FOR STUDENTS OF Modern Indian History, Vallabhbhai Patel is a fascinating character who needs to be situated in the context of how the events of early 20th century India played out. As a proxy indicator, a study of photographs of Patel over the decades brings out these changes quite effectively. From an upcoming pleader in a small town in Gujarat, Godhra, to a Westernised barrister in Ahmedabad to a mass leader in the course of a few decades reveals how India itself moved from a colony with no idea that it could ever attain self-government to one where its leaders took on the British and finally to one where the country attempted to gain Poorna Swaraj using the rulers’ own grammar. At the beginning of this period, the Indian National Congress, founded in 1885, used to meet once a year. It was primarily a collection of lawyers and local notables, almost all English educated. After professing undying loyalty to the Crown and gratefulness to the British for ensuring good governance and order, their demands initially focused on increasing the representation of Indians in the services. The first professions that Indians took to, because it did not require studying in England, were to become a Pleader or Registered Indian Medical Practitioner (a non-MBBS doctor). Sardar Patel was a Pleader to begin with, as was Motilal Nehru. Both were very successful Pleaders, showing themselves not to be disadvantaged over barristers, and earned much more fees than many barristers did.
The 1916 Lucknow Congress was a very significant meeting. First, after 10 years, it reconciled the Congress party’s moderates and its extremists, which was a very important development in the emergence of the party as a broad platform that brought together freedom fighters across the ideological spectrum. The extremists who wanted no collaboration with the British and advocated a boycott of British goods joined those who believed in an incremental, constitutional approach and had accordingly contested elections based on restricted franchises to hold offices of no or little consequence. Second, it also marked the beginning of a ten- year alliance of the Congress and Muslim League, which met simultaneously for their annual meetings. The Muslim League was a far less significant organisation of feudals and a few metropolitan elite created in 1906 to show allegiance to the Raj just when the Congress started to champion larger national issues that would ultimately lead it to confront the British. This coming together at Lucknow was a success of the Gokhale line that accepted the futility of confronting the Raj even as it sought to indigenise governance. Two persons who saw Gokhale as their mentor, of whom one saw himself as his natural successor, were present: Gandhi and Jinnah. Interestingly, Sardar Patel was there too.
This coming together had a role to play in the future of India….
WHAT IS FASCINATING is Patel’s role in the Ahmedabad Municipality, first in the Sanitary Committee and then as President of the Municipality. His record establishes his efforts at making use of the limited opportunities available to Indians in elected offices to make life better for people, and especially his use of municipal governance as an instrument that would shape what a city could become in terms of its residents’ quality of life. Patel was not the only national leader who cut his teeth in municipal governance. Subhas Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru were both heads of their respective municipal bodies. Nehru was elected Chairman of the Allahabad Municipality in 1923, serving two years; he was a reluctant candidate, a compromise because Muslims did not accept the first choice, Purushottam Das Tandon. Later, in 1928, Nehru wanted to become President of the Allahabad Municipality but he lost the election by one vote. The President was not elected by direct vote but by the councillors, themselves elected on a very limited franchise. Unlike Nehru, Patel was dedicated to municipality matters over an extended period of time, though coincidentally he became President of the Ahmedabad Municipal Council the same year (1923) that Nehru became Chairman of the Allahabad Municipality, Vithalbhai Patel the head of Bombay Municipal Corporation and CR Das that of Calcutta Municipal Corporation. Similarly, Bose as Mayor of Calcutta, later on, was in the thick of municipal affairs but not for as long as Patel. This exposure to and training in governance, particularly his work with professional civil servants, strengthened Patel’s abilities as an administrator….
WHAT REALLY WENT against India and Patel was the breakout of World War II. If something made Partition and the way it was carried out inevitable, it was arguably this war. The Indian leadership did not know how to react to it. Yes, the English were India’s enemy. Were the Germans any better? The Germans were fascists, but being the enemy’s enemy, or at worst the far enemy, what should India do? Help with recruitment, as in World War I, as the Mahatma did in the hope that a grateful British would reward India post-war? This hope turned out to be a cruel joke. The Rowlatt Act and Jallianwala massacre, which even Gandhi felt was premeditated, were far more significant than the scant progress towards self-government that the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms promised. Rajaji wanted the British to promise a Constituent Assembly at the end of the war. No demand for independence was being made, just a ‘post-dated cheque’, but Linlithgow and Churchill were not willing. Secretary of State Leo Amery got crushed in between, with Churchill instigating the Viceroy not to give in to Amery’s efforts at meeting the Congress half-way….
Patel’s pragmatism arose out of his understanding that the first task was to free India from imperial rule and then to develop it so that people could enjoy Swaraj in the real sense of the term—political and economic freedom
According to British records, during the war years, the numbers of Punjabi Muslims and Pashtuns who were recruited in the Indian army as a percentage of people of those communities in the recruitable age was the highest in the country. This strengthened their economic dependence on the Raj, and convinced the British that the Congress could not hurt the former’s war efforts. Providence in the form of a World War had to happen, and how and where it happened were decisive factors that queered the pitch for the Indian leadership, Patel included, and gave the British and Jinnah that much more bargaining power in the post-war situation.
The Congress leadership must be given credit that after the war, despite the adverse circumstances, they tried their best to keep the country united. People have blamed both Patel and Nehru for the collapse of the Cabinet Mission Plan. The reality is that the Plan was unworkable, with minority groups in the two Muslim-dominated regions hostage to the majority community on federal matters and later on Partition. The Congress leadership’s experience of working with Muslim League ministers in the Interim Government made it wary of giving the League such a decisive role in the Federation that the Plan envisaged. Liaquat Ali Khan made it clear that his only role in the Interim Government was to ensure that Pakistan came about.
The British knew that the Cabinet Mission Plan was unworkable, which was why they proposed it; till the end, they were convinced that in the world that was emerging after the war, even if they could not rule India, they wanted to retain a stake in the subcontinent. Reading their internal discussions, it appears they wanted to be able to control the subcontinent, and the Plan’s end result would have been an extremely weak and unstable federation that would have needed an external referee to keep all three zones in balance. Even at present, there are enough analysts who have not reconciled to the idea of linguistic states, arguing that it has weakened national unity. India would undoubtedly have been a different country had linguistic states not come about, but that is a matter of the counterfactual. Nehru’s and Patel’s opposition to the Cabinet Mission Plan must be seen in the light of prevailing circumstances then. The trauma of the war, long years in jail while India changed, memories of Jinnah’s Direct Action Day and the potential for future violence, war-induced inflation and a general weariness with the political stalemate despite the efforts to maintain the country’s unity all contributed to a desire to get out of the quagmire. These circumstances forced Patel to take the stand that he took—if Partition was the only way out of violence, if it was the only way the two communities could be committed to peace, then it should be accepted provided that Bengal and Punjab, with large non-Muslim minority populations, were partitioned too. In Bengal, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee forced the partition of the province to prevent many non-Muslim dominant districts from becoming part of East Pakistan, which is why Patel was keen to have Mookerjee—and incidentally also Dr Ambedkar—in the Union Government.
With the collapse of the Cabinet Mission Plan and ensuing violence in Punjab, which spread to East Bengal, a section of the Indian leadership including Patel felt that bloodshed had to be stopped. According to them, since the divide between the communities had become dangerously large, it could only be stopped by conceding the demand for Pakistan. It is Patel’s early acceptance of Partition that superficially exposes him to being labelled as communal. The facts are exactly the opposite. Jinnah’s Direct Action Day (August 16, 1946) unleashed a paroxysm of violence that was not limited to Calcutta. He argued that if division of India was the only way to re-establish peace between the communities and end the violence, then the Congress should go ahead with it. The alternative to one division of the country would be many divisions, which had to be prevented.
The post-Partition breakdown in law and order in Delhi and the efforts made to stabilise the situation deserve a detailed study of Patel’s administrative acumen and how he was able to ensure that the civil services performed extraordinarily despite tremendous odds (the best source on this is the correspondence between Nehru and Patel). The threat that riots posed to the social fabric provides an example. Important community leaders were appointed as Special Magistrates. Special Police Officers were appointed to act as eyes and ears and to boost government presence on the streets. Often, potential trouble makers were so appointed to co-opt them in the established order. The Delhi district administration was in the process of appointing Special Police Officers. In this context, Nehru advised the local administration to directly consult local Congress Committees and get the names of people for these appointments. Later he complained to Patel that known badmashes or people with known animosity towards Muslims had been appointed. Patel, already upset that the Prime Minister was directly giving various orders to the Deputy Commissioner (and District Magistrate) of Delhi on law and order though the subject was under the former’s ministerial jurisdiction, reported that out of the 1,304 special police officers appointed, 574 were Delhi Congress nominees. Similarly, there were 19 Delhi Congress nominees out of the 49 special magistrates appointed. He also made it clear that there were no complaints of partisanship against any of the people appointed.
The second instance relates to the use of discriminatory powers by the executive to take preventive action, including detention, without having to go through the judicial processes. In Delhi, The Hindu Outlook (of the Hindu Mahasabha) was banned and six papers had to give bonds of good behaviour under the provisions of the CrPC. In a letter to Patel dated October 11, 1947, Nehru named five persons who had been carrying out mischievous propaganda likely to inflame communal passions. When Patel reported that these persons had been detained, Nehru backtracked and said that he had heard persistent complaints about their activities and had only wanted the director of the Intelligence Bureau to have the matter inquired into. Nehru told Patel that he ‘was not interested in their arrest unless specific reasons for their arrest were placed before you’, throwing the ball back in Patel’s court. Interestingly, Nehru revealed that his source was Indira Gandhi, before whom these persons had criticised the Government. Further, it seemed to Nehru ‘that this kind of open defiance should not be encouraged in any way and they should be warned accordingly’.
Patel had reached out to Nehru to ensure that differences did not come in the way of the government's ability to tackle external aggression and internal strife even as the Constitution was being debated
The third incident that showed Patel as a sound administrator was how he dealt with returnees. A number of Muslims who had left Delhi during the troubles later wanted to come back after the situation stabilised. Nehru wanted to accommodate them up in homogenous clusters, to which Patel objected. According to him, ghettoisation was unwise. Patel did not want them to be accommodated in areas they felt unsafe, but he was aware that in view of heightened communal feelings, ghettoisation would have aggravated tensions and placed these Muslims in a weaker position vis-à-vis their non-Muslim neighbours.
It is actions like this that convinced some that Patel was a communalist, even if a closet one. However, a reading of the Constitution’s Article 14 (guaranteeing equality and prohibiting discrimination based on birth, religion, etcetera) and Article 30 (guaranteeing that educational institutions run by minority groups would not be discriminated against in the grant of financial assistance from the state, even as it guaranteed their functional autonomy) shows otherwise. Liberal democracy is based on individual rights, but Article 30 and the provisions allowing for affirmative action by the state (reservations in jobs and educational institutions) in favour of the socially and educationally backward are negations of the centrality of the individual. The framers of these Articles bravely sought to rectify historical oppression and discrimination, of untouchability and physical distance (in the case of tribal communities). These provisions also reassured the minorities that free India would not discriminate against them. It was Patel who chaired the Advisory Committee on Fundamental Rights, Minorities, Tribal and Excluded Areas that drafted these provisions, while doing away with communal electorates and limiting reservations of seats in legislatures to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes… .
PATEL’S PRAGMATISM AROSE out of his understanding that the first task was to free India from imperial rule and then to develop it so that people could enjoy Swaraj in the real sense of the term—political and economic freedom. In order to attain this, people across social and economic categories must be brought together. He abhorred the threat of class conflict with violence at its core because it would be disastrous for society, and was contextually irrelevant. The blind adoption of a foreign ideology had to be opposed since it would prevent India attaining Swaraj, and had no support amongst the very people whose cause it was supposedly espousing. The use of violence as a defensive act was one thing; as an instrument of conflict within society, it had to be opposed. For India to grow economically, the capitalist class needed an investible surplus. However, it is not as if labour or agriculture would be left to their mercy.
Industrial peace would be ensured not through force, but negotiation and arbitration. Similarly, agriculture needed the support of improved irrigation, better techniques, cheaper loans, etcetera. Patel established a College for Agriculture and Dairy in Anand to facilitate modernisation and raise farm productivity. Again, for rural development, while zamindari abolition was the agreed goal, compensation would be awarded and there would be no seizures of land. His forward-looking approach to the economic betterment of poor farmers was apparent in his organisation of cooperatives of dairy farmers in Kheda to obtain better prices by bypassing middlemen, and his encouragement of pasteurisation. The Amul revolution would not happened but for him. It was this clear-headed thinking that made him see through Jinnah and the Muslim League’s demands as arbiters of India’s fate. His prediction that negotiations with Jinnah would yield no results were prescient. While he emphatically rejected the two-nation theory, arguing that you cannot split the waters of the sea, he agreed to Partition to ‘get rid of the poison’ that had been injected into society, hoping that in the near future it would be undone. A hope that was to be belied.
Patel was the quintessential man of action whose life was focused on securing India’s independence, which he did by strengthening the Congress party across the provinces, taking the organisational burden upon himself. In the process, he allowed others to have the limelight. His role in winning independence and establishing a new governance paradigm is often under-appreciated. His no-nonsense attitude and blunt words have allowed critics to paint Patel as a communalist or pro- capitalist or both. Patel had reached out to Nehru to ensure that these differences did not come in the way of the Government’s ability to tackle external aggression and internal strife even as the Constitution was being debated. For the Sardar, the nation and the cause always came before the person.
(This is an edited excerpt from the book Patel: Political Ideas and Policies (Sage, 284 pages, Rs 895), edited by Shakti Sinha and Himanshu Roy)