On October 31, the world biggest statue, that of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, was unveiled in Gujarat to celebrate the birth anniversary of India’s ‘Iron Man’. As home minister in 1947, he helped weld together over 500 princely states to create a unified India. His birthday is now celebrated as National Unity Day.
Paeans of praise have been heaped on Patel. I, however, view him as a flawed hero. He was a great Independence leader. Yet his anniversary is an occasion to remember his failures as well as successes.
When Independence was close in 1946, the Congress and Muslim League jointly formed an interim government. Nehru was Prime Minister, Patel was home minister and Liaquat Ali Khan was finance minister. In this power-sharing experiment, the Congress should have gone all out to accommodate the Muslim League, showing that Hindus and Muslims could work together in a united India, avoiding Partition. This did not happen.
Leonard Mosley’s ‘The Last Days of the British Raj’ relates how Patel, supposedly the second most powerful minister, was infuriated that he could not even appoint a chaprasi without finance ministry sanction, which Liaquat would not easily give. Liaquat’s bureaucratic games made life difficult for all Congress ministers.
The crunch came in 1947. Indian industrialists had made fortunes during World War II because of scarcities. Liaquat presented a supposedly socialist budget with high taxes to claw back inequitable gains made during the war. Gujarat’s textile industrialists, friends and supporters of Patel, castigated this as a Muslim League attack on them, disguised as socialism. This added to Patel’s growing feeling that cohabitation with the Muslim League was not possible.
Actually, the Gujarat industrialists were guilty of Hindu communalism. Parsi and Muslim industrialists were hit by high taxes too. Patel should have shrugged off Liaquat’s budget as a headache inevitable in power sharing. That did not happen.
In February 1947, the Congress party was dead against Partition. Within four months, the party did a U-turn and opted for Partition. The Liaquat budget was not the only reason. Jinnah’s Direct Action Day in 1946 had sparked an orgy of communal killing that spread across India in subsequent months, and some Congress leaders thought that giving Muslims the Pakistan they wanted might create communal peace. Alan Campbell-Johnson’s ‘Mission with Mountbatten’ cites Nehru wryly saying that one way to cure a headache was to cut off the cause of the headache.
Then came the Mountbatten offer to advance the date of Independence from June 1948 to August 1947, provided the Congress and Muslim League could agree on a political package. This proved the clincher. Unable to resist the bait of early independence, all top Congress leaders (including Patel) agreed with the Muslim League on partitioning India.
Thus, Patel was an architect of Partition. To hail him today as a Great Unifier is surely an exaggeration. Partition was a Great Division. Along with Patel, all top Congress leaders were Great Dividers.
The second great blunder was the decision to go for Partition at breakneck speed. Such a major change required careful consultation and preparation. Patel as home minister should have argued that rapid, unprepared Partition would be a public order disaster, especially when mass murder and migration started. Instead, he, along with leaders of both countries, persisted with a flawed Partition that killed a million people and created 10 million refugees, one of the greatest human disasters in history.
British India had 584 princely states, mostly with Hindu majorities. Patel persuaded over 500 of these to accede to India. For this he is called the Great Unifier. However, Pakistan also succeeded in integrating all Muslim-majority princely states, despite lacking a Patel. The princes acceded because they knew they faced military takeover if they resisted, a fate that befell Kashmir and Hyderabad. Unification of the princely states with India and Pakistan was inevitable, with or without Patel.
A third blunder — and here I disagree with most Indians — was on Kashmir. Having agreed to partition India on Hindu-Muslim lines, the moral and practical onus on all parties was to make this approach work. Nehru and Patel should not have tried to get Muslim-majority Kashmir to join India.
Had Kashmir joined Pakistan, the human and financial cost of India-Pakistan wars and unending border clashes would have been a tiny fraction of actual outcomes. India would not have had a Ladakh border with China in Kashmir, and would have been spared the clashes there.
Most Indians think getting Kashmir was a great achievement of Patel. But today Kashmiris mostly hate India, and are in open revolt. This is not the Great Unity that Patel is credited with.