Misappropriated and misunderstood: The life of Sardar Patel

A new anthology on Sardar Patel, edited by Urvish Kothari, separates the facts of the man’s life, convictions and actions from the many motivated fictions that abound, courtesy the Hindu Right.

Vallabhbhai Patel (right) with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru
Vallabhbhai Patel (right) with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru

Urvish Kothari

Title: A Plain, Blunt Man: The Essential Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel
Editor: Urvish Kothari
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: 328
Price Rs 799 (hardcover)

In early June, Mountbatten announced 15 August as the tentative date for the transfer of power. A Partition Committee was formed under the chairmanship of Viceroy Mountbatten. Patel and Rajendra Prasad represented Congress in the committee that would be responsible for the partition of the assets.

The All India Congress Committee passed the resolution. Patel poured his heart out, expressing grief and hope for the newly divided India and best wishes for Pakistan. After provincial legislatures had ratified the decision to partition Bengal and Punjab, a separate department for integrating princely states came into existence and was assigned to Patel.

As the paramountcy of the British Crown was coming to its end, a new order was needed to unite all the ruling families. As per geographical realities, the princely states had to join either India or Pakistan and not harbour any dreams of independent existence. Patel had started meeting the rulers or their dewans even before he assumed official responsibility for the department.

Many major states like Travancore, Hyderabad, Baroda, Bhopal, and some in Rajputana started charting their course with a fertile imagination. In the herculean task of convincing princes by persuasion and making them face the reality of independent India, Patel was ably supported by the secretary of the department V.P. Menon and Viceroy Mountbatten.

Misappropriated and misunderstood: The life of Sardar Patel

Securing Mountbatten's services by offering him to be the first Governor General of the Indian Union was a joint decision by Patel and Nehru. They knew well the weight the viceroy would bring as a member of the British royal family and how it would be useful in dealing with the princes.

Patel appealed to the rulers for accession on three subjects: defence, communications, and foreign affairs. He reminded them of India’s rich heritage and assured them that Congress was not their enemy.

By 15 August 1947, most states had signed the Instrument of Accession with the Indian Union. Patel at the age of seventy-two, with his failing health, contributed enormously to this achievement through his firmness, stability of thought, and courtesy towards the rulers.

He did not hold any grudge against the rulers who hesitated to join the union and tried their best to avoid signing the document. He did not conduct the exercise to establish his power. It was a call of duty, and he performed it with utmost sincerity.

Patel also played an important role along with Nehru in selecting the first cabinet of the Indian Union, in which he was the deputy prime minister. On the historic night of 14 August, Patel made no speech in the Constituent Assembly. He only took vows of service.

It was a dream come true, made possible because of the sacrifices of thousands of people. Patel was indebted to the grace of God as he felt fortunate to be alive to see that day.


Newly independent India found herself engulfed in the worst kind of communal violence. Gandhi had buried himself in the efforts to douse the communal fire. As home minister, Patel was accused of being anti-Muslim. In some cases, even Gandhi sought clarifications. But he thought of Patel as a large hearted leader who would be accommodative of all Indians.

Many of Patel's words at that time, if quoted out of the context and without considering the political situation, could be used to portray him as a communal Hindu leader. But such generalisations would be a gross simplification of the facts, as is evident from some of his correspondences present in this volume.

Though Hindu-Muslim unity was not an article of faith for Patel, he was not anti-Muslim or an ideologue of the Hindu Rashtra. He was driven principally by administrative concerns and had a no-nonsense approach. He would not go the extra mile to win the trust of the Muslims.

He wanted Muslims of India to distance themselves from the politics of the League that had resulted in the partition of the country. He would not tolerate the sentiment of ‘Hanske liya hai Pakistan, ladke lenge Hindustan’ (‘We attained Pakistan with ease, we shall win Hindustan by force’).

He could be bitter and hurtful in his speeches, yet he did not hesitate to order actions against Hindu rioters.

There are several [incidents] when Patel spared no efforts to secure the safe passage of the Muslims. One of his famous speeches at Amritsar ensured the safety of Muslims from enraged Sikhs targeting Muslims migrating from West Punjab.

Patel never claimed to be the protector of the Hindus or someone who taught Muslims a lesson. He did not pay heed to nasty anti-Muslim rumours and encouraged his colleagues to do the same. Establishing safety and peace in the wake of unprecedented communal violence was of utmost concern for him.

His conduct as the minister for Information and Broadcasting was considered high-handed by many. He was, for example, not amused by the constant, criticism of the newly formed government by Congress critic Acharya Kripalani, who wrote for the weekly magazine Vigil.

Mainstream newspapers would reproduce his articles verbatim; Patel instructed those papers not to spread Kripalani’s pieces any further. He thought the country needed constructive suggestions and not just criticism.

Despite their diverse personalities, Nehru and Patel’s unique areas of political expertise complemented each other. India was fortunate to receive the former’s vision and the latter’s administration along with Gandhi’s idealism to start her journey as an independent nation.

Gandhi had no direct role in the decisions of the government. But he was still the guru of Nehru and Patel. They were still answerable to him when it came to moral issues. Giving Pakistan its remaining balance of 55 crore (Pakistan’s share of the assets of undivided India) was one such problem on which Nehru and Patel were on the same page.

In January 1948, Gandhi went on the last indefinite fast of his public life in order to extinguish the fires of communal violence. However, the political atmosphere was rife with rumours. Critics claimed that Gandhi’s fast was against Patel’s alleged communal policies apart from holding back the due amount of Pakistan.

Gandhi’s assassination after two weeks brought the most damning wave of criticism for Patel. As the home minister, he was held responsible for failing to protect Gandhi even after an unsuccessful attempt by the assassins a few days before the fateful day.

Following Gandhi’s principle of non-violence, two of his sons sought clemency for the Hindu right-wing assassin Nathuram Godse. But Patel firmly declined.

The shock and burden of Gandhi’s assassination took a heavy toll on Patel’s health. He had a severe heart attack in March 1948. When he gained consciousness, his first words were, ‘I had to go with Bapu.’ Tears rolled down from the face of the man known for his steely resolve.

Patel banned the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh after Gandhi’s assassination, only lifting the ban after six months with several conditions. Patel is often accused of being too lenient with the organisation.

There are authentic quotes to prove that contention. But it is only a part of the whole truth. Gandhi and Patel both believed that Hindus were more likely to flee than fight to protect themselves and their family when attacked. They thought RSS drills might inculcate discipline and courage in the community.

Neither was sympathetic to the anti-Muslim ideology propagated by the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha. Patel did not encourage or condone anticipatory or proactive violence in the name of protecting Hindus and criticised Hindu extremist newspapers without hesitation.

Patel was critical of the idea of a Hindu Rashtra and summarily dismissed it. He believed that when the country had begun her journey in a fresh direction, everyone should be given a new chance to move forward. He suggested members of the RSS join Congress in the same spirit.

It might appear ironic that Nehru, not known for his sound judgment of people, thought of RSS as an organisation with fascist tendencies, whereas Patel, known for his sharp judgment, thought of RSS as one of our own, warts and all. His correspondence with RSS chief M.S. Golwalkar reflected this sentiment.

And yet, he would neither tolerate systemic instigation against Muslims nor would he be eager to consider Muslims as second-class citizens.

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