Sardar Patel and Modi: History and Politics

Arindam Sen

It is not so often that we see an odd 138th birth anniversary being celebrated with any special fervor. But politics can change customs. The ostentatious celebration of Vallabhbhai Patel’s birth anniversary this year by the BJP has a clear political purpose: upholding the party’s prime ministerial candidate as the heir apparent to the legacy of the grand “iron man” of Gujarat who in his time had made it big to the national political scene.

Modi’s campaign for the ‘Statue of Unity’ (the statue of Sardar Patel) is a classic example of fascist political imagination. He asked people to join the campaign for ‘one resolution, one goal, one direction, one voice and one determination’ – “Bhasha Anek, Bhav Ek. Rajya Anek, Rashtra Ek. PanthAnek, Lakshya Ek. Boli Anek, Svar Ek. Rang Anek, Tiranga Ek. Samaj Anek, Bharat Ek. Rivaj Anek, Sanskar Ek. Karya Anek, Sankalp Ek. Rah Anek, Manzil Ek. Chehre Anek, Muskaan Ek.”

Modi made it very clear what this ‘oneness’ was all about: “India has been a witness to such disciplined joint participation on religious occasions and joint celebrations of an entire neighbourhood when India wins a cricket match,” he said.

The Nehruvian model of secularism was “unity in diversity”, whereas India really needs “unity through diversity” for a truly democratic agenda. But Modi has instead sought to change the agenda to “unity in uniformity”, emphasising “one emotion, one nation, one culture, one resolution, one goal, one smile” which smacks of a regimented and guided ‘democracy’, where any dissent or difference, and any protection for minorities will be viewed as ‘anti national’ and ruthlessly crushed.

Modi’s choice to project himself a successor of Patel – a long-deceased Congress leader – is an interesting one. As a representative of ‘Gujarati asmita’, Modi avoided Gandhi – and chose Patel. The Sangh’s own stable, is of course entirely devoid of any legacy of freedom struggle or pretention to ‘unity.’ The only figure in the Hindutva pantheon with a dubious claim to the ‘freedom fighter’ legacy is Savarkar, who repeatedly wrote clemency petitions to the British colonial rulers. RSS founder Golwalkar was an open opponent of the Indian Constitution and even the Indian flag. So, in invoking Patel, Modi seeks to cloak himself in borrowed robes and equip himself with a ‘historical heritage’ and halo of the freedom struggle.

Let us make a closer acquaintance with Patel, to understand why he is Modi’s choice, and also to know those facts of Patel’s legacy that Modi would seek to play down and hide.

“A communalist under national cloak”

Nehru had good reasons to write in his Autobiography: “Many a Congressman was a communalist under his national cloak” (page 136). Vallabhbhai Patel was certainly a prominent example of this kind of Congressman. It is well-known that Patel was one of the few Congress leaders to enthusiastically welcome the proposal of partition of India along communal lines.

But his majoritarian bias had been manifest even before that. In 1945 he inaugurated a “Hindu Swimming Pool” in Mumbai, open exclusively to Hindus, giving MA Jinnah another opportunity to use the event to propagate his own politics. Patel, of course, did not see anything wrong in this exclusiveness. But soon after independence, he put his foot down on a proposal for allocating houses in Delhi, vacated by panicked Muslims leaving for Pakistan, for displaced Muslims who wished to stay back in India. Now his argument was that a secular country could not allow such exclusive community-based allocations!

Patel was a die-hard opponent of Maulana Azad for the latter’s opposition to the majoritarian communal tendency within the Congress. He therefore checkmated Nehru’s plan to take Azad on board the first Cabinet of independent India. This becomes clear from a letter dated 24 July 1947, in which Gandhi asked Nehru to exclude Azad. “Sardar is decidedly against his membership in the Cabinet”, wrote Gandhi, “It should not be difficult to name another Muslim for the Cabinet.”

‘Bismarck’ of India?

For his pivotal role in the accession and integration of princely states Sardar Patel has been compared to Otto von Bismarck, who unified the German states in 1860s.

“I want to ask the Indian Muslims only one question. In the recent All India Muslim Conference why did you not open your mouth on Kashmir? Why did you not condemn the action of Pakistan? These things create doubt in the minds of the people. Those who are disloyal will have to go to Pakistan.”

--At a public meeting in Lucknow, January 6, 1948

As historical personalities, one would not perhaps place Patel in the same bracket as Bismarck, who rose to be the Chancellor of the unified German Empire (1871-90). But in one respect the comparison is not invalid. Bismarck had achieved unification with “blood and iron”, as he himself put it, and that was the approach Patel also adopted in princely states where hard bargaining and mass pressure from below did not achieve the purpose. Under his directive the Indian armed forces were pressed into service in Junagadh against the Muslim ruler who opted for Pakistan and in Kashmir in favour of the Hindu ruler who opted for India. In Hyderabad the Indian Army quickly defeated the Nizam and then trained their guns on communist-led peasant insurgents of Telangana, causing a prolonged bloodbath. Neither the ‘socialist’ Nehru, nor his deputy Patel, who had earned the popular title “Sardar” (commander) thanks to his able leadership of the famous Bardoli satyagraha, could, after all, tolerate the prospect of peasants taking their destiny in their own hands.

Home Minister with an anti-Muslim bias

The Sardar’s communal leanings came into full play when, as Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, he amassed enormous powers in his hands. In many ways, India’s first Home Minister introduced the legacy of communal bias and profiling that the Indian State inherits and upholds even today. As Sarvepalli Gopal observed, “Patel assumed that Muslim officials, even if they had opted for India, were bound to be disloyal and should be dismissed; and to him the Muslims in India were hostages to be held as security for the fair treatment of Hindus in Pakistan.” (Jawaharlal Nehru: a Biography; Volume 2, pages 15-16).

Patel wrote to Nehru on September 2, 1947: “People are openly clamouring as to why Muslims are allowed to go about in peace openly in the streets of Delhi and other towns…Why there are any Muslims at all in the police and the civil administration, and are indulging in similar other demands.” Early next month, he wrote to Defence Minister Baldev Singh: “The sooner we issue instructions to provincial governments to take action for disarming the Muslim element [in the Special Army Constabulary], the better.”

Around this time the Sardar was even thinking in terms of a total transfer of population in Punjab (all Hindus to India, all Muslims to Pakistan). Adding fuel to the fire of communal tensions, he also refused to honour a prior agreement by which India was obliged to transfer Rs.55 crore of pre-partition Government of India funds to Pakistan. (Sumit Sarkar, Modern India, p 438). Such ideas and actions shocked Gandhi among others, as we shall see shortly.
Patel’s anti-Pakistan outbursts became even shriller by next year, as evident from his letter to Nehru (see box).

But he did not stop here. By the end of the year, he was demanding that “a part of East Pakistan be carved out and handed over to India for rehabilitation of refugees”.

Splitting Workers,’ Peasants’ Struggles

Patel, as we have mentioned before, earned the title of ‘Sardar’ in the Bardoli satyagraha, where peasants resisted the colonial powers. After assuming power, however, the Congress suoght to curb class struggle and consolidate its organisational control on workers’ and peasants’ fronts. Patel was at the forefront of this move.

“I am beginning to wonder whether a clear indication to the Pakistan Government that, if this immigration continues on account of deterioration of conditions in East Bengal, we would have no alternative except to send out Muslims from West Bengal in equal numbers, would not goad them into some salutary action.”

--Letter to Nehru,
October 19, 1948

A darling of wealthy businessmen and big landlords, on whom he relied as the principal fundraiser for his party, Patel was always very careful about safeguarding and promoting their class interests. His role in suppressing the Telangana movement is well-known, but there were other instances. One was his behind-the-scene machinations for splitting the trade union movement in India in the name of saving it from ‘the communist menace’.

On February 6, 1948, he sent to Nehru a “copy of a secret report” by the I.B. on the CSP (Congress Socialist Party), according to which the CSP had “decided to exploit the situation created by this tragedy (Gandhi’s assassination) to gain power both in the Congress organisation and [in] the Government”. There were “Communist cells inside government itself”, Patel warned Nehru. So it was time to weaken the TU base of communists and float “a parallel organization”, he wrote, “which may for all intents and purposes be recognised as a genuine Trade Union Congress”. On 17 December 1945, V.V. Giri was advised how to proceed: “Either capture AITUC by peaceful and decent means or start a rival TU Congress which would straightaway be recognised by the government and all pretensions of the representative character of the rival Communist organisation be destroyed.” (emphasis ours; it is clearly hinted here that the new centre would be established and strengthened with official patronage). The Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) was thus floated to serve as a tool in the hands of the Congress and to protect the interests of capitalists.

Attitude to the RSS

Before and after independence, Patel maintained regular and cordial links with both the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. He solicited Golwalkar’s help in an effort to convince the Hindu Maharaja of Kashmir to merge his princely state with India and the latter duly obliged. In a public speech at Lucknow weeks before the assassination of Gandhi, even as he spat venom against “disloyal” Muslims, he invited both the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS to join the Congress.

Following Gandhi’s assassination, however, Patel’s patronage of the RSS proved unviable. And in his role as Home Minister, his Ministry’s observations on the RSS role in spreading communal hatred leading to Gandhi’s murder are undoubtedly something the aspiring PM and loyal RSS pracharak Narendra Modi would like to forget.

The February 4, 1948 communique issued by the Home Ministry headed by Sardar Patel banning the RSS said: “In their resolution of February 2, 1948 the Government of India declared their determination to root out the forces of hate and violence that are at work in our country and imperil the freedom of the Nation and darken her fair name. In pursuance of this policy the Government of India have decided to declare unlawful the RSS.” The communiqué also clarified the necessity of the ban by stating: “Undesirable and even dangerous activities have been carried on by members of the Sangh. It has been found that in several parts of the country individual members of the RSS have indulged in acts of violence involving arson, robbery, dacoity, and murder and have collected illicit arms and ammunition. They have been found circulating leaflets exhorting people to resort to terrorist methods, to collect firearms, to create disaffection against the government and suborn the police and the military.”

Patel also wrote to M S Golwalkar accusing the RSS for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on 11 September 1948, “Organizing the Hindus and helping them is one thing but going in for revenge for its sufferings on innocent and helpless men, women and children is quite another thing… All their speeches were full of communal poison. It was not necessary to spread poison in order to enthuse the Hindus and organize for their protection. As a final result of the poison, the country had to suffer the sacrifice of the invaluable life of Gandhiji.”

Patel did re-legalise the RSS the next year. In the name of imposing certain conditions/restrictions (e.g., abide by the Constitution of India, work on social and cultural fields and abjure politics, etc.) he actually gave the organisation a new lease of life and paved the way for its continued work under legal cover. In November next year, taking advantage of Nehru’s absence abroad, he got the Congress Working Committee to pass a resolution authorising the entry of RSS men into the Congress. However, the resolution was rescinded within days on Nehru’s return.

Gandhi’s Last Word

As the fire of communal riots continued to rage far and wide well after 15 August 1947, with the minorities bearing the brunt of violence, Gandhi was touring the worst-affected areas in a most sincere last-ditch effort to contain the flames. Having outlived his utility for the power- hungry Congress leaders, he was now lonely and disconsolate. What pained him the most was the very conspicuous communal hardening of his trusted “Sardar”. In January 1948 he went on yet another fast, this time believed to be directed not only against the communal frenzy in general, but particularly against the rabid pro-Hindu bias of the Home-cum-Deputy-Prime Minister. “You are not the Sardar I once knew”, an agonized Gandhi remarked during this fast, which, incidentally, would prove his last. (Sumit Sarkar, ibid).

“After all, RSS men are not thieves and dacoits. They are patriots. They love their country. Only their trend of thought is diverted. They are to be won over by Congressmen with love.”

--At a Lucknow meeting January 6, 1948

Gandhi’s words and deeds in the communally surcharged atmosphere earned him the wrath of all Hindu communalists, outspoken or discreet. Every knowledgeable person – including Gandhi himself – was aware of a very serious threat to his life. There was indeed a bomb attack on his prayer meeting on January 20, 1948 and the arrested culprit confessed to a big plot. Even then the police, the IB, the civil administration, all under the ‘iron grip’ of the ‘iron man’, did not take meaningful steps to save the leader. An unprotected Gandhi fell to assassin’s bullets ten days later. In the face of nationwide and worldwide condemnation for his inaction, the Home Minister offered to resign, only to withdraw the offer on the Prime Minister’s insistence.

Modi, then, has chosen Patel as the most authentic representative of the communal-authoritarian tendency within the Congress of old. It is worth reiterating that Patel was also a product of what Nehru had called “Hindu right-wing communalism” that increasingly vitiated Indian politics since early nineteenth century and was growing stronger in the Congress too. The process continued well after the death of Patel, ushering in a brazen play of competitive communalism between the Congress and Jan Sangh-BJP.

Patel represented the biases and ambivalences that marked mainstream Indian politics, the Indian National Congress, and the freedom struggle – biases and ambivalences that are deeply embedded in the Indian State and even the Indian ruling class model of secularism even today. That said, there are also many aspects of Patel’s politics and persona that Modi, in his bid to rewrite history, would seek to suppress and underplay. Patel’s role in the Bardoli peasants’ struggle is at odds with Modi’s as an agent of corporate grab of peasants’ land in Gujarat. And Patel’s objective position as the man who, with all his soft corner for the RSS, banned the RSS following Gandhi’s assassination, is a fact that is inconvenient for the RSS and their man-in-a-hurry-to-be-PM, Modi.

(The author owes a heavy debt to A G Noorani, from whose “Patel’s Communalism—A Documented Record” (Frontline, December13, 2013) we have collected many of the historical facts. Regarding presentation and interpretation, of course, the responsibility is ours alone. Citations, when not given here, can be seen in Noorani’s article.)