By a strange coincidence, the birth anniversary of Sardar Patel, the ‘Iron Man’ of India, coincides with the martyrdom day of the ‘Iron Lady’ and ‘Woman of the Millennium’ Indira Gandhi. On this day, the Prime Minister unveiled the 182-meter-tall statue of Vallabhbhai Patel on the banks of Narmada, near Vadodara district of Gujarat, a state known all over the world as the birth place of Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of truth and nonviolence. Ideally, and ethically, it is Gandhiji’s statue that would have been a better tribute to Sardar Patel who was amongst the most devoted followers of the Mahatma.
Now that the tallest statue in the world is a ground reality and likely to become a popular tourism spot, what will it symbolise to the present and future generations? Of all the images of India’s first Deputy Prime Minister, and Home Minister, the one that stands out, and will continue to do so, is his unforgettable contribution in integrating 562 princely states into an newly independent India. Former Prime Minister Morarji Desai wrote in 1985: “He was called upon to tackle the most intricate and baffling problem of the states’ integration into the Union of India. And it is here that his tact, his powers of persuasion and statesmanship came into full play.”
Patel’s task was however made easier by two other factors: Jawaharlal Nehru, before becoming Prime Minister, had threatened the princes that he will launch public agitations in their states if they don’t accede to India. The last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, had laid the groundwork for Patel before the latter was sworn into Nehru’s cabinet. Mountbatten regularly met the princes and used all his charm and force of his personality to persuade the princes to give up their kingdoms. An ailing Sardar Patel, in June, 1948, had the magnanimity to acknowledge this when Mountbatten came to bid him farewell before leaving India. This is recorded by the authors of the Freedom at Midnight when they interviewed Mountbatten, a quarter of a century after Independence. In his interview, Mountbatten quotes the Sardar telling him affectionately: “I don’t think you realise that but for you, we’d never have got a solution. We would have had bloodshed and trouble and we’d probably still be stuck under British rule. I don’t think enough has been done to recognise it.”
On July 11, 1928, the elder Nehru wrote to the Mahatma: “I am quite clear that the hero of the hour is Vallabhbhai and the least we can do is to offer him the crown.” Rejecting the suggestion, Gandhiji instead chose Motilal Nehru himself as the president for the second time. He had earlier presided over the 1919 Amritsar session of the Congress held after the infamous Jalianwala Massacre. Rajmohan Gandhi, in his biography of Patel, writes: “If Vallabhbhai was the hero of 1928, and Jawaharlal and Subhas were attracting the youth, Motilal had earned the acclaim for his attempt to draft a constitution for India acceptable to all parties and communities.”
Lahore (1929) and Karachi (1931) are perhaps the two most important landmark sessions of the Congress before the Quit India Movement. It was here that Mahatma Gandhi chose his two ablest lieutenants to preside. Forty-year-old Jawaharlal Nehru, with his magnetic appeal amongst the youth, was nominated by Gandhi for the Lahore session of INC where for the first time, the call was given for Poorna Swaraj (complete independence). Sardar Patel, now 56, was chosen by his mentor to preside over the Karachi Session where not only the Gandhi–Irwin Pact was ratified, but the resolution on Fundamental Rights drafted by Jawaharlal Nehru was adopted. Many of the points in the resolution were later incorporated in the Constitution of free India. To the impatient youth of India, some of whom had shown him and Gandhiji black flags for the latter’s alleged inability to stop the execution of Bhagat Singh, the Sardar uttered these words in his concluding address: “Gandhiji is now almost 63 years old. I am 56. Should we, the old, be anxious for Independence or you, the young! We are interested in seeing India free before we die. We are far more in a hurry than you.”
The question of India’s prime ministership was settled by Mahatma Gandhi many years before Independence, and more than once. On January 25, 1942, months before the Quit India Movement, Gandhiji declared: “…I have said for some years and say now that not Rajaji, not Sardar Patel but Jawaharlal Nehru will be my successor.” Yet, 71 years after Independence, and 68 years after Patel’s death, vested interests keep quipping that it was unfair that Patel was not chosen as the Prime Minister. They forget even if he had become, it would have been a short lived tenure of three years and, in his failing health, he might not have done full justice to his heavy responsibilities. Nobody more than Gandhiji and Patel himself were aware of this reality. As Rajmohan Gandhi, in his extremely absorbing book The Good Boatman, has written: “… the India of Gandhi, Patel and Nehru was different from the India that today debates the question of Nehru versus Patel. Its sentiments and moods were different. In ‘nominating’ Jawaharlal, Gandhi did not override public opinion - for representing and uniting Indians of all ages, classes and religions, Jawaharlal seemed more suitable than Vallabhbhai.”
There were, no doubt, differences between Nehru and Patel on various problems, both before and after Independence, but these were much less than the major issues on which they thought alike. For example, Patel supported Nehru on special status for Kashmir and on the Nehru-Liaqat Accord for which the Deputy Prime Minister spent six days in Calcutta, appealing to the people of West Bengal to support Jawaharlal Nehru.
Earlier, on the eve of Independence, the Prime Minister in–waiting, Nehru, had invited Patel to join his cabinet stressing the fact that the Sardar was ‘its strongest pillar’. Patel wrote back: “My services will be at your disposal, I hope for the rest of my life, and you will have unquestioned loyalty and devotion from me in the cause for which no man in India has sacrificed as much as you have done. Our combination is unbreakable and therein lies our strength.”
It is this combination that certain vested interests are trying to portray as untrue for their selfish political ends. The Sardar statue may serve the purpose of putting an end to such mischief as true historical facts cannot be hidden for long. Thanks to the Sangh Parivar’s obsession with Sardar Patel, the young generations have come to know, which they may have never known, that it was the ‘Iron Man’ of India who put the entire RSS in jail for their suspected role in Gandhi’s murder, and castigated them for distributing sweets after his assassination. He released them only after they gave a written assurance that they will refrain from political activities and adhere to nonviolence. The great Sardar died on Dec 1950, and, within a year, the RSS announced the formation of its political wing, the Bhartiya Jan Sangh. More than anything else, the tallest statue in the world will remind us of this broken promise.
[The writer, an ex-Army officer, is a former member, National Commission for Minorities, and a political activist promoting secular unity. The above article is published by National Herald.]
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