(This article has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the birth anniversary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. It was originally published on 29 October 2019.)
Today is an appropriate day to reflect on the legacy of a great man — one of India’s most respected founding fathers, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel — whose co-optation by Narendra Modi and the BJP remains a breathtaking exercise in historical effrontery.
The process had already begun, lest we forget, when the then Chief Minister Modi moved aggressively to lay claim to the Patel legacy before the 2014 election. In his quest to garb himself in a more distinguished historical lineage than his party can lay claim to, Modi called on farmers across India to donate iron from their ploughs to construct a giant, nearly 600-foot statue of the Iron Man in his state, to become by far the tallest statue in the world, dwarfing the Statue of Liberty. (In the end it was less of a monument to the modest Gandhian it ostensibly honours, than an embodiment of the overweening ambitions of its builder — who had to get a Chinese foundry to cast it, for his ambitions exceeded India’s capacities.)
What Made Sardar Patel India’s ‘Iron Man’?
Modi’s motives are easy to divine. As his own image was tarnished by the communal riots in Gujarat when he was chief minister in 2002, identifying himself with Sardar Patel (who is portrayed by the BJP as a leader who stood up for the nation’s Hindus during the horrors of Partition and was firm on issues like Kashmir) is an attempt at image-building by association — portraying Narendra Modi himself as an embodiment of the tough, decisive man of action that Sardar Patel was, rather than the ‘destructive bigot’ his enemies decry. The abolition of Article 370 and the references to it being the fulfilment of the Sardar’s incomplete vision are in the same vein.
The process (of co-optation) had already begun, lest we forget, when the then Chief Minister Modi moved to lay claim to the Patel legacy before the 2014 election.
It helps that Patel is widely admired for his extraordinary role in forging India’s unity after Partition, that gave him an unchallenged standing as the Iron Man. Sardar Patel represents both a national appeal and a Gujarati origin that suits Modi. The Modi-as-latter-day-Patel message has been resonating well with many Gujaratis, who are proud to be reminded of a native son the nation looks up to, and with many of India’s urban middle-class, who see in Narendra Modi a strong leader to cut through the confusion and indecision of India’s messy democracy.
How Sardar Patel Protected & Reassured Muslims
But Sardar Patel’s conduct during the violence that accompanied Partition stands in stark contrast to Narendra Modi’s in 2002. Both Sardar Patel and Narendra Modi were faced with the serious breakdown of law and order in their respective domains, involving violence and rioting against the Muslims. In Delhi in 1947, Sardar Patel immediately and effectively moved to ensure the protection of Muslims, herding 10,000 in the most vulnerable areas to the security of Delhi’s Red Fort.
As Modi’s own image was tarnished by 2002 (when he was Gujarat CM), identifying himself with Sardar Patel is an attempt at character-building by association.
Because Sardar Patel was afraid that the local security forces might have been affected by the virus of communal passions, he moved army troops from Madras and Pune to Delhi to ensure law and order. Sardar Patel also made it a point to send a reassuring signal to the Muslim community by attending prayers at the famous Nizamuddin Dargah to convey a clear message that Muslims and their faith belonged unquestionably on the soil of India. Sardar Patel went to the border town of Amritsar, where there were attacks on Muslims fleeing to the new Islamic state of Pakistan, and pleaded with Hindu and Sikh mobs to stop victimizing Muslim refugees. In each of these cases, Sardar Patel succeeded, and there are literally tens of thousands of people who are alive today because of his interventions.
There are a number of examples where Sardar Patel, if he had to choose between what was the right thing for the Hindus and what was the right thing morally, invariably plumped for the moral Gandhian approach.
The contrast with what happened in Gujarat in 2002 is painful. Whether or not one ascribes indirect blame to Narendra Modi for the riots that year, he can certainly claim no credit for acting in the way Patel did in Delhi. In Gujarat, there was no direct and immediate action by Chief Minister Modi, as the state’s chief executive, to protect the Muslims. Nor did Mr Modi express any public condemnation of the attacks, let alone undertake any symbolic action of going to a masjid or visiting a Muslim neighbourhood to convey reassurance.
Sardar Patel, the Gandhian
There is a particular irony to a self-proclaimed ‘Hindu nationalist’ like Narendra Modi laying claim to the legacy of a Gandhian leader who would never have qualified his Indian nationalism with a religious label. Sardar Patel believed in equal rights for all, irrespective of their religion or caste. And, as I argued in Parliament, he explicitly approved the idea and the text of Article 370 before it was inserted into the Constitution.
It is true that at the time of Partition Sardar Patel was inclined to believe, unlike Jawaharlal Nehru, that an entire community had seceded. In my 2003 biography, Nehru: The Invention of India, I have given some examples of Nehru and Sardar Patel clashing on this issue. But there are an equal number of examples where Sardar Patel, if he had to choose between what was the right thing for the Hindus and what was the right thing morally, invariably plumped for the moral Gandhian approach.
In Delhi in 1947, Sardar Patel immediately and effectively moved to ensure the protection of Muslims, herding 10,000 in the most vulnerable areas to the security of Delhi’s Red Fort.
An example, so often distorted by the Sangh Parivar apologists, was his opposition to Jawaharlal Nehru's pact with Liaquat Ali Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, on the question of violence in East Pakistan against the Hindu minority. The Nehru–Liaquat pact was indeed criticised by Sardar Patel, and he disagreed quite ferociously with Jawaharlal Nehru on the matter. But when Pandit Nehru insisted on his position, it was Sardar Patel who gave in, and his reasoning was entirely Gandhian: that violence in West Bengal against Muslims essentially took away Indians’ moral right to condemn violence against Hindus in East Pakistan. That was not a Hindu nationalist position but a classically Gandhian approach as an Indian nationalist.
Sardar Patel’s Idea of Nationalism
The only true nationalism that deserves to be inculcated in each and every one of us is Indian nationalism; anything else is fake or pseudo-nationalism. Indian nationalism grows out of an idea of India that celebrates inclusiveness and diversity, but our ruling party prefers uniformity, built on a triad of Hindi-Hindutva-Hindustan.
Sardar Patel, who banned the RSS for fomenting hatred, would have deplored the distortion of his values and beliefs by those who peddle hate on one side and preach an illusory uniformity on the other. In doing so, they are undermining the basic ethos of India, which recognises the nation's diversity and celebrates multiple ways of being Indian.
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)