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Sardar vs Nehru: Hype vs Reality

Vallabhbhai Patel

Sandeep Bamzai

NEW DELHI — It is said that when one works in an abattoir long enough, one goes deaf to the blood and guts of slaughter. In the much-hyped Nehru vs Sardar surround sound, there are certain urban legends that prevail.

To believe everything that one hears and reads now is much like meshugas. Truth cannot be patinated. Once injected with the truth serum of history, a new strain emerges.

The ruptures

Much has been written about the ruptures between the twin leaders of the national freedom movement — Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru — and more so on the fractures that appeared in running the country after India attained independence.

Obviously, both were chosen by Gandhiji himself to lead the country as heir apparents, Nehru being much younger than Patel. Both were tall leaders who commanded enormous respect for their role in the independence struggle. Many people have many takes on this cleft. Yes there were differences of opinion, obviously when men of the stature of Nehru and Sardar Patel are involved, that is bound to happen.

When the Defence Committee waited for V.P. Menon and Sam Manekshaw to return from Jammu with the signed Instrument of Accession and Nehru vacillated — even as Sheikh Abdullah sitting in the ante room of the PM’s residence on York Road slipped in a note to him saying that Kashmir would be lost forever if the Indian Army wasn’t airlifted on priority as the marauders had virtually reached the gates of Srinagar burning the power station at Mahura and Maharaja Hari Singh had fled to the plains of Jammu — it was Sardar who asked Nehru: “Jawahar, Kashmir chahiye ki nahin?” But both leaders were level headed and chose to work together for nation-building.

Iron Man of India

V.P. Menon, who worked in complete synchronicity with Sardar Patel on the crucial issue of integrating the Princely States, says this about the Iron Man of India:

“Leadership is of two kinds — a leader like Napoleon, who was master of both policy and detail, wanted merely the instruments to carry out his orders. Sardar’s leadership was of a different category — having selected his men, he trusted them entirely to implement his policy without full and frank consultation. Whenever we entered into any discussion, we did so as personal friends rather than minister and secretary (in the Ministry of States).”

P.N. Chopra, who dealt with the selected works of Patel extensively across several volumes, says: “The differences between Sardar and Nehru perhaps might not have aggravated but for certain elements such as Mridula Sarabhai, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and a few others in the Congress Party.”

Rajmohan Gandhi, who has done extensive work on Sardar Patel, sums up the aperture while reviewing Patel’s daughter Maniben’s book on her father based on her jottings in a diary, in his own biography of the Sardar, “Patel: A Life”.

He pulls no punches on the fabled rivalry between Nehru and Patel. History tells us that the conflict was acute, but Rajmohan Gandhi dispels this notion by quoting from history. Patel, who had used sharp language for Nehru, was also the one who had written to Jawaharlal in August 1947: “My services will be at your disposal, I hope, for the rest of your life and you will have unquestioned loyalty … from me … Our combination is unbreakable and therein lies our strength.”

Sardar stood by Nehru

Of course there were differences of opinion between the two — more so because their style of functioning was different — but Sardar, as is clear from his public comments, always stood by Nehru.

On February 4, 1948, after the Mahatma’s assassination, Vallabhbhai, the Deputy Prime Minister, who was 14 years older than Nehru, called Jawaharlal “my leader” in a speech to Congress MPs and added: “I am one with the Prime Minister on all national issues. For over a quarter of a century both of us sat at the feet of our master and struggled together for the freedom of India. It is unthinkable today, when the Mahatma is no more, that we should quarrel.”

That such an agreement and unity existed, and that it survived until Patel’s death in December 1950, will not of course be believed by any who only read Patel’s stark comments about Nehru in the Maniben diaries.

No doubt Maniben only recorded what she heard, but in this volume the remarks are presented without any reference to their context, according to Rajmohan Gandhi. (Moreover, the editing is such that in many cases it is impossible to make out whether a barbed remark is Patel’s or that of a visitor, or where the remark was made.)

Rajmohan Gandhi wrote: “The Patel-Nehru conflicts are well known. At the end of 1949, when the first President for the Republic had to be found, Nehru wanted Rajaji but after an initial ambivalence Patel supported Rajendra Prasad, who was chosen.


“In August 1950, the Sardar was again on the winning side, and Nehru on the losing, when Purshottam Das Tandon won a contest for the Congress presidentship, defeating Acharya Kripalani, whom Nehru had backed. Bitter words marked both contests, but the relationship did not break.

“If unaware of other facts, the reader of these diary entries will believe that over Kashmir, Hyderabad and the Indo-Pak Pact of 1950, the Nehru-Patel differences were unbridgeable. But were they? While disliking the reference of Kashmir to the UN, Patel went along with the removal of Hari Singh, the empowerment of Sheikh Abdullah and the provision of Article 370.

“As for the Nehru-Liaqat Pact of April 1950, over which Shyama Prasad Mookerjee resigned from the Union cabinet, Patel pledged his ‘whole strength and energy to making a success of the Agreement and vindicating the stand of the Prime Minister,’ and he also pointed out that “ugly and deplorable incidents from our side” had “weakened our position”.

“On his part, though unsure of the timing of Patel’s Hyderabad operation, Nehru went along with it. Historically, which is more remarkable — the Patel-Nehru differences, which were undoubtedly important, or the fact that the two stayed together? Those riveted only by the differences have to face some ambiguities.

“Thus in the Diary, Patel says conflicting things about Kashmir. While on July 23, 1949, he seems to want to do “battle for the whole of Kashmir” (p.291), on September 27, 1950, referring to Kashmir, the Sardar tells R.K. Patil: “Now how long can India bear this burden.” (p. 425).

“Questions about what Patel ‘really’ thought on an issue cannot be resolved by referring to the Diary.”

In a public statement on April 7, 1947, Patel captured the prevailing sentiment best when he said: “Our leader in uprooting British rule was Gandhiji, in administration, our leader is Jawaharlal Nehru, his cleverness, efficiency and sacrifice are incomparable. I have gone there to serve Jawaharlalji as loyally as I have served Gandhiji, it is my duty to help according to my capacity and I am doing that.” (P.N. Chopra, ‘Collected Works of Patel’, Volume 12).

A discordant note

A discordant note is run by A.G. Noorani while writing in ‘Frontline’ magazine. He claims that Patel wasn’t the real Bismarck, but Lord Mountbatten was the real fulcrum behind the integration of the Princely States:

“Credit for the crucial phase of the integration of the princely states belongs mainly to the Viceroy and Governor-General, Lord Mountbatten, and his Constitutional Adviser, V.P. Menon. Patel played a supportive and ancillary role.

“The task was outsourced by him with the Cabinet’s full authorisation to Mountbatten.

“The two White Papers on Indian states, published by the Ministry of States over which he presided, record the two distinct phases of the process of integration.

“One was their accession to India before Independence on August 15, 1947, abandoning for good all pretensions to independent statehood on the lapse of the ‘paramountcy’ of the British Crown. It was a bogus doctrine which British colonialists conveniently evolved with the support of their pliable lawyers.

“No one refuted it more devastatingly than did Dr B.R. Ambedkar on the eve of Independence. This first phase, the accession, before August 15, 1947, was of crucial importance. Jinnah egged on the states to declare themselves independent and thus Balkanise India. Mountbatten foiled his plans.

“The next phase, that of integration with federal India, was plain sailing. The princes were, as it were, lodged in the harem. Those who were small needed slight cajoling to sign agreements for merger with the Provinces of the erstwhile British India; the medium ones formed Unions; the large ones stood alone like the other states.” — IANS


The views expressed here are author’s personal and Clarion India does not necessarily subscribe to them.

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