Patel, Sardar Vallabhbhai

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PATEL, SARDAR VALLABHBHAI (1875–1950), Indian nationalist leader. Along with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was one of the three foremost leaders of modern India, who inspired and awakened the nation during its arduous freedom struggle and in the precarious early years of independence. As India's first deputy prime minister, Sardar Patel unified the country and helped it survive its first harshest trials. Patel alone dealt with the complex problem of integrating over 560 princely states into India's federal union, achieving this monumental objective in little more than a year. Only three such states refused to join the Indian union initially: Jammu and Kashmir, Hyderabad, and Junagadh, the latter integrated by martial pressure on orders from Patel.

Vallabhbhai Jhaverbhai Patel was born on 31 October 1875 to a poor rural family of Nadiad in the Kheda district of Gujarat. His father, Jhaverbhai, was a small farmer with 10 to 12 acres (4–5 hectares) of land in Karamsad village, near Nadiad. Jhaverbhai was a sturdy, upright, and straightforward man of independent nature to whom the villagers flocked for advice in times of distress. Vallabhbhai inherited from his father the skill to organize and plan a political movement at the oppurtune moment.

Hardworking and conscientious from childhood, Vallabhbhai helped his father in the fields while still a student at the local primary school in Karamsad. For his secondary education he had to walk 9 miles (nearly 14 kilometers) from his village. He was an outspoken leader from his early school days. As a young pupil, Vallabhbhai clashed with a teacher who was in the habit of using his rod too frequently and punishing the students too harshly, imposing heavy fines on students who could barely afford to pay. Vallabhbhai was so outraged that he persuaded all the students of that class to abstain from attending. The strike went on into its third day, at which time the principal relented, sending for Vallabhbhai, recognized as the student leader, to assure him that the students would never again be punished so severely.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, especially the wealthy Motilal Nehru and his son Jawaharlal, Patel was obliged to work for his education. He was twenty-two years old when he passed his matriculation examination. Having witnessed rural poverty and suffering, he was determined to fight for justice for the poor. He decided to study law, passing the District Pleader examination at the age of twenty-five. He then launched his career at Godhara, where his elder brother, Vithalbhai, had already made a name for himself. He later moved his practice to Borsad.

Vallabhbhai Patel was an excellent criminal lawyer, and he soon became well respected in Borsad. His common sense, courage, temperament, and understanding of human psychology proved to be assets in his chosen profession. He was not content, however, with his lot as a local lawyer. He wanted to go to England to become a barrister, but his father did not have the means to allow him to fulfill that ambition. With hard work and frugal habits, Vallabhbhai was able to save enough money within three years of setting up his practice at Borsad. He then applied for admission to London's Middle Temple in 1905. He wrote to the travel agency Thomas Cooke and Sons for arranging his travel to London. By a quirk of fate, when all the formalities were nearly complete, the company's last letter containing his travel documents, addressed to him quite properly as Mr. V. J. Patel, Pleader Borsad, was delivered to his elder brother Vithalbhai, who had the same initials. Vithalbhai was himself eager to go to London, and pleaded with his younger brother to let him go, suggesting that Vallabhbhai could go later. Vallabhbhai so respected his older brother that without hesitation he acceded to his request.

Fate dealt Vallabhbhai a harsher blow soon after. His wife Zaverbai died in Cama Hospital, where she had been admitted for surgery to relieve severe intestinal pain. Vallabhbhai was in Anand defending a client accused of murder. He was in court, cross-examining a witness, when he was handed the telegram informing him of his wife's death. He opened the telegram, read the tragic news, and silently put it in his pocket. He continued his cross-examination and did not disclose the contents of the telegram until court was adjourned. His client was acquitted, but never knew the price Patel had paid to defend him. He was left with a six-year-old daughter, Maniben, and a four-year-old son, Dahyabhai. Vallabhbhai, only thirty-eight years old at the time, resolved not to marry, first for the sake of his children, and later for the liberation of his country.

After the return of his brother Vithalbhai to India, Vallabhbhai left for London in 1910 and joined the Middle Temple Inn, as London's law colleges were called. That same year, Jawaharlal Nehru, fourteen years younger than Patel, was admitted to the Inner Temple. No record has been found of Patel and Nehru meeting in London at that time, though their paths may well have crossed near London's courts.

Patel had to work hard in London due to his meager resources. He would walk daily to the library in the Middle Temple and rarely finished his reading until the library closed. His studious habits helped him to complete his course a year early, winning a first class in his finals and a prize of fifty pounds. He returned home to India elated.

After his return, Patel was offered a professorship at the Government Law School (College) by the chief justice of Bombay, but he preferred to live in Ahmedabad. Now completely Westernized, Patel built himself a reputation as a "smart young man," always well dressed, and his Ahmedabad practice prospered.

As G. V. Mavalankar, his lawyer friend, later to become speaker of the Lok Sabha (the lower house of India's Parliament), noted: "His conduct of cases always exhibited thorough mastery of facts, a proper and correct estimate of the opponents case and line of attack." He was fearless as well, and it was this quality, Mavalankar felt, that assured his success in the legal profession as well as in politics. By 1916 Patel's fees were the highest in Ahmedabad. A year later, he contested a seat and was elected to serve as a municipal councillor of Ahmedabad.

Barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had also moved back to Ahmedabad in 1915, after spending over twenty years in South Africa, where he led the struggle for the equality and human rights of Indians. Soon after establishing his first Indian ashram on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in 1915, Gandhi became a familiar figure at the Gujarat Club, dressed in his Kathiawadi turban, kurta (a loose shirt), and dhoti (loincloth). Vallabhbhai reportedly brushed aside any idea of listening to Gandhi speak at the Gujarat Club. He would also comment sarcastically on Gandhi's faith in the nonviolent resistance movement called satyagraha (hold fast to the truth) for securing liberty from British rule.

Gandhi's heroic stand on behalf of exploited indigo workers in Bihar's district of Champaran changed Patel's outlook toward the Mahatma, who soon became his political guru and remained his leader. Gandhi, when ordered to leave Bihar by the district magistrate, refused to obey the order, welcoming imprisonment, as he had in South Africa. The news of Gandhi's stand against the Raj inspired Patel and many others. Brave as Patel was, Gandhi's courage found a ready response in the Sardar, who left his highly lucrative practice and dedicated himself to India's liberation, under Gandhi's leadership. When they differed, Patel would give his frank and independent opinion but ultimately did whatever Gandhi directed. In his humorous way, Patel would say that he had locked his own brain and had given the key to Gandhi.

Patel began his own experiments in satyagraha from his position on Ahmedabad's Municipal Committee, inspired by what Gandhi had declared in 1917 at the first meeting of their Gujarat Political Conference: "Local Government has the key to swarajya ('freedom')."As chairman of Ahmedabad's Sanitary Committee, Patel remained in the city when the bubonic plague hit in 1917, refusing to move out for his personal safety. He became a familiar figure in the streets of Ahmedabad, urging workers to clean out the sewers and disinfect the plague-stricken areas.

Patel's first great satyagraha movement was the agrarian struggle he led in the Kheda district of Gujarat. The poor farmers of the district had pleaded with the government to lower the land revenues, as their crops had rotted due to excessive rains, requesting the suspension of revenue collection for some time. The government rejected their plea, adamantly insisting upon complete revenue collection. Gandhi asked him to take up the cause, and Patel toured every village, listening to the farmers and advising them not to pay any taxes despite the repressive measures of the government, which auctioned many houses and crops and threatened long terms of imprisonment. Most of the farmers stood firm, and the satyagraha continued for six months. Ultimately the government relented, and a decision was reached, with Gandhi and Patel, that only 8 percent of the land revenue was to be recovered.

On 1 August 1920 Gandhi launched his first national satyagraha, a nationwide boycott of British goods, promising "swaraj within a year." In Ahmedabad, people made huge bonfires and burned their foreign clothes. Vallabhbhai's barrister robes, imported suits, neckties, and many pairs of shoes were all consigned to those flames. Gandhi also exhorted students to boycott British schools and government colleges. He asked lawyers to withdraw from the courts, asked parents to remove their children from English schools, and urged everyone to wear khadi, the hand-spun and handwoven cloth that Gandhi himself wore until his death. Patel withdrew his daughter Maniben from her British school. His decision to give up his legal practice brought hardship to his family, as this was their only source of livelihood.

Patel was aware of the grave economic implications of the national boycott of British cotton cloth and other goods. On 6 December 1923 he informed his followers that "Englishmen import cotton worth five crores of rupees from India and send us textiles made from that cotton which are worth sixty crores of rupees. The money which they get from you is utilized to appoint Commissioners and Collectors, to buy guns which are utilized to keep you under their heels." He also moved a resolution in the Ahmedabad Municipality to remove government control over primary education.

After Gandhi's arrest in 1922, Patel devoted all his energies to the propagation of his political guru's ideals. In 1928 Patel electrified the country by leading the poor farmers of Bardoli in an epic struggle against increased land revenues, the famous Bardoli satyagraha. The farmers were incensed by the unjust increase in land taxes, and Patel went from village to village advising them to turn their dismay into action. At the same time, he advised then to remain peaceful, even when tax collectors came to attach their property. The government came down with a heavy hand on the farmers, selling their attached land and movable property. Patel appealed to the governor, calling for an impartial tribunal to examine the excessive increase in land taxes, warning that otherwise the peasants would continue their noncooperation. The government finally had to relent. The tribunal found an error in the earlier assessment and recommended an increase of 7 percent rather than the 22 percent previously assessed, thus vindicating Patel's stand. It was indeed an inspiring satyagraha, in which not a single life was lost and a great victory won. Thereafter, Patel was hailed as "Sardar" (village leader), the title of respect by which he came to be known throughout India.

In March 1931 Sardar Patel presided over the annual Indian National Congress session at Karachi, where he stressed the need for purna swaraj, or complete independence, and for Hindu-Muslim Unity. It was during his presidency that India's national flag was adopted. The flag was to have three colors in equal horizontal stripes: saffron, white, and green, from top to bottom, with Gandhi's spinning wheel in the center of the white stripe. Saffron represented courage, white peace and truth, and green faith and chivalry; the spinning wheel symbolized national unity and the hope of the masses.

Under the Government of India Act of 1935, provincial elections were held, bringing Congress candidates to power in eight of eleven provinces of British India. Sardar Patel, because of his organizational skills and integrity, supervised and coordinated all the Congress provincial ministeries.

In September 1939, when Great Britain declared war against Germany, Viceroy Linlithgow announced that India had also joined the Allies in that war, without consulting any Indian leaders. Patel was outraged at Linlithgow's announcement that "a country having one-fifth of the population of the world" could be made to join a war without its consent. He added that "Congress wants independence for ..the whole of India." Linlithgow opted, however, for "divide and rule," frankly informing Patel that the "Raj would turn to the Muslims if Congress did not cooperate."

The years from May 1940 to December 1943 were very significant in India's struggle for freedom. The Cripps Mission reached India in March 1942, but failed to work out a political settlement. Gandhi, hitherto averse to launching a mass movement, sounded the call of "Quit India" on 8 August 1942 at the historic session of the All-India Congress Committee in Bombay. He declared as his mantra "do or die"—either India must win its freedom or die in the attempt. Though Nehru had reservations about launching the movement, Sardar Patel supported Gandhi completely and told his countrymen that it would be better to die than to be "completely ruined." He advised railway and postal employees, government servants, and police to leave their jobs and thus not allow the machinery of the government to function. Then the "Quit India" slogan would become a reality.

Sardar Patel was arrested and imprisoned in Ahmednagar Fort from 1942 until April 1945 and was subsequently held in Yeravade prison in Poona until June 1945. On his release, Patel returned to active political life, declaring "I want freedom."

After the end of World War II, national elections in United Kingdom brought the Labour Party to power, with Clement Attlee replacing Winston Churchill as prime minister. The Labour goverment ordered India's general elections for September 1945, testing the relative strength of India's political parties. Sardar Patel resolved to run in the election, which resulted in a sweeping victory for the Congress Party, which won most of the general seats, while the Muslim League won an overwhelming majority of separate seats reserved for Muslims. The British government then decided to send three Cabinet ministers, among them Stafford Cripps, to negotiate a final settlement for the transfer of British power to a single Indian government, if possible. The Cabinet Mission proposal for a Constituent Assembly and an interim government was favored by Sardar Patel, who felt that the Muslim League would then lose its power to veto Congress legislation, and the Indian states would have to enter into treaties with the interim government. He also insisted that the single Constituent Assembly would soon draft a constitution for a unified India, which the British government would have to accept.

The Muslim League also accepted the interim government, despite their demand for a separate nation of Pakistan. However, Patel's apprehension that the Muslim League's entry into the interim government was to get a foothold to fight for Pakistan proved correct, as the violence in the Noakhali district of West Bengal, under Chief Minister H. S. Suhrawardy of the Muslim League, seemed to indicate. Soon after M.A. Jinnah called for "direct action" to help propagate his theory of "two nations," riots in Calcutta left Hindu temples destroyed, some three hundred Hindus murdered, and many others converted to Islam. There was immediate retaliation by Hindus in Bihar, where seven hundred Muslims were massacred. Despite Gandhi's strong opposition, both Nehru and Patel agreed to India's partition, hoping to free the country from more violent and disruptive politics by the Muslim League. Patel told Gandhi, that it was a question of civil war or partition. He viewed the loss of Pakistan as "like our agreeing to a have a diseased limb shorn off so that the remaining part may live in sound condition." Sardar Patel felt satisfied, moreover, that "we have 80 percent of the country with us which is a compact unit with great potentialities." He was not prepared for the holocaust that followed in the wake of partition. He had believed that it would be an amicable division and did not expect bloodshed, nor did Nehru.

Sardar Patel became the home minister in British India's interim government, and after 15 August 1947, when India became an independent nation, he was also appointed Nehru's deputy prime minister. In addition to remaining in charge of the Home Ministry, he was also put in charge of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. He continued to serve as minister of the States, a most difficult job, which he held from 5 July 1947. Sardar Patel, for all practical purposes, was supreme in all the departments he directed, fully trusted by Prime Minister Nehru to act as he saw fit, during the painful and trouble-filled first three years of India's independence. In many ways, Sardar Patel was the true architect of a viable Indian state, which without his steady control might not have survived the violence, uncertainty, disorder, and terror that followed partition.

It was indeed remarkable that the Sardar managed to achieve the peaceful merger of 562 princely states, comprising one-third of the total area of India, into the Indian union within the short span of less than two years. Within two years, with the exception of Hyderabad, Junagadh, and Kashmir, all the princely states contiguous to India acceded to the Indian union. Junagadh was integrated, with some support by the Indian army, by the people of the state, who voted overwhelmingly to join the Indian union. In Hyderabad, the Sardar felt he had no alternative but to order his troops to take over Hyderabad by force after other avenues had failed to convince the nizam to join India. Jammu and Kashmir was a strategic state with common borders with Pakistan as well as India, and the Sardar and Pandit Nehru were both determined that it should accede to India. Though Jammu and Kashmir should have been under Sardar's ministry of states, Prime Minister Nehru insisted on taking personal charge of Kashmir, which he always called his "ancestral home," as his great-grandparents had been born there.

Patel was eager for India to take its proper place as a world power by raising its international status and military strength. He disagreed with Gandhi's opposition to atomic energy and its use, if necessary, to protect India from any attacks. Sardar Patel also wanted a strong central government and a modern army, navy, and air force, ultimately subordinate, however, to the civil central government. He felt that India's industrial development was absolutely essential for the production of all necessary military matériel for a strong modern army. He therefore insisted on accelerating the production of Indian iron and steel, cement, and other essential articles both for the civil population and for defense. He was, however, against the nationalization of industries, though he died before Nehru's Five-Year Plans were fully launched.

Partition had also divided British India's civil service, comprising some 1,500 officers, who had kept India's administration together; all the British and Muslim officers had left before mid-August 1947. In April 1948 Sardar Patel informed Nehru that he had established two new services to take the place of the Indian civil service and the Indian police: the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and the Indian Police Service, for which he drafted special recruitment, discipline, and control rules. Patel was determined that IAS officers set high standards of discipline, urging probationers "to maintain the utmost impartiality and inoorrupubility of administration." They should "not take part in politics" and keep in view "the achievement of the highest standard of integrity."

While the unification of the states was succesfully achieved, the evacuation and rehabilitation of refugees, another of Patel's urgent postpartition responsibilities, proved difficult to accomplish. He attempted to give all help and protection to Muslims migrating to Pakistan. To India's Muslim minority, Patel said, "as a friend of is the duty of a good friend to speak frankly. It is your duty now to sail in the same boat and sink [or] swim together." Strong Hindu though he was, Patel was a stronger nationalist, insisting that every Muslim who chose to stay in India must first resolve to remain a loyal Indian. Patel invited every Indian citizen of every province to help him in the task of safe rehabilitation of all Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan. He worked for a safe, prosperous, united India until his death on 15 December 1950. The entire nation mourned his death and the loss of his courageous leadership.

P. N. ChopraPrabha Chopra

See alsoCongress Party ; Gandhi, Mahatma M. K. ; Nehru, Jawaharlal ; Princely States


Chopra, P. N. The Sardar of India. New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 1995.

Chopra, P. N., and Prabha Chopra, eds. The Collected Works of Sardar Patel. 15 vols. New Delhi: Konark Publishers, 1990–1999.

——. The Inside Story of Sardar Patel Manibeh Patel's Diary (1936–1950). New Delhi: Vision Books, 2001.

——. Sardar Patel: Kashmir and Hyderabad. New Delhi: Konark Publishers, 2002.

——. Sardar Patel, Nehru, Gandhi, and Subhas Bose. New Delhi: Konark Publishers, 2003.

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Kulkarni, V. B. The Indian Triumvirate: A Political Biography of Gandhi, Patel, Nehru. Mumbai: Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, 1969.

Shankar, V., ed. Sardar Patel: Select Correspondence, 1945–1950, vols. I–II. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press, 1976.