15th December 1950: Vallabhbhai Patel, Indian nationalist leader, passed away

One of the founding fathers of the Indian Republic, Sardar Vallabhbhai Jhaverbhai Patel was born on October 31, 1875. At the cusp of independence and just after it as the first union home minister, he played a vital role in integratingIndiainto a united country. He died on December 15, 1950.

Patel’s place of birth, Karamsad, was a village in Bombay Presidency. As a child he would lend a helping hand to his father in the fields. At the age of 18 his marriage was arranged with Jhaverba, who was at least five years younger to him. After completing his education, he settled in Godhra (in present day-Gujarat) and eventually practised law at various places. He was keen to study law inEnglandand saved money for the purpose but eventually helped his older brother Vithalbhai go instead. Jhaverba died in 1909 after suffering from cancer. Patel later finally managed to go toEnglandand enrolled at the Middle Temple Inn. On returning toIndiaafter two-and-a-half years he settled in Ahmedabad and successfully practiced law. At this stage in his life politics or the nationalist movement was not something he had seriously considered.

In 1917 he become the city’s sanitation commissioner after winning an election. This was the time Mahatma Gandhi was getting active in the nationalist movement after returning fromSouth Africa. On learning that farmers in Kheda district were facing severe hardships due to crop failure, and the administration was turning a blind eye to their appeals for remission of land revenue, Gandhi started an agitation, mobilising the area’s farmers to protest the government’s “vindictiveness and tyranny”.

Patel, who was among the local leaders who joined Gandhi in the agitation, became the secretary of the Gujarat Sabha and volunteered to lead the Kheda farmers’ struggle, effectively marking the beginning of his participation in the country’s freedom struggle. Patel’s well-organised protest worked and the government agreed to the revenue demand. This enhanced his stature among Indian nationalists.

He became president of the Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee in 1920. He led Gandhi’s Non-cooperation movement inGujarat, and was elected Ahmedabad’s municipal president thrice in the 1920s. He took several steps to improve civic amenities and carried out flood relief works as municipal head. In 1923 he led a movement inNagpuragainst a law that banned the raising of the Indian flag, and another agitation in opposition to levying of a new tax. Both protests were successful in achieving their goals, and Patel’s skills as a savvy organiser came to the fore.

It was, however, during the 1928 Bardoli ‘no-tax’ agitation in Gujaratthat Patel began to be recognised as one of the tallest leaders of the Indian National Congress. The historian Bipan Chandra and his co-authors write in India’s Struggle for Independence: “Vallabhbhai Patel was ideally suited for leading the campaign. A veteran of the Kheda Satyagraha, the Nagpur Flag Satyagraha, and the Borsad Punitive Tax Satyagraha, he had emerged as a leader of Gujarat who was second only to Gandhiji. His capacities as an organiser, speaker, indefatigable campaigner, inspirer of ordinary men and women were already known, but it was the women of Bardoli who gave him the title of Sardar.”

When Gandhi started his Dandi March, Patel was arrested. Later, he was elected Congress president in 1931. With the Round Table Conference inBritainnot making any headway Gandhi and Patel were again arrested, and put in Pune’s Yeravda prison.

This is when there developed a close bond between the two men.

After 1934 Patel was the chief fund raiser for the Congress. He also played a key role in finalising and funding candidates for the central legislative assembly and provincial elections. Indeed, it was Patel who dealt with the nuts and bolts of party matters.

In the 1936 Congress session Patel opposed Jawaharlal Nehru’s move to adopt socialism, saying it would be an unnecessary distraction from the goal of independence.

After World War 2 started, Patel backed Gandhi’s call to start the Quit India Movement.

In a famous speech to a massive crowd in Bombay on August 7, 1942 — two days before he was arrested and jailed for nearly three years along with several other top Congress leaders — he said: “The object…is to free India before the Japanese can come and be ready to fight them if they come. They [the British] will round up the [senior Congress] leaders….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…This is going to be the opportunity of a lifetime [to achieve freedom].

With both India’s independence and Partition becoming inevitable in 1947, Patel went about the task of convincing the 565 princely states to join the Indian union. All agreed except for Junagadh, Hyderabad, and Jammu and Kashmir. Ultimately, the three also became a part ofIndia, with the accession ofJammu and Kashmirproving to be the most complicated affair and involving a prolonged conflict withPakistan. Thus Patel, who became the country’s first home minister and deputy prime minister, was the main person behind unifying the country into theIndiathat we know today.

In his biography of Patel, Rajmohan Gandhi writes, “In the six months between freedom and Gandhi’s death, the Mahatma, Nehru and Patel constituted a crucial triumvirate that agreed that independentIndiawould be not a Hindu Rashtra but one that offered equal rights to all. After Gandhi’s departure and until Patel’s death in December 1950, Patel and Nehru differed on several matters but not on some fundamentals. With the help of others including Ambedkar, Maulana Azad, Rajendra Prasad and Rajaji, they entrenched secularism and equality in the Constitution.”

Sardar Patel’s health deteriorated in 1950 and he died on December 15 that year inBombayafter suffering a heart attack. In a tribute, Prime Minister Nehru said, “[Patel] will be remembered as a great captain of our forces in the struggle for freedom and as one who gave us sound advice in times of trouble and in moments of victory, as a friend and a colleague on whom one could invariably rely, as a tower of strength which revived wavering hearts.”

Also on this day:

1924 — Nek Chand Saini, artist who builtChandigarh’s famous Rock Garden, was born

1933 — Satthiraju Narayana, Telugu filmmaker, was born

1971 — Jeev Milkha Singh, Indian golfer, was born   

1976 — Baichung Bhutia, Indian footballer, was born

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