Can a Union Minister Use ‘Rumours’ to Defame Jawaharlal Nehru?

How can a Union minister, like S Jaishankar, quote ‘rumours’ to take apart the reputation of India’s first PM Nehru?

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Here is a True or False question. Nehru did not want Sardar Patel in his Cabinet! True or False? The answer is False. And here is the clearest proof of that – this letter written by Nehru to Sardar Patel on the 1st of August 1947.

“Dear Vallabhbhai, as a formality I invite you to join the new Cabinet. Writing this is superfluous because you are the strongest pillar of the Cabinet.”

And for further confirmation here is Sardar Patel’s reply, dated 3rd August, 1947 – let’s read it in detail as it says a lot – after ‘Thanks’, Patel says.

“....our attachment, affection, comradeship of 30 years needs no formalities.”

That was the true nature of Nehru and Patel’s relationship – huge mutual respect and affection, not enmity.

Patel then writes – “…my services will be at your disposal for the rest of my life… You will have my unquestioned loyalty and devotion.. because no man In India has sacrificed as much as you have.”

That was Patel’s recognition of all the years that Nehru had spent in British Raj jails, just as Patel himself had done. And finally, Patel wrote – “Our combination is unbreakable and therein lies our strength.”

This was at the core of the Nehru-Patel bond – both had been fellow Congressmen, fellow freedom fighters for decades.

Twelve days after Patel’s letter to Nehru, on 15th August, as Nehru became prime minister, his close brother-in-arms Sardar Patel became India’s deputy prime minister and home minister. It is tragic, even comic, how in present day India, petty politicians, shallow commentators and of course, the godi-darbari media, keep trying to re-write the Nehru-Patel story, and fail, each time.

A New Controversy

The latest controversy was stirred by a tweet by Foreign Minister S Jaishankar, where he said, “Learnt from a book that Nehru did not want Patel in the Cabinet in 1947 and omitted him from the initial Cabinet list.”

Jaishanker was referring to this book about VP Menon, a British Raj bureaucrat who was advisor to Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy to India. The book is written by Menon’s great grand daughter Narayani Basu. Basu claims that VP Menon came to know that Patel’s name was missing from Nehru’s list of cabinet members, that he was aghast, and went to Mountbatten who then spoke to Mahatma Gandhi, after which Patel’s name made it to the Cabinet.

This story suits the ‘Nehru-ke-tukde-tukde-karo’ gang perfectly. It suggests a power-hungry Nehru, leaving out his arch-rival Patel to grab all the power and glory in the new, free India. The perfect hammer to further wreck Nehru’s reputation with.

Except that this latest Nehru-Patel 'dushmani ki kahani' is embarrassingly easy to debunk.

First: No Source, No Document

Firstly, Narayani Basu, the author of the VP Menon's book, attributes her information to an interview given by Menon to an author Harry Hodson. But Hodson himself accepts that VP Menon did not mention how he came to know that Patel’s name was not in Nehru’s Cabinet list. He named no document, no source. Why?

Second: No Record Anywhere

Basu also writes that in March 1970, Hodson asked Mountbatten himself about this. And here is what Mountbatten said:

“…this story does ring a very faint bell with me. I have a feeling this was such a hot potato that I probably just mentioned it to Nehru at teatime and made a point of not recording it anywhere.”

Why is this important? Because, as Basu herself says in her book, Mountbatten kept 'thick dossiers of every meeting and every conversation he ever held in his life.' But no record of something as significant as Patel being left out of Nehru’s Cabinet? Hard to believe.

Third: Just A 'Rumor'

In fact, as historian Srinath Raghavan, writing for The Print underlined, how, in May 1970, Mountbatten was also interviewed by Sarvapalli Gopal, Nehru’s biographer.. and he asked Mountbatten the same question.. to which Mountbatten’s answer was even more vague:

“I had heard rumours, but never brought it up with Nehru...”

So, I ask - Can a ‘faint recollection’ or ‘rumors’ be used by a Union minister to take apart the reputation of India’s first prime minister? Is it fair, reasonable, acceptable?

Especially, when against faint memories and rumours, there are these actual letters written by Nehru, asking Patel to join India’s first Cabinet, calling Patel the strongest pillar of that Cabinet. Actual letters written by Patel, confirming that he will join the Cabinet, also detail the incredibly enduring relationship that Patel and Nehru shared.

There are other letters too – for instance this letter dated 30th July 1947, from Nehru to Patel, discussing Cabinet formation. Nehru telling Patel that Ambedkar had agreed to join the Cabinet, reminding Patel to speak with Syama Prasad Mukherjee to confirm his joining of the Cabinet, and discussing other names.

Clearly, Patel was integral, central, to the evolution of free India’s first Cabinet of Ministers! There are also these two letters dated 19th July 1947 and 4th August 1947, both from Nehru to Mountbatten listing the names of Cabinet members – in both, Sardar Patel’s name is right on top!

And yet here we are, swallowing conjecture and rumours, and allowing two national icons to be reduced to bickering daily soap-opera characters.

Did Nehru and Patel have differences? Sure, they did, and those are documented too – over the nature of the civil services, going to the UN over Kashmir, over the choice of Rajendra Prasad as India’s first President. But none of these prevented Nehru and Patel from working together as a team till Patel’s death in 1950, respecting each other till the end.

Yeh Jo India Hai Na – It loves Nehru and Patel both. So let us just give them back the dignity that an eternally grateful nation owes to them!

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