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Special Content

Issue no 32, 05-11 November 2022

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and National Unity

Dr. Ashwin Parijat Anshu

The emergence of India as a modern nation ready to take its rightful place in the world is a story of men and women who were willing to live their lives, not for the fulfilment of their personal desires - religious or otherwise, but who were willing to embrace the needs of a vast humanity with all the complexity it posed. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the Iron Man of India, was one of the finest representatives of such makers of modern India. He was Gandhi's trusted lieutenant who carried his ideas into action through his leadership qualities, a man of action whose vision of a unified India became the bedrock on which the independent nation emerged and continues to grow.

A Faithful Follower: If Gandhi could present such a powerful challenge to the British hegemony knocking off the conception of the superiority of the Europeans from Indian minds, it was due in no small part, to the backing of such faithful followers like Sardar Patel who responded to his calls like a soldier responding to his general. Referring to his decision to answer Gandhi's call for help to carry out the Kheda Satyagraha of 1918, Sardar Patel recalled in 1938, "When I joined Gandhiji, I collected some firewood, lit a fire and put all considerations of my family, my career, my reputation and everything into the fire. I do not know what would be left of all these except the ashes." To appreciate the significance of this sacrifice of one's worldly dreams, one needs to consider that at that time Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was one of the foremost criminal lawyers in Ahmedabad, widely respected for his sharp mind and sense of honour. At the conclusion of the Kheda Satyagraha, in a speech before peasants, Gandhi acknowledged Vallabhbhai to be his 'deputy commander' and said, "If it were not for his assistance, this campaign could not have been carried through so successfully." Gandhi had given Patel his mission of life, "living with him convinced me that India's salvation lay only in treading the path shown by him."

The Making of a Mass Leader: The years following the withdrawal of the NonCooperation Movement had seen a palpable demoralisation spread among all sections of people and even worse the rise of communal divisions in society. Some were disillusioned with Gandhi's leadership whereas some others found communist and socialist ideologies more appealing. There were divisions emerging within the Congress among the 'pro-changers' and the 'no-changers' and the spectre of a split loomed large. It was in these years that the 'Sardar', the leader of masses with supreme ability to weave a spirit of harmony among all came into his own. In these critical years, Sardar Patel not only sought to prevent the morale of the anti-colonial struggle from flagging but also to prevent divisions strengthening within the Congress and the society at large. The three Satyagraha campaigns in Nagpur (1923), Borsad (1923) and above all Bardoli (1928) not only won important victories for the rights of the peasants and the nationalist public weakening the British hegemony but also sought to include different sections of society into a united struggle against the Raj. Thus in 1922, at the instance of Sardar Patel, the Kathiawad Political Congress called for the eradication of untouchability. Understanding fully well that many traditionalist Patidars would not be very favourable to the cause, he a proud Patidar himself set an example by seating himself in the enclosure designated for the untouchables. An episode in the Bardoli struggle, where Sardar Patel's organisational abilities shone with dazzling brilliance shows how much he cared for HinduMuslim unity. He prevented a group of very agitated Patidars from taking revenge on a Muslim liquor vendor who had attacked a picketing satyagrahi by making them accept a public apology from the guilty vendor which resolved the issue amicably. Earlier too, while supporting Gandhiji's Khilafat agitation in 1920 to express solidarity with Indian Muslim sentiments, he had said: "It has been a heartbreaking episode for the Indian Muslims and how can Hindus stand unaffected when they see their fellow countrymen thus in distress." Patel was not prepared to see Hindus and Muslims drift away from each other. He was much pained by the partition of India which he accepted as an inevitable fact only in the face of Muslim League intransigence, the unworkability of the Cabinet Mission Plan, the prospect of a civil war and the looming threat of the balkanisation of India if a united India had a weakened Centre. In the Constituent Assembly, as Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Minorities and Fundamental Rights, Patel inspired confidence and with skilful manoeuvring, he scotched the subtle move claiming separate representation for Muslims

The Master of Statecraft: Undoubtedly, Patel's greatest contribution that has etched his place in Indian history forever was the integration of around 565 disparate princely states of different shapes and sizes within the Union of India. President Rajendra Prasad, paying tribute to Sardar Patel wrote in 1952: "That there is an India to think and talk about is very largely due to Sardar Patel's statesmanship and firm administration". The former President of India, K.R. Narayanan said in a speech on August 14, 1998: "If Nehru laid the foundations of modern India building up its economic, industrial and scientific infrastructure and trying to forge the emotional unity of India, Sardar Patel transformed India into a Union out of the patchwork quilt of Provinces and Princely States. He could be called the Bismarck of India; who unified the nation not by "blood and iron", but merely by his iron will and astute statecraft."

Winston Churchill, the thorough imperialist that he was, never took kindly to the prospect of a united India, a prospect that seemed very real after Britain was severely weakened as a result of the World War-II. He had confided to Wavell who was a likeminded imperialist his idea of breaking India into Hindustan, Pakistan and a "Princes stan" - a plan to balkanise India into many disparate units and thus to weaken it forever. When Clement Atlee announced on 20th February 1947 that 'His Majesty's Government do not intend to hand over their powers and obligations under paramountcy to any government of British India', rulers of several states claimed that they would become independent from 15 August 1947 when British rule ended! Patel was much alive to the threat posed by the claims of the princely states, and assuming the charge of the newly created States' Department told V.P. Menon that, "the situation held dangerous potentialities and that if we did not handle it promptly and effectively, our hard-earned freedom might disappear through the States' door." Patel's persuasive diplomacy, firmness and astute statecraft ensured that most of the states acceded to India by 15th August 1947. When the Dewan of Travancore, Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, held out the argument that no one could negotiate a merger of the State with India as Travancore was ruled in the name and on behalf of the tutelary deity, Sri Padmanabha, the Sardar snapped with a twinkle in his eye "Is that so? Then please tell me how could Travancore's rulers allow Lord Padmanabha to become subservient to the British Crown?" K.R. Narayanan, recalled in the speech referred to above. In the case of Junagadh and Hyderabad the aspect of the 'lauhpurush' (Iron Man) in Sardar Patel was in full exhibit. He neutralised Pakistan's claim over Jungadh by holding a plebiscite while in Hyderabad, the Indian Army was sent and the Nizam was made to accept Indian accession on 16th September 1948 after all other means had been frustrated by its ruler.

The Creation of All India Services: Many Indian leaders had been apprehensive of wielding of administrative authority by an All-India Civil Service given their experience of the British rule which was practically maintained by the ICS (Indian Civil Service) officers. But Sardar Patel had the foresight to conceive an All India Civil Services endowed with full constitutional protection that would act as the 'Steel Frame of India' as indeed it has proved itself to be subsequently. Asking the Constituent Assembly to look at the All-India Civil Services as an asset rather than a hindrance to the Indian nation he said on 10th October 1949, "The Union will go, you will not have a united India, if you have not a good All-India Service". While addressing the very first batch of the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) on 21st April 1947, Sardar Patel reminded that the former ICS was neither Indian, nor civil nor imbued with any sense of service. As against this he advised the new recruits, "Your predecessors were brought up in the traditions in which they …

John Strachey, a British Civil Servant had said in 1888 that "the first and most important thing to learn about India is that there is not and never was an India". Under the leadership and vision of Sardar Patel, the All India Services ensured that not only India survived the critical years following Independence when faced with formidable challenges but also developed as a modern democratic nation. As the grateful nation celebrates the 147th birth anniversary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel this year (31st October), it honours this great 'Son of the Soil' ever again.

(The author is Assistant Professor, Zakir Husain College, University of Delhi. He can be reached at ashwinparijat@gamil.com)

Views expressed are personal.