts from the book ‘Sardar Patel: A Pictorial Biography’ published by the Publications Division

The book can be purchased @ Rs. 200/- from publications division.nic.in or amazon.in