Narendra Modi's Parliament speech: Blistering rhetoric apart, PM's deification of Sardar Patel may need fact check

Those who believe the BJP's version of history would be inclined to believe if Sardar Patel had his way, two things would never have happened: One, India would have never been partitioned. And two, Kashmir would have easily fallen into  India's basket like an apple, just like the other princely states Sardar gathered before Independence.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Lok Sabha. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Lok Sabha. PTI

This version has been endorsed and amplified by the BJP and its leaders repeatedly, especially during the past few years. On Wednesday, while speaking in the Lok Sabha, prime minister reiterated this romantic version when he said, "If Sardar Patel had become the prime minister, today a part of our beloved Kashmir would not have been under Pakistani occupation."

He lamented that Patel was denied India's prime ministership even when majority of provincial Congress units were in his favour. "Out of 15 Congress committees, 12 chose Vallabhbhai Patel, three chose not to take any sides, and still, Vallabhbhai Patel was not allowed to lead the country. What sort of democracy was that?" he said.

The prime minister then went on to blame the Congress for the Partition. "You divided India. Even after 70 years of Independence, 125 crore people of India continue to suffer because of the poison you sowed. Not a single day passes when people of India are not punished for your sins," the prime minister said.

The BJP's love for Patel is fascinating. But, it doesn't know that if Sardar were to have his way, there would have been no BJP. As India's home minister Patel banned the RSS, the party's alma mater, after Mahatma Gandhi's assassination in 1948. Before revoking the ban 18 months later, he pressured its leaders into draft a constitution of the organisation. One of the promises he extracted from the RSS was that it would stay away from politics. The BJP would, of course, not talk about the broken promise.

Let us examine the three key points the prime minister raised in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday. Was Patel denied the top job in spite of support from the Congress state units? Could Patel have secured all of Kashmir for India? And, finally, was he opposed to Partition?

1) Patel and prime ministership of India

Was Patel denied the prime minister's post in spite of Congress provincial units supporting him? If yes, by whom?

The answer to the first question is a counter question? How could have the Congress provincial units elected the prime minister of India? They could have, at best, stated their choice for the president of the Congress party.

In 1946, Maulana Azad was the Congress president. But the general consensus was that the Congress needed someone else to deal with the British, especially with Independence appearing on the horizon. So, Congress provincial units, instead of a full session of the Congress Working Committee, were asked to vote. And, it is true, that most of them chose Patel. But, Gandhi later intervened and asked Patel to withdraw in Nehru's favour for various reasons.

But, the point here is this. The provincial candidates were asked to vote for the president of the Congress, not the prime minister of India. Later, Nehru joined the viceroy's executive council as his deputy. When this council was converted into an interim government, Nehru was named the prime minister.

The fact is, Nehru was the Mahatma's choice for India's first prime minister. (In fact, to avoid partition, Gandhi wanted MA Jinnah to become the first prime minister. But that is a different story.) Once the decision was taken, Patel stood by it till the very end. In his tribute to the prime minister on his 60th birthday, Patel wrote: "It was in the fitness of things that in the twilight preceding the dawn of Independence he should have been our leading light, and that when India was faced with crisis after crisis, following the achievement of our freedom, he should have been the upholder of our faith and the leader of our legions. No one knows better than myself how much he has laboured for his country in the last two years of our difficult existence …. As one older in years, it has been my privilege to tender advice to him on the manifold problems with which we have been faced in both administrative and organisational fields. I have always found him willing to seek and ready to take it ..." (Nehru: Abhinandan Granth)

2) Congress, Patel and Partition

The Cabinet Mission sent in 1946 to India by Clement Attlee (the then British prime minister) to discuss handing over of power came up with two proposals. Its 16 May plan envisaged Muslim and Hindu majority provinces under a weak Centre that would control only defence and foreign affairs. An interim government representing all communities was to be installed at the Centre with parity for Hindus and Muslims.

The Congress said it wanted more clarity about the proposal. In its 24 May resolution, the Congress said: "...They (Congress leaders) have examined it with every desire to find a way for a peaceful and cooperative transfer of power and the establishment of a free and independent India. Such an India must necessarily have a strong central authority capable of representing the nation with power and dignity in the counsels of the world."

In June, the British came up with another proposal. This time the Cabinet Mission proposed partition of India between Hindu and Muslim majority areas, leading to creation of Pakistan.

The Congress rejected this in its resolution a few days later."In the formation of a Provisional or other governance, Congressmen can never give up the national character of Congress, or accept an artificial and unjust parity, or agree to a veto of a communal group. The Committee are unable to accept the proposals for formation of an Interim Government as contained in the statement of June 16. The Committee have, however, decided that the Congress should join the proposed Constituent Assembly with a view to framing the Constitution of a free, united and democratic India."

According to Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, by April 1947 it was clear that partition was the only option. In his personal report to the British government on April 17, 1947, Mountbatten wrote: "He (Jinnah) has made it abundantly clear that the Muslim League will not reconsider the Cabinet Mission plan, and he is intent on having his Pakistan." (Mountbatten and the Partition of India: Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre).

In his book, The Transfer of Power in India, VP Menon, the ICS officer who was to later work as Patel's secretary, also wrote that Jinnah was adamant on having his Pakistan. He remained opposed to a common legislature, even on the basis of equal representation.  His view was shared by the Hindu Mahasabha.

What option did the Congress have then? It is widely believed that Patel was the first to accept Partition. (Gandhi never did). He realised if the Congress did not come around, the British would leave after handing over power to the Muslim League. Patel's mind was reportedly made up after the violence that followed Jinnah's call for direct action in August 1946. This thinking was evident in his speech at a Congress Working Committee where the plan was discussed:

"I fully appreciate the fears of our brothers from [the Muslim-majority areas]. Nobody likes the division of India and my heart is heavy. But the choice is between one division and many divisions. We must face facts. We cannot give way to emotionalism and sentimentality. The Working Committee has not acted out of fear. But I am afraid of one thing, that all our toil and hard work of these many years might go waste or prove unfruitful. My nine months in office has completely disillusioned me regarding the supposed merits of the Cabinet Mission Plan. Except for a few honourable exceptions, Muslim officials from the top down to the chaprasis, (peons or servants) are working for the League. The communal veto given to the League in the Mission Plan would have blocked India's progress at every stage. Whether we like it or not, de facto Pakistan already exists in the Punjab and Bengal. Under the circumstances, I would prefer a de jure Pakistan, which may make the League more responsible. Freedom is coming. We have 75 to 80 percent of India, which we can make strong with our own genius. The League can develop the rest of the country.."(The Transfer of Power in India: VP Menon).

3) Patel and Kashmir

The BJP assumes Kashmir was India's from the very beginning. But, this isn't true. Like rulers of Junagadh and Hyderabad, the Dogra king of Kashmir did not sign the instrument of accession to India. His plan was to turn his kingdom into Switzerland of Asia by keeping it independent.

Patel, the BJP historians should note, was not too keen on Kashmir. He was eager more to ensure the integration of Junagadh and Hyderabad into India because of the large number of Hindus in these states.

In his book, Patel, A Life, scholar Rajmohan Gandhi reports Patel's speech at the Bahauddin College in Junagadh, where the home minister said:

"If  Hyderabad does not see the writing on the wall, it goes the way Junagadh has gone. Pakistan attempted to set off Kashmir against Junagadh. When we raised the question of settlement in a democratic way, they (Pakistan) at once told us that they would consider it if we applied that policy to Kashmir. Our reply was that we would agree to Kashmir if they agreed to Hyderabad."

If Patel was willing to trade Hyderabad for Kashmir, how can the BJP argue the Valley would have been ours if Patel were the prime minister?


Updated Date: Feb 08, 2018 17:37 PM

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