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Urvish Kothari's Sardar

Urvish Kothari
By Rajiv Shah
It was August 20, 2009 forenoon. I barged into the small cabin of a senior home department babu, an IAS bureaucrat who is currently working in the general administration department of the Narendra Modi administration, seeking to humbly “advise” the government on IAS postings. I found him “busier than he was”, to quote from one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s characterizations. The babu was too engrossed in scanning through BJP leader Jaswant Singh’s book, “Jinnah: India – Partition – Independence”, banned by the Gujarat government a day earlier for allegedly casting aspersions on Sardar Patel’s supposed role in partitioning India. 
“I am too busy. I have been given the task of finding out the objectionable references which are critical of Sardar Patel”, the official said, frantically looking into the index pages on the backside of the hard cover book. Why now? I wondered. The book had already been banned! “So was the book banned without reading it? And when did you receive the book?”, I inquired. And his answer said it all: “We received its first copy today by the morning flight…”A thought came to my mind: how casually Sardar was being treated by those who claim to live up by his legacy. Modi ordered banning late on August 19, sitting in Shimla. The home department, operating under him, just followed the order, without even having a copy of the book. It’s quite another thing that, based on a PIL, in less than a month’s time the Gujarat High Court set aside the Modi order, saying it curtailed “fundamental rights”. Expectedly, the effort to capitalize on Sardar continued. Exactly a year later, Modi came up with a fresh idea – to give India’s Iron Man the tallest iconic stature. He approved a proposal for constructing a 182-metre high statue of Sardar Patel, 10 metres higher than the highest Crazy Horse Memorial sculpture being carved in Mount Rushmore in Black Hills, South Dakota. While the proposal has been pushed by hiring a consultant, Turner Project Management, which conceptualized the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, none in the powerdom is able to fathom – from where will the money required for it come, an estimated Rs 2,500 crore!
Many still live under the delusion that Modi is the true follower of Sardar. But gone are the days when he was nicknamed “Chhote Sardar”. Now, he is supposed to no less than Sardar. In fact, state Cabinet minister Bhuprendrasinh Chudasma, a long-time Modi protégé, seems to believe that Modi is one step ahead. Chudasma told me once that Modi has gone beyond acting like an ordinary human, acquiring “superhuman” characteristics. “Sincerely, you must believe me. You can quote me”, he insisted. It is in this context that I am tempted to refer to a book by my friend and virulent writer Urvish Kothari, “Sardar: Sacho Manas, Sachi Vat” (Urvish translates it as meaning "The truth regarding a fair man"). Its second edition is about to be released by the publishing house he and two other colleagues have just founded, Saarthak Prakashan. Some of its chapters lay bare at least one fact: that even though Sardar may have developed a little attraction towards Hindutva, he was a “practical” Gandhian, whose governance didn’t suggest an iota of antipathy towards any particular community.
The chapter on misconceptions about Sardar is especially interesting. It’s a must read for all those who are critical of Sardar as also those who seek to use him for political ends. Urvish writes, “One of the biggest misconceptions about Sardar is that he was anti-Muslim… Sardar’s attitude towards Muslims can be summed up by saying that he was not Gandhi. But surely was a disciple of Gandhi.” Urvish gives one instance after another to prove his point. During the Bardoli satyagraha, the British rulers, in an effort to break Hindu-Muslim unity, hired a few Pathans to ensure that at least Muslims pay up a higher land revenue tax, against which the farmers had protested. “Sardar didn’t let the Hindu-Muslim unity break. He ensured that Muslims became the chief complainants against the Pathans’ divisive tactics”, Urvish recalls.
Even as recognizing that there were differences between “Gandhi’s idealism, Nehru’s secularism and Sardar’s beliefs”, Urvish recalls how, during the communal holocaust in the wake of the Partition, Sardar personally reached Amritsar to convince the Sikhs to allow vulnerable Muslim groups to pass by. “Brave-hearts do not massacre innocent and unprotected men, women and children. You must pledge to ensure security to the vulnerable Muslims”, he told them. His efforts brought fruit. The Sikhs allow Muslim groups to pass through Amristar without any fear, and reach Pakistan.
As the first home minister of Independent India, Urvish says, Sardar took such drastic steps such as imposing collective fine in areas where communal riots had taken place. During those days such fabricated stories – like Sardar allowed a train full of dead bodies to reach Pakistan – were afloat. However, few know that he organized a special train for Delhi-based Muslims belonging to Rampur to go to their home town in the western part of Punjab, now in Pakistan. The Nawab of Rampur wrote, on September 13, 1947, that he was “immensely grateful” to Sardar for showing the special gesture towards “my people”. In fact, Sardar ordered steps like setting up “special village security teams” in eastern Pakistan to ensure that the trains carrying Muslims to Pakistan are not harmed. “Immediate collective fine should be imposed if these trains are harmed or the railway tracks are damaged”, he instructed.
Referring to a letter by Rajendra Prasad, who had written about how, as a result of a Meo Muslim protest, there was a sense of insecurity among non-Muslims in Delhi, Sardar hit back, “I am attaching newspaper clippings. You can see, the attack in Delhi is one-sided. The attackers are mainly Hindus and Sikhs. The reports suggest fear complex among Hindus is ill-founded.” He also said that a rumour was being spread that the government had granted Rs 5 lakh to Meo Muslims, and this would, if anything, only “incite the Hindus.”
Urvish believes, it is in this overall context that one should assess a statement by Sardar in Lucknow in January 1948, cited by many, including socialists and communists, as his communal bias. He advised, as a “real friend of Muslims”, that those who are not faithful to India should leave for Pakistan. It was a special situation, demanding particular kind of action. This was needed in order to avoid bloodshed. Quoting an instance, Urvish cites how riots broke out in Mumbai, affecting the livelihood of Muslims and Pathans working at the port. “He instructed Morarji Desai to work out ways to exchange these Pathans and Muslims with the Hindus working at the Karachi port”, Urvish says. The Mahatma’s solution would perhaps have been different – to ensure that Hindus and Muslims lived together. But a “practical” Sardar seemed to think otherwise.
Far from being anti-Muslim, Sardar wanted someone from the Muslim leadership to act in the same way as Gandhi had in Bihar. “One should see how he has deeply involved himself to save the life of the Muslims in Bihar. Yet, it is regrettable that there is no one from the Muslim League has come forward to save the minorities in the Muslim-majority areas”, Urvish quotes Sardar as saying.
Even if one assumes for a moment that Modi was not involve in the Gujarat riots of 2002, there is nothing to suggest that he followed Sardar’s ways of governance to save minorities, who were the chief target. To quote Urvish from one of his blogs, “It is in Modi’s reign, and under his watch, that the Hindus in the Sabarmati Express and thereafter, during the riots, Muslims and others got mercilessly butchered. For both these acts, the moral responsibility rests solely with the chief minister. If instead of mouthing platitudes such as ‘It’s natural for every action to have a reaction. Neither does one want action, nor a reaction’, he could have chosen to act as an elected leader should, and dealt with the rioters firmly. That would have been enough to send a strong signal to the lumpen elements everywhere, that no one was above the law.”
During one of the early days of the riots, I went around with Modi’s mentor Shankarsinh Vaghela, a former BJP leader who joined had the Congress three years earlier. He was visiting the affected Muslim regions of North Gujarat. All through, Vaghela advised Muslim leaders to buy up land and form separate Muslim localities, away from their original place of living. “This alone would ensure your future safety”, he told them everywhere. Not a Gandhian approach, but, one is tempted to say, it was somewhat nearer to the “practical” solution Sardar once came up with!



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