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Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel biography

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel

(1875-1950)

biography

      Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the ‘Iron Man of India’, was born in Nandiad, Gujarat, to Ladbai and Jhaverbhai Patel. He was one of their six children, five boys and a girl. There is no record of his date of birth. The generally accepted date, 31 October 1875, is Sardar Vallabhbhai Pateltaken from his matriculation certificate.
It was an agriculturist family in which Vallabh was born and not a well-to-do one. His childhood was spent working on the family’s ten acre farm at Karamsad, just like any other farmers son, away from books. His education was thus erratic, though he was sent to the Middle School at Karamsad from where he passed in his late teens. To continue his education, he joined the High School at Nandiad and passed the matriculation examination in 1897 at the age of twenty-two. In the meanwhile, he was married at the age of sixteen to Javerbai, a girl from a nearby village. Javerbai died in 1909 when Vallabhbhai was thirty-three but he did not remarry. The couple had two children, a son, Dhyabhai and daughter, Maniben.
       The family could not afford to send their son to Bombay for higher studies, so Vallabhbhai sat for the District Pleaders examination. After passing the examination, he set up a legal practice at Godhra. He had to leave Godhra after two years due to an outbreak of plague in the town, and moved to Borsad. This was in 1902. Borsad was notorious as the criminal belt of Kheda district. Vallabhbhai specialized in criminal cases and soon became the foremost criminal lawyer at the Bar, earning a handsome fees. He could save enough money to aspire to go to England for qualifying as a barrister. But as his elder brother Vithalbhai also desired to go to England also to qualify as a barrister and so he let his brother proceed go first. On his brother’s return, he sailed for England in 1910, and joined the Middle Temple. He worked hard and was called to the Bar at the end of two years instead of the usual three. He had also won a prize of fifty pounds in Roman law. He returned to India in February 1913 and set up legal practice at Ahmedabad and made a great success of it. In less than six months he became the acknowledged leader on the criminal side. We are so used to see Patel in simple Khadi that it is difficult to imagine that he dressed like an Englishman on his return from England. G.V. Mavlankar, a close friend of his, describes Patel of those days: “A smart young man, dressed in well-cut clothes, with felt hat worn slightly at an angle, stern and reserved, his eyes piercing and bright, not given to many words, receiving visitors with just a simple greeting but not entering into any conversation, and of a firm and pensive expression, almost as he looked down upon the world with a sort of superiority complex”. Except for the dress, this description of Patel could be applied to him during later years also. He joined Gujarat Club where the elite of Ahmedabad met, gossiped and played bridge. He first met Gandhi in the Gujarat Club during one of Gandhi’s visits to the Club, a meeting which was somewhat inconsequential.
In 1917 Patel was elected for the first time as a municipal counselor of Ahmedabad Municipality; from 1924 to 1928 he was its chairman. He devoted much of his time for the improvement of the civic amenities in Ahmedabad like Water supply, sanitation and town planning. The municipality was transformed from a mere adjunct to the government department into a popular body ‘with a will of its own’ in which people’s participation became an integral part of its working. During these years, Ahmedabad and its surrounding areas were affected by floods, famine and plague and Patel did a commendable job in organizing relief work for the affected people and earned their gratitude. In later life Patel considered his work in the municipality as one of his major achievements in life. Replying to the civic address presented to him by the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1948, he said, I served Ahmedabad municipality to the best of my ability. I had unalloyed happiness in the task which I performed then. After all, to all of us, to serve our own city must give unmitigated pleasure and satisfaction which I cannot get in any other sphere. Further to cleanse the dirt of the city is quite different from cleaning the dirt of politics. From the former you get a good night’s rest while the latter keeps you worried and lose your sleep."
Patel became one of Gandhi’s confidants when in 1917 Gandhi was elected the president and Patel, secretary, of the Gujarat Sabha, a political body which proved to be of great assistance to Gandhi in his campaigns. Then came the Kheda Satyagraha (1918), which was launched to seek exemption from paying land revenue by the farmers as their crops had been washed away in floods. The government refused to reduce or remit the land revenue. Sardar Patel was responsible for organizing the Satyagraha, which lasted for four months. Patel emerged as the chief organizer of the movement. Discarding his Western dress, he wore a shirt and a dhoti as he walked from village to village, exhorting, encouraging, bullying good-humouredly when necessary. He sat down with the peasants and shared their meals, happy to be away from the courtroom. Gandhi, watching him closely, found so much to admire in him. The Satyagraha ended when the government partially yielded and asked only those farmers to pay the land revenue who could afford to pay. For his contribution to the Satyagraha, Patel received kudos from Gandhi and gratitude from the farmers.
The admiration between Gandhi and Patel was mutual. Patel was very impressed by the lifestyle and philosophy of Gandhi and decided to be his follower. During the Non-Cooperation movement, Patel decided to relinquish his legal career (1920). When the Congress was faced with a dilemma about joining the legislatures and the Swaraj Party was formed (1922) as a legislative wing of the Congress, Patel did not join the Swaraj Party and decided to undertake constructive work as advised by Gandhi. Along with Rajendra Prasad, Patel was the most devoted constructive worker.
In 1928, Vallabhbhai Patel organized a ‘no-tax’ campaign in Bardoli, Gujarat. It was a repeat performance of the Kheda Satyagraha of 1918, but on a much larger scale and was much better organized. One great achievement of Patel in this campaign was to inspire the illiterate rural women to take active part in it. The government had enhanced the land revenue arbitrarily to an extent which the poor farmers were in no position to pay Patel appealed to the farmers not to pay the enhanced tax. The government in turn resorted to coercion, confiscating the lands and other property of the farmers. Hundreds of farmers were arrested. Patel once again moved from village to village on foot to comfort and cheer up the farmers and their families. The struggle lasted for six months. Ultimately, the government yielded. An enquiry committee was constituted; farmers were released; the lands restored to them and the tax was considerably reduced. It was a victory for Patel and he emerged as a leader of national stature. People started calling him Sardar, the unofficial title which he retained for the rest of his life.
Gandhi found in Sardar the best organizer in the Congress party. When in 1930, Gandhi decided to undertake the Dandi (Salt) March, Patel was sent a week earlier to arrange for food and lodging for the participants along the route of the March. But Patel was arrested on 7 March, five days before the commencement of the journey to Dandi. This was Patel’s first visit to a prison. He could not take part in the Dandi March as he was released only on 26 June. Then commenced Gandhi’s Civil Disobedience movement. Patel took part in it and was arrested again on 31 July. He was released in March 1931, under the provisions of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. Immediately after his release, Patel was elected president of the Congress session to be held at Karachi in March 1931. On reaching Karachi, he along with Gandhi, had to face the ire of the demonstrators who were blaming Gandhi for not doing enough to save the lives of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru who were hanged a day earlier. Patel’s presidential address was perhaps the briefest of all presidential addresses. Sardar’s speeches were always brief and to the point. He was a man of action and seldom indulged in verbosity.
After the failure of the Round Table Conference, Gandhi returned and resumed the Civil Disobedience movement. Congress leaders, including Gandhi and Patel, were arrested. Both were lodged in Yervada jail where they were together for sixteen months from January 1932 to May 1933. While Gandhi was released on 8 May on health grounds, Patel spent another year in Nasik jail. While in prison, Patel learnt Sanskrit and was able to read the Bhagvad Gita in the original Sanskrit.
The Congress fought elections for provincial assemblies in 1937, under 1935 Act. Patel played an important role, as the chairman of the Parliamentary Sub-Committee, in the success of the Congress in winning most of the ‘general’ seats and forming ministries in seven provinces. After the formation of ministries, he guided and controlled the activities of these ministries. After the resignation of Congress ministries in November 1939, Gandhi started Individual Civil Disobedience, opposing India’s participation in the war without her consent. Patel was arrested on 17 November 1940 and was released on health grounds on 20 August 1941. Prison life had affected Patel’s health and he had developed acute constipation and was suffering from piles. In later life, he became a heart patient. In August 1942 started the Quit India movement and the Sardar, along with other leaders, was arrested on 9 August 1942. He was in Ahmednagar jail for about three years this time.
“A study of Patel’s biography and papers suggest that from 1936 he came into his own. Although he had the greatest respect and admiration for Gandhi, but the sense of reality that pervaded with the changing circumstances convinced Patel of the need for a more realistic approach to the problems of India. One has to concede that Gandhi was not directly concerned with the practical side of the administration”." Gandhi wanted to have power without responsibility. This came in the way of a pragmatic administrator like Patel, who did not want to mix religion with politics. Patel never believed that the state’s decisions could be taken on thebidding of ‘inner voice’. The schism between Gandhi and Patel was on a very subtle level but it was there and became quite evident in later years. Still, Patel remained a follower of Gandhi to the very end and this ‘Iron man of India’ had to carry the cross of non-violence around his neck, at times affecting adversely his administrative capabilities.
The War ended with the victory of Britain, with the help of America, but it emerged as a battered nation. Britain’s finest manpower decimated, her economy shattered and bankrupt and the dependence on Indian army, with the help of which it was ruling India, now in doubt, Britain realized that it could not hold on to India and that the days of the Empire were numbered. In Britain the conservative government led by Winston Churchill was defeated in the 1945 elections and a Labour government headed by Clement Attlee was formed. He was inclined to see the reality of the situation and was prepared to abandon the idea of the Empire. India was partitioned and gained Independence on 15 August 1947, after bloody riots engineered by the Muslim League which left hundreds of thousands of innocent persons killed and many more uprooted. Pakistan had been created, comprising Muslim majority areas on the Western and Eastern side. In free India, while Nehru became the prime minister, Patel was deputy prime minister, incharge of Home as well as Information and Broadcasting ministries. Free India was faced with several problems and it was left to Patel to solve some of these gigantic problems. One of these was the existence of about 562 Indian states of sizes varying from a few acres to thousands of square miles spread over the whole length and breadth of the country. Patel assumed charge of the Department of States on 3 July 1947. On 5 July he addressed the princes. His speech is a fine example of precision and clear thinking. In a friendly tone he showed concern for the princes and offered those privileges and status to compensate for the loss of their rule. He also tried to evoke their patriotism: It is by accident that some (Indians) live in the states and some in British India, but all partake of its culture and character. We are all knit together by bonds of blood and feelings no less than of self-interest. None can segregate us into segments; no impassable barrier can be set up between us. I suggest that it is therefore, better for us to make laws sitting together as friends than to make treaties as aliens" His appeal, mixed with a mild and subtle threat, worked, and by 15 August 1947 all the states except Hyderabad, Junagarh and Kashmir had been integrated with India. A limited use of force had to be used to discipline Junagarh and Hyderabad. Junagarh was annexed in October 1947 and Hyderabad in September 1948 while Nehru was away on a foreign tour. In October 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir signed the Instrument of Accession but the Kashmir case was handled by Jawaharlal Nehru directly. How Kashmir became a problem is a long and tragic story. It is anybody’s guess how Patel would have handled the Kashmir issue, if like other states; it had come under the jurisdiction of Department of States. Patel integrated over 560 states thus adding 800,000 square kilometers of land and a population of 86 million to the Indian Union. This mild colossus' changed the map of India in one stroke. No other leader could have done it. Patel is often compared with Chancellor Bismarck (1815-98), who effected the German unification in the late nineteenth century. While Bismarck achieved unification, often through war, Patel did it through persuasion and tact. When the Russian leader Khrushchev visited India in 1956, he expressed surprise that India had managed to liquidate the princely states without liquidating the princes. In USSR, in those days, the princes would have been liquidated first, and then the states." Patel could never think, however, that the promises given to the princes would be broken later by Indian rulers.
Another contribution of Sardar Patel was the support given to the Indian Administrative Services, without the help of which, he believed, that the country could not be run efficiently. He gave an honoured place to the civil services and acknowledged their great contribution and inspired them to work for the nation. Speaking in the Parliament Constituent Assembly on 10 October 1949, Patel warned those members who were pleading for the abolition of Indian Civil Services as a legacy of British rule. He said: “These people are the instruments. Remove them and I see nothing but a picture of chaos all over the country. I wish to place it on record in this House that if, during the last two or three years most of the members of the Services had not behaved patriotically and with loyalty, the Union would have collapsed." He created the Indian Administrative Service (in place of the I.C.S.) and the Indian Police service and other departmental services. Various institutions were founded to train these officers and new recruits joining the services. It is unfortunate that several politicians have started to treat the civil servants as their chattel. The frequency with which these officers are being transferred by politicians has greatly affected their morale and their efficiency, which Sardar Patel had feared.
Patel also ridiculed those who wanted to do away with the armed forces. If the Indian Government is to be run today on the basis of Gandhian philosophy without army, I am prepared to change the whole thing. You are today spending 160 to 170 crores of rupees on the army. Are you going to change that set-up? Tomorrow the whole of India will be run over from one end to the other, if you have not a strong army”.
Patel did not believe in any ‘ism’. His was a pragmatic approach to economic problems as towards all other problems. He was definitely against Socialism. He believed that Socialism put more emphasis on distribution, than on creating wealth. There must be wealth before it can be distributed, otherwise we would be distributing poverty, he felt. He was also against nationalization of industries. He said once: “Some people want us to nationalize all industry. How are we to run nationalized industries if we cannot run our ordinary administration? It is easy to take over any industry we want to, but we do not have the resources to run them1 not enough experienced men, not enough men of expertise and integrity”. As long as Patel was alive, he did not allow any industry to be nationalized. On the other hand, Nehru had an obsession for nationalization and several key industries were nationalized during his prime ministership. Now, we are struggling to de-nationalize those industries. Patel was not an economist. He was not even a well-read man but he made up this deficiency by a massive common sense by which he was able to comprehend the intricacies and complexities of various problems and was able to reduce them to remarkable simplicity. Gandhi, in an off-guarded moment, praised Patel in the following words, “Sardar has a marvelous capacity of separating wheat from chaff. He is no visionary like Jawaharlal and me. For bravery, he is not to be surpassed. If he had any sentiment in him, he has suppressed it. Once he makes up his mind, he steels it against all arguments. Even I do not argue with him, but of course he allows me to lay down the law”. Yet another great contribution of his was his role in the Constituent assembly (1947-49). As chairman of the Advisory Committee on Minorities, Sardar Patel very tactfully got the separate electorates for the Muslims and some other minorities abolished, which had been one of the major causes of the partition of the country. His role in the acceptance of Hindi as the national language, in spite of the opposition by secularists like Nehru, has gone unnoticed. Later on, he succeeded in making Purushottam Das Tandon as president of the Congress (1950) and Rajendra Prasad elected as the first president of India, to the chagrin of Nehru who considered both of these Congress leaders as ‘reactionaries’.
Patel’s role in the rehabilitation of Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan is commendable. He was very pained when, at the instance of Gandhi and Nehru, thousands of refugees were evicted from unused mausoleums and other buildings occupied by them and thrown on the roads in severe winter, resulting in the death of many. The greatest humiliation for Patel came in January 1948 regarding the release of crores of rupees to Pakistan, a country at War with India at the time. Patel made a statement to the press on 12january 1948, in which he said: “I made it quite clear (to the prime minister and finance minister of Pakistan) that we would not agree to any payment until the Kashmir affair was settled”. The following day, Gandhi Went on a fast (one of his innumerable Ones) on the instigation of Lord Mountbatten and Maulana Azad, demanding release of fifty crores to Pakistan. On the sixth day of the fast, after an emergency meeting of the Cabinet, it was decided to release the amount to Pakistan. This was one of the most painful decisions which Patel had to be a party to and he never fully recovered from the shock. His pain became more agonizing because these fifty crores were the major cause for the assassination of Gandhi. Patel was the last man to see Gandhi on that fateful day of 30 January, the day of Gandhi’s assassination, and it is believed that Patel had put in his resignation letter. But Gandhi’s assassination made him change his mind.
Normally, Patel did not interfere in foreign affairs, as Nehru considered these as his special preserve. But Patel kept a watchful eye on international developments, especially those which affected India’s security. When China occupied Tibet and Nehru did not react as he should have, Patel wrote a long letter on 7 November 1950, almost from his deathbed, in which he warned Nehru against the Chinese danger and the measures t0 be taken to meet the possible threat from the Chinese dragon. This letter is still very relevant even today and should be compulsory reading for all diplomats dealing with China.
Heavy Workload and the problems faced by the country were taking its toll on Patel’s health. He had his heart attack in February 1948. He soon recovered after rest but the heart ailment was not fully cured. Even during the last years of his life, he continued t0 solve the country’s problems. In March 1950, he had a massive heart-attack from which he did not recover fully.
       Patel had another heart attack while recuperating in Bombay and died on 15 December 1950 and was cremated there. “Patel’s death inspired Nehru to a private pettiness and public eulogy. Patel had died in Bombay and the funeral was to be held there. Nehru tried to prevent Prasad (president of India) from attending the obsequies on the grounds, he said, that it was a bad precedent for the head of a state to attend the funeral of a minister. Prasad took this as an attempt to blacken Patel’s reputation and refused Nehru’s advice”. However, in public, Nehru praised the character and deeds of Patel: a fine example of hypocrisy at high places.
The country owes much more to Patel than has been acknowledged by historians. The part which he played in shaping contemporary events and policies of the country has not been highlighted and justice has not been done to him. While millions of rupees have been spent to promote Gandhi and Nehru, almost none has been spent on Patel. He was a Dr. Johnson without Boswell. But he was a quintessential politician and often steered the country out of difficulties with his practical and pragmatic approach without caring for the rewards. Criticism of Patel by persons like Maulana Azad is almost shamed into silence by his achievements.
After forty-one years of his death, Patel was honoured with Bharat Ratna in 1991.

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