Past Forward: Iron man, in flesh and blood

Can we get to know, today in our 21st century, a heart that began its life in the 19th century and expired in the middle of the 20th? Researching the Sardar in the late 1980s, I was staggered by his self-sacrifice.

Written by Rajmohan Gandhi | New Delhi | Updated: October 28, 2018 9:41:02 am
Past Forward: Iron Man, his flesh and blood (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

On the 31st of this month, when his mammoth statue is unveiled, India will see the Sardar raised to the sky.

Here’s a slice of history. On 15 January 1948, rebutting stories that Vallabhbhai Patel was a reason for his latest fast, Gandhi frontally rebuked the Sardar’s critics for, as he put it, “isolating [Patel], a lifelong and faithful comrade, from Pandit Nehru and me, whom they gratuitously raise to the sky”. (Collected Works 90: 427)

Privately or publicly, some will portray the unveiling as Patel’s liberation, 68 years after his death, from Gandhi and Nehru, and congratulate the statue for soaring past Gandhi and Nehru, leaving the latter two stranded on mere earth. Others may want to know what the flesh-and-blood Vallabhbhai was really like, and whether, as Gandhi also said in those remarks of 15 January 1948, Vallabhbhai’s heart was “expansive enough to accommodate all” even if his “bluntness of speech sometimes unintentionally hurts”.

Can we get to know, today in our 21st century, a heart that began its life in the 19th century and expired in the middle of the 20th? Researching the Sardar in the late 1980s, I was staggered by his self-sacrifice.

Since Patel never kept a journal, authored no book and penned very few articles, his life was largely revealed by letters he wrote, by the diaries of his daughter Maniben, and by records, his companions kept, especially prison-mates.

Early in life, he stepped aside to enable older brother Vitthalbhai to study law in London. Later he stepped aside three times to enable Jawaharlal Nehru to become Congress president— in 1929, 1937 and 1946. He did so at Gandhi’s prompting, just as prodded by Gandhi, he had given up a flourishing legal practice in 1918 to fight for Kheda’s peasants.

In August 1942, when Patel was 67, he along with 53-year-old Jawaharlal, Abul Kalam Azad, who was 54, Kripalani, also 54, Govind Ballabh Pant, 55, Pattabhi Sitaramayya of the Telugu country, who was 62, and six other Congress Working Committee members entered the 16th century Ahmednagar Fort. It would be their prison for three years while a world war raged outside. They were allowed only the slenderest contact with relatives, and none whatever with Gandhi, who was held in another detention site in the Marathi country, Pune’s Aga Khan Palace.

Letters from the prisoners to their families, diaries that Nehru and Pattabhi kept during the incarceration, and an oral history later provided by the youngest prisoner, Odisha’s Hare Krushna Mahtab, 42, tells a story of clashes and truces, bridge games and badminton in a historic fort. It would make for a riveting movie.

Six inmates wrote a book each in prison: Nehru, Azad, Pattabhi, Kripalani, Narendra Deva and Mahtab. As for the oldest prisoner, Patel, he read book after book from the Fort’s limited library, soaked up every line in the few newspapers that were let in, made threads with his charkha, walked numberless times up and down a 200-foot path, played bridge, and grew flowers.

Patel proved an expert mali, as did Nehru. Pattabhi noted that a “heavenly blue morning glory creeper” grown by the Sardar became “the talk” of the Fort. Patel’s greatest role, however, was to preserve the prisoners’ morale by making them laugh. “He chokes you with laughter by his sharp and incisive wit,” Pattabhi recorded. When a Major-General Candy, Bombay presidency’s surgeon-general, visited to check on the Empire’s prisoners and asked Patel, whom he had met in Ahmedabad 18 years previously, if his age was around 58, the Sardar answered: “I am 67 and looking forward to another 33 years.” (Pattabhi, Feathers & Stones)

Flint-like before the foe, Patel’s heart softened when he remembered co-workers and their families, enquiring after each member when letters were allowed to go out.

In the Sardar, sacrifice, fortitude and empathy were joined by a sense of responsibility and loyalty. Gandhi’s assassination almost shattered Home Minister Patel. Four days thereafter, on 3 February 1948, a letter published in The Statesman asked for the Sardar’s resignation, while JP remarked that “at 74 Patel was holding departments” that were too much “even for a man of thirty”. (The Times of India, 4 February 1948)

That day Patel wrote a letter to Nehru calling the demand for his exit “justified” and offered to resign, but he did not send the letter. (SPC 6: 27-28) He did not then know what Jawaharlal had written that same day:

3 February: “My dear Vallabhbhai, With Bapu’s death, we have to face a different and more difficult world. I have been greatly distressed by the persistence of whispers about you and me, magnifying out of all proportion any differences we may have. We must put an end to this mischief. “For over a quarter century, you and I have faced many storms and perils together. In this crisis we now face, I think it is my duty, and if I may venture to say yours also, for us to face it together as friends and colleagues, not merely superficially but in full loyalty to one another and with confidence in one another.”

Vallabhbhai replied (5 February): “I am deeply touched, indeed overwhelmed by… your letter. We have been lifelong comrades… The paramount interests of our country and our mutual love and regard, transcending such differences of outlook and temperament as existed, have held us together. I had the good fortune to have a last talk with Bapu for over an hour just before his death. His opinion also binds us both.” (SPC 6: 29-31)

Witnessing sharp conflicts but also overcoming them, their partnership until Patel’s death in December 1950 enabled the enactment of a Constitution assuring equal rights to all Indians and the merger of princely states into the Union of India.

In his Reminiscences, Patel’s ICS secretary, V Shankar, recorded one of Patel’s last speeches, made in Indore on 2 October 1950. The Sardar’s words, Shankar informs us, came “amid sobs and emotions”: “Today I see before me the whole picture of life ever since I joined Bapu’s army. Bapu gave life to a dead country. Ba lent him a helping hand. We were all soldiers in their camp. I have been referred to as the Deputy Prime Minister. I never think of myself in these terms. Jawaharlal Nehru is our leader. Bapu appointed him as his successor. It is the duty of all Bapu’s soldiers to carry out his bequest. I am not a disloyal soldier. I am satisfied that I still am where Bapu posted me.” (Reminiscences 2: 136-7)

Less than ten weeks after he made these remarks, Patel died in Bombay, where Rajendra Prasad, who was the President, Nehru and CR were among those joining in the last rites. Very few are aware that in independent India’s first Cabinet the Sardar was the I&B Minister as well as being Minister for Home, which meant that All India Radio was in his direct charge. AIR’s archives probably contain recordings of Patel’s public utterances after independence, including that speech of 2 October 1950.

(Rajmohan Gandhi is a historian, journalist, and biographer of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel)

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