Years ago I saw Chetan Mehta’s movie Sardar. The Iron Man left a deep impression on me. I was fortunate to read this book, ‘Patel – A Life’ by Rajmohan Gandhi. The essay is based on excerpts from the book & my own analysis. Quoting Rajmohan G, “There exists a general view that Gandhi was unfair to Patel is what prompted me to write this book. If a wrong had been perpetuated, some correction from one of Gandhi’s grandsons would be in order”. Wrote in 1959, our first President Rajendera Prasad, “That there is today an India to think and talk about, is very largely due to SP’s statesmanship and determination. Yet, we are apt to ignore him”. Imperfections had he but is anyone of us perfect.
I am sharing those parts of his life that saw him evolve, throw light on his personality and approach to problems. In order to provide you with reference and continuity, the essay refers to important events during that period. I have compressed a 540-page book into a forty three-page essay so it is not possible to cover every event and all issues in detail. My choice of content was decided by the importance of an event. I have tried my best to handle a complex subject. In case of any errors, am willing to stand corrected and seek your forgiveness. The essay is divided into Eight chapters.
1. Early Life (1875 to 1917) covers Patel’s family traits, education and initiation into the freedom movement.
2. Lieutenant (1918 to 1922) covers fight of Kheda and the Khilafat Movement.
3. Sardar (1922 to 1929) covers the battle of Bardoli.
4. Boss (1934 to 1939) covers SP’s relations with Gandhi and Nehru, elections of 1937, India and the Second World War, SP and Muslims.
5. Thwarted (1939 to 1945) covers relations between Gandhi and SP, Civil Disobedience Movement, Why did Gandhi prefer Nehru to SP, Cripps Mission in 1942, Quit India Movement, Gandhi’s wooing of Jinnah.
6. Victory (1945 to 1947) covers elections of 1945, Cripps Cabinet Mission, Why did Gandhi select Nehru as Congress President to be Premier, Direct Action Plan of 1946, Constituent Assembly, SP and Gandhi, Gandhi’s last bid to avoid partition, Partition accepted and Princely states.
7. Climax (1947-1948) covers riots in Delhi and Calcutta, Jungarh Won, Kashmir, Hyderabad, payment of Rs 55 crs to Pakistan and Hyderabad Won.
8. Soldier (1948 to 1950) covers critics of SP, election of Dr R Prasad as President of India, SP’s views of Tibet and China, developments in Kashmir, election of Purshottam Tandon as Congress President and a tribute to the Iron Man.
Early Life (1875 to 1917)
Halfway between Ahmedabad and Baroda is the town of Nadiad. Here was born Patel (P) on a day that people believe was October 31, 1875. He belonged to a family of land owners, Patidars, modern day Patels. Their ancestors – possibly linked to the Huns who swept down from the northwest from the 6th century or to the Gurjars of Punjab or both. Some of their characteristics were loyalty to Hinduism, rallying against outsiders, male supremacy, and silence before elders. Bluntness in speech, an unconcern about dress and appearance, a sense of superiority towards non-Patidars and self-image of tough men meant they were naturally born to rule over others.
Patel did his law and became Pleader, Borsad. Like many others at that time he too wanted to go to England. He saved Rs 10,000 and was all set to go until elder brother Vithalbhai expressed a desire to go. P gave his brother 15 days to make up his mind failing which P would go. This characteristic of keeping second string to his bow is, as we shall see later, became part of his character. This happened in 1901. He lost his wife Jhaverba in 1909. For the benefit of his children he did not marry again.
Patel sailed for Engalnd in 1910. From Marseilles, he took a train to Calais and via Dover reached London. He wore western clothes for the first time as he left for London. P resented British rule and the notion of Englishman’s superiority. The fire seen in his breadth, when he attacked Englishmen who were calling others uncivilized, was smoldering inside him even in 1910-1913.
He was admitted to the Middle Temple, one of the Inns of Court, as London’s law colleges were called. In 1910, Nehru was admitted to the Inner temple. While Nehru came via Harrow and Cambridge, P came via Petland, Nadiad and Borsad. P wrote his finals after a 20-month stay, passed in the first attempt and claimed a pound 50 prize. P was called to the Bar, a great honor. He returned to India in 1913. He decided to practice in Ahmedabad inspite of a good offer in Mumbai.
During the next four years i.e. 1913 to 1916 he aroused envy, awe and became the highest paid lawyer in Ahemdabad. Patel with his masculinity impressed the Raj’s custodians from 1913 to 1947. The Raj would have knighted him but Destiny! April 1915 brought Gandhi (G) to town. Curiosity took members of the Gujarat Club to the ashram in Kochrab that G had started there. They were told of G’s faith in Satyagraha, non-violence. P laughed and made others laugh with his ridicule of the crank and sarcasm about G’s brilliant ideas. However, what impressed P about G was his ability to gather a group of young, outstanding lawyers around him. A friend had also taunted P that public could not be served from the Club.
In October 1916, the Gujarat Sabha organized the Bombay Presidency Political Conference in Ahmedabad that saw the extremists led by Tilak sharing a platform with the moderates for the first time. Jinnah, at that time, a keen advocate of Hindu-Muslim unity was asked to preside. P attended and was impressed enough to visit Lucknow where the Congress was to hold its annual session. Unimpressed he returned to practice.
However, things changed soon. Offended by the appointment of John Shillidy as Municipal Commissioner of Ahmedabad, P’s friends urged him to enter the city board. Having won the election, he was by December 1917, a member of the city board and chairman of the sanitary committee.
Gandhi’s firm yet dignified rebuff to the Raj against the exploitation of the indigo workers of Bihar by their British masters had made the Gujarat Club decide that they wanted G as their President. P concurred. Thus, in April 1917 was forged the first link in the chain that would bind P to G. The incident probably convinced P that Shillidy could be got rid of. Not a guy who shooted from the hip, P gathered irrefutable evidence to prove Shillidy of deliberate insubordination, forcing the Raj to transfer him.
After accepting the presidentship of the Gujarat Sabha G proposed that signatures be collected for a memorandum for Montagu demanding Swaraj. By the end of Sept 8,000 signatures were collected. As P were to say later “ I felt that G’s ten lines had greater influence than a 100 page memorandum”. Working with a G initiated activity for the first time, he went to Borsad and called for signatures.
In November 1917, the Sabha had organized the Gujarat Political Conference where G urged leaders to speak in an Indian language. While Tilak spoke in Marathi, Vithalbhai had to struggle with Gujarati and Jinnah too stammered out a speech in Gujarati. 27 yrs later G said “Jinnah hated me since the day I asked him in a meeting to give up English and speak Gujarati”. Impressed with G, P agreed to serve as the secretary of the Gujarat Sabha’s first executive committee. G’s success in 1917 impressed P. Not to be left behind, P helped majorly when Plague struck Ahembadad and famine the nearby villages.
The farmers of Kheda district were going through trying times. Little rain in 1915, slightly better in 1916, too much rain in 1917. However, its peasants had to pay new higher rates to laborers, the First World War had increased prices, the district was hit by plague too. For these reasons they begged the Raj to lower the land revenue demand. G advised the Gujarat Sabha to ask the peasants to suspend payment until a reply was received to their letter from the Raj Office in Mumbai.
During the Sabha’s executive committee meeting, he laid down a condition that atleast one of its members should devote all his time till the Kheda campaign was completed. Obviously he was hinting at Patel. Wooing P was G’s objective. P went through self-conflict, was he give up his practice. Quoting G on P’s duvidha “ My practice may or may not be there tomorrow. Let me leave them a higher legacy than money”.
In his book India Wins Freedom, Maulana Azad says that P owed everything to G, P planned his wooing of G. This is untrue. It was G who needed P and not vice versa. It was courage to side with the peasants of Kheda rather than cleverness that made P join G.