Revisiting the role of Vallabhbhai Patel in the Making of Modern India
Hitendra K Patel
There has been a perception among a large number of people that the Congress was a platform of people with diverse ideological orientations which kept leaders and people together due to the national movement and the need for keeping Indian voices together to successfully facing the British imperialism. Once the British decided to leave these ideological differences surfaced leading to contestations among them for political power game. In this context, the leaders of the Congress have been seen as divided along the “left” and “the right” lines. In this formulation, the division was fundamental and there was a real ideological struggle to control the organisation –the Congress. According to this view, the conflict between the “right” (represented by Patel) and the “left” (represented by Nehru) was ideological in nature and the differences were so fundamental that it persisted till the last, till the death of Patel in 1950. To some scholars, Patel was a rabid communal in his outlook while Nehru represented secular nationalism. The assessment of these two most formidable Congress leaders have been seen this way and it has been claimed that, “the Sangha parivar worships one (Patel) and hates the “other” (Nehru)” due to this. There has been a growing divide on this issue and more and more people belonging to the “political right” seem to underline that Patel was a pragmatic, realistic leader while Nehru was idealistic in his approach to deal with the complex political challenges India had faced.
This paper seeks to argue that while making a historical assessment of Patel the context’s complexities must be kept in mind. The differences between Patel and Nehru and various moves and utterances of Patel, which are cited as evidences of his “rabid communal” outlook must be examined in the context these were applicable. If that is done, the historians would be able to make a nuanced and balanced assessment of Vallabhbhai Patel. It is obvious that in a short paper like this, all aspects of this complex issue cannot be addressed; the focus, here, is mainly on some misconceptions about Patel’s role in this phase which try to see in his deeds and words communal outlook.
Patel, unlike Nehru, Azad and Rajgopalachari, sided with Gandhi on the issue of 1942 movement. Going by the indications in 1945, when the national movement leaders were released from jails, Patel was convinced that their stand was vindicated. The British government did not seem to give priority to India in 1945. Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain, in his forty minute discussion with Wavell, categorically said that India was not his priority and India could be divided into Pakistan, Hindustan and Princestan. The Viceroy had decided to call Indian leaders to Simla for talks. Vallabhhai Patel was released from the jail on June 15, 1945, and he said to his supporters –“Be ready. Self –government is round the corner.”
In the next twenty six months, India and Pakistan were actually created and the third one –Princestan could not be created. How this process had begun and progressed and who were the principal actors in this “transfer of power” is a well attested area. But, somehow, one of the principal figures –Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel’s role is not very well examined and there are great deal of confusion about his role. His role as the unifier is acknowledged but there is a great deal of debate over his ideological leanings. Commentators and historians have found many deficiencies in his handling of affairs, some of them went on to blame him as the person who, under the influence of V. P. Menon, mooted the idea of division of India which gave Jinnah the opportunity to materialised his somewhat vague demand of Pakistan. Patel was seen as the man who through his “arm twisting” managed to control the Congress and the negotiations with the League in his own way. He was seen as a leader and somewhat ignored the wishes of Gandhi, Nehru and Maulana Azad, who were not willing to agree to the division of the country.
Vallabhbhai Patel was physically unwell when he came out of jail. The intestinal problem for which he was treated in 1941 had recurred. He had to spend considerable time in a Poona clinic. The Congress accepted the proposals of Shimla which had offered a representative Executive Council with equal number of Hindus and Muslims, plus a Hindu Schedule Caste member and some other minorities. But, Jinnah rejected it and he asked the exclusive right to choose the Muslim members. Wavell did not like Jinnah’s uncompromising attitude but he did not want Jinnah to lose his ground. Perhaps the 1942 movement days had been alive in his mind. The failure of Shimla talks “soared Jinnah’s stock” says Rajmohan Gandhi. Rajmohan Gandhi has made a very appropriate observation that, “ten months earlier, the Muslim masses had seen the Mahatma knocking on the door. Now they saw the Viceroy yielding to him. And Muslim politicians saw a barren future for themselves unless they were linked with Jinnah.”
At this point, Wavell, well aware of Patel’s influence as “the real driving force behind Congress’ aggressive policy”, did not like to negotiate with him. Patel’s aggressive and plain speaking could not have been of his liking. Patel looked convinced that the much talked about Hindu Muslim divide is basically the imperial government’s doing. He had said once:
The British talk of Hindu-Muslim quarrels but who has thrust this burden on their shoulders? If they are sincere let them hand over to Congress or the League or accept international arbitration.
Give me just a week’s rule over Britain. I will create such disagreements that England, Wales and Scotland will fight one another for ever.
Patel, however, was not happy with the leniency Gandhi had been showing to Jinnah. He was in command of the Congress and when the election board was constituted with Rajendra Prasad, Jayant Kripalani, Govind Ballabh Pant, Pattabhi Sitaramaiya, Deo and Asaf as members and Maulana Azad as the chairman, Patel, with the designation of “Member in charge” was totally in charge of affairs. Barring Asaf all followed Patel. As dignified fund raiser his prestige was unparalleled in the organisation. A pragmatic man, he was conscious of the importance of money in elections. He wrote to Azad that the Congress must not lose any seat for want of money. He requested Nehru to write an election manifesto with Quit-India as its basis which Nehru did.
At this stage, he left the post of president of Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee after holding it for twenty five years. Patel’s humility and his generosity were also remarkable as he put organisational interests before anything. He welcomed C. Rajgopalachari to the Congress again forgetting his differences and defended him against sceptics who raised Rajgopalachari’s opposition to Quit India movement. Generally, Patel is seen as a person who disliked Subhas Chandra Bose, but his opposition to Bose’s policies had not diminished his respect for Subhas. Patel claimed him in 1945 as a “fellow fighter” and a colleague. Patel also led the committee constituted to assist the relatives of INA soldiers. He and Sarat Bose had mutual respect for each other. Some of the charges levelled against Patel have emerged from Maulana Azad’s views. But, it seems, those are not correct ones. The charge that Patel excluded Bhulabhai Desai from the list of executive council is not valid one. Gandhi himself had said clearly in his letter that Patel is not responsible for this.
Fund-raising for the organisation was done by Patel and he ignored Mahatma Gandhi’s wish not to do so. He was practical enough to realise that the organisation needed money. When Gandhi complained against Patel about it to Birla, which was conveyed to Patel he said, “That is not his concern. Gandhi is a Mahatma. I am not. I have to do the job.”
Rajmohan Gandhi makes a very subtle remark on Gandhi’s changing relationship with Patel. Earlier Gandhi used to refer Patel as a younger brother, an aide, but now he started referring him “as a son”, who could lead his own life, says Rajmohan Gandhi.
At this stage, Patel was going his own way. He decided to ignore Agha Khan’s advice to reach out to Jinnah for settlement. Following the disastrous results of 1945-46 elections from the Congress point of view, the political equations changed. This result had a huge impact of Patel and he seemed to have accepted that the Hindu-Muslim unity is a questionable matter and the context determines the nature of relationship between these communities. He hoped that with some more work the understanding can be revived. Yet, as pointed out by Rajmohan Gandhi, unlike Nehru, Patel never seriously tried to claim that he represented Muslims.
The pragmatic Patel proved a far better judge of the political situation. When INA trial ended and verdict of the three accused, despite being sentenced to life imprisonment, were not executed, considering the popular mood, Patel was quick to realise that the British were contemplating to leave India.
Patel was categorical that the Hindu-Muslim settlement could not be possible with the mediation of the British.
From the end of March to end of June, 1946, in Delhi, Simla and again in Delhi Congress talked with the Cabinet Mission, with three members – Lord Pethick Lawrence, Stafford Cripps and A.V. Alexander. The Congress representatives were Azad, Patel, Nehru and Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan. Patel spoke less but his interventions were significant. He rejected the Hindu Muslim parity at the centre. He was seen as a powerful and uncompromising by Wavell.
Patel was focusing on two key issues- the strong centre and the compulsory grouping. He was concerned over Assam’s possible inclusion in the group of group c which was marginally Muslim majority group. The Congressmen of Assam was not likely to accept this. After lengthy and unpredictable negotiations, in the third week of June, 1946 things came to a dead end. Sudhir Ghosh, a young Bengali who had studied at Cambridge has claimed that he advised Cripps that they should talk to Sardar Patel who was “the only man amongst the Congress leaders who was a practical statesman.” After some tense days, the Congress accepted the plan of 16 May on 25 June. At this point, getting Congress into power and preventing the League an inflated share of power were two principal objectives of Patel. It was due to his firmness , backed by the cleverness of Wavell, Jinnah was not able to gain much during the 97 day long Cabinet Mission (ending on June 16).
The crucial question of the Vice-President of the Viceroy’s Executive Council came up in April. It was obvious that the man who would hold this post would be the Prime Minister. Azad wanted to be re-elected, Nehru was the candidate, Patel was also a contender. April, 29, was the last date of nomination. On 20th April, Gandhi wrote a letter asking him to resign so that Jawaharlal could replace him. Gandhi wrote that, “I would if asked prefer Jawaharlal. I have many reasons for this. Why go into them.” The organisation wanted Patel. The party was conscious of Sardar’s successful Quit India exertions, not matached by Jawaharlal, says Rajmohan Gandhi. 12 of the 15 PCCs nominated Patel. No PCC had proposed the name of Jawaharlal. In the Working Committee meeting Kripalani proposed Nehru’s name. He handed over a piece of paper with latter’s withdrawal written on it. Vallabhbhai showed the sheet to Gandhi, who gave Jawaharlal an opportunity to stand down in the Sardar’s favour. “No PCC has put forward your name, “the Mahatma said to Nehru, “only the Working Committee has.” Jawaharlal responded with “complete silence”.
This episode has been underplayed by historians like S. Gopal, the influential biographer of Nehru, who says that, “...there was general agreement that Jawaharlal should take over.” He, however, sees its significance very differently by saying that, “Hindsight has led to much significance being read into his election, it being seen as part of the Gandhian technique to ease Jawaharlal into the prime ministership which was looming ahead and deprive Patel of what was his by virtue of his control over the party machine.” Gopal offers an interesting observation in this context that, “...at that time no one saw it in that light. In the summer of 1946 the presidency of the Congress seemed to bestow immediate responsibility rather than imminent office.”
After Nehru took over as the president of the INC, he announced on 7 July that the Congress was not bound by anything except that it would join the Constituent Assembly. This gave the opportunity to attack the Congress position, and then revoke the acceptance of May 16 proposal. After that he launched “direct action to achieve Pakistan”.
Nehru’s statement was ill-timed and he made a mistake. Even Maulana Azad has criticised Nehru’s statement. But, S. Gopal, has defended Nehru whose utterances were, in the view of the historian, “in line with the Congress view.” In an interesting way of editing he has tried to put Patel as a critique of Nehru, but if we carefully see the full text of Patel’s letter to D. P. Mishra, on the basis of which S Gopal has written, we find that Nehru had been very sensitive to Nehru in spite of the fact that his statement had put the Congress in trouble.
Patel had been considered important by the Viceroy to resolve an issue when an issue of the role of the Viceroy in the interim government came up. Through H. V. R. Iengar the Viceroy took the consent of Patel on 3 August, 1946. Patel became part of Constituent Assembly on 2 September, 1946. Meanwhile, the Muslim League had observed Direct Action Day during which hundreds of people had been killed.
The League was still sought to be roped in the interim cabinet by the Viceroy. Patel did not like this idea. Nehru also did not approve of it, but gave his consent.
In the new cabinet, Sarat Bose, Ali Zaheer and Shafat Ahmed Khan vacated their places and five League men got inducted. Among these, the surprising name was Jogen Mandal from Bengal, as “a revenge for nomination of Asaf Ali” by the Congress. The League joined to the Cabinet without accepting May 16 proposal much to the dislike of the Congress leaders.
The issue of portfolio came up. The League demanded the Home ministry which Patel refused to give. He told that he would resign if the Home ministry was given to the League. By now, Vallabhbhai was quite convinced that Jinnah was using this opportunity to break up India. The League refused to accept Nehru as the leader of the cabinet and they met separately under Liaqat Ali Khan’s chairmanship and under Wavell’s chairmanship when they met with the Congress leaders. Shankar, the secretary of Vallabhbhai, has remarked that the ministries under the League were seen as entrenched Muslim camps.
The communal situation worsened and, in October 1946 more than three hundred Hindus had been killed in Noakhali. Patel asked for a Cabinet discussion on Noakhali and a central takeover of the affected areas. These demands were not accepted. Meanwhile, Bihar riots began in which around 7000 were killed. This was followed by the riots of Garhmukteshwar on 8 November and about a thousand Muslims were killed.
Maulana Azad had not joined the cabinet. He wished to prefer the presidentship of the Congress. Nehru had left it after joining the cabinet, but the post went to Kripalani. Maulana was not made the president due to Patel. Azad joined the Cabinet after Asaf Ali became the ambassador to Washington.
Patel preferred as his residence the round house at 1 Aurangzeb Road (in October1946 from Birla House, their home in Delhi before moving over) while Nehru, who opted for a house on York Road, met regularly. Nehru often walked over to Patel’s house. Patel needed a confidential aide and Moraraji Desai suggested Vidya Shankar. He was selected. He, along with Vapal Pangunni Menon aand Hirubhai M. Patel were the three closest associates who played crucial roles in the last four years of Vallabhbhai’s life.
The Interim government ministry was formed but it did not meet till Dec 46. The Congress pressed for the acceptance of May 16 proposal while the League demanded the acceptance of compulsory grouping. The Congress leaders were invited by the government for talks in London. Vallabhbhai refused to go but Nehru, induced by Atlee, went. The outcome was a victory of the League. The declaration that followed was seen as a betrayal. According to this, the Muslims of Assam could decide about the grouping of Assam and the Punjab could determine the fate of Sindh and N.W.F.Province.
Vallabhbhai wrote to Gandhi: “I did not go...He (Nehru) should not have gone either. But, he did not listen. Now he has come back with a defeat.”
By now, Vallabhbhai had found too many issues before hand and he had decided to go his way without breaking his association with his dear ones. His speeches of this period were considered “inflammatory” by some, as he talked of teaching the people to “meet the sword by sword” and he was not happy the way Jawaharlal and people who loved him disagreed to his views. In a letter dated 30 December, 1946, Gandhi had been critical of Patel’s speeches. The latter almost dismissed these allegations. He remained, however, with all differences with other leaders, the man who did the work most effectively for the organisation. His approach was such that there was no scope of any ambiguity. In 1946 when B. R. Ambedkar proposed the mass conversion of members of Scheduled Castes to other religions Patel responded that if they changed religion, they could not claim benefits as Harijans. The issue did not go further.
Sardar’s simplicity and directness made him an ideal organisation man. His daughter Maniben Patel, who devoted her life to her father, has written that he travelled second-class and she used to spread his bedding at night and retire to a third class compartment.
One of the remarkable qualities of Vallabhbhai was his ability to choose the right person for the right job and give him the confidence to go ahead. H. M. Patel has given a remarkable example of how he made his associates feel inspired:
When partition was decided on, and the task of partitioning of assets and liabilities of the country and its administrative and other organisations was taken in hand, the Sardar invited some 40 or 50 Indian officers who had been appointed to the various committees set up by the Partition Council of the Cabinet working through a Steering Committee of two, Mohammad Ali on behalf of Pakistan and myself on behalf of India.
The Sardar spoke somewhat in the following terms:
“I have invited you all today to say just this. You are being entrusted work of the greatest importance to our country. It has to be completed in a very short time. I have no doubt you will apply yourself to the task with zeal and accomplish it with thoroughness and fairness. Let me tell you that I have always been happiest when I have been engaged in working for the country. I am inviting you to join me today and participate in the same happiness.
Shankara Prasada, Secretary, Kashmir Affairs (1958-65) has also noted that the most outstanding quality of Sardar was his capacity to command the allegiance and unstinted loyalty of the Civil Servants who came into his contact.
At the end, one may say that any study of the speeches and letters of Patel must take into consideration, at least, two points: Patel was very categorical and his statements were primarily aimed to people who were to be addressed directly; and secondly, Patel said what he thought was correct and practical. Consider this short letter to Gandhi- “... In NWF Province both Hindus and Sikhs are butchered. In Calcutta also the condition of Hindu is worsening. I did not like the appeal published in paper in yours and Jinnah’s name. It is against your understanding. But now what can be done ?”
We should also remember the challenge he was facing in those troubled times. A careful scrutiny would reveal that Patel was not handling affairs as a pragmatic statesman rather than a communal one. Patel had said to the Viceroy that if any violence by the Congress Government of the NWFP could be proved, he would hold himself personally responsible. But, unless the Muslim League withdrew their Direct Action threat, there would be a disaster. To get a sense of how pragmatic consideration was in his mind one can see his letter to G. C. Narang in which he has defended his speech at Merrut in which many had found a Hindu bias. He wrote –“ I still stand by that, but that speech does not indicate that I am going to provide swords for the Hindus in the Frontier or in the Punjab or in any other minority areas. My advice to them was to be prepared to defend their lives, property and the honour of their womenfolk. After all, when the third party is going to disappear, in the transitional period, trouble is bound to arise, and the unfortunate people residing in the minority areas have to bear the brunt... It is no use demoralizing them by simply raising cries ...That would not help them at all.” One can also see that he was not conciliatory towards Hindu organisation leaders. His response to Jathmal Parsram on 12 May 1947 can be seen how nasty he could be to a Hindu leader.  He also wrote that the Hindus must not migrate from Sindh as late as 23 May, 1947.
Sardar seems to have said things in the plainest possible manner. In a significant letter to Gandhi, he wrote on 7 January, 1947 –It is my habit to speak out unsavoury truths to people in the plainest manner. He also mentioned that there “are alienations in the Working Committee... since long” and it was not a new thing. But, he added “most of us are working as team.” 
In conclusion, it can be said that Patel was the part of the team who was doing his duty in his own pragmatic nationalist way and to find in him “rabid communal” person is historically untenable if we keep in mind the context in which he hold the crucial position of the organisation man of the Congress and the Home Minister of the Government. His differences with Nehru had not been understood properly. With all their differences these two leaders remained in the same team. They were too great politicians to wage ideological battle at that critical time.