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Sardar Patel’s worldview was rooted in secular outlook, but supported existing values

By Rajiv Shah 
With efforts by politicians of all hues to claim the legacy of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in the wake of efforts by some in Gujarat to provide him the “highest” iconic stature by building the world’s tallest statue in his name, time appears to have come to find out his worldview. He has gone down in the history as “Iron Man”, mainly for accomplishing the task of integrating 562 princely states at the turn of India’s Independence. Yet, scholars find the task of understanding the Sardar’s outlook as difficult, as, unlike Mahatma Gandhi, scanty material is available in the form of his writings on what he really thought on contentious issues of religion, communal strife and casteism. They have gauged his worldview on the basis of his and his supporters’ actions. At least two studies – one by writer-journalist Urvish Kothari highlighting the Sardar’s views on the communal question, and the other by sociologist Prof Ghanshyam Shah on caste and social order – do suggest where the Sardar actually stood.
Urvish Kothari’s Gujarati book, “Sardar: Sacho Manas, Sachi Vat” (“The truth regarding a fair man”), published by Saarthak Prakashan, analyzes the Sardar’s views on communalism in detail. It suggests that even though the 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. Kothari writes, “One of the biggest misconceptions about the 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.”

Secular credentials

Kothari gives several instances 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. “The Sardar did not let the Hindu-Muslim unity break. He ensured that Muslims became the chief complainants against the Pathans’ divisive tactics”, Kothari writes. In another instance, Kothari recalls how, during the communal holocaust in the wake of Partition, the 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 fear, and reach Pakistan.
In another instance quoted by Kothari, as the first home minister of Independent India, the Sardar took drastic steps like imposing collective fine in areas where communal riots broke out. During those days such fabricated stories – like the Sardar allowed a train full of dead bodies to reach Pakistan – were afloat. However, few know that the Sardar 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. Appreciating the Sardar’s move, the Nawab of Rampur wrote, on September 13, 1947, that he was “immensely grateful” to the Sardar for showing the special gesture towards “my people”. In fact, the 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.

Views on caste hierarchy

Quite like communalism, on caste issues, too, very little has been published on the Sardar’s worldview. The only available study on the subject, found to be quoted by other researchers, is by well-known sociologist Prof Ghanshyam Shah – “Traditional Society and Political Mobilization: The Experience of Bardoli Satyagraha (1920-28)”, published in “Contributions to India Sociology” (1974). The study seeks to analyze, apart from other things, how Sardar Patel and his closest associate, Kunvarji Mehta, both belonging to the Patidar caste, may have differed in “orientation to public life, and operated in different spheres”, yet, “their perceptions of the social system and of social change was almost alike.” To them, “traditional institutions and values were far from useless; they were rather the effective instruments for mobilizing inert masses for political ends.” Sardar Patel particularly worked towards reviving and activating caste councils, he suggests.
Prof Shah quotes the Sardar as saying, “Let us organize and strengthen our caste organizations. They are required to support the weak amongst us… Why should the peasant not make his own social arrangement to fight against injustice? Our organizations are only for self-protection. And, one should not object to that.” Prof Shah comments, “These caste councils were made the primary units of the political movement. Through them, Mehta transformed most of the government schools into ‘national’ schools in less than a year’s time. Other programmes like prohibition, propagation of khadi, and boycott of the law courts were also carried out by these councils.” In fact, “all major decisions and directives of the 1928 movement were taken and conveyed to the people through these councils. For instance, before launching the non-cooperation movement, Patel convened a meeting of caste leaders, including representatives of the Patidars, Brahmin, Baniya and Muslim communities at Bardoli and persuaded them to take a decision against the enhancement of land revenue.”
Things went so far that “those who paid revenue against the caste verdict were ex-communicated by their brethren. All social relations were cut off, putting them at considerable disadvantage. A Baniya in Valod paid a heavy price for his payment of land revenue. Following a decision of the village council, the shopkeepers refused to sell anything to him, the barber refused to shave him, and the potter denied him vessels. His daughter was sent back to him by his son-in-law. Nobody even talked to him. So much so that the indigenous village midwife refused to render her services while his wife was in labour. Consequently, the Baniya had to yield, apologize for his action… Not only individuals but sometimes even villages suffered the same treatment for their support of the government. The village Kadod was boycotted by the surrounded villages till it came round and supported the satyagraha.”

Views on “untouchables”

Mehta, Sardar Patel’s right-hand man, compared those who did not support the satyagraha with who were once punsished to become untouchables! Prof Shah says, “Mehta, addressing the Patidars of Mota village, who were inclined to pay the revenue, said that the satyagraha was a maha yagna and those who threw bones into it would be considered as devilish as Ravan. Narrating a ‘historical’ episode, he said, that a hundred years ago a ‘religious’ war took place between the local people and foreign aggressors in which the brave men of the time went to protect their motherland. They were kshatriyas. But a few cowardly and selfish persons betrayed their community by keeping away from the war. They were subsequently out-casted by the community, forced to settle outside the village, and were obliged to carry dead animals and village sewage as punishment for their ‘sinful behaviour’. Those were the Dedhs, the untouchables, who were suffering for the act of their ancestors. They were lucky that now Gandhi had come to their rescue and tried to bring them out of their misery.”
The scholar comments, “Mehta implied that the persons who were ‘throwing bones’ would be treated as untouchables. They would have to carry dead animals and village sewage and have to stay in the bhangivad… This then was the method of persuasion employed a peculiar mixture of authority, analogy, emotion and threats; and it proved very effective.”
While not using direct evidence of such analogy of comparing the opponents of satyagraha and untouchables, Sardar Patel did support “the social status quo” and “unity” among various groups based on traditional complementarities. Prof Shah says, “Patel told untouchables, Dublas, and artisans that it was their dharma to be loyal to their masters. ‘The government wants to divide you and the shahukar, but for you, your shahukar is everything. You should laugh at and consider him a fool if somebody says that you should change our shahukar. It is just like saying that to a pativrata (chaste and dutiful wife) that she should change her husband. How can you leave the shahukar who had helped you in your difficulties?’”
Prof Shah comments, “Thus it was on caste and religious grounds that support was sought from various social groups… Their members were made to feel that it was their social obligation to participate in it. Social solidarity functioned in an authoritarian manner, and the leaders demanded unquestioned loyalty.” The Sardar simultaneously used caste imagery to mobilize people. Prof Shah says, “Imploring the Rajputs in the name of their warrior spirit, Patel said, ‘You must have seen the sword as you are Rajputs. But if you have not seen it and remained cultivators, never mind. But now I want you to behave like Kshatriyas, and you nsould support the satyagraha’. Brahmins were asked by their caste leaders that by remaining in the forefront of the movement they would provide their worth as a caste of the higher status.”
Pointing towards the Sardar’s main thrust, Prof Shah says, these four four-fold: “First, the pledge to support the satyagraha was sacred. The person who violated it would be punished by God. Second, a sense of sacrifice was necessary. The struggle was called a dharma yuddha against the devil and this required ‘offerings’ form the devotees, the inhabitants of (Bardoli) taluka. Third, to a Hindu, one’s own prestige had the highest value of life. In this satyagraha, the reputation of the taluka was at stake. Thus, their prestige was at stake and it had to be saved at all costs. And last, but not the least, (the Sardar) repeatedly emphasized caste unity and inter-caste loyalty.”
Prof Shah comments, “Patel thus invoked traditional values… Modern concepts like government by consent or no-tax without representation were touched upon only marginally. Throughout their speeches, Patel and Mehta repeatedly used words of religious significance, such as dharma, maya, God and sin. They usually ended their speeches with appeals to pray to God and with invocation of divine blessings.”
While analyzing the frequency of values evoked by Sardar Patel in his eight randomly selected speeches, Prof Shah found following results:

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