The Tribune - Spectrum

, September 30, 2001
Lead Article

Patelís Legacy
V.N. Datta

Sardar Vallabhbhai PatelIN their autobiographies, writers do not forfeit their privacy nor do they go public by way of self-exposure unless they are courageous enough to write freely without caring for what people think of them and their views. However, diaries belong to a different category altogether! From my experience as a researcher, I have found that diaries are far more reliable as compared to autobiographies, which are usually personal reconstructions in retrospect, written usually for self-justification. Diaries, unless written with their eyes set on posterity, tend to provide a more reliable account of the thoughts and experiences of writers.


A spate of historical literature has appeared on the life and achievements of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, but relatively speaking, except for a notable biography of Rajmohan Gandhiís on him, the contributions of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to the freedom of India and his significant role in the post-Independence period have been neglected. This general apathy, I think, is largely attributed to the location of Vallabhbhai Patelís correspondence which is deposited in an out of the way place like the Ahmedabad archives, and, as a consequence, is not easily available to Indian and foreign scholars.

Patel with Gandhi and Maniben
Patel with Gandhi and Maniben

It is commendable that P.N. Chopra and Prabha Chopra, eminent historians, and authors of several authoritative historical works, have now edited Maniben Patelís Diary, 1936-35, published by Vision Books, New Delhi. Earlier, P.N. Chopra had edited 15 volumes of Vallabhbhai Patelís correspondence, and other material connected with his multifarious activities. The diary, hitherto unpublished and originally written in Gujarati, and now translated into English, covers the period from June 8, 1936, to December 15, 1950. Except for its earlier part, which is somewhat perfunctory, it provides significant material that compels us to re-examine and reinterpret many stereotyped notions about the Congress and its leadership which have continued to persist. These notions have now been accepted without critical evaluation and are used to reconstruct the history of the national movement.

Wearing a toga-like dress, bald with a forehead that was furrowed and puckered with concentration, Vallabhbhai Patel was an arresting personality of almost Roman grandeur. He was reminiscent of that last of the great Romans ó Marcus Brutus. For generations to come, a man of such a sterling character, who gives all he has for the sheer love of the country, will rarely be found. This unassuming man of simple and austere habits was made of iron and flint. He feared none but God. He would rather break than bend! He never flinched from the principles he devotedly cherished ó no matter how mighty the adversary and how difficult the situation.

Patel possessed the genius of weighing the most complex political issues dispassionately, and he would size up men in no time. He utilised the services of those he thought fit. But, as far as those who never came up to his high standards of conduct were concerned, he would give them up in no time without any qualms of conscience. Though he was neither an intellectual like Nehru nor a scholar like Maulana Azad, Patel was endowed with extraordinary common sense which he used adroitly for the solution of Indiaís multiple problems.

Maniben Patelís diary tells us the inside story of the Congress which was torn by ideological conflicts and personal rivalries among the top-ranking leaders, who were fighting each other and thereby jeopardising national interests. Time was the essence of the matter, but these squabbles delayed prompt action. It was Gandhi who by his powerful influence and tactical skills resolved those contentious issues. In 1936, there was a crisis in the Congress Party when Nehru, as the Congress President, zealously propagated the gospel of socialism and attacked the princely order and the zamindari system. Patel, Rajendra Prasad, G.B. Pant, C. Rajagopalachari and Bhulabhai Desai thought that Nehruís virulent campaign against these potentially powerful elements would be injurious to their interests in the forthcoming elections. They resigned in protest from the Congress Working Committee. Ultimately, Gandhi had to reconcile these differences.

Patel in a pensive mood
Patel in a pensive mood

The diary discloses that in 1940, once again, the Congress leadership was divided. Gandhi was completely isolated, while other leaders such as Patel, Nehru, C.R. and Sarojini Naidu were willing to support the British war effort, provided the British conceded to India the right to self-government. Gandhi was uncompromising on the principle of non-violence and was determined to keep the country out of the war. Any participation in war violated his commitment to the principle of non-violence. The diary reveals, I think, for that first time, that Gandhiís threat to fast unto death at this juncture compelled the Congress to toe his line and accept his leadership. The Congress, therefore, refused to aid the British war effort.

This writer thinks that Gandhiís prescription of keeping India out of war and launching the Quit India Movement was a blunder of great magnitude for which the country had to pay a big price because it gave a free hand to the Muslim League to consolidate itself. It made Jinnah the sole spokesman of the Muslims and a power to reckon with.

The diary discloses, I think, for the first time that at the meeting of the Congress Working Committee held at Wardha on July 13, 1942, Gandhi was annoyed with the Congress President Maulana Azad due to his political differences with him. He compelled the Maulana to resign from the presidential office. This was just before launching the Quit India Movement. At this critical juncture, Patel intervened and through his mediation helped to tide over the crisis. During the period from 1936-42, Gandhi ó the undisputed leader ó dictated Congress policy. He wielded such an enormous power that even a stalwart like Subhas Chandra Bose, who had opposed his policy, was expelled from the Congress. Fuming and fretting, Bose quit the country for good to wage his battle against the British abroad in Europe and South-East Asia.

There are certain gaps in the diary which are inevitable, such as from August 31, 1939, to January 9, 1940, and from August 9, 1942 to June 13, 1945 when the Congress leaders languished in prison due to the individual Satyagraha Movement first, and the Quit India Movement later. The diary records that the Congress President Azad was negotiating a settlement with the Cabinet Mission in 1946, without the knowledge of his colleagues in the Congress Working Committee. This infuriated Gandhi. For this unseemly conduct, Azad was forced to make way for Nehru as Congress President. Later, Gandhi was to oppose even Azadís appointment as education minister in the Interim-Government.

It is evident from the diary that V.P. Menon, the Constitutional Advisor to the British Government, came closer to Patel by early 1947. He kept him fully informed about the British attitude and policy on political matters. Menon was Patelís confidant and became his devoted follower. Patel was not the man to miss any opportunity. He regarded politics a game of chess to be played with skill. He sought his opportunity from the present and drew inspiration, from his vision of the future. That is why Patelís influence in guiding the Congress policy from 1946 to 1947 was decisive. The Gandhian leadership was over!

It is not often realised that despite Gandhiís opposition, Patel accepted the Cabinet Mission statement of May 16, 1946 which enabled the Congress to join the Viceroy Lord Wavellís Executive Council and assume power within the framework of the 1935 Constitution. I think that this move by Patel proved a tour de force and stalled Jinnahís designs of keeping the Congress out of power.

It is also evident from the diary that Patel shattered Jinnahís scheme of appropriating the entire Punjab and Bengal, and making them a part of Pakistan. Jinnah had launched his Direct Action Movement to topple the Punjab and North-Western Frontier Province ministries and Bengal was already ruled by the Muslim League under the controlling authority of Jinnah.

Against Gandhiís wishes again, the Congress Working Committee on March 8, 1947 passed a resolution for the Partition of Punjab. It is clear from the diary that Patel made a deal with Lord Mountbatten to transfer power to India at the earliest on the basis of Dominion Status with Mountbatten as its Governor-General, provided Bengal and Punjab were partitioned. The British Cabinet in England accepted this plan. Thus, by saving the parts of Punjab and Bengal, Patel demonstrated the highest qualities of statesmanship, for which this country should remain grateful to him for all times to come!

The diary gives a cryptic account of Patelís meeting with Gandhi on January 31, 1948 from 4.10 to 5.10 pm. The diary notes, ĎBapuji (Gandhi) took fruits and vegetables while talking to Patel.í Later Gandhi went for the prayer meeting. It is evident that because of his differences with Gandhi on the communal question, Patel at this meeting tendered his resignation from the Cabinet. Patel was the last person to meet Gandhi before the Mahatma was shot dead at the prayer meeting.

The diary further notes that Patel was reading the newspaper at his residence when the news reached him about Gandhiís death. It adds that Patel Ďrushed to Birla House and sat down on a marble seat... Panditji (Nehru) rushed a little....wept like a child near Babujiís body....It was Bapuís (Patelís) lot to console visitors.í Gandhiís death shook Patel and Ďhe did not sleep sufficiently on account of this horrible event. Remained uneasy all nightí (p. 184). Gandhiís assassination brought both Nehru and Patel closer to each other, and they began to work harmoniously for the governance of the country.

But alas! that phase of mutual trust and understanding was to end shortly due to fundamental differences that existed between them on the national questions facing the country. Both of them were great men by any standard, resolutely patriotic, doggedly brave, tenaciously incorruptible, self-sacrificing through thick and thin, and fired by the pure love of their country.

The issue of Hyderabad created a rift between Nehru and Patel. The Nizam of Hyderabad was determined to keep his state independent, and in his design he enjoyed the support of Jinnah, the Governor-General of Pakistan. C. Rajagopalchari, the Governor-General of India, and Nehru preferred negotiations to any military action. But Patel thought otherwise. The Nizam had taken the Hyderabad issue to the United Nations. Patel sarcastically remarked, "Rajaji thinks over but does not think about" (p. 215). Eventually, Patel had his way, and made Hyderabad an integral part of India. How could he Ďallow an ulcer in the heart of India,í he had said.

Endowed with an imperturbable temper, ready wit and dry puckish humour, Patel would, on occasions, brush aside serious issues sarcastically in a jiffy. When Bidhan Chander Roy, Chief Minister of West Bengal, informed Patel telephonically about Jinnahís death, and sought his instructions on whether to keep the flags flying half-mast on the occasion, Patel retorted whether Jinnah was related to him. Brutally frank and outspoken even to the point of intimidation, Patel could be oppressively intractable. He would repulse sycophants with a scornful look.

Towards the end of 1948, Patel was becoming disenchanted with Nehruís handling of the national issues facing the country. He also felt that he no longer enjoyed Nehruís confidence. He wrote to Nehru that no self-respecting man could work with him in the Cabinet. He was convinced that Nehru was misguided on the Kashmir policy by N. Gopalaswami Ayyanger and Sheikh Abdullah. He told Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad on April 8, 1948, that if he were given a free hand as in Hyderabad, he would solve the Kashmir problem in no time. He also disliked Nehruís signing the pact with Liaquat Ali, and he believed that the appeasement policy towards Pakistan would not yield any fruitful results.

A number of entries in the diary indicate that Patel had a gloomy view of the future of the Congress. Patel felt that the Congress was being destroyed by self-seeking individuals who were actuated by vaulting ambitions and petty intrigues. In this murky politics, Nehruís confidants Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Mridula Sarabhai and Padmaja Naidu were the chief actors. Patel felt deeply upset over Nehruís mode of governance. Rajaji cryptically remarked, ĎBapu (Gandhi) had spoilt him (Nehru).í Patel found himself placed in a predicament. He wanted to resign from the government. The Congress organisation was still controlled by him. His health was failing ó he was suffering from cancer of the rectum and it took him two to three hours to evacuate his bowels.

Maniben Patel, a simple-hearted woman leading an austere life, served her father with utmost devotion. We owe her a debt of gratitude for maintaining this diary, which has served as an immensely valuable source-material for the reconstruction of the history of Indiaís Independence.

Patel left no property. He made no provision for his daughter. His grandson, at present, is living in an MIG flat in Delhi. He never kept a watch and his spectacles were 30 years old, with strings. He died in Bombay on December 15, 1950.

This greatest Indian had fire of Lenin and the sagacity of Bismarck. In his personal affection and devotion to Gandhi, he was second to none. An agitator in the grandest style, he possessed an unprecedented hitting power and fighting zeal. What Shakespeare wrote of Marcus Brutus, is most appropriate for him.

His life was gentle and the elements so mixíd in him that Nature

Might stand up.

And say to all-the-world, "This was a man."

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