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Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel


Vallabhbhai Patel (October 31, 1875 - December 15, 1950), a political and social leader of India, played a major role in the country's struggle for independence and guided its integration into a united, independent nation. In India and across the world, people often addressed him as Sardar (Gujarati: સરદાર Sardār), which means Chief in many languages of India.

Patel faced challenges that would, from an objective point of view, thwart the creation of a modern republic in India. Shaking off the century and a half of British colonial rule, Patel guided India in partnership with Ghandi and Nehru to establish a parliamentary democracy among regional leaders accustomed to having sovereign rule. He navigated the treacherous water of interreligious strife between Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, and Christian to create a vibrant independent nation. That required supporting the creation of an independent Islamic nation, Pakistan, which led to the most severe criticism of his leadership.


Raised in the countryside of Gujarat and largely self-educated, Vallabhbhai Patel worked in a successful law practice he first became inspired by the work and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. Patel subsequently organised the peasants of Kheda, Borsad, and Bardoli in Gujarat in non-violent civil disobedience against oppressive policies imposed by the British Raj; in that role, he became one of the most influential leaders in Gujarat. He rose to the leadership of the Indian National Congress and stood at the forefront of rebellions and political events, organising the party for elections in 1934 and 1937, and promoting the Quit India movement.

As the first Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of India, Patel organised relief for refugees in Punjab and Delhi, and led efforts to restore peace across the nation. Patel took charge of the task to forge a united India from the 565 semi-autonomous princely states and British-era colonial provinces. Using frank diplomacy backed with the option (and the use) of military action, Patel's leadership enabled the accession of almost every princely state. Hailed as the Iron Man of India, citizens also remember him as the "patron saint" of India's civil servants for establishing modern all-India services. Patel emerged as one of the earliest proponents of property rights and free enterprise in India.

Early life

Young Vallabhbhai, when a student.

Vallabhbhai Jhaverbhai Patel, born at his maternal uncle's house in Nadiad, Gujarat, his actual date of birth never officially recorded-Patel entered October 31, as his date of birth on his matriculation examination papers.1 The fourth son of Jhaverbhai and his wife Ladba Patel, his family lived in the village of Karamsad, in the Kheda district where Jhaverbhai owned a homestead. He lived with his older brothers, Somabhai, Narsibhai and Vithalbhai Patel (also a future political leader). He had a younger brother, Kashibhai and a sister, Dahiba. As a young boy, Patel helped his father in the fields and bimonthly kept a day-long fast, abstaining from food and water-a cultural observance that enabled him to develop physical toughness.2 When seventeen years old, Patel's parents arranged his marriage with Jhaverba, a young girl of twelve or thirteen years from a nearby village. As per custom, the young bride would continue to reside with her parents until her husband started earning and could establish their household.

Patel travelled to attend schools in Nadiad, Petlad and Borsad, living self-sufficiently with other boys. He reputedly cultivated a stoic character - a popular anecdote recounts how he lanced his own painful boil without hesitation, even as the barber supposed to do it trembled.3 Patel passed his matriculation at the late age of 22; at this point, his elders generally regarded him as an unambitious man destined for a commonplace job. But Patel himself harboured a plan-he would study to become a lawyer, work and save funds, travel to England and study to become a barrister.4 Patel spent years away from his family, studying on his own with books borrowed from other lawyers and passed examinations within two years. Fetching Jhaverba from her parents' home, Patel set up his household in Godhra and enrolled at the bar. During the many years it took him to save money, Vallabhbhai-now a pleader-earned a reputation as a fierce and skilled lawyer. His wife bore him a daughter, Manibehn, in 1904 and later a son, Dahyabhai, in 1906. Patel also cared for a friend suffering from Bubonic plague when it swept across Gujarat. When Patel himself came down with the disease, he immediately sent his family to safety, left his home and moved into an isolated house in Nadiad (by other accounts, Patel spent that time in a dilapidated temple); there, he recovered slowly.5

Vallabhbhai Patel, when a young lawyer.

Patel practiced law in Godhra, Borsad and Anand while taking on the financial burdens of his homestead in Karamsad. When he had saved enough for England and applied for a pass and a ticket, they arrived in the name of "V. J. Patel," at Vithalbhai's home, who bore the same initials. Having harboured his own plans to study in England, Vithalbhai remonstrated to his younger brother that it would be disreputable for an older brother to follow his younger brother. In keeping with concerns for his family's honour, Patel allowed Vithalbhai to go in his place.6 He also financed his brother's stay and began saving again for his own goals.

In 1909, Jhaverba, Patel's wife underwent a major surgical operation for cancer in Mumbai (then Bombay). Her health suddenly worsened and despite successful emergency surgery, she died in the hospital. Patel received a note informing him of his wife's demise as he cross-examined a witness in court. As per others who witnessed, Patel read the note, pocketed it and continued to intensely cross-examine the witness and won the case. He broke the news to others only after the proceedings had ended.7 Patel himself decided against marrying again. He raised his children with the help of his family and sent them to English-medium schools in Mumbai. At the age of 36, he journeyed to England and enrolled at the Middle Temple Inn in London. Finishing a 36-month course in 30 months, Patel topped his class despite having no 8

Fighting for independence

Vallabhbhai Patel at the height of his success as a lawyer

At the urging of his friends, Patel won an election to become the sanitation commissioner of Ahmedabad in 1917. While often clashing with British officials on civic issues, he lacked interest in politics. Upon hearing of Mohandas Gandhi, he joked to Mavlankar that Gandhi would "ask you if you know how to sift pebbles from wheat. And that is supposed to bring independence."9 But Gandhi's defience of the British in Champaran for the sake of the area's oppressed farmers deeply impressed him. Against the grain of Indian politicians of the time, Gandhi wore Indian-style clothes and emphasised the use of one's mother tongue or any Indian language as opposed to English-the lingua franca of India's intellectuals. Patel felt particularly attracted to Gandhi's inclination to action-apart from a resolution condemning the arrest of political leader Annie Besant, Gandhi proposed that volunteers march peacefully demanding to meet her.

Patel gave a speech in Borsad in September 1917, encouraging Indians nationwide to sign Gandhi's petition demanding Swaraj-independence - from the British. Meeting Gandhi a month later at the Gujarat Political Conference in Godhra, Patel became the secretary of the Gujarat Sabha-a public body which would become the Gujarati arm of the Indian National Congress-at Gandhi's encouragement. Patel now energetically fought against veth-the forced servitude of Indians to Europeans-and organized relief efforts in wake of plague and famine in Kheda.10 The Kheda peasants' plea for exemption from taxation had been turned down by British authorities. Gandhi endorsed waging a struggle there, but could not lead it himself due to his activities in Champaran. When Gandhi asked for a Gujarati activist to devote himself completely to the assignment and Patel volunteered, much to Gandhi's personal delight.11 Though he made his decision made on the spot, Patel later said that his desire and commitment came after intensive personal contemplation, as he realised he would have to abandon his career and material ambitions.12

Satyagraha in Gujarat

Vallabhbhai Patel, after his embrace of Gandhi's philosophy and a completely Indian way of life

Supported by Congress volunteers Narhari Parikh, Mohanlal Pandya and Abbas Tyabji, Vallabhbhai Patel began a village-to-village tour in the Kheda district, documenting grievances and asking villagers for their support for a statewide revolt by refusing the payment of taxes. Patel emphasized potential hardships with the need for complete unity and non-violence despite any provocation. He received enthusiastic responses from virtually every village.13 When they launched the revolt, refusing revenue, the government sent police and intimidation squads to seize property, including confiscating barn animals and whole farms. Patel organized a network of volunteers to work with individual villages-helping them hide valuables and protect themselves during raids. The police arrested thousands of activists and farmers, but left Patel untouched. The revolt began evoking sympathy and admiration across India, including with pro-British Indian politicians. The government agreed to negotiate with Patel and decided to suspend the payment of revenue for the year, even scaling back the rate. Patel emerged as a hero to Gujaratis and admired across India.14 In 1920, he won an election as the president of the newly formed Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee-serving as its president till 1945.

Patel supported Gandhi's Non-cooperation movement and toured the state to recruit more than 300,000 members and raise over Rs. 1.5 million in funds.15 Helping organize bonfires of British goods in Ahmedabad, Patel threw in all his English-style clothes. With his daughter Mani and son Dahya, he switched completely to wearing khadi. Patel also supported Gandhi's controversial suspension of resistance in wake of the Chauri Chaura incident. He worked extensively in the following years in Gujarat against alcoholism, untouchability and caste discrimination, as well as for the empowerment of women. In the Congress, resolutely supported Gandhi against his Swarajist critics. Patel won election as Ahmedabad's municipal president in 1922, 1924, and 1927-during his terms, Ahmedabad received a major supply of electricity and the school system underwent major reforms. Construction of drainage and sanitation systems expanded over all the city. He fought for the recognition and payment of teachers employed in schools established by nationalists (out of British control) and even took on sensitive Hindu-Muslim Issues.16 Sardar Patel personally led relief efforts in the aftermath of the intense torrential rainfall in 1927, which had caused major floods in the city and in the Kheda district and great destruction of life and property. He established refuge centres across the district, raised volunteers, arranged for supply of food, medicines and clothing, as well as emergency funds from the government and public.17

Patel with Bardoli peasants.

When Gandhi stayed in prison, Congressmen asked Sardar Patel to lead the satyagraha in Nagpur in 1923 against a law banning the raising of the Indian flag. He organized thousands of volunteers from all over the country in processions hoisting the flag. Patel negotiated a settlement that obtained the release of all prisoners and allowed nationalists to hoist the flag in public. Later that year, Patel and his allies uncovered evidence suggesting that the police had been in league with local dacoits in the Borsad taluka even as the government prepared to levy a major tax for fighting dacoits in the area. More than 6,000 villagers assembled to hear Patel speak and supported the proposed agitation against the tax, deemed immoral and unnecessary. He organized hundreds of Congressmen, sent instructions and received information from across the district. Every village in the taluka resisted payment of the tax, and through cohesion, also prevented the seizure of property and lands. After a protracted struggle, the government withdrew the tax. Historians consider Patel's building of cohesion and trust amongst the different castes and communities, divided on socio-economic lines, one of his key achievements .18

In April 1928, Sardar Patel returned to the freedom struggle from his municipal duties in Ahmedabad when Bardoli suffered from a serious predicament of a famine and steep tax hike. a Even though the famine covered a large portion of Gujarat, the revenue hike had been steeper than in Khed. After cross-examining and talking to village representatives, emphasizing the potential hardship and need for non-violence and cohesion, Patel initiated the struggle - complete denial of taxes.19 Sardar Patel organized volunteers, camps and an information network across affected areas. The people supported the revenue refusal even more strongly than in Kheda and many sympathy satyagrahas formed across Gujarat. Despite arrests, seizures of property and lands, the struggle intensified. The situation reached a head in August, when through sympathetic intermediaries, he negotiated a settlement repealing the tax hike, reinstating village officials who had resigned in protest and the return of seized property and lands. During the struggle and after the victory in Bardoli, his colleagues and followers increasingly addressed Patelas Sardar.20

Leading the Congress

Maulana Azad, Sardar Patel (third from left, in the foreground), and other Congressmen at Wardha

As Gandhi embarked on the Dandi Salt March, police arrested Patel in the village of Ras, the government trying him without witnesses, and with no lawyer or pressman allowed to attend. Patel's arrest and Gandhi's subsequent arrest caused the Salt Satyagraha to greatly intensify in Gujarat - districts across Gujarat launched an anti-tax rebellion until they released Patel and Gandhi.21 Once released, Patel served as interim Congress president until re-arrested while leading a procession in Mumbai. After the signing of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, Patel won election as Congress president for its 1931 session in Karachi-here the Congress ratified the pact, committed itself to the defence of fundamental rights and human freedoms, and a vision of a secular nation, minimum wage and the abolition of untouchability and serfdom. Patel used his position as Congress president in organising the return of confiscated lands to farmers in Gujarat.22 Upon the failure of the Round Table Conference in London, the government arrested Gandhi and Patel in January 1932 when the struggle re-opened, and imprisoned in the Yeravda Central Jail. During that term of imprisonment, Patel and Gandhi grew close to each other, and the two developed a close bond of affection, trust, and frankness. Their mutual relationship could be described as that of an elder brother-Gandhi-and his younger brother-Patel. Despite having arguments with Gandhi, Patel respected his instincts and leadership. During imprisonment, the two would discuss national and social issues, read Hindu epics and crack jokes. Gandhi also taught Patel Sanskrit language. Gandhi's secretary Mahadev Desai kept detailed records of conversations between Gandhi and Patel.23 When Gandhi embarked on a fast-unto-death protesting the separate electorates allocated for untouchables, Patel looked after Gandhi closely and himself refrained from partaking of food.24 Authorities later moved Patel to a jail in Nasik. He refused a British offer for a brief release to attend the cremation of his brother Vithalbhai, who had died in 1934, finally winning release in July of the same year.

Patel headed Congress's all-India election campaign in 1934 and 1937 - he would collect funds, select candidates, determine the Congress stance on issues and opponents.25 Deciding against contesting a seat for himself, Patel nevertheless guided Congressmen elected in the provinces and at the national level. In 1935, Patel underwent surgery for hemorrhoids, yet guided efforts against plague in Bardoli and again when a drought struck Gujarat in 1939. Patel would guide the Congress ministries that had won power across India with the aim of preserving party discipline-Patel feared that the British would use opportunities to create conflicts among elected Congressmen; he wanted to keep his party focused on the goal of complete independence.26 Patel clashed with Nehru, opposing declarations of the adoption of socialism at the 1936 Congress session, which he considered a diversion from the main goal of achieving independence. In 1938, Patel organized rank and file opposition to the attempts of then-Congress president Subhash Bose to move away from Gandhi's principles of non-violent resistance. Patel considered Bose authoritarian and desirous of more power over the party. He led senior Congress leaders in a protest, which resulted in Bose's resignation. But criticism arose from Bose's supporters, socialists and other Congressmen that Patel himself acted in an authoritarian manner in his defense of Gandhi's authority.

Quit India

Main article: Quit India Movement

When World War II broke out, Patel supported Nehru's decision to withdraw the Congress from central and provincial legislatures, contrary to Gandhi's advice, as well as an initiative by senior leader Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari to offer Congress's full support to Britain if it promised Indian independence at the end of the war and install a democratic government right away. Gandhi had refused to support Britain on the grounds of his moral opposition to war, while Subhash Bose militantly opposed the British. The British rejected Rajagopalachari's initiative, and Patel embraced Gandhi's leadership again.27 Participating in Gandhi's call for individual disobedience, the government arrested Patel in 1940, imprisoning him for nine months. He also opposed the proposals of the Cripps' mission in 1942. Patel lost more than twenty pounds during his period in jail.

Azad, Patel and Gandhi at an AICC meeting in Bombay, 1940.

While Nehru, Rajagopalachari and Maulana Azad initially criticized Gandhi's proposal for an all-out campaign of civil disobedience to force the British to Quit India, Patel stood its most fervent supporter. Arguing that the British would retreat from India as they had from Singapore and Burma, Patel stressed that the campaign start without any delay.28 Though feeling that the British would persist for a lime, Patel favored an all-out rebellion which would galvanize Indian people, who had been divided in their response to the war, In Patel's view, an all-out rebellion would force the British to concede that continuation of colonial rule lacked support in India, and thus speed power transfer to Indians.29 Believing strongly in the need for revolt, Patel stated his intention to resign from the Congress if they rejected the revolt.30 Gandhi strongly pressured the All India Congress Committee to approve of an all-out campaign of civil disobedience, and the AICC approved the campaign on 7 August 1942. Though Patel's health had suffered during his stint in jail, Patel gave emotional speeches to large crowds across India, 31 asking people to refuse paying taxes and participate in civil disobedience, mass protests and a shutdown of all civil services. He raised funds and prepared a second-tier of command as a precaution against the arrest of national leaders.32 Patel made a climactic speech to more than 100,000 people gathered at Gowalia Tank in Bombay (Mumbai) on August 7:

The Governor of Burma boasts in London that they left Burma only after reducing everything to dust. So you promise the same thing to India?… You refer in your radio broadcasts and newspapers to the government established in Burma by Japan as a puppet government? What sort of government do you have in Delhi now?… When France fell before the Nazi onslaught, in the midst of total war, Mr. Churchill offered union with England to the French. That was indeed a stroke of inspired statesmanship. But when it comes to India? Oh no! Constitutional changes in the midst of a war? Absolutely unthinkable… The object this time is to free India before the Japanese can come and be ready to fight them if they come. They will round up the leaders, round up all. Then it will be the duty of every Indian to put forth his utmost effort-within non-violence. No source is to be left untapped; no weapon untried. This is going to be the opportunity of a lifetime.33

Historians believe that Patel's speech instrumental in electrifying nationalists, who had been skeptical of the proposed rebellion. Historians credit Patel's organising work in that period for ensuring the success of the rebellion across India.34 Patel, arrested again on 9 August, endured imprisonment with the entire Congress Working Committee from 1942 to 1945 at the fort in Ahmednagar. Here he spun cloth, played bridge, read a large number of books, took long walks, practiced gardening. He also provided emotional support to his colleagues while awaiting news and developments of the outside.35 Patel felt deeply pained at the news of the deaths of Mahadev Desai and Kasturba Gandhi later in the year.36 But Patel wrote in a letter to his daughter that he and his colleagues experienced "fullest peace" for having done "their duty."37 Even though other political parties had opposed the struggle and the British had employed ruthless means of suppression, the Quit India movement proved "by far the most serious rebellion since that of 1857," as the viceroy cabled to Winston Churchill. More than one hundred thousand people had been arrested and thousands killed in police firings. Strikes, protests and other revolutionary activities had broken out across India.38 Patel, released on 15 June 1945, realised that the British prepared proposals to transfer power to Indian hands.

Independence, integration, and role of Gandhi

In the 1946 election for the Congress presidency, Patel stepped down in favor of Nehru at the request of Gandhi. The election's importance lay in the elected President leading free India's first Government. Gandhi asked all sixteen states representatives and Congress to elect the right person, thirteen states representatives out of sixteen proposed Sardar Patel's name, but Patel respected Gandhi's request to decline the opportunity to become the first prime minister. As a Home Minister, Patel merged all parts of India under federal control but Nehru led to leaving out Jammu and Kashmir.

After the election of Nehru as the party's president, Patel began directing the Congress campaign for the general elections of the Constituent Assembly of India.

Gandhi (right), Patel (left), and Nehru (back)

In the elections, the Congress won a large majority of the elected seats, dominating the Hindu electorate. But the Muslim League led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah won a large majority of Muslim electorate seats. The League had resolved in 1940 to demand Pakistan-an independent state for Muslims-and standing as a fierce critic of the Congress. The Congress formed governments in all provinces save Sindh, Punjab and Bengal, where it entered into coalitions with other parties.

Cabinet mission and partition

When the British mission proposed two plans for transfer of power, Congress seethed with considerable opposition to both. The plan of May 16, 1946 proposed a loose federation with extensive provincial autonomy, and the "grouping" of provinces based on religious-majority. The plan of June 16, 1946 proposed the partition of India on religious lines, with over 600 princely states free to choose between independence or accession to either dominion. The League approved both plans, while the Congress flatly rejected the June 16 proposal. Gandhi criticised the May 16 proposal as being inherently divisive, but Patel, realizing that rejecting the proposal would mean that only the League would be invited to form a government, lobbied the Congress Working Committee hard to give its assent to the May 16 proposal. Patel engaged the British envoys Sir Stafford Cripps and Lord Pethick-Lawrence and obtained an assurance that the "grouping" clause would lack practical force, Patel converted Nehru, Rajendra Prasad and Rajagopalachari to accept the plan. When the League retracted its approval of the May 16 plan, the viceroy Lord Wavell invited the Congress to form the government. Under Nehru, called the "Vice President of the Viceroy's Executive Council," Patel took charge of the departments of home affairs and information and broadcasting. He moved into a government house on 1, Aurangzeb Road in Delhi - that served as his residence till his death in 1950.

Vallabhbhai Patel represented one of the first Congress leaders to accept the partition of India as a solution to the rising Muslim separatist movement led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He had been outraged by Jinnah's Direct Action campaign, which had provoked communal violence across India and by the viceroy's vetoes of his home department's plans to stop the violence on the grounds of constitutionality. Patel severely criticised the viceroy's induction of League ministers into the government, and the revalidation of the grouping scheme by the British without Congress approval. Although further outraged at the League's boycott of the assembly and non-acceptance of the plan of May 16 despite entering government, he knew that Jinnah enjoyed popular support amongst Muslims, and that an open conflict between him and the nationalists could degenerate into a Hindu-Muslim civil war of disastrous consequences. The continuation of a divided and weak central government would in Patel's mind, result in the wider fragmentation of India by encouraging more than 600 princely states towards independence.39 Between the months of December 1946 and January 1947, Patel worked with civil servant V. P. Menon on the latter's suggestion for a separate dominion of Pakistan created out of Muslim-majority provinces. Communal violence in Bengal and Punjab in January and March of 1947 further convinced Patel of the soundness of partition. Patel, a fierce critic of Jinnah's demand that the Hindu-majority areas of Punjab and Bengal be included in a Muslim state, obtained the partition of those provinces, thus blocking any possibility of their inclusion in Pakistan. Patel's decisiveness on the partition of Punjab and Bengal had won him many supporters and admirers amongst the Indian public, which had tired of the League's tactics, but Gandhi, Nehru, secular Muslims and socialists criticised him for a perceived eagerness to do so. When Lord Louis Mountbatten formally proposed the plan on June 3, 1947, Patel gave his approval and lobbied Nehru and other Congress leaders to accept the proposal. Knowing Gandhi's deep anguish regarding proposals of partition, Patel engaged him in frank discussion in private meetings over the perceived practical unworkability of any Congress-League coalition, the rising violence and the threat of civil war. At the All India Congress Committee meeting called to vote on the proposal, Patel said:

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.40

Following Gandhi's and Congress' approval of the plan, Patel represented India on the Partition Council, where he oversaw the division of public assets, and selected the Indian council of ministers with Nehru. Neither he nor any other Indian leader, had foreseen the intense violence and population transfer that would take place with partition. Patel would take the lead in organising relief and emergency supplies, establishing refugee camps and visiting the border areas with Pakistani leaders to encourage peace. Despite those efforts, estimates on the death toll vary from around two hundred thousand, to over a million people.41 The estimated number of refugee