Life of Sardar Patel

Thwarted – 1939 to 1945       

When the Congress Ministries resigned Jinnah told the Muslims that they had experienced deliverance while SP tried to show that the perception was flawed. Sir Francis Wylie, Governor of the Central Provinces felt that “the accusations of gross anti-Muslim bias on the part of the Congress ministries were moonshine”. Yet the image was stronger than reality. Responding to Jinnah, large number of Muslims observed Deliverance Day on December 1942. Aware of truth, the Raj gave too much importance to the Muslim view. Zetland spoke of a Congress as “Hindu organization which should reach a settlement with the Muslims” to which the Sardar retorted –

“We ask the Viceroy for the objectives of the war. We did not receive any direct reply but now we are being told to go and settle with the Muslims, that is, with the Muslim League. If we do succeed, we shall probably be told, Go and settle with the Indian princess. When that happens they will say, what about the Europeans who have so many interests in the country - You the British are the real cause of all arguments. You introduced communal electorates”.

Wanting to blunt Jinnah’s arguments that the Congress represented the Hindus, G did at the end of 1939 press the presidency on Maulana Azad. In 1940, even as Azad asserted that Muslims were part of the indivisible unity i.e. Indian nationality, the League resolved in Lahore for separation for Pakistan. It also announced total opposition to any Congress-Raj agreement that did not concede Pakistan. The quam heeded Jinnah, period.

Gandhi and Patel - G’s approach to the Hindu-Muslim question were not SP’s. Willing to listen to genuine complaints he would not tolerate baseless allegations against the Congress. With its back to the wall in World War 2, some like Rajagopolachari felt that England must be helped. Patel agreed but G could not, with his ahimsa, endorse Congress’s participation in a violent war. A series of talks with the Raj had convinced G of a Raj-League nexus to foil the Congress. Sharing the thinking of Rajaji that Britain might accept the Congress demands and welcomes an offer of active assistance in the war, SP voted for the proposal in the WorCom. Nehru and G were both against it but SP’s backing ensured that the proposal carried through. SP had for the first time in 22 years gone against G but G was confident that SP would be back with him. Within a week SP and Rajaji wavered. The Raj proved G correct. A Viceregal statement said that if the Raj, Congress, League and the Princes reached an agreement, a certain number of politicians might be included in Executive Council of the Viceroy, who would however have the last word. At the end of the war, India would offer not freedom but a body to devise the framework of the new constitution. SP was relieved but his going against G was only a precursor of the 1947 gulf between the two of them.

A Civil Disobedience Movement was started in Oct 1940 that petered out. It was resumed in early 1941, nearly 15,000 were imprisoned including SP. Due to failing health, he was released in October. This policy has been criticized by many due to unwillingness of Nehru, G to embarrass the Brits and appears to be a desire to take the wind out of the sails of Subhas Bose’s party that had begun its campaign of Civil Disobedience in right earnest. On December 7, Japan swept across the Pacific and the WorCom following Rajaji’s lead accepted the impossibility of defending India non-violently against a Japanese invasion. Suspending satyagraha the WorCom offered cooperation to the Allies if India’s freedom was declared. Much against G and SP’s wishes, at the AICC session at Wardha in January 1942 was the above resolution passed.

It was on 15/01/1942 that G designated Nehru as his successor. He said “You cannot divide water by repeatedly striking it with a stick. It is just as difficult to divide us—When I am gone he will speak my language”. Why did G prefer Nehru to Patel? One was that SP was less popular than Nehru with the country’s leftists, youth and Muslims. Two age and health went against SP. Three, G knew that SP was there to supply a corrective, when necessary to Nehru, who would be primus inter spares and not the sole guide. Fourthly, G may have felt that Nehru was more likely than SP to resent a number two position. He was certain that SP’s commitment had nothing to do with rank.

Five was SP’s distance from the Muslims. “You should try to learn Urdu” G advised SP in a letter. SP’ reply showed that the Wardha announcement had not made him any less frank or free with G. Sardar Patel said “ Sixty-seven years are over and this earthen vessel is near to cracking. It is very late to learn Urdu but I will try. All the same, your learning Urdu does not seem to have helped. The more you try to get close to them, the more they flee from you”. Said G later “Those like SP who have followed me without question cannot be called heirs. Nehru has the drive that no one has in the same measure”.

The war had pricked the bubble of the white man’s superior civilization. Seething under major losses, the U.S. had urged Churchill to make a move towards G and the Congress. Under pressure, Churchill nominated Sir Stafford Cripps to take new proposals to Delhi. Cripps in early 1942 offered India full Dominion Status after the war, with the right of secession from the Commonwealth and a post war Constituent Assembly whose members would be chosen by provincial legislatures or nominated by the princes. For now, India could have a national government. In other words, once India became a dominion, every province would have the right to secede. Cripps incorporated this clause to get Jinnah’s acceptance but he gave the Congress a verbal view that no province would in fact demand that right. (why are we Indians so gullible to be taken in by verbal assurances, Indira Gandhi took Bhutto’s words on Kashmir while signing the Simla Agreement in 1972). Jinnah welcomed the proposals because it implied Pakistan but rejected the scheme because it gave provinces and not what he called the Muslim nation the right to separate. G and SP opposed Cripps proposals and accused the Muslims to be intransigent.

Though they did not realize, SP, Nehru and Azad had in their answer to Cripps, taken a step towards the acceptance of Pakistan. The WorCom clarified that it could not “think in terms of compelling the people of any territorial unit to remain in an Indian Union against their clear and established will”. Although SP was associated with this comment, in all probability it was drafted by Nehru and desired in the first instance by Azad.

Cripps proved to the world that India was hopelessly divided. Starting with the premise that Japan was enemy number one, Rajaji proposed peace with the Muslim League. G however, wanted Britain to leave India after which Hindus and Muslims would settle their disputes. Guided by Rajaji, the Madras Congress legislators proposed that the Congress should accept the League’s claim for separation of Muslim Majority areas. Deeply hurt SP took on Rajaji publicly. G supported SP. Unwilling to change his views, Rajaji resigned from the Congress and the assembly.

SP was the first to agree and Nehru the last to agree with G’s proposal of Quit India. A call to the British to withdraw from India implying that the Congress would struggle to enforce it was the crux of G’s proposal. At the Allahabad WorkCom the Gandhi/Prasad draft was approved on April 30 morning. In the afternoon Prasad withdrew it in favor of Nehru’s draft to maintain party unity. Kriplani recorded the reversal followed a statement from Azad that he would resign if the Gandhi draft was accepted. Despite being upset, SP accepted Nehru’s draft. It did not say that the Brits must withdraw from India but said the Congress would find it impossible to consider any schemes which, even in partial measure, British control over India. When Gandhi heard about the change he told Kriplani “ You should have allowed the Maulana to resign”.

G and SP agreed with Rajaji that the Brits were unlikely to leave India, they envisaged a struggle. Although Nehru / Azad were against Quit India, any patience or passivity by the Congress at that time would have isolated the Congress, allowing violent elements and Subhas Bose to capture the Indian mind. Quit India was for Indian wars than British. The movement did gather momentum forcing the Raj to arrest top Congress leaders. SP, Nehru and Azad with nine others were taken to Ahmednagar fort where they spent the next three winters. All this happened in 1942. In the words of the Viceroy “by far the most serious rebellion since that of 1857”.

If the Congress had been saved by Quit India, Jinnah had been strengthened; the Raj let its sunshine fall on the league. SP would maintain till the end that Quit India was correct. But in a suppressed layer of his soul, lay several thoughts of blame. Yet a significant thought had taken place in his mind. “Next time he would think twice before going by Gandhi’s instinct”. Inwardly SP was prepared to disobey G in the future. Interestingly Nehru would justify Quit India in 1956 “ I don’t think the action we took in 1942 could have been avoided or ought to have been avoided. If we had been passive then, I think we would have lost all her strength”.

Although the movement collapsed within two months it would be a mistake to suppose that it was a dismal failure. The violent upsurge of 1942 left no one in doubt that freedom’s battle had begun in right earnest. This movement, the last rising of the people against the Brits, was non-violent, not planned nor led by G, to give him credit would be wrong.

Jailed SP read and read. Mahtab said, “he did not seem to have a scholarly bent of mind while Nehru wrote, “it is difficult for Vallabhai to think internationally”. These comments should be read with the assessment of Pattabhi who wrote in Oct 1942 of the Sardar as “one who inspires awe as well as reference, who is rich in anecdote, flowing in sardonic wit and humor, seemingly ignorant of the current of thought in the world and yet fully conversant with their intimate details and courses, having in him embedded deep in his heart and brain numerous details which explain the politics of the past one score and seven years”.

Azad and Nehru disagreed with Quit India while SP supported it. Knowing each other’s views they avoided arguments by not discussing the subject. As for the ability to include international factors in national strategies, SP, as time would show, probably possessed in greater measure than Nehru. Earlier we note Nehru’s judgement on SP’s mind “lucid but may not be deep”. No wonder SP and Kripalani sensed a superiority complex in Nehru. Weighing the men in Ahmednagar, Pattabhi called SP, “the most wise”.

Unwell, G was released in May 1944. After conferring with Rajaji, G told the Raj that he was prepared to ask the WorCom suspend the disobedience movement and Congress would cooperate fully with the War Effort if a national govt. responsible to the Central Assembly was formed. It was similar to Azad’s proposal but SP did not want the WorCom to yield to the Raj behind G’s back. The Raj spurned the offer. The second move was towards Jinnah. In his search for the settlement with the League, G went 14 times in September to Jinnah’s house in Mumbai. SP, Azad and Nehru disliked this. G’s proposal that the Congress and League must jointly form a national government on the understanding that the contiguous Muslim majority areas could secede following independence, if separation was the preference of their adult populations.

G was conceding Pakistan through the Rajaji formula but Jinnah did not find it large enough or sovereign enough because G wanted bonds of alliance between Hindustan and Pakistan written into any treaty of separation. Jinnah wanted partition under British auspices and before independence. It is possible that subsequent to his release SP admonished Rajaji for instigating G into his talks with Jinnah.

On Gandhi’s authorization, Bhulabhaidesai in January 1945, held talks with Liaqat Ali Khan to initial a pact that meant a national govt. would be formed with five members each from the Congress and League with two representing other groups. Within a month Liaqat denied any knowledge of the pact. Inspite of having a copy initialed by Liaqat, Desai preferred not to call the bluff. Jinnah disagreed because it did not bar from including a Muslim on the list.  SP had reacted violently against the concession.

In April 1945, SP was transferred to Yeravada jail in Pune. The war ended a month later.

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