Vallabhbhai Patel – A legacy appropriated and distorted | Neha Dabhade
Historical figures are complex and shaped by the context they lived out of. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel is no exception. Vallabhbhai Patel popularly known as the “indomitable iron man” of India is credited with unifying India when India was a cluster of numerous princely states at the time of independence and Patel was the first home minister of independent India. During the tumultuous times of the partition and subsequently the assassination of Gandhi, the leadership of the country had to guide it through many ups and downs towards a secular democracy that India has evolved into and still evolving. Nehru and Patel along with the others took tough decisions to serve this end. One of them was banning of RSS. Though Patel was instrumental in this decision, he is appropriated and co-opted by the RSS and BJP as one supporting their brand of politics and ideology- Hindutva while Nehru is derided for being weak and responsible for partition. Moreover the narrative that pits Nehru against Patel has gained currency and the two unfairly compared by the right wing which completely obliterates the fact that both leaders had one vision for the country and enjoyed each other’s confidence.
Patel was again brought at the centre stage of public discourse by the Prime Minister recently. “Had Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel been India’s first Prime Minister, a part of my Kashmir would not have been with Pakistan today” (Ashok, 2018). BJP and RSS have positioned themselves lately as ideological heirs of Patel. PM Modi wants to build ‘statue of unity’ as he refers to Patel and also commemorate his birthday as national unity day. He goes on to add, “There have been attempts to run down Patel, to ensure that the contribution of Patel is forgotten. But Sardar is Sardar, whether any government or any party recognizes his contribution or not but the nation and the youth will not forget him” (Indian Express, 2017). Similarly Venkaiah Naidu also praised Patel. This appropriation is problematic. Appropriation of mass leaders has been a thrust of RSS strategy by distorting historical facts. Similar attempts have been made towards Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh. Thus it is imperative to demystify Patel.
Though a lot has been written about Patel and his equation with RSS, keeping the aggressive appropriation of icons like Patel, it is important to repeat and emphasize on the following points. One point to be noted at the very outset is that historical figures are multidimensional and it is difficult to capture them in all their complexity. However one must try to understand Patel in a more nuanced way.
- Patel was an admirer of Gandhi. He was pained with the assassination of Gandhi. He was all his life a staunch Congressman though sympathetic to plight of Hindus and Sikhs during the communal violence post and pre partition.
- Though he was distrustful towards Muslims in India as a section of the community supported the Muslim League, he as a Home Minister vowed to protect all citizens equally and certainly did not encourage communal violence against Muslims.
- Patel was not a supporter of the RSS or endorsed Hindutva politics which is narrow, discriminatory and exclusionist in its outlook.
The right wing is appropriating Patel for a number of reasons. It is no secret that the RSS had no role to play in the freedom struggle of India. Their members were not incarcerated in the prisons or enjoyed following amongst masses due to leaderships in any social movements- peasants, trade unions, women, reform in Hindu personal laws, eradication of caste etc. The freedom struggle represented certain ideas that of equality, pluralism, inclusion and democracy. The struggle was not just against the colonial powers for political power but also for a just and equal society ridden of hierarchies based on caste, religion and class. Patel being a tall leader of Congress can bring this legitimacy to the RSS, give them a respectable face and wider support base. Secondly with constant exaggeration and misrepresenting the differences between Nehru and Patel, the Nehruvian vision of the society and India is sought to be discredited since this vision is completely conflicting and incompatible to that of Hindutva. The Hindu supremacists want to taint this legacy and establish a new social order and deepen the existing hierarchies.
The actions of BJP leaders should be analyzed from this prism. To begin with, it would be interesting to study the views of Patel on RSS itself.
“There can be no doubt that the RSS did service to the Hindu Society. In the areas where there was the need for help and organisation, the young men of the RSS protected women and children and strove much for their sake. No person of understanding could have a word of objection regarding that. But the objectionable part arose when they, burning with revenge, began attacking Mussalmans. Organising Hindus and helping them is one thing but going in for revenge for its sufferings on innocent and helpless men, women and children is quite another thing”.
On the assassination of Gandhi, he expresses his anguish in no uncertain terms.
“All their speeches were full communal poison. It was not necessary to spread poison and enthuse the Hindus and organise for their protection. As a final result of the poison, the country had to suffer the sacrifice of the valuable life of Gandhiji. Even an iota of sympathy of the Government or of the people no more remained for the RSS. In fact the opposition grew. Opposition turned more severe, when the RSS men expressed joy and distributed sweets after Gandhiji’s death. Under these conditions it became inevitable for the Government to take action against the RSS.
“As regards the RSS and the Hindu Maha-sabha, the case relating to Gandhiji’s murder is sub judice and I should not like to say anything about the participation of the two organisations, but our reports do confirm that, as a result of the activities of these two bodies, particularly the former, an atmosphere was created in the country in which such ghastly tragedy became possible. There is no doubt in my mind that the extreme section of the Hindu Mahasabha was involved in this conspiracy. The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of the government and the state. Our reports show that those activities, despite the ban, have not died down. Indeed, as time has marched on, the RSS circles are becoming more defiant and are indulging in their subversive activities in an increasing measure” (Zakaria, 2016).
It becomes clear from Patel’s words that he opposed the RSS politics of hatred and targeting of the Muslims. He condemns the assassination of Gandhi and the politics that claimed his life. This is antithetical to the stand of RSS which hasn’t condemned Gandhi’s death but gone to the extent of installing busts and building temples of Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Gandhi!
It also speaks volumes on the idea of India nurtured by Patel. Being a staunch congressman and influenced by Gandhi, he understood the contribution of different communities to India. The very fact that Patel skillfully brought as princely states onto one political platform without bloodshed and prevented balkanization gives an insight into his vision for an India which gave space to all- different languages, cultures, religions. Pluralism and democracy were hallmarks of his vision. This vision is again in contrast of a Hindu rashtra where the Hindus are rightful citizens and citizens of other religions merely second class citizens.
However this doesn’t necessarily mean that some of his views were not problematic. He had certain extent of reservations and also distrust about the Muslims. This grew out of the support of a section of Muslims that the Muslim League enjoyed. Naturally it was wrong to paint the whole community with one brush, since large sections of Muslims supported the Congress and rejected the two nation theory. Nonetheless some of his policies have attracted flak. For example the enactment of the Evacuee Property Law, which resulted in the expropriation of their businesses, industries, shops, houses, lands and all such assets, movable and immovable; even Muslims, suspected by the police of intending to go to Pakistan were covered under it. However this law was for political exigency and in response to a similar law enacted by Pakistan. Another policy was the draconian permit system where the Indian Muslims who went to visit Pakistan after 15th August 1947, were at a risk of losing their citizenship.
These actions, though questionable, doesn’t make Patel communal or suggests that he supported violence against Muslims or encouraged it for his own political or electoral interests. Manufacturing of violence and communal polarization is a project resorted to by the Hindu supremacists for electoral gains. This distinction is significant but often sought to be blurred by the Hindu supremacists when they co-opt Patel. As a leader who has constitutional duty he was of the opinion that India is a country for all and not a Hindu state and thus all citizens have to be protected. “I do not think it will be possible to consider India as a Hindu state with Hinduism as a state religion. We must not forget that there are other minorities whose protection is our primary responsibility” (Zakaria, Sabrang India, 2016)
This is of course a far cry from the approach of the current government which praises Patel. There is an atmosphere of impunity and encouragement given to vigilantes to target the vulnerable groups like Muslims and Dalits under the name of cow protection. Though the current political dispensation prefers to call the perpetrators of violence as ‘fringe’ elements or criminal elements thereby trivializing their acts of violence, Patel had a different approach as a statesman. There are numerous hate crimes taking place unabashedly with no justice. On the other hand, there were instances where Patel himself went to spots of trouble to quell any violence and took proactive steps to protect the Muslims and punish the criminals. The famous Dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya in South Delhi was surrounded by some miscreants. He went there himself and clearly instructed the officers to protect the Muslims and take action against the miscreants. Whenever such incidents took place where the Muslim community was harassed or instigated, he said, “If you think that you can go on constantly troubling loyal Muslims because they happen to be Muslims, then our freedom is not worthwhile.”
Cow protection is linked to nationalism as is the building of Ram Mandir where the Babri Masjid was demolished. Interestingly Patel had a more balanced approach towards Babri Masjid based on inclusion and dialogue. In 1949, a mob descended upon the Babri Masjid and, after chasing away the muezzin, installed an idol of Ram Lalla in order to claim it as a temple. Within a month of the incident, Patel shot off a letter to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, GB Pant warning that “there can be no question of resolving such disputes by force”. Differing even more starkly from the final outcome of 1992, Patel opined that “such matters can only be resolved peacefully if we take the willing consent of the Muslim community with us” (Daniyal, 2014).
The latest statement of PM on Kashmir where he again pitted Sardar Patel against Nehru is another attempt distorting the legacy which stood for unity, democracy and pluralism. Patel was a mixed bag, multifaceted, complex. He was of course different from Nehru or any other political colleague. Patel had his own temperament, resoluteness and biases. But what he was not was communal and parochial. He espoused the cause of a united India where all citizens had an equal stake. He shared a vision of an India based on equality with Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar. He was a man who had fought for the rights of the farmers at Bardoli and other places. If the Hindu supremacists want to emulate Patel, their starting point should be his efforts for justice and equality. The Hindu supremacists on the other hand at ideologically at loggerheads with Patel by upholding, manipulating and further deepening of caste and religious divides.