Despite sharply expressed differences,Vallabhbhai Patel (1875-1950) andJawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) formed a remarkable partnership at India‘s helm during the first three years of Independence, ending only when Patel died in December 1950. Patel the realist was home minister and deputy premier, Nehru the visionary was premier and foreign minister. The two constituted a formidable pair.
Patel represented Indian nationalism‘s Hindu face, Nehru India’s secular and also global face. Their partnership, necessary and fruitful for the country, was a solemn commitment that each made to the other.
When Gandhi was killed, it was put down in writing. The Sardar’s initial wish, when the Mahatma was killed, was to resign. India’s home minister, he reasoned, should have protected its most valued person.
He wrote a letter of resignation to Nehru but did not send it. On February 3, 1948 — four days after the assassination — he received a letter from Nehru in which the latter said that during “over a quarter century” when the two together “faced many storms and perils”, his “affection and regard” for Patel had grown, that nothing “can happen to lessen this”, and that Gandhi’s death required from the two of them “full loyalty to and confidence in one another”. “I can assure you that you will have that from me,” added Nehru.
In his reply, Patel wrote on February 5, “We both have been lifelong comrades… The paramount interests of our country and our mutual love and regard, transcending such differences of outlook and temperament as existed, have held us together… Bapu’s opinion also binds us both. I am fully resolved to approach my responsibilities and obligations in this spirit.”
Don’t Miss the Con-text
Let us recall the times: 1946 had seen great and large-scale inhumanity in Kolkata, Noakhali, Bihar and western Uttar Pradesh. This inhumanity reached unspeakable and even larger levels in the following year in Rawalpindi and Multan in March 1947, and in both halves of Punjab between August and November 1947.
It would be unfair to judge anyone’s lasting opinions from words uttered in that inflamed and tragic context. If the Sardar praised the RSS for defending vulnerable Hindus and Sikhs in 1947, he did nothing improper.
But that cannot be taken as his support for the RSS, which he banned after the Gandhi assassination. Patel banned the RSS not because he had evidence of its complicity in the murder — his ministry had concluded that an extremist wing of the Hindu Mahasabha rather than the RSS had organised it — but because of his assessment that the RSS was indulging “in dangerous activities”.
With Nehru’s agreement, Patel lifted the ban a year later. But Patel also insisted that the RSS become a solely cultural organisation and adopt a democratic structure and constitution. Subsequent history showed that his advice was not followed.
In the subcontinent’s debates of the 1940s, Patel was a defender of Hindu interests. He was also, after Independence, a defender of India as a secular state and one of the architects of the Constitution that guarantees equal rights to all Indians and assures rights to the weak and to religious minorities. In framing a legal measure or implementing the government’s duty to protect the threatened, Patel went not by his sympathies but by the law.
He was not anti-Muslim. In January, 1948, he said, “We have just heard people shouting that Muslims should be removed from India. Those who do so have gone mad with anger.” In February 1949, he spoke of “Hindu Raj” as “that mad idea”.
Initially hurt by Gandhi’s last fast of January 1948, which sought minority rights in both India and Pakistan, the Sardar said, referring to Gandhi, “We take a short-range view while he takes a long-range one.”
Patel’s candid defence of Hindu rights in pre-1947 discussions has tempted some elements to try and appropriate him as a Hindu icon with a concealed yet clear suggestion that Patel’s legacy somehow legitimises anti-Muslim acts.
Even the short account here shows that such an attempt would dishonour Patel’s great life. Yet, persistent and clever propaganda plus the undoubted fact that Congress governments in recent decades did little to keep Patel’s memory alive could enable a false image to trump the facts of history, at least in the short run. I am troubled by Narendra Modi‘s appeal for support for his Sardar statue contains the following words, “Yet, it is equally true that there are forces within our country that are threatened by this unity. They have used guns and bombs to scare and mislead the people.”
Terrorism is a reality for Indians, though Pakistanis face it even more. The words from Modi are not untrue. But linking them so frontally to the Sardar statue is not a constructive exercise. I smell something political and polarising in the project.
The writer is a biographer of Vallabhbhai Patel