The Strongman of India

The idea and ideal of India came into being due to the enormous contributions of Gandhiji, Nehru and Patel, all three Anglophiles, all well versed in the art of cerebral warfare.

Sun Tzu, military strategist and writer of the seminal ‘Art of War’, says that in the midst of chaos, there is an opportunity. The troika of the freedom movement — Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh — were more than adept in their understanding of dealing with the British. I guess they followed Tzu’s template: he will win who knows to fight and when not to fight. And equally: appear weak when you are strong and strong when you are weak.

In many ways, Nehru and Patel played the proverbial good cop-bad cop with the errant and sometimes rogue princes, operating sometimes in synchronicity and sometimes individually. That there is today an India to think and talk about is very largely due to Sardar Patel’s statesmanship and firm administration which not only abolished all the states with the consent of the rulers, but also evoked patriotic sentiments in them to such an extent that they were grateful to him for all that he had done.

Shyama Prasad Mookerji chose to call him “the most valiant champion of India’s freedom and the strongest unifying force in our national life.” Mookerji found in the Sardar “a rare combination of idealism and realism, of strength and generosity which made him a leader and a statesman who had no equal.”

V. Shankar, who was Sardar’s secretary from 1946 to 1950, and had a bird’s eye view of the Integration of the states recounted:

“Though a strong party man, Sardar could, in the wider interests of the country not only bend but also secure the co-operation of other elements in the national life.

“One outstanding example of it was the manner in which he advised Pandit Nehru to form his Government after Independence which not only had a truly national character but in support of which he had no compunction in securing the services of lifelong opponents of the Congress such as Dr B.R. Ambedkar and Shri Shyama Prasad Mookerji.

“One of the greatest proof of his broadmindedness was the manner in which he could rise above party politics and implement policies which might mean a dilution of party commitment in the larger interests of the country. I cannot think of any contemporary politician of those days or those who have risen to prominence ever since who could make such a deep impression even on those who were opposed to him.” (V. Shankar, ‘My Reminiscences of Sardar Patel’; Vol. 2, Delhi: Macmillan & Co., 1975, p.132)

When Kashmir was invaded by the raiders, a furious Sardar hit back saying: “I should like to make one thing clear, that we shall not surrender an inch of Kashmir territory to anybody.” (Life & Work of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, p. 54)

As explained earlier, Sardar’s inherent distrust of Sheikh Abdullah meant had he remained alive, perhaps India’s Kashmir policy would have been dictated differently from Nehru’s. H.V. Kamath, member of the Constituent Assembly, records:

“Sardar Patel once told me, with a ring of sadness in his voice, that ‘if Jawaharlal and Gopalaswami Ayyangar had not made Kashmir their close preserve, separating it from my portfolio of Home and States,’ he would have tackled the issue as purposefully as he had already done the Hyderabad problem. It is also a matter of regret that Nehru paid no heed to his warning on China … .” (H.V. Kamath, ‘His Variegated Role in the Constituent Assembly’, in Maniben Patel and G.M. Nandurkar, ed., ‘This Was Sardar — The Commemorative Volume’, Ahmedabad: Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Smarak Bhavan, 1974, p. 335)

Nehru heeding Mountbatten’s advice to go to the UN meant that Sardar Patel recorded his displeasure over the decision:

“I myself felt that we should never have gone to the UNO and if we had taken timely action when we went to the UNO, we could have settled the whole case much more quickly and satisfactorily from our point of view, whereas at the UNO not only has the dispute been prolonged, but the merits of our case have been completely lost in the interaction of power politics … .” (Durga Das, ‘Sardar Patel’s Correspondence, 1945-50’, Vol. 6, Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1973)

Winston Churchill, a Royalist who wanted a part of India to be retained through Princestan, lamented the disappearance of the title of the Emperor of India from the royal titles and arrogantly said in 1948 that “power will go into the hands of rascals, rogues and free-booters … These are men of straw of whom no trace will be found after a few years’. Churchill had also predicted complete balkanization of India. But the Sardar proved Churchill wrong.

From his sick-bed at Dehra Dun, Patel gave Churchill a rude and angry reply, calling him an unashamed imperialist at a time when imperialism was on its last legs, describing him as “the proverbial last ditcher for whom obstinacy and stupid consistency count more than reason, imagination or wisdom.”

To capture the contrast between Sardar Patel and Nehru, I once asked the co-founder of the Jan Sangh and founder of the Praja Parishad, Balraj Madhok, in Jammu to write about the two during my editorship of ‘Mail Today’ (2012-2015). His insight from personal memory is contrary to how Rajmohan Gandhi perceived the so-called differences between the two:

“I met Sardar Patel on March 8, 1948, at his residence in New Delhi to apprise him of the worsening situation in Jammu & Kashmir. As the founder secretary of the Jammu-Kashmir Praja Parishad, I raised concerns of the minorities in the state and the impending loss of Muslim majority regions of Gilgit, Baltistan and the so-called Azad Kashmir to Pakistan.

“Sardar Patel heard me patiently for over half an hour without any reaction or comment. After I had finished, he gave a short and crisp reply: ‘You are trying to convince a convinced man. But I can do nothing. JawaharLal has kept Jammu & Kashmir under his direct charge. You meet him. I will ask him to give you an appointment.’

“Disappointed at the reply, I implored him to act, saying the people of Jammu and Kashmir looked to him for relief and redress. He must do something for them.

“My plea had the desired effect and he opened up. In a firm tone he said: ‘I know your problem. If and when the matter is entrusted to me, I will set things right in one month’s time. But just now, I am not in a position to do anything. You meet Jawahar Lal and explain the situation to him.’

“As I was about to take leave of him, he asked me if I had brought anything in writing. I then handed him the memorandum that I had prepared for his consideration as also the map of the state. Patel then asked me to hand it over to his daughter, Mani Ben.

“It was a thrilling experience. Dressed in a crumpled khadi kurta and dhoti, jacket and a coarse shawl, he looked every inch a farmer and son of the soil with his dark, wrinkled and rugged face. His quiet confidence that he would tackle the Kashmir problem in a month’s time, if it were entrusted to him, and his brevity and economy of words impressed me. I found him true to the reputation that he had earned as an Iron Man who spoke little but acted firmly and effectively.

“My experience of Jawahar Lal Nehru, whom I met two days later on October 10, was quite different. The contrast between the two giants was glaring.

“My externment from the state by Sheikh Abdullah soon after forced me to stay on in Delhi. This afforded me an opportunity to remain in touch with Sardar Patel. His deft handling of the Hyderabad State with minimal loss of life (only four jawans of the Indian Army were killed in the Hyderabad action) brought out the contrast between Nehru and Patel.”

(Sandeep Bamzai is the Editor-In-Chief of IANS and author of ‘Princestan: How Nehru, Patel and Mountbatten Made India’ (Rupa), which won the Kalinga Literary Festival (KLF) Book Award 2020-21 in the non-fiction category)




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