‘Sardar’ Vallabhbhai Patel was one of the closest aides of Mahatma Gandhi

G. L. Batra, ST Guest Columnist, Writer & formerly Addl. Secretary, Indian Parliament and Chairman, Public Service Commission of the Indian State of Haryana

Vallabhbhai Patel, the ‘Iron Man of India’, was one of Mahatma Gandhi’s foremost disciples, and a towering personality in the independence movement and the post-independence integration and governance of India. Having started off his career as a district court pleader in Godhra, Gujarat, he earned a reputation for his common sense, courage, compassion and foresight. He later went on to practise as a barrister at Ahmadabad and built up a successful practice. However, inspite of his professional success, Vallabhbhai Patel was increasingly drawn towards public service, and his unopposed election to the Ahmadabad Municipality, in 1917 marked his advent into public life. Mahatma Gandhi ’s successful satyagraha at Champaran greatly influenced Vallabhbhai, and in 1918, he sacrificed all riches, comforts and fame to follow Mahatma Gandhi ’s path of simplicity and service to the nation.

Vallabhbhai subsequently launched a Satyagraha at Kheda against the British government’s insistence to collect land revenue Inspite of the crops having failed due to heavy rain. The successful culmination of the satyagraha brought Vallabhbhai closer to Mahatma Gandhi and showed his potential as a future leader of the country. Thereafter, Vallabhbhai became a lifelong and trusted lieutenant of Mahatma Gandhi.

Vallabhbhai Patel also participated in the agitation against the Rowlatt Act of 1919, and led the protests in Ahmadabad. He also represented in court, several people who had been indiscriminately detained during the protests. In 1921, was elected the President of the newly formed Provincial Congress Committee of Gujarat.

At the time of the suspension of the Civil Disobedience movement, Vallabhbhai had become the acknowledged leader of the masses in Gujarat, and carried on the struggle against the British after Mahatma Gandhi ’s arrest. He was instrumental in getting the Congress to pass a resolution boycotting the Council, and to continue the Non-cooperation movement.

Vallabhbhai played a major role in the Flag satyagraha in 1922-23 and the agitation at Borsad against the unjust imposition of additional tax. In 1927, when the British government raised the land revenue by 30% in Bardoli, Gujarat, imposing an unbearable burden on the peasants, Vallabhbhai Patel led a massive resistance against the move, and organized a satyagraha in which people from all castes and communities participated. Ultimately, the mighty government had to yield to the united farmers, and a great victory was achieved, when the increase in land revenue was scrapped. Vallabhbhai Patel’s leadership was universally applauded and the people gave him the title of ‘Sardar’, by which he came to be referred to for the rest of his life. The Bardoli satyagraha catapulted Sardar Patel to the stature of a national leader.

Sardar Patel dedicated himself to the cause of Poorna Swaraj in 1929, and served prison terms during the Dandi March and Salt Satyagraha in 1930. In 1931, he was elected the President of the Indian National Congress at its Karachi session, wherein the famous Fundamental Rights resolution was passed, and Mahatma Gandhi was appointed the sole representative of the Congress to the Round Table Conference. In 1937, under Sardar Patel’s guidance, the Congress won the elections to the Provincial Legislative Assemblies in 7 out of the 11 provinces.

In 1942, Mahatma Gandhi gave the call for the Quit India movement, and Sardar Patel participated wholeheartedly in it, leading from the forefront. Ultimately, India achieved independence after a long and spirited struggle in 1947.

In the interim government formed at the centre in 1946, Sardar Patel served as the Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister and played a major role in this transition period during the transfer of power. As a member of the Constituent Assembly constituted in 1947 to draft the Constitution of independent India, he made valuable contributions during the deliberations therein.

The period immediately after the independence and partition of India was one of great turbulence, tension and strife. Communal violence on both sides of the Indo-Pak border both in the East and the West, as a result of partition, and the immense problem of integrating several hundred princely states with India were amongst the issues facing the new-born nation. Sardar Patel, as Home Minister took on both these problems head on, and is probably most remembered for the role he played during this period of India’s history. Sardar Patel tried his utmost to bring about peace in the areas hit by violence, and strove to establish comity between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

The problem of integrating the princely states with India also fell onto Sardar Patel’s shoulders as he was seen as the person most suited to handle this task. Indeed, Mahatma Gandhi said to Patel, ““the problem of the States is so difficult that you alone can solve it”.

In 1947, in an inspiring address, Sardar Patel said, “We are at a momentous stage in the history of India. By common endeavour we can raise the country to a new greatness while lack of unity will expose us to fresh calamities. I hope the Indian states will bear in mind that alternative to co-operation in the general interest is anarchy and chaos and will overwhelm the great and small in common ruin if we are unable to act together in the minimum of common tasks”.

By entering into negotiations with the rulers of these princely states, and with immense tact, statesmanship and determination, he achieved the seemingly impossible task of integrating nearly six hundred princely states into India within a short period of time, by securing the assent and co-operation of their rulers. He proposed favourable terms for the merger, including creation of privy purses for the descendants of the rulers. While encouraging the rulers to act with patriotism, Patel did not rule out force, setting a deadline of August 15, 1947 for them to sign the instrument of accession document. All but three of the states willingly merged into the Indian union — only Jammu and Kashmir, Junagadh, and Hyderabad did not fall into his basket. When negotiations and diplomatic efforts failed to bring these states into the fold, Sardar Patel did not hesitate to use force – the army in Junagadh and the police in Hyderabad, to achieve the goal of a unified India. Thus, he almost single-handedly established a sovereign and democratic State out of chaos and anarchy and consolidated India. For this feat of single-minded determination, perseverance and courage, Sardar Patel earned the sobriquet of ‘Iron Man of India’.

Sardar Patel continued to serve the nation with dedication until his death in 1950. Amongst his several contributions to the development of a strong India, is the establishment of a unified and modern Indian civil service, which till date is the backbone of the executive.

On his death, the country lost one of its tallest and most dynamic and influential leaders, and many prominent leaders of the time like Lord Mountbatten and Pandit Nehru paid rich tributes to him. The Manchester Guardian, a leading newspaper of Great Britain succinctly summed up Sardar Patel’s immense contribution to India’s history when it wrote, “Without Patel, Mahatma Gandhi ’s idea would have had less practical influence and Nehru’s idealism less scope. Patel was not only the organiser of the fight for freedom but also the architect of the new State when the fight was over. The same man is seldom successful as a rebel and a statesman. Sardar Patel was the exception.”