The Iron Man of India

When one thinks of Sardar Vallabhai Patel, there is just so much to the man, that it is well impossible to explore his life in one singe article. But if I had to choose one part of his life, it would be the way he integrated, 500 odd princely states, into one nation. Imagine having to deal with multiple mini states, each having their own set of issues, and welding them into one single nation.  Adding to it, a newly independent India, dealing with the trauma of Partition, the Pakistan attack on Kashmir, and the Nizam of Hyderabad trying to create his own independent state. It would surely need a man of iron will to surmount these challenges, and it had to be Sardar Patel. It is not without reason Mahatma Gandhi said - “The problem of states is so difficult, you alone can solve it”.

This man with the iron will was born on October 31, 1875 in the small town of Nadiad, Gujarat.  Determination was something, that was in bred in Sardar Patel since his childhood days.  There was this popular anecdote about him removing a boil on his body, that was causing him pain without wincing.  When he just about managed to pass the matriculation exam, people around him felt he would settle in some ordinary job, not many really foresaw his greatness. However, Patel had other plans, he was determined to be a lawyer, travel to England for higher studies in law, become a barrister. With fierce determination, he graduated from Middle Temple, studying with books he borrowed from other lawyers. He began to practice in Godhra, and later Valsad, Anand, becoming a successful barrister. He was also an equally good bridge player.

It was the way Mahatma Gandhi organized the Champaran agitation that caught Sardar’s attention, especially his call for action. His first encounter with the freedom movement was when he led the struggle against the system of veth or forced labour in Gujarat. In 1917, peasants in Kheda area of Gujarat protested the taxation imposed by British as they were suffering from famine and plague. Gandhi was seeking someone who could lead the peasant’s struggle in Kheda, as he was tied down at Champaran. It was Sardar who took it up. Sardar, later, stated that his decision to lead the struggle in Kheda, came after contemplation as he would have to give up his career. It was not an easy decision for him to abandon his flourishing law career, involve with the freedom struggle, he did it.

Kheda was where Sardar Patel would start his political career. He went from door to door, mobilizing peasants not to pay taxes. When the British cracked down on the Kheda revolt, it was Sardar Patel who helped the peasants hide themselves and their valuables. The British govt finally agreed to negotiate with Sardar Patel and suspend payment of revenue in Kheda, yes, his skills in organizing and negotiating go a long way back. There was a good reason why Gandhi wanted him to handle states.

Kheda made Sardar Patel a hero, to Gujaratis and all over India too, winning the admiration of even pro-British Indian politicians. He became the President of Gujarat Congress in 1920, he would continue in that post till 1945. During non-cooperation movement, he toured all over Gujarat, recruiting more than 3 lakh members, raising funds over 15 lakhs. An ardent supporter of Gandhi, he switched to Khadi later, supported him on his stance over Chauri Chaura.

As municipal president of Ahmedabad thrice, Sardar Patel, improved the drainage, sanitation systems, undertook school reforms. He also played a role in ensuring teachers in nationalist schools were recognized and paid for their services. His negotiating skills again came to fore in Nagpur in 1923, when he convinced the Govt to allow the hoisting of national flag. The Bardoli struggle in 1928 elevated his status further as a leader. It was during this time, that he got the title of Sardar. It was the same as Kheda, taxes being imposed despite severe famine conditions, and at much higher rates. After interacting with villagers, Sardar Patel, organized a complete boycott of taxes, and Bardoli was more intense than Kheda. Using his organizational skills, he once again created a network of camps, volunteers, information in affected areas. And after a long struggle in Bardoli, he once again managed to negotiate a settlement repealing the tax hike. It was not just repealing tax hike, Sardar Patel also managed to get suspended village officers reinstated, return of seized property. His arrest during the Salt Satyagraha, resulted in massive protests across Gujarat, launching an anti-tax rebellion.

It was during their imprisonment in Yeravda that Sardar Patel and Gandhi developed a closer bonding with each other. Despite the differences between them, he always respected Gandhi’s leadership and was one of his staunchest supporters. He became the chief fund raiser for the Congress, and later Chairman of Central Parliamentary Board in 1934. Again, during the Quit India movement, it was Sardar Patel who supported Gandhi all the way for a total civil disobedience movement.

Nehru, Rajaji and Azad were not much in support of Gandhi’s call for total civil disobedience. It was Sardar Patel who backed him fully. He felt that only an all-out rebellion would force the British to quit India, and he threw himself into the 1942 movement. On 7 Aug 1942, Sardar Patel, gave one of the finest speeches ever to the vast crowd assembled at Gowalia Tank during Quit Indian movement, that motivated the nationalists, who till then were sceptical about it. Once again, his organizing skills came to the fore during the Quit India movement, which played a major role there. Arrested during Quit India, Sardar Patel spent 3 years in prison at Ahmednagar fort where he read books, played bridge, to keep himself busy.

When India became independent in 1947, Sardar Patel moved into No. 1, Aurangzeb Road, Delhi, and that would be his home till he passed away in 1950. He was one of the Congress leaders who accepted the inevitability of Partition first, something that did not go down too well with others. He felt that partition was the only way to counter Jinnah’s Direct-Action campaign, and the communal riots in Punjab, Bengal. Gandhi was dead opposed to Partition, but it was Sardar Patel who discussed with him the inevitability of it. As he stated the choice was between one division and many divisions, the hard facts had to be given precedence over emotions. He felt that a Congress-Muslim League coalition would be practically unworkable and did not agree with Gandhi on that. Again, when Delhi was faced with the massive refugee influx after Partition, Sardar Patel, established the Emergency Committee for order. His biggest achievement though would be the integration of the princely states and British provinces into one nation.

Integration of Princely States

When India became independent in 1947, there were two distinct entities, one, those that were directly under the British, and other the Princely states under the British crown. Apart from these there were the colonial enclaves of French (Pondicherry) and the Portuguese (Goa, Daman, Diu).

This how the map of India looked like during the British era, so one can just imagine the magnitude of the challenge confronting Sardar Patel. And with differing positions on accession, a “one size fits all” strategy would have been counterproductive. The concerns of the Princely states would have to be considered and balanced with the need for accession. What Sardar Patel did was he used the traditional saam, daan, bhed, dand tactics, of negotiating with the states, addressing their concerns, and using force only as a last resort.

The major issue he had to deal with was that of the Princely states, each of which had their own concerns and apprehensions to be dealt with. Bhopal, Hyderabad, Travancore, did not want to go along with India or Pakistan, and sought independent status. Both Hyderabad and Travancore reached out to Western nations for support, while Bhopal began to work upon an alliance with other Princely states and the Muslim league in its favour.

However, the lack of unity among the princely states meant the resistance fell flat. Most of the smaller Princely states were apprehensive of being dominated by the larger states. And there was no love lost between the Hindu and Muslim rulers. Another factor that helped Patel’s cause was the Muslim League’s decision to stay out of the Constituent Assembly which meant Bhopal’s plan did not work out. Also, in most of the princely states, the ordinary people favoured integration with India. The ruler of Travancore abandoned plans for independence, after his subjects favoured integration with India.

The three persons who played a key role in the integration were Patel himself, Mountbatten, and Patel’s Man Friday, V. P. Menon. Mountbatten being on friendly first terms with most princes, categorically told them that Britain would neither grant them any dominion status nor admit them into the Commonwealth. He also emphasized that integrating with India was better for the states’ economic interest, and they did not have the resources to combat a likely Leftist insurgency.

Patel and Menon came up with a policy to please the princely states, more conciliatory and seeking to negotiate, than force them. Patel promised a more federal structure where the states would be treated as equals than subordinates under the Union. Two key documents were presented by him to the Princely states. One was the Standstill Agreement which promised status quo and not doing away with existing practices of states. The other was Instrument of Accession by which the ruler agreed to accession to India while having control over subject matters. It again varied from state to state. Only defence, external affairs, and communications were completely with the Centre, the rest were negotiable with the States. It guaranteed the States, a complete degree of autonomy over subjects they had jurisdiction over. 

There were issues with border states like Jodhpur whose ruler, Hanwant Singh, was dead against Congress. Along with Jaisalmer, he began to negotiate with Jinnah who saw this as a God given opportunity to gain control of strategic border areas. However, the overwhelming support among the subjects of these two states made the rulers change their minds, and both acceded to India.

Junagadh’s ruler wanted to accede to Pakistan, however the neighbouring princely states, vehemently opposed this idea, and tension was building up in Gujarat. Patel pointed out that Junagadh being 80% Hindu should be part of India and called for a plebiscite. Simultaneously all food supplies, communications, to Junagadh were cut off, forces were sent to its border. With its Nawab and his family fleeing to Pakistan, by 1948, the Indian Government took over.

Now came the task of completing the integration process, again each state had its own legislature and administrative set up that Patel had to consider. The first step was to merge the smaller princely states with other larger states to create a union.

December 1947 - Princely states in Odisha, Bihar, Central India signed merger agreements, forming part of those states by January 1, 1948.

1948- 66 smaller states in Kathiawar, and some in the Deccan, were merged with Bombay Presidency. These included Kolhapur, Baroda to create Bombay state, that would later split into Maharashtra and Gujarat.

Other states were merged with Assam, United Provinces (now UP), Madras, East Punjab and West Bengal. 30 states of the erstwhile Punjab Hill States Agency were integrated into Himachal Pradesh, that was directly under the control of the Centre. Himachal being a sensitive border state, and some of the larger Princely states like Kutch, Bhopal, Tripura, Manipur, were also directly brought under the control of Centre.

All the smaller princely states in Kathiawar were merged with Saurashtra. Madhya Bharat emerged in 1948, which consisted of Gwalior, Indore, and smaller princely states. PEPSU (Patiala and East Punjab States Union) was formed by July 15, 1948 with merging of Patiala, Kapurthala, Jind, Faridkot. By May 1949, most of the Rajput princely states were integrated into the United State of Rajasthan. By mid-1949, Travancore and Cochin merged to form Travancore-Cochin that would later be Kerala. Madras Presidency was divided and neighbouring princely states were merged to form Karnataka (erstwhile Mysore State), Kerala (Travancore-Cochin), Andhra Pradesh (Ceded districts and Coastal area).

Sardar Patel also played a key role in drafting the Constitution of India and backed the appointment of Dr. Ambedkar as Chairman. The Kaira District Milk Producers Cooperative was formed with Sardar Patel’s guidance, and it would be a predecessor to Amul. Gandhi’s assassination upset Sardar Patel who felt guilty that as Home Minister he could not prevent it and offered to resign. Nehru, Rajaji and others defended Patel in public over the criticism to prevent Gandhi’s assassination. Nehru again wanted Rajaji to be first President, but Sardar’s backing for Babu Rajendra Prasad helped in his election. The same with P. D. Tandon whom Nehru did not want as Congress President in 1950 but was backed again by Sardar Patel. He was also instrumental in creating the IAS and IPS. He has also been regarded as father of Indian civil services. He backed the bureaucrats fully, gave them a free hand, listened to them the reason why they respected him so much. When Sardar Patel passed away in 1950, 1500 civil servants attended his funeral to pledge complete loyalty to service of nation. Today he is no longer with us, but his legacy remains in the form of a united India.

Ratnakar Sadasyula is an IT professional who writes code for a living, and writes when free to keep his sanity intact. Also a blogger, and now starting out as a self published author of sorts, with varied interests in history, science, Indian culture. Believes that knowledge is meant to be shared, and a learner for life.