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Editorial Articles

Issue no 31, 30 October - 5 November

Sardar Patel The Champion of A United India


S.B. Singh

As India celebrates 'National Unity Day' on October 31, it is an opportune time to revisit the enduring contribution of Sardar Patel in the multi-dimensional task of nation-building post-partition and postindependence. The India we know today as a single geographical entity is the gift of Patel. When we say "from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, India is one," we essentially pay tribute to Patel leading the arduous task of unifying India. If Gandhi lent his leadership to free India from foreign rule, Patel led its unification. Without a united India, we as a nation would have lost the whole meaning of Independence. When the British left India, our leaders faced the task of cobbling up unity in a fragmented geography. The task to integrate 565 big and small princely states was an difficult one, requiring sagacity, firmness, and political skills of a high order. Patel was the man of the moment, and he indeed rose to the occasion. He was a natural choice to be made the first Home Minister of India, which allowed him to bolster India's internal security and build a strong and united India. Patel was also Chairman of two important committees of the Constituent Assembly, viz; the Advisory Committee and the Provincial Constitution Committee. His credentials in leading peasants and crafting the Constitution of India were, thus, well established. It was clear in everyone's mind that integration of princely states could be accomplished only by Patel, because he had earned a reputation for being decisive and dealing with any challenging situation with an "iron hand." It is hard to imagine how the intractable princely states would have been unified as a single nation without a colossal leader like Patel. India was indeed fortunate to have a man cut out for the job, and he performed the job with surgical precision.

Different tasks: Different leaders

The making of a nation is not an individual project. It requires more than one to accomplish the complex task of building a nation on solid foundations. The first task i.e, securing Independence from British rule, was left to Gandhi. He led a powerful non-violent national movement against the British, finally compelling them to grant Independence and leave India to Indians. But then cropped up the issue of uniting the princely states, and Patel handled this with an iron hand. The third task was to build democratic institutions, modern industries, and align India well with the rest of the world through a rational foreign policy, a job for which Nehru was the chosen man.


Once Independence was achieved, the task of nationbuilding had to begin without any delay because the partition had left a deep scar on the country. The princely states, for a variety of reasons, could not be given the choice of remaining separate entities. The existence of princely states had several implications. One, India's geography would become discontinuous interspersed with pockets of small princely states. Two, there was a genuine security concern emanating from these princely states in view of the fact that antiIndia activities could be planned and carried out from these states. Three, the building of crucial infrastructure like railways, road, dams, etc would be difficult with princely states existing as separate entities. With Patel around, this indeed was not going to happen, and either through negotiations and persuasions or, if need be, by force, princely states had to be integrated with India. The details of integration of princely states are narrated in the book " The Story of Integration of Princely States " by V P Menon, secretary to Patel in the then 'States Department' to deal with princely states. 

Congress and the princely states

We must briefly understand both British as well as Congress policy towards princely states. Before 1857, the British were quite hostile towards the princely states. In order to expand the British Empire in India, they ruthlessly annexed princely states or made them sign the infamous Subsidiary Alliance, whereby the princely states would come under the de-facto rule of the British. However, this hostile attitude changed post-1857, and the princely states were made "Subordinate Partners" of the British provided they accepted" British para-mountcy." This paramountcy did not allow the rulers of the princely states to take independent decisions on external matters. However, the British announced lapse of their paramountcy over the princely states under the "Indian Independence Act" on 18th July, 1947. This gave three options to the princely states, one, they could join India, two, they could join Pakistan, and three, they could remain independent. Much before this, Congress had also taken its stand on the issue of princely states. Initially reluctant to fight the cause of the people of princely states, terming it as their internal matter, the Congress reformulated its policy towards the princely states at its Tripuri Session, 1937. The new policy was to end the distinction between British provinces and princely states, and the fight for Independence now onwards meant the fight for the people of princely states also. In other words, only one Independent India was envisaged. In fact, the Quit India movement embraced the cause of princely states unequivocally.


Patel and national unity

Patel had a clear grasp of the situation unfolding after the partition of India. In his drive for a united, single India, he adopted a course of action worthy of a true leader. Once paramountcy ended in July 1947, many of the princely states opted to join India. But there were still many who remained undecided or wanted to remain independent or join Pakistan. Patel had to deploy astuteness and dexterity to resolve this vexatious issue. Being the great negotiator that he was, he personally appealed to the princes to merge with India, convincing them of the accrued advantages. Patel incentivized them with Privy purses to take care of their and their future generation's financial needs. He would invite them to his official residence in Delhi and engage them in a dialogue over lunch and tea. He had only one purpose in his mind: how to secure the unity of India. He was a realist to the hilt. He was modern Kautilya and his honest, ethical way of conducting realistic statecraft was his trademark.


To a great extent, Patel succeeded in making the princes sign the Instrument of Accession to integrate the princely states with India legalistically. As is well known, three states, viz; Junagadh, Hyderabad, and Kashmir, were dilly-dallying on the issue of merger. Kashmir fell under an entirely different situation due to Pakistani invasion. Junagarh hobnobbed with Pakistan and decided to merge with it. Using his iron hand, Patel moved Indian Army into Junagarh, ordered a plebiscite which went in favour of India. He also confronted the conspiring Nizam of Hyderabad who was using his militia to foment communal riots, and Indian troops took control of Hyderabad. A remarkable display of wisdom and willpower by Patel unified India like never before. Contiguous geography was the need of the hour to define every inch of territory as Indian territory, and that task stood completed under Patel's leadership.


Administrative unification of India

Patel was not satisfied only with the geographical unification of India by merging princely states. As a great administrator himself, he overruled Nehru to create the famed All India Services to earn the sobriquet of the "Father of All India services. " Nehru was skeptical of a strong All India Service given his experience of the ICS (Indian Civil Service). But Patel stood his ground and had his way. He created a robust and merit-based cadre of All India Service, which enjoyed constitutional protection. In doing this, he was aiming at administrative unification of India by a common pool of meritorious civil servants serving both the Union as well as State governments. In defense of All India Services, he said, "There is no alternative to this administrative system… The Union will go if you do not have good All India Services… Remove them, and I see only a picture of chaos all over the country." No wonder then that Civil Service Day is celebrated on 21st April to commemorate Patel's address to the civil servants. Despite all its fallacies, the All India Service has performed the task of national integration as envisaged by Patel. It not only looks after law and order but is deeply engaged in running the democratic institutions that perform welfare and developmental tasks in modern India.


The flame of national unity was ignited by Sardar Patel. Heading the Home department and being the first Deputy Prime Minister of India, Patel acquitted himself well in all his actions. To contextualize Patel and his farsightedness, national unity remains the prime goal of the Indian national project. A unified India is what Sardar Patel gifted to us. But it can not be taken for granted. National unity is being challenged by forces of communalism, separatism, and regional parochialism. To take his vision forward, we need to carry his legacy by imbibing the values that guided him. For that, our political and social leaders need to rise above self-interest to build a plural India, which is still a work in progress. A true tribute to Sardar Patel will promote the cause close to his heart... a unified India.   


(S B Singh is an academician and columnist. He can be reached at sb_singh2003@ yahoo.com)

Views expressed are personal Image Courtesy: PIB