One hundred years ago in June, 1916 a stylish Gujarati barrister mocked at a new visitor in Kathiwari dress to Gujarat Club, Ahmedabad. The barrister kept playing cards with his friends, even as the visitor delivered a lecture to a tiny audience in the lawn. He knew that visitor was none else than Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who had set up his Satyagraha Ashram in Ahmedabad recently after returning from South Africa. But the barrister, a successful criminal lawyer, had no interest in Gandhi’s pursuits. But as Gandhi persisted with his visits for talks, the barrister decided to attend once out of sheer curiosity.
The talk sounded like a religious discourse rather than political speech. Yet something changed permanently inside the 41-year old unemotional barrister. Gandhi’s words kept haunting him for days till he became ‘reluctant recruit’ to Satyagraha’s cause. But being a pragmatic individual to the core, he did not openly join it until 1917. That year Gandhi was recognized as India’s political messiah after Champaran Satyagraha. He then became a loyal disciple of Gandhi, and subsequently became his most capable lieutenant. Whatever Gandhi conceptualized, he organized; whatever were Gandhi’s plans, he implemented. He burnt down his European suits and adopted dhoti-kurta made of Khadi. He was Sardar Ballabhbhai Jhaveribhai Patel (1875-1950), the iron man of India.
Patel was born on October 31, 1875 at Nandiad of district Khera in Gujarat, around 200 kms from Surat. He hailed from the community of Leva Patels, believed to have descended from warrior caste, though traditionally engaged in cultivation. They have a history of bravery and hard labour. Patel hailed from an agriculturist family, and virtually grew up in the fields. He always introduced himself as a farmer / agriculturist, even at the height of legal or political career. He had three brothers and one sister. Out of them Vithalbhai Jhaveribhai Patel (1873-1933), Bar-at-law, became the first Indian President (Speaker) of the Central Legislative Assembly.
Patel showed his promise as a popular leader as an elected representative of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (1917-1928). He was able to not only outsmart the British officialdom, but took several constructive initiatives for the townspeople. While being President of the Corporation (1924-1928) he once presented a unique example of ‘Swachh Bharat’. Patel, along with volunteers, cleaned the streets of Ahmedabad with brooms and dustcart, beginning with Harijan Basti (Dalit quarters). As the Plague broke out in Ahmedabad in 1917, he worked almost round the clock with his volunteers to help the victims and their families. He worked at great personal risk of infection as Lokmanya Tilak had done during Pune Plague, 1896. The strain broke Patel’s robust health, but sealed his reputation as a mass leader. Around the same time Khera Satyagraha (1918), a forerunner to epic Bardoli No-Tax Campaign (1928), reinforced Patel’s leadership qualities. Though the tax settlements demanded by the peasants at Kheda (Gujarat) were not fully met, it had two important results. First it led to recognition of peasants as stakeholders in determining land taxes, and it brought Gandhi and Patel together. A decade later Gujarat was ravaged by floods after the torrential rains of July 23, 1927. Patel mounted a Herculean mission to rescue and rehabilitate the flood victims, which brought him to nationwide focus. The Bombay government (Gujarat was then part of Bombay Presidency) recommended him for an award, which Patel politely declined.
This humility was the hallmark of Patel even after his great victory at Bardoli (1928). He was reluctant to stand up at Calcutta Congress in December, 1928. After repeated persuasion he stood up in the audience amongst delegates from Gujarat, and had to be physically forced to come to the dais. Bardoli (Dist. Surat) was Patel’s Kurukshetra. He gave extraordinary leadership to successful tax resistance campaign that rolled on for three months. Only Tilak’s Famine Relief Campaign in Maharashtra (1896) could be compared to it in organizational brilliance. Patel organized the Satyagraha on military pattern though completely non-violent. He himself was the Supreme Commander (Senapati) and under him were Sector Commanders (Vibhag Patis), and under then volunteers (Sainik). The battle field covered 92 villages and 87,000 peasants. He ran a thorough information network involving horse mounted messengers, bhajan singers, paper printers etc. His success at Bardoli, attracted the attention of the whole British Empire. But the best recognition came from a farmer of Nanifalod, in Bardoli Taluka. Kuverji Durlabh Patel said in an open meeting, “Patel you are our Sardar’. Thereupon the title ‘Sardar’ attached to him permanently.
Patel’s disciplinarian approach was legendary. Self-discipline was Gandhi’s mantra. But Patel brought the organizational discipline and cohesion necessary for mass movements. Patel arrived on the political scene exactly when Indian politics hit mass-movement stage. John Gunther, the American journalist, who surveyed Asian politics in 1930s found Patel ‘party boss par excellence’. He found Patel a man of action, of practicality, the man who got things done.
Patel’s organizational capacities were at test as independence approached. There was a threat of India’s balkanization had the princely states, numbering around 565, not joined Indian Union. Some like Travancore wanted to remain free, whereas others like Bhopal and Hyderabad conspired to join Pakistan, though not contagious to it. Partly by diplomacy and partly by coercion, Patel won over the princely states to join the Indian union. Force had to be applied in the case of Hyderabad, where Razakars had unleashed terror on subject population.
As independent India’s first Home Minister, he dealt with onerous responsibilities of resettling Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan and organizing the civil services etc. Philip Mason, ICS, said Patel was a natural administrator who did not seem to need any prior experience. Kaka Kalekar, Gandhi’s close associate, said Patel belonged to the illustrious class of Shivaji and Tilak though he was an unquestioning follower of Gandhi. Patel completed 75 years in 1950, in a broken health due to excessive strain. He passed away in Mumbai on December 15, 1950. On the death bed he betrayed no anxiety about his family, but about the condition of the country.
It is a pity that the legacy of Patel suffered from neglect. The present government has done well to rectify the wrongs of history, and highlight Patel as India’s master nation builder.
(Writer is an independent researcher and columnist. Views expressed are his personal.)