Nehru Vs Patel: An Open Debate

Vallabhbhai Patel: Iron in the Soul

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The unifier of India deserves better from his country

In SEPTEMBER 1949, Vallabhbhai Patel faced what was probably the last big challenge to unifying India. Just two years after signing an Act of Accession, the king of Manipur began displaying unease at the possibility of fuller integration with India. His dream of independence gathered steam when a new Dewan, or chief minister, was appointed. The first noise of the ‘Indian danger’ came from the newly elected state Assembly, which was packed with legislators of the Praja Shanti, the ‘king’s party’. Sri Prakasa, the Governor of Assam who doubled as the pointman for the state, was a man with a strong reservoir of resolve. But in dealing with King Bodhchandra Singh, he displayed the grace for which Congressmen of that age were well known. Suddenly, he seemed to be at a loss in dealing with the obdurate king. In September, he travelled to Bombay to meet the ailing Patel. The latter had just one question: was there no brigadier in Shillong? In exactly a month, the ruler had signed his kingdom over. Just over a year later, Patel died.

At that point in Independent India’s history, actions such as that orchestrated by Patel in Manipur went under the rubric of nation building. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had one to his sole credit as well: the liberation of Goa in 1961. It is unlikely that such achievements will secure the approval of Indian intellectuals today, let alone be celebrated. If anything, they would attract sustained opprobrium, as revealed by the case of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), in which Nehru and Patel played an equal role. But there’s a difference: while Nehru’s legacy is defended with gusto, Patel has been portrayed with equal vigour as a villain.

Something similar happened on February 7th. In his reply to a motion of thanks to the President’s address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in the Lok Sabha that, “Had Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel been the first Prime Minister, a part of Kashmir would not have been under the control of Pakistan.” In the days since that statement, a volley of protests, contestations about his record on Kashmir, and the de rigueur denunciation of Patel has followed.

Take the case of Kashmir. Some observers claim that had Patel’s schemes been allowed, not just a part of Kashmir but the entire state would have been lost to Pakistan. Much of this interpretation rests on reading letters and other records of that time. A case in point is the Indian offer of November 1st, 1947, to Pakistan. Lord Mountbatten was Governor General of India at the time, and, more importantly, also chairman of the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC), the forerunner of the present-day Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). It was a strange arrangement: Mountbatten was not an Indian citizen and was yet in charge of the top defence decision- making body of that time. He was in that position on the agreement of the Union Cabinet, which included both Nehru and Patel.

The offer that Mountbatten made in Lahore to Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan was ‘drafted out in the aeroplane’ and was ‘a formula which I had not yet shown to my Government but to which I thought they might agree’, in his words. Under this formula, the Governor General proposed a plebiscite in Kashmir. Jinnah first said a plebiscite was redundant and that states should go according to their majority population. His idea was simple: give Kashmir to Pakistan and take Junagadh—then under dispute—for India. When Mountbatten insisted on a plebiscite to ascertain the wishes of the people of the two states, Jinnah refused that on the ground that ‘he could not accept a formula if it was so drafted as to include Hyderabad…’

That was the end of any peaceful resolution of these disputes. In the end, India got Hyderabad, Junagadh and a large part of Kashmir. There is no evidence that Mountbatten’s ‘aeroplane drafted formula’ was rejected by either Nehru or Patel. And yet, Patel is blamed for trying to hand over Kashmir to Pakistan for ‘communal reasons’—that is, the argument that a Muslim-dominated state should rightly go to Pakistan. The basis on which such claims are made rests on memoirs of third persons and, more dubiously, hearsay. It is a sad end-state for a man who did so much to unify India from Manipur to Junagadh and from Kashmir to Hyderabad.

Patel died in 1950 and Nehru in 1964. All other participants in the events of those years, too, have died. A series of intimate debates, discussions and disagreements have gone with them. What is left behind is a mass of papers that has been used to interpret what these founders of modern India did and the reasons for their actions. It is among those papers that ideological battles were fought once. In the past decade or so, commentators have replaced historians; the newspaper column has replaced the scholarly monograph. The result is heightened shrillness of the debate over the same points again and again, something that has increased in frequency as Patel and Nehru get appropriated by formations at the two ends of India’s polarised political space. There is virtually no new study that compares the two from a historical and political perspective.

One interesting study that offers some insight based on modern political theory is the essay Nehru’s Judgement by a Nehruphile, Sunil Khilnani (the tract is part of the volume, Political Judgement: Essays for John Dunn edited by Richard Bourke and Raymond Geuss, 2009). In this, Khilnani lists three types of leaders who were to be found in the India of that time. Those endowed with ‘ethical certainty’— the exemplar being Mahatma Gandhi. Then comes the group impressed with ‘theoretical absolutism’. The examples are Subhas Chandra Bose and Communist leaders. Finally, there are the ‘pure politicians’, men who, according to Khilnani ,‘set themselves definite political goals, who wielded impressive forensic skills and analytic powers, and who are extraordinarily effective in using political means to achieve their ends’. Patel and Muhammah Ali Jinnah fall in this class. Nehru has been kept apart from this classification. Khilnani describes him as a man torn between the life of an active politician and that of a person seeking detachment and self-reflection, a modern philosopher king as it were.

Most commentators on Nehru and Patel have followed one or the other debased version of a Khilnani-type schema. Nehru is the moderniser, Patel the arch-reactionary; Nehru is defined by his ‘Idea of India’, Patel mostly by silence; Nehru wrote books outlining his vision, Patel wrote letters inked in bureaucratese. Finally, Nehru left a set of new institutions—the Election Commission and Planning Commission—even as he strengthened parliamentary democracy, while Patel died in 1950 before a single brick had been laid for the ‘temples of new India’. Liberal India has, down to the last believer in the Nehruvian ideology, imbibed these binaries as normal extensions of what the two men stood for.

Patel is often blamed for trying to hand over Kashmir to Pakistan for ‘communal reasons’. It is a sad epilogue for a man who did so much to unify India from Manipur to Junagadh and from Kashmir to Hyderabad

All that works well for polemical purposes. But there’s another way to look at the differing ideas of the two, one that takes political priors into account. What comes first, democracy or the nation- state? Nehru’s answer—and manifold contradictions have accompanied it since then—is that both are coeval. His heirs, India’s liberal intellectual class, have inverted the order of priority somewhat: without democracy the nation will not survive. On an intellectual plane, Patel’s answer, one that can only be gleaned indirectly through his letters, speeches and memoranda, would have been the opposite: nation first, the form of rule later. This is an extreme interpretation, of course, one that is meant to highlight differences. In reality, the entire nationalist leadership had agreed to democracy.

These differences, while they go a long way in explaining liberal political desires, also highlight the crisis, if not the slow trainwreck, of the Nehruvian vision. The democracy that Nehru led was a liberal one, based on individual dignity but with a tinge of protection for group identity, especially that of Muslims. Over time, this formulation has been inverted almost totally: the spectrum of group identities now encompasses virtually all minority religions and a very virulent championing of caste identities. The primacy of identity over individual dignity now threatens to render the issue of political priors irrelevant: the kind of identity-based politics described above leaves the idea, or even the need, of an Indian nation uncertain. Some contemporary examples in Indian politics illustrate this.

- Some members of the Congress openly espouse the creation of a ‘grey zone’ between full integration and secession in Kashmir.

- Various regionalisms that are now virtually sub-nationalisms and are trying experiments that range from politicising issues like state flags to forging new identities over existing ones that have been accepted for long.

- In Punjab, the lesson that had been learnt after a decade of terrorism was that no political party should pander to separatist sentiment. But that is exactly what Arvind Kejriwal—an erstwhile liberal hero—did when he stayed at the home of a known separatist during the last election campaign there.

The list of these examples can be extended. The political distance travelled from 1947 can be gauged by the fact that the mere mention of the expressions ‘Hindu’ and ‘majority’ immediately results in a volley of protests from liberal intellectuals and is held as a threat to India as a nation-state. It does not require great imagination to see that there is no need to ‘resurrect’ Patel; he is simply there as the end-product of the withering of the Nehruvian system.

The other issue in the Nehru-Patel controversy is the alleged inconsistency in what these leaders said at different times and the uses to which their statements have been put. The process of India’s partition was as messy as it was complex; 190 years of British rule were being undone in a matter of months. Anyone poring over the archives from that period will find it hard to keep up with the twists and turns of events. It would be a rare leader who could keep from contradicting himself for the simple reason that events could not be anticipated; they could only be reacted to. The reactions changed as the events changed.

What ought to concern unbiased historians are the ideological uses to which these inconsistencies have been put. These are not failures of Nehru and Patel, but of the small men who interpret history. One, admittedly selective, example is in order. It is about of Patel’s ‘animus’ towards Sheikh Abdullah and greed for Kashmiri territory. One commentator has made much of selectively reading the letter of July 3rd, 1947, to Ram Chandra Kak, the prime minister of Kashmir then. There, Patel tries to force the hand of Kashmir’s government to accede to India as it has ‘no other choice’. That is where the selective reading ends. What is ignored is the very next paragraph where Patel urges the release of Abdullah—who was in jail at that time—in the larger interest of the state.

It is interesting to contrast this letter (and scores of others) with the claim that Patel wanted to ‘let go’ of Kashmir. Either Patel was wildly inconsistent within a span of a year, or, as the reigning interpretation has it, he was so communal that he was willing to give up Muslim-dominated Kashmir for a bolstered Hindu India. In virtually all such ‘analysis’, the complexity of the unfolding situation in India—the year before and after its independence—has been set aside. Sound principle of historical interpretation has been replaced by the political and ideological predilections of writers.

Was Patel communal? This is one of those ‘head on’ questions that attract ire and evasion in equal measure. Even if one reformulates it—was Patel in favour of a more homogenous India?—the charge of his being ‘communal’ refuses to go away. While care is exercised in not saying it, most commentators of a Nehruvian persuasion feel this indeed to be the case: Patel for them was the other supporting end of the Two-Nation theory. But howls arise the moment one says that the nationalist leadership implicitly accepted it as a historical reality when the plan of June 3rd, 1947, to partition India was accepted. Only Patel is singled out. It is instructive to ask whether Dr BR Ambedkar, another great leader of modern India, would be subjected to the same treatment for his arguments to let Kashmir go and focus on East Bengal (as he did in his speech when he resigned from the Cabinet, on September 27th, 1951).

Nehru assumed that a multi-religious India could be turned into a strong nation-state, a goal on which Patel agreed with him. It is another matter that this wish, or claim, or whatever one wants to call it, was put to severe tests almost from the moment India gained independence. The Abdullah-Patel-N Gopalaswami Ayyangar letters show that even close friends of India—as the Sheikh certainly was—did not share the premise of a centralised India. Since then, these challenges have grown manifold: one only has to look at the map of India to see it. There are historians who continue to challenge the premise of building a strong centralised state and say the goal is quixotic. Their political affinities should surprise no one.

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