Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was a senior leader of the Indian National Congress and a prominent figure in the Indian Freedom Struggle, who later became India’s first Deputy Prime Minister and first Home Minister.
Sardar Patel’s contribution in integrating 565 princely states into a newly independent India is unforgettable.
In this post on Sardar Patel – who is popularly known as the Iron Man of India – we cover his life, vision, views, anecdotes, and important contributions to modern India.
Also read: Leader of Opposition
Vallabhbhai Patel’s early life
Vallabhbhai Patel was born in Nadiad, Gujarat, on October 31, 1875 (His birth anniversary is now observed as National Unity Day or Rashtriya Ekta Diwas).
He hailed from a farmer’s family. In his early years, Patel was considered by many as an unambitious man destined for a commonplace job. However, Patel proved them wrong. He passed law examination, often studying himself, with borrowed books.
Patel practised law at Godhra, Borsad, and Anand in Gujarat, after passing the bar examination. He earned the reputation of being a fierce and skilled lawyer.
Patel’s early willingness to sacrifice for others
Patel had a dream to study law in England. Using his hard-earned savings, he managed to get a pass and a ticket to go to England.
However, the ticket was addressed to ‘V.J. Patel’. His elder brother Vithalbhai also had the same initials as Vallabhai. Sardar Patel came to know that his elder brother too cherished a dream to go to England for studies.
In keeping with concerns for his family’s honour (disreputable for an older brother to follow his younger brother), Vallabhbhai Patel allowed Vithalbhai Patel to go, in his place.
Patel’s Journey to England
In 1911, at the age of 36, two years after the death of his wife, Vallabhbhai Patel journeyed to England and enrolled at the Middle Temple Inn in London. Patel finished at the top of his class despite having had no previous college background. He completed the 36-month course in 30 months.
Returning to India, Patel settled in Ahmedabad and became one of the city’s most successful barristers.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s role in the Indian Freedom Movement
In the initial stages of the freedom movement, Patel was neither keen on active politics nor the principles of Mahatma Gandhi. However, the meeting with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in Godhra (1917) fundamentally changed Patel’s life.
Patel joined the Congress and became the secretary of the Gujarat Sabha that became a Congress stronghold later.
On Gandhi’s call, Patel quit his hard-earned job and joined the movement to fight for exemption of taxes in Kheda at the time of plague and famine (1918).
Patel joined Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement (1920) and travelled around West India to recruit 3,00,000 members. He also collected more than Rs 1.5 million for the party fund.
There was a British law banning the hoisting of the Indian Flag. When Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned, it was Patel who led the Satyagraha movement in Nagpur in 1923 against British law.
It was the Bardoli Satyagraha of 1928 which earned Vallabhbhai Patel the title of ‘Sardar’ and made him popular throughout the country. So great was the impact that Pandit Motilal Nehru suggested Vallabhbhai’s name to Gandhiji for the presidency of the Congress.
In 1930, the British arrested Sardar Patel during the Salt Satyagraha and put him on trial without witnesses.
On the outbreak of World War II (1939), Patel supported Nehru’s decision to withdraw Congress from central and provincial legislatures.
Patel was at his persuasive best when he spoke at the Gwalia Tank ground (now called August Kranti Maidan) in Mumbai to launch the nationwide civil disobedience movement in 1942 at the behest of Mahatma Gandhi.
During Quit India Movement (1942), the British arrested Patel. He was imprisoned with the entire Congress Working Committee from 1942 to 1945 at the fort in Ahmednagar.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel as Congress President
After the signing of the Gandhi–Irwin Pact, Patel was elected president of Congress for its 1931 session (Karachi).
Congress committed itself to the defence of fundamental rights and civil liberties. Patel advocated for the establishment of a secular nation. Minimum wages for workers and the abolition of untouchability were among his other priorities.
Patel used his position as Congress president to organise the return of confiscated land to farmers in Gujarat.
Sardar Patel – The Social Reformer
Patel worked extensively against alcohol consumption, untouchability, caste discrimination and for women emancipation in Gujarat and outside.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel – As Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister
After Independence, he became India’s first Deputy Prime Minister. On the first anniversary of Independence, Patel was appointed as the Home Minister of India. He was also in charge of the States Department and the Information and Broadcasting Ministry
As the first Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of India, Patel organised relief efforts for refugees fleeing from Punjab and Delhi and worked to restore peace.
In what was to become Sardar Patel’s most lasting legacy, he took charge of the States Department and was responsible for the accession of 565 princely states into the Union of India. Paying tribute to him, Nehru called Sardar ‘the builder and consolidator of new India.’
However, the invaluable services of Sardar Patel were available to independent India for just 3 years. The brave son of India died on 15 December 1950 (aged 75), after suffering a massive heart attack.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s role in the Integration of the princely states
Sardar Patel despite his failing health and age never lost sight of the larger purpose of creating United India. As India’s first Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Sardar Patel played a key role in the integration of about 565 princely states into the Indian Union.
Few princely states like Travancore, Hyderabad, Junagadh, Bhopal and Kashmir were averse to joining the state of India.
Sardar Patel worked tirelessly to build a consensus with the princely states but did not hesitate in employing methods of Sama, Dama, Dand and Bhed where ever necessary.
He had used force to annex princely states of Junagadh ruled by Nawab and Hyderabad ruled by Nizam, both of whom had wished not to merge their respective states with the Union of India.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel stitched the princely states along with British Indian territory and prevented the balkanization of India.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and All-India Services like IAS
Sardar Patel was of the opinion that we will not have a united India if we do not have a good all-India Service.
Patel was clearly conscious of the fact that independent India needed ‘a steel frame to run its civil, military, and administrative bureaucracy. His faith in institutional mechanisms like having an organized command-based army and a systemized bureaucracy proved to be a blessing.’
His exhortation to the probationers to maintain utmost impartiality and incorruptibility of administration is as relevant today as it was then.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel as the first Prime Minister of India?
In the AICC Session of 15th January 1942 held at Wardha, Gandhiji formally designated Jawaharlal Nehru as his political successor. In Gandhiji’s own words “… not Rajaji, not Sardar Vallabhabhai, but Jawaharlal will be my successor…When I am gone, he will speak my language”.
Thus, it can be seen that it was none other than Gandhiji who wanted Nehru to lead India, apart from the masses. Patel always listened and obeyed Gandhi – who himself had no political ambitions in free India.
However, for the post of Congress Presidentship in 1946, Pradesh Congress Committees (PCCs) had a different choice – Patel. Even though Nehru had a great mass appeal, and a broader vision about the world, 12 out of 15 PCCs favoured Patel as Congress President. Patel’s qualities – as a great executive, organizer and leader – were widely appreciated.
When Nehru came to know about the PCCs choice, he remained silent. Mahatma Gandhi felt that “Jawaharlal will not take second place”, and he asked Patel to withdraw his nomination for Congress President. Patel, as always, obeyed Gandhi. Nehru took over as Congress President for a short period of time in 1946, before handing over the responsibility to J.B.Kriplani.
For Nehru, the Prime Ministership of Free India was just an extension of his role in the interim cabinet.
It was Jawaharlal Nehru who headed the interim government of India from 2nd September 1946 to 15th August 1947. Nehru was the Vice-President of the Viceroy’s Executive Council with powers of the Prime Minister. Vallabhbhai Patel held the second-most powerful position in the Council, heading the Department of Home Affairs and Department of Information and Broadcasting.
On August 1, 1947, two weeks before India became independent, Nehru wrote to Patel a letter asking him to join the cabinet. Nehru, however, indicated that he already consider Patel as the strongest pillar of the Cabinet. Patel replied guaranteeing unquestioned loyalty and devotion. He had also mentioned that their combination is unbreakable and therein lies their strength.
Nehru and Patel
Nehru and Patel was a rare combination. They complemented each other. The two great leaders of the Indian National Congress had mutual admiration and respect. There were differences in approach – but the end goal for both was to find what is best for India.
The differences of opinion were mostly regarding the Congress hierarchy, working style, or ideologies. Within Congress – Nehru was widely considered Left-wing (socialism) while Patel’s ideologies were aligned with the Right-wing (capitalism).
There were differences in the choice of Congress presidential candidates in 1950 between Nehru and Patel. Nehru supported J.B. Kriplani. Patel’s choice was Purushottam Das Tandon. In the end, Kriplani was defeated by Patel’s candidate Purushottam Das Tandon.
However, it should be noted that the differences were never big enough to result in a major split in Congress or the Government.
Gandhi and Patel
Patel was always loyal to Gandhi. However, he differed with Gandhiji on certain issues.
Following Gandhiji’s assassination, he said: “I claim to be nothing more than an obedient soldier of him like the millions who obeyed his call. There was a time when everyone used to call me his blind follower. But, both he and I knew that I followed him because our convictions tallied”.
Patel and Somnath Temple
On November 13, 1947, Sardar Patel, the then Deputy Prime Minister of India, vowed to rebuild Somnath Temple. Somnath had been destroyed and built several times in the past. He felt that the story of its resurrection from ruins this time would be symbolic of the story of the resurgence of India.
Sardar Patel’s Economic Ideas
Self-reliance was among the chief tenets of Patel’s economic philosophy. He wanted to see India industrialise quickly. The imperative was to reduce dependence on external resources.
Patel guided the cooperative movements in Gujarat and helped in setting up of the Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union which proved to be a game-changer for dairy farming throughout the country.
Sardar was unimpressed with the slogans raised for socialism and spoke often of the need for India to create wealth before debating over what to do with it, how to share it.
The role he envisaged for the government was that of a welfare state but realised that other countries had taken up the task at more advanced stages of development.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel rejected nationalisation completely and was against controls. To him, the profit motive was a great stimulant to exertion, not a stigma.
Patel was against people remaining idle. In 1950 he said, “Millions of idle hands that have no work cannot find employment on machines”. He urged labourers to participate in creating wealth before claiming a just share.
Sardar championed investment-led growth. He said, “Spend less, save more, and invest as much as possible should be the motto of every citizen.
Was Patel against the partition of British India – into India and Pakistan?
Sardar in his early years opposed the partition of British India. However, he accepted the division of India by December 1946. Many including VP Menon and Abul Kalam Azad felt that Patel was more receptive to the idea of Partition than Nehru.
Abul Kalam Azad was a staunch critic of Partition right till the very end, however, that was not the case with Patel and Nehru. Azad in his memoir India wins Freedom says that he was ‘surprised and pained when Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in reply to why Partition was needed said that ‘whether we liked it or not, there were two nations in India’.
Sardar Patel as a defender of Hindu interests
According to Raj Mohan Gandhi, one of Patel’s most highly regarded biographers, Patel was the Hindu face of Indian nationalism. Nehru was the secular and global face of Indian nationalism. However, both worked under the same umbrella of the Indian National Congress.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was an open defender of Hindu interests. This however made Patel less popular among minorities.
However, Patel was never communal. As Home Minister, he did his best to protect Muslim lives in Delhi during riots. Patel had a Hindu heart (because of his upbringing) but he ruled with an impartial and secular hand.
Sardar Patel and RSS
Sardar Patel initially had a soft corner towards Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and their efforts in the Hindu interest. However, after the assassination of Gandhi, Sardar Patel banned RSS.
“All their speeches were fill of communal poison“, he wrote after banning the Sangh in 1948. “As a final result of the poison, the country had to suffer the sacrifice of the invaluable life of Gandhiji.”
The ban on the RSS was eventually lifted on July 11, 1949, after Golwalkar agreed to make certain promises as conditions for the ban being revoked. In its communique announcing the lifting of the ban, the government of India said that the organisation and its leader had promised to be loyal to the constitution and the flag.
Statue of Unity, a tribute to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel?
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was an Indian National Congress leader – until his death. Many historians like Ramchandra Guha, thinks it is ironic that Patel is being claimed by the BJP when he “was himself a lifelong Congressman”.
Congress leader Shashi Tharoor alleged that BJP was trying to ‘hijack’ the legacy of freedom fighters and national heroes like Patel as they have no leaders of their own in history to celebrate.
Many opposition leaders see vested interests in the right-wing party’s effort to appropriate Patel and depict the Nehru family in a bad light.
Built at a cost of Rs. 2,989 crore, the statue depicts Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first Home Minister, wearing a traditional dhoti and shawl, towering over the Narmada River.
At 182-metre, the statue is touted as the world’s tallest – it is 177 feet higher than China’s Spring Temple Buddha, currently the world’s tallest statue.
Iron was collected from all over the country for the statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, also known as the Iron Man of India.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s Quotes
“Work is worship but laughter is life. Anyone who takes life too seriously must prepare himself for a miserable existence. Anyone who greets joys and sorrows with equal facility can really get the best of life.”
“My culture is agriculture.”
“We worked hard to achieve our freedom; we shall have to strive harder to justify it”.
Patel was a selfless leader, who placed the country’s interests above everything else and shaped India’s destiny with single-minded devotion.
The invaluable contribution of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in building a modern and unified India needs to be remembered by every Indian as the country marches ahead as one of the largest economies in the world.