Sardar Patel was the first Congress party leader to publicly demand the partition of India. Until then Congress leaders pretended opposition to partition. Actually they wanted India’s division on religious lines. Yet they feigned opposition to it for two reasons: i) they professed secularism and therefore could not afford to talk of religion-based division of India; and ii) Muslim League demanded inclusion of whole provinces of Punjab and Bengal in Pakistan whereas Congress would concede them only half of each provinces.
Congress’ anti-partition rhetoric ended on March 8, 1947, when Patel threw away the mask of secularism and moved a resolution in the Congress working committee proposing division of the Punjab (p.204 Sardar Patel by DV Tahmankar). The CWC unanimously adopted the resolution. Since Patel had dared to move the resolution without MK Gandhi’s knowledge, the latter was miffed. So he wrote to Patel: “Try and explain to me your Punjab resolution. I cannot understand it.” Gandhi was not opposed to partition although he used to threaten that British India would have to be divided over his dead body. When Viceroy Lord Mountbatten spelt out the details of partition plan to him on June 2, 1947, he did not oppose it because it was exactly according to what Congress wanted (p.101 Mission with Mountbatten by AC-Johnson). And Patel’s confidant VP Menon had drafted it (p.92 Mission with Mountbatten A. C-Johnson; p.210 Sardar Patel D. V. Tahmankar).
Menon, Reforms Commissioner in the Viceroy’s establishment, had sold the idea of division of the provinces of Punjab and Bengal to Patel sometime in late December 1946, or January 1947. Patel was attracted to Menon’s idea of partition because he (as also other Congress leaders) wanted to get rid of Muslims as early as possible, especially Liaqat Ali Khan who as Finance minister had almost crippled the government. Patel had himself given Finance ministry into the hands of Muslim League. It had so happened that when in October 1946, Muslim League agreed to join the government of British India, they demanded Home, Defence, or External Affairs post. Viceroy suggested that Home should be given to the League which meant that Patel had to give up Home ministership. But he refused to do so and threatened to resign from the government. Nehru was Foreign minister and was stubborn not to give up his position. So Patel asked John Mathai, Finance minister, to make way for Liaqat Ali. John Mathai was a Christian, hence disposable. In this way Liaqat Ali became the Finance minister and thereby got a stranglehold on the entire government.
In March 1947, when Patel moved the Punjab partition resolution, Nehru gave him full support. On April 20, 1947, Nehru said: “The Muslim League can have Pakistan but on condition that they do not take away other parts of India which do not wish to join Pakistan.” In other words, East Punjab and West Bengal could not be incorporated into Pakistan. Meanwhile Mountbatten took over as the Viceroy of India on March 24, 1947. He soon plunged into negotiation with Indian leaders. Patel stressed not only for partition but also for immediate transfer of power. One reason was of course Liaqat Ali. The other reason was that Congress party was at the verge of breaking into Patel and Nehru factions. Nehru’s and Patel’s differences with each other and with Gandhi had surfaced, now that power was in sight. Patel thought that he was senior to and more efficient than Nehru, and, therefore, deserved to be the prime minister of India. But Gandhi’s favouritism has enabled Nehru to outsmart Patel (although the latter was himself Gandhi’s creation). Congress party’s struggle against the British and against Muslim League had in the past submerged their divergent views and mutual jealousies. But now the situation had changed. Muslim League was going to be segregated and the British were transferring power.
In July 1947, when Indian states department was created in place of British political department, Nehru appointed Patel as States minister. Nehru wanted to appoint HVR Iyyengar as its secretary but Patel took Menon in place of him. As States minister Patel was responsible for running Kashmir affairs, but Nehru ran Kashmir himself. Because of Kashmir, government of India was divided into two mutually hostile camps. One included Nehru, Gopalaswami Ayyengar, and Sheikh Abdullah. Patel distrusted Sheikh Abdullah and favoured the Maharaja and his Prime Minister Mehr Chand Mahajan. Both Mahajan and the Maharaja were communalists who played sinister roles during the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Jammu province. Even when Patel visited Jammu on November 4, 1947, Muslims were gunned down in a systematic manner. Army boarded Muslim into trucks ostensibly to take them to Pakistan but at the Pakistan frontier, the same Army machine-gunned them (p.438 Aatashi-Chinar by Sheikh Abdullah). Nehru inducting Moulana Azad, Baldev Singh, and Rajagopachaya as his cabinet ministers which Patel resented.
The British transferred power to Pakistan and India on August 14 and 15 1947, respectively. Gandhi spent that time around Calcutta because he feared there might be communal clashes. His prognosis came true when Hindus attacked Muslims on August 31. Next day Gandhi announced a fast unto death against the spread of communal violence (communal violence by now had consumed thousands in East Punjab and Delhi where Sikhs and Hindus started it by attacking Muslims on August 17).
By September 4, peace returned to Calcutta. Gandhi broke the fast and declared his intention to go to the Punjab. But on the same day the situation in Delhi went out of hand when refugees from West Punjab began to seize mosques and Muslim homes because they considered local Muslims responsible for what had been done to them by Muslim fanatics of West Punjab. Delhi Muslims took shelter in Purana Qila and Himayun’s tomb where they had to suffer heat, scarcity of water, and disease.
Patel was Home minister at that time. Instead of coming with a heavy hand against troublemakers, he quarrelled with Nehru on September 7, during a meeting of Cabinet emergency committee headed by Mountbatten. Nehru had demanded a ban on Sikhs carrying daggers and their use of jeeps, as they used these for violent acts against Muslims. Nehru wanted to check lawlessness in Delhi. Also Nehru did not want all Muslims to leave India. He had nothing against them so long as they did not claim political parity with Hindu majority as Muslim Leaguers had done. Their presence in India would serve him to lay claim to secularism and refute the Two-Nations theory of Muslim League. Nehru was a world famous leader. On international fora he talked of the right to self-determination of people. Patel did not like the notion of granting RSD to Kashmiris. Nehru internationalised Kashmir dispute which Patel resented. Patel did not care what the world thought of him. A Hindu supremacist, Patel was an unknown leader outside India. He simply wanted Indian Muslims to be either killed or thrown into the Indian Ocean, or go to Pakistan.
Gandhi arrived in Delhi on September 9, 1947. Mountbatten ordered imposition of curfew in the capital and searching of houses for arms and ammunition. Also he banned entry of West Pakistan refugees into Delhi. Delhi was soon peaceful. Yet Gandhi embarked upon a fast unto death on January 13 in protest against communal strife in Delhi, and against stoppage of Pakistan’s balance share of cash reserves amounting to 550 million rupees. However, the fundamental reasons for going on fast was that he had suffered neglect from Congress party leaders, his one-time blind followers. His followers not wanted to enjoy royal lifestyle. Gandhi would have none of it. He accused them of looting India’s treasury. Gandhi’s fast was especially directed against Patel and in favour of Nehru. Hindu fanatics considered this fast as anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim. Gandhi ended his fast after five days only when Hindus and Muslim embraced each other in his presence; and when Patel and Nehru hugged each other and sent money to Pakistan.
Hindu fanatics were enraged when Gandhi announced his decision to go to Pakistan and spend the rest of his life there. If he had settled in Pakistan, it would have been a great moral victory for Pakistan. In order to deny them victory, they killed Gandhi on January 30, 1948. The killer, Nathuram Godse, was a member of Hindu Rashtra Dal, founded by Veer Savarkar of Hindu Mahasabha as a secret society of RSS. RSS was the military wing of Hindu Mahasabha (p.362 Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre).
As Home minister Patel proposed increase in Gandhi’s security but the latter refused. So Patel was never actually accused of being complicit in Gandhi’s killing. But if today’s ruling BJP, an RSS affiliate, appropriate him as their leader, then the day would not be far away when he would be included among the killers of Gandhi, the Gandhi who had made him what he was.
Right until 1916, when Patel (born Vallabhai October 31, 1875 Nadiad Bombay presidency, now Gujarat, to an 1857 freedom fighter Javeribhai Patel) had crossed middle age, he was not interested in politics. He was a fairly successful barrister who enjoyed playing cards in the Ahmadabad club. However, there was an able politician in the Patel family called Vithalbhai, his elder brother, who was elected member of Bombay Legislative Council since 1910. Vithalbhai was of the type of Mr Jinnah and his colleague in politics and like him never subscribed to Gandhian politics. He died in 1933.
Patel joined Gandhi in 1916. Next year he won Ahmadabad municipal council election. Gandhi emerged on the political horizons of India around the year 1920. Patel supported Gandhi even after the latter called off non-cooperation movement in February 1922, which divided Congress into factions. Patel remained a provincial figure and a blind follower of Gandhi right until 1928. Patel would have become the president of Congress party in September 1929, but Gandhi supported Nehru because he wanted to earn his father Motilal Nehru’s support to Civil Disobedience movement, which he intended to launch soon. Since then Patel felt bitterly against Nehru although he continued to follow Gandhi.
Patel was arrested for the first time in March 1930, because he was preparing to receive Gandhi who intended to embark upon the salt march to Dandi in Surat. Patel supported Gandhi even after the latter renounced Congress membership and yet held dictatorial powers over the organisation. In April 1937, elections were held in British India under the new constitutional dispensation of government of India Act 1935. Congress won in eight provinces out of 11. In Bombay, KF Nariman led Congress party. He now deserved to be chief minister but since he was a Parsi, Patel saw to it that he was sidelined. In his place Patel helped Bal Gangadhar (Balasaheb) Kher to become the CM.
In January 1939, Subash Chandra Bose decided to stand for election of Congress president in defiance of Gandhi’s expressed wish who supported Pittabhi Sitaramaya. Bose won the election with a thumping majority. Bose was a left-winger. He wanted confrontation with the British. Patel was a right-winger. He did not want much confrontation with the British because that would entail giving up government. In February 1939, Patel hatched a conspiracy against Bose at Wardha where 15 members of the CWC met. Bose was in Calcutta. He was running a temperature and was therefore unable to attend the meeting. Patel made 13 CWC members to resign from the committee. As a result Bose had to resign. Rajendra Prasad, Gandhi’s man, succeeded him. In this way Patel re-established Gandhi’s grip on Congress. Bose left Congress and formed Forward Block (pp.158-59 Sardar Patel by DV Tahmankar).
In 1942 Gandhi described Cripp’s offer of independence, which he made on March 29, as a post-dated cheque because it talked of transfer of power at the end of the World War II. On August 8, he lauched Quit India movement against the British. Patel supported him because he was a blind follower. Nehru and Azad had to fall in line. Gandhi’s motive at this time was to turn the minds of Indians from Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army which the latter had set up in Malaya to free India from the British rule.
During the war years Azad was president of Congress but the real power lay in the hands of Gandhi. In July 1946 Nehru became president of Congress which meant that he would be the first PM of free India. Patel was left bitter again. Although they disagreed with one another on almost everything, yet they were one in their imperial tendencies. Be it the capture of Hyderabad, Junagardh, or Kashmir. Patel had come to know in September 1947, that Pakistani tribesmen were preparing to invade Kashmir, yet there is no historical record available that he ever informed the Maharaja of the danger because he, like Nehru, intended to make an excuse out of tribal invasion to capture Kashmir (p.49 Sardar Patel’s correspondence Vol. I).
The author is a political historian. Feedback:firstname.lastname@example.org