Why is India, an unbroken civilisation for over 5,000 years, not a nation state? Because of homogeneity – of language, of culture and of religion. This is a Westphalian construct in which a place like India with incomprehensible diversity of customs and languages and a religion of million Gods – both human and animal – simply does not fit.
It is therefore a matter of amazement that India could even exist as a nation state, leave aside, as a vibrant democracy in the modern world, seventy years after independence from colonial rule. Yet, it was one thing to expel the British following a general struggle for independence by the masses in 1947 – the putting together of approximately 525 kingdoms, principalities and independent states into the Union of India, mostly against the wishes of their hereditary rulers, is impossible to explain. In fact, the Chamber of Princes – a body of rulers of different kingdoms in India, secretly opposed the independence movement and many of them sought to retain power under the British dominion. The Maharaja of Patiala, to illustrate, declared ‘my ancestors have won the state by sword and I plan to keep it by the sword. I do not recognise any organisation to represent my people. I am there sole and only representative’ prompting Nikita Khrushkev to pronounce many years later, in 1956 that ‘You Indians are remarkable people. How did you manage to liquidate the Princely States without liquidating the Princes ?’.
A combination of political dexterity and diplomatic skills, aside from plain arm twisting and threat of violence was required for this miracle to take place. The man who rose to the occasion – Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel.
Generations of Indians ask if there would be a modern India without Patel but they equally question what India would be like if Patel and not Nehru had become the Prime Minister. In the provincial Congress elections in 1946, Patel had been overwhelmingly chosen to be the Party President and by extension the First Prime Minister of India, until Gandhi asked him to step down and allow Nehru to take his place.
Historians have struggled to read into Gandhi’s choice of Nehru. There is little doubt that Gandhi was against the British idea of splitting India into two and the subsequent creation of Pakistan; something that Nehru had come around to accept reluctantly but Patel saw as a necessary step towards a stable future for both nations-to-be.
Nehru, Gandhi thought, was more secular and subscribed to a decidedly western outlook – which he frequently articulated and which the English mostly agreed. After all he saw himself as the the ‘Last Englishman to rule India’. Gandhi also thought of Nehru as having a significantly greater understanding of international matters particularly at a time when the Second World War was ongoing and the possibility of the Axis powers winning had not been out-ruled. Then there was Nehru’s appeal within the masses – a carefully constructed image of a secular liberal politician acceptable to Muslims and other Minorities against Patel’s general impression as a Hindu aloof.
Patel’s greatest strength, despite his systematic undermining at the hands of Gandhi and Nehru and their severe internal differences, lay in his ability to remain committed to a larger cause. He possessed the strength to deal with his enemies and win over them as he could do with this friends. He both conferred with the Communists during the independence movement and when time came, after independence, sent them to jail. Patel understood the limits of democracy and thought that it could only exist within a strong nation state – one he had no doubt, he had set out to create. He used RSS Leader Golwalkar to travel to Kashmir to meet Maharaja Hari Singh in October 1947 and convince him to accede to the Indian Union and yet did not hesitate to ban the organisation after Gandhi was shot by an alleged member of his organisation.
India’s post independence history has mostly revolved around Gandhi and his contribution to the non-violence cause – followed by Nehru’s aggressive emphasis on nurturing the nascent nation state. In the process, Patel’s contribution, sadly, has been lost. Ramchandra Guha’s recent tome on Gandhi is a point in case. Hindol Sengupta’s biography of Sardar Patel – that I am reading at the moment, is authoritative and insightful but painfully incomplete.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares to unveil his statue – the tallest in the world (twice the size of the Statue of Liberty) on the 31st Oct 2018, India would have redeemed the honour of its less known leader – Sardar Patel. It would also, hopefully, over the years, as visitors come and surround him, compensate for the respect and the recognition that he deserved; but hitherto failed to receive.