Remembering the Iron Man of India
On January 27, 1947, Time magazine featured the 72-year old veteran Congress leader Vallabhbhai Patel on its cover page. The comprehensive story on the socio-political dimensions of Patel’s life led to speculation that the “Sardar of Bardoli” would take over as the first Prime Minister of Independent India. The title of “Sardar of Bardoli” was given to him by Mahatma Gandhi for successfully championing the cause of the peasants in Gujarat against the anti-farmer policies of the British Raj. However, there were other plans in store for him. Sardar Patel, according to certain commentators, was the finest potential Prime Minister that India was not destined to have. Apparently, Mahatma Gandhi had made up his mind to anoint Jawaharlal Nehru for the coveted role. Otherwise, he would not have asked Patel to withdraw in favour of Nehru for the post of Congress President at a time when the British were preparing to leave India.
Many historians believe that the “Iron Man of India”, whose “steely determination and pragmatism” consolidated the Indian Union, deserved better treatment from the successive Congress governments in commemorating his birth anniversary. Even India’s first President Dr Rajendra Prasad at one stage said, “No attempt has been made in Delhi to erect a memorial. Even the portrait in the Parliament House is the gift from the Prince of Gwalior. Let us not, therefore, run away with the thought that Sardar Patel’s contributions were any less valuable because we choose not to recognise them.” Patel was awarded the Bharat Ratna (highest civilian honour) in 1991, 41 years after his death, by the then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.
Today a grateful nation is commemorating Sardar Patel’s 140th birth anniversary as the National Unity Day, introduced for the first time by the current BJP-led NDA government in 2014. The nation will officially commemorate the “Iron Man of India” on his birthday, October 31. “India will forever be indebted to Sardar Patel for his tireless efforts to unite the nation,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In a befitting tribute to Sardar Patel, the Gujarat government has decided to erect a 182-metres (597 feet) high Statue of Unity monument dedicated to Sardar Patel near Vadodara in Gujarat. The Statue of Unity Movement organised a marathon entitled “Run for Unity” in which millions of people participated at several places across India.
Sardar Patel, according to his contemporary historians, was a man of strong convictions with high moral character. His wife Jhaverba died of cancer in 1909 when he was just 34. Instead of opting for a second marriage, Patel left his daughter Maniben Patel and son Dahyabhai Patel under the care of his family members and left for England to study law. Patel soon returned as a barrister finishing a three-year degree course in 30 just months.
Sardar Patel returned to India as a highly westernized barrister and a keen bridge player. He soon set up a flourishing legal practice in Ahmedabad. But his first meeting with Mahatma Gandhi, a chance encounter at the Gujarat Club in Ahmedabad in 1915, changed Patel’s life forever. Within a year, the three-piece suit loving stylish barrister turned into a Khadi Dhoti-Kurta clad freedom fighter. Patel became the mayor of Ahmedabad in 1927 where his extraordinary skill as an administrator was on display during the Gujarat floods. He initiated an unprecedented fund-raising drive for the flood victims. Patel soon established himself as the Congress Party’s chief organiser. He handled party funds with great probity.
Sardar Patel successfully demonstrated his organising skills during Gandhi’s Bardoli Satyagraha (1928) and the Dandi March (1930). Patel was at his persuasive best when he spoke at the Gowalia Tank ground (now called August Kranti Maidan) in Mumbai to launch the nation-wide civil disobedience movement in 1942 at the behest of Mahatma Gandhi. Patel also guided the cooperative movements in Gujarat and was instrumental in the setting up of the Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union. Suffice to say, the Kaira Union proved to be a game changer for dairy farming throughout the country.
Patel came to be known as the “muscle man” of Mahatma Gandhi and a genuine grassroots leader with mass appeal. The Sardar was also an exceptional scholar and a prominent member of the Constituent Assembly. Several provisions of the Constitution, especially those related to the Fundamental Rights, carried his stamp of approval. It was at Sardar Patel’s insistence that Mahatma Gandhi persuaded a reluctant Nehru to induct stalwarts like Dr B. R. Ambedkar and Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee into the Union Cabinet. Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who later formed Bharatiya Jana Sangh, described Sardar Patel as “the most valiant champion of India’s freedom and the strongest unifying force in our national life.” According to Dr Mookerjee, Sardar Patel was “a rare combination of idealism and realism, of strength and generosity which made him a leader and a statesman who had no equal.”
As the Union Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Patel emerged as a statesman of integrity with practical acumen and resolve to accomplish the monumental task of integrating 565 princely states into the Independent Indian Republic. Patel is also affectionately remembered as the “patron saint of India’s civil servants” for having established the modern unified Indian Administrative Service and other all India services. On the issue of Jammu & Kashmir, Sardar Patel was unequivocal in declaring: “I should like to make one thing clear, that we shall not surrender an inch of Kashmir territory to anybody.”
Sardar Patel was perceived as the real boss of the Congress and a disciplinarian. When dissidence erupted against the then Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Pt. Govind Ballabh Pant, it was Sardar Patel who took upon himself the arduous task of handling this unfortunate development. Patel convened a meeting of the Congress Legislature Party in the Vidhan Sabha hall in Lucknow and asked for all the exit points to be thrown wide open. In his commanding tone, Patel said, “Those who want to leave are free to go. I say those who want to leave are free to go”. There was pin-drop silence and no one moved from their seats. Patel then asked for all the doors to be shut and gave his fellow Congress legislators a dressing down for plotting dissidence against a great freedom fighter and a dedicated Congressman like Pt. Pant. That was Sardar Patel’s style of tackling internal party dissidence.
Historians believe that one of Patel’s key achievements was the building of cohesion and trust amongst the different castes and communities that were divided on socio-economic lines. Sardar Patel played a pivotal role in the reconstruction of the ancient Somnath Temple in Saurashtra through a public trust. But on the Ram Mandir-Babri Masjid issue, Patel wrote to UP Chief Minister Govind Ballabh Pant in 1949, “I feel that the issue is one which should be resolved amicably in a spirit of mutual toleration and goodwill between the two communities. Such matters can only be resolved peacefully if we take the willing consent of the Muslim community with us. There can be no question of resolving such disputes by force.”
Very little is known about Sardar Patel’s role in the growth and consolidation of the press after Independence. As the first Information and Broadcasting Minister in the Nehru cabinet, Sardar Patel played a pivotal role in negotiating an agreement between the British transnational news agency Reuters and the Press Trust of India (PTI) for the free supply of international news to various Indian newspapers. Eventually, when the terms were accepted by Reuters and an agreement was announced on September 21, 1948, PTI had to quickly raise funds to buy the British new agency’s shares. PTI issued 10,000 debentures of Rs. 100 each and Sardar Patel helped by persuading the ruler of Baroda to buy a large portion of the debentures. That was how PTI remitted the money and became a partner of Reuters. Sardar Patel did not live long after Independence to shape India further.
In the event of his demise, even erstwhile rulers of the princely states that Patel merged into the Indian Union paid their respectful homage to the great son of India. In a departure from the British service rules, members of the I.C.S and the I.A.S assembled in the capital and passed a condolence resolution, paying glowing and affectionate tributes to the man who launched the unified All India Services.
(Ashok Tandon is a senior journalist and a part-time member of the Prasar Bharati Board. Views expressed are strictly personal)