The Great Consolidator

Creator of the Union of India

Continued from “One Who Warned the Ostrich About Looming Dangers Ahead”

The idea of India has been endlessly debated by our intellectuals. Quintessentially, what has held India together is a non-physical bond. And that’s a deeply shared cultural and spiritual heritage.

The rulers of the land had their territorial domains consolidated every now and then. And each one in his day tried to expand its frontiers. The first concerted effort at consolidation was the Mauryan Empire, which saw the glorious reign of Emperor Ashok. It lasted 130 years. The Mughals ruled over a vast swathe of land for 180 years. The British Empire the largest of them all lasted 90 years. None of them included the whole of India which, today, we proudly refer to as the Union of India.

Deliberately Vague

The Indian Independence Act with all its details did not say anything about the over 565 Princely States, which Churchill had talked about as the third possible dominion - Princestan. India’s celebrated Foreign Secretary, K.P.S. Menon, wrote in his autobiography Many Worlds Revisited:

When the British left India, the unity even of divided India was in danger. Some 560 Princely States had been left in the air. It was open to them to adhere to India, to accede to Pakistan, or to remain independent…It almost looked as if India was going to be balkanised. But this danger was averted by the firm handling of the Princes by a man of iron, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

The 565 Indian States comprised two-fifths or almost half of the country. Some were large States, some were mere jagirs. When India was partitioned and Pakistan became a separate state India lost an area of 364,737 square miles and a population of 81.5 million but by the integration of the states India received an area of nearly 500,000 square miles with a population of 86.5 million.

And all that was the handiwork of one man who was on the scene for just three years. That was Vallabhbhai Patel, the first Home Minister of India who consolidated 565 states into Union under one rule of law which had never happened in our history of over two millennia.

Far Greater than Bismarck

Patel’s greatest contribution to India, namely, the integration of States in the Indian Union, has often been compared to what Chancellor Bismarck did for German unification. This comparison - as most comparisons - is fatuous indeed. Patel’s handiwork has no parallel in world history for several reasons. Bismarck had just about a dozen states to be welded into the German body politic. Patel had 565 states to handle - a few of them together larger than the size of unified Germany.

Patel, moreover, had to reckon with not only the forbidding odds within but also daunting obstacles from without. The devious British spared no effort to egg on the rulers of Bhopal, Hyderabad and Travancore on mischief’s course. Nothing indeed would have gladdened the Whitehall schemers more than to see the Indian subcontinent parceled into at least half a dozen dominions, tied to the apron strings of the so-called Commonwealth of Nations. The German Iron Chancellor had no such obstacles in his way.

Despite their common goal, namely, unification of their respective countries, the means adopted by the two men were as different as chalk is from cheese. The German Chancellor, as brought out by the British historian, A J P Taylor in Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman “was a political conspirator... by nature and by experience”. Patel behaved throughout his handling of the Indian princes, as a thorough-bred Gandhian. He was not the man to resort to conspiratorial stratagems to achieve his end - howsoever necessary in the country’s larger interests. While Bismarck’s gift was, in Taylor’s words, “in packing the cards, not in playing the hand”, Patel dealt his hand fair and straight.

If the Iron Man of India had a model to emulate, it was the homespun diplomacy practiced and preached - some two thousand years ago - by Chanakya which enunciated the fourfold techniques of sama (persuasion), daam (money), dand (punishment) and bhed (division). So he cajoled, he flattered and (where necessary) he threatened the former rulers to pay heed to the call of times.

It was, however, the technique of sama (persuasion) that he used the most. His message to Indian princes and prince-lings - the latter far outnumbered the former - was loud and clear: “your days as rulers of outmoded feudal regimes are over and it is in your larger interests to gracefully dismount the high horses”. Patel knew that the people of these states were unmistakably on his side and that these petty feudal anachronisms were waiting to be dumped on the dust-heap of history. His warning to them - loud and thundering - was ominous:

If any member of the Princely Order desires to establish Paramountcy, he is mistaken. They cannot establish that Paramountcy which the British are relinquishing. Paramountcy vests with the people.

He applied liberally the stratagem of daam (money), but not by bribing the princes but offering them handsomely adequate privy purses to ensure a decent living. (That Indira Gandhi in an extremely cheap populist fit — typical of her - chose to renege on these constitutionally guaranteed promises, was one of her unforgivable lapses.)

The most eloquent tribute to Patel’s Gandhian approach of achieving a great goal by equally great i.e., above board means came (most unexpectedly) from Nikita Khrushchev who, in 1956, on his historic visit to India said (as recorded by K P S Menon): “You Indians are an amazing people! How on earth did you manage to liquidate the Princely Rule without liquidating the Princes”.

Khrushchev, of course, as a died-in-the-wool Communist was thinking of the Soviet experience of ruthlessly liquidating Kulaks while confiscating their land holdings. What price Soviet Russia paid for this technique, Khrushchev, fortunately, didn’t live to see. The means deployed by the relentlessly authoritarian Soviet leaders ultimately caught up with them.

Against Forbidding Odds

Unification of the 565 princely states in the Dominion of India was almost entirely Patel’s achievement. On the eve of his departure from India - having done all the conceivable mischief he could on the sly - Lord Mountbatten wrote to Patel on June 19, 1948.

There is no doubt that by far the most important achievement of the present government is the unification of the states into the Dominion of India. Had you failed in this, results would have been disastrous. But since you succeeded, no one can see the disastrous consequences that you avoided. Nothing has added to the prestige of the present government more than the brilliant policy you have followed with the states. (Highlights added).

The Nizam of Hyderabad wasn’t the only thorn in India’s flesh in 1947. Even the Nawab of Bhopal nursed his own ambitions. (India office in London seems to have sold Nawab Sahib plan B while handing over plan A to His Exalted Highness, the Nizam.) The Nizam, egged on by his advisers like Laik Ali and that plan of the Whitehall, Sir Walter Monckton, wanted a grouping of few states to be accorded a dominion status. And Bhopal played second fiddle to the Nizam – “an old and faithful ally of the Empire”, as Churchill described him. It is only after Patel came out openly against the “malice and venom of Mr. Churchill’s tongue”, that behind-the-scenes British machinations to further divide India were thwarted.

Mountbatten’s above-quoted tongue-in-cheek tribute almost gives away the British anguish at Patel’s success. Had he failed in this exercise, instead of the India of today, we would have had a cluster of warring Dominions in the subcontinent.

If at the spiritual legacy of Vedanta had kept India united from the north to the south and from the east to the west, it is Patel’s far-sighted unification exercise that knit Indian society in one enduring political entity.

Mountbatten is quoted to have said in one of his rare honest moments - and there weren’t too many in his life - and this is recorded by David Hudson in The Great DivideI’m glad Nehru has not been put in charge of the new States’ Department, which would have wrecked everything.

Had Patel Handled Kashmir

One of the most fascinating intellectual pastimes is to conjure up alternative scenarios underpinned by the proverbial “ifs” of history. What would have been today’s Europe like had Hitler’s “generals” got rid of the Fuehrer when a German defeat became a distinct possibility? What would have the USSR been like had Trotsky succeeded Lenin instead of Stalin? There is no dearth of such hypothetical possibilities. These are, all said, flights of imagination that fly in the face of reality. But they have a lesson to teach in as much as an alternative was possible and only if that had materialized....

One such interesting episode in the “if” game of contemporary Indian history is: had Patel been allowed by Nehru to deal with the Kashmir problem in 1947, how things would have been like today in the subcontinent. We know for certain that Nehru had a deeply sentimental attachment for Kashmir and also for his tricky comrade, Sheikh Abdullah. “Kashmir is dear to me ... being a Kashmiri, I can never forget it and I am passionately attached to its mountains and ... scenery.” he wrote in a letter to Begum Abdullah in June 1947 when the Sheikh was still in jail. No wonder he insisted on handling the problem of the State’s accession as per his perceptions alone. Patel on the other hand knew, as a practical man, how to size up human beings and situations realistically and almost always, very accurately.

He had, for instance, scotched the game plan of the Nawab of Bhopal to group certain princely states to join him to claim a separate dominion from the British. He knew Hyderabad was an “ulcer in the abdomen of India”, and it could turn cancerous and spread further to reach dangerous proportions. As such he performed a neat surgical operation. Interestingly, he was able to size up the military position of Hyderabad far better than India’s then reigning defense strategists. The story goes that he wagered on the operation Police Action against Hyderabad ending within a week which the then Commander-in-Chief (Gen Roy Bucher) had forecast would take months of intense fighting.

Patel could foresee that the Kashmir problem would get bogged down in sub-continental power politics. He would have clinched matters decisively once the Maharaja signed the instrument of accession. He knew that Mountbatten was desperately keen that Kashmir, as a Muslim majority state, should accede to Pakistan. Left to himself he might have done some hard bargaining with Pakistan to let it have the valley. Had he a say in the matter, Patel would never have let Nehru take the Kashmir issue to the UN because internationalizing the issue suited the Western cold war interests in the power bloc game that had already got into full stride. Patel could indeed foresee that a continuing Kashmir problem was going to be a festering sore of the Indian polity.

There is no documentary record as to who influenced Nehru’s offer to hold a “plebiscite under the UN auspices” as per his radio broadcast on October 28, 1947. In all likelihood, it was Mountbatten’s brainwave, the implications of which the old fox realized but the gullible Nehru couldn’t comprehend. As per records, a copy of Nehru’s speech had been marked to the Deputy Prime Minister who, on reading it, tried desperately to get in touch with Nehru to plead with him to delete the plebiscite offer from the text. He is reported even to have dispatched his emissary to the Broadcasting House to convey his deep reservations about the plebiscite offer. By the time Patel’s emissary reached there, Nehru was in the studio broadcasting his speech. And the ghost of that commitment continues to haunt us till today, much to our embarrassment.

Again, Patel as a very shrewd judge of persons had profound reservations about Gopalaswamy Ayyangar whom Nehru chose to lead the Indian delegation to the United Nations. His choice was Sir Girja Shankar Bajpai. Left to himself, Patel would never have consented to the inclusion of Sheikh Abdullah in the Indian delegation. Patel didn’t mistake Abdullah’s real intentions behind his vociferous declarations and flamboyant style.

As a matter of fact, the Kashmir problem that has haunted the subcontinent for over half a century, is entirely, on account of Nehru’s misreading of Abdullah’s real intentions.

Take Maharaja Hari Singh. He, more than anyone else outside the state, understood the ethnic heterogeneity of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, which heterogeneity makes it qualitatively different from Hyderabad. Nizam ruled over a state which was predominantly Hindu but had a natural homogeneity, barring a Marathi-speaking pocket. Kashmir, on the other hand, consisted of a predominantly Dogra Jammu and a Buddhist Ladakh besides Muslim Poonch, Mirpur, Muzzafarabad and the Punjab plains that didn’t have much in common with the Muslims of the valley other than their religious faith, which for that matter, they also shared with the Afghans across the border.

It was this weighty consideration that made the much-maligned Maharaja to stay neutral immediately after independence. He stalled for time. Indeed, his personal equation with Abdullah played a very important role as the sordid drama of ultimate accession unfolded. Abdullah’s movement for democratic change in the state was not merely for the sake of democracy. He was hell-bent to end the Dogra dynasty at least from the valley. No self-respecting ruler of any state in the India of 1947 would have been ready to pay this price of accession. Nehru’s insistence on the Maharaja agreeing to hand over power to his friend, Sheikh Sahib, was like asking Hari Singh to sign his own instrument of abdication simultaneously with accession . Hence, the common perception that the Kashmir ruler was indecisive - or at best dilatory – isn’t correct, though Nehru’s admirers have kept it floating for long. The truth of the matter is that it was Nehru who should almost entirely be held responsible for the mess.

Nehru’s insistence on humiliating the Maharaja who had the cheek to put the future Prime Minister of India under house arrest in Uri when he tried to enter Kashmir in June 1947, is, to say the least, most unstatesman-like. No ruler of any Indian state would have allowed the entry of the rabble-rouser that Nehru had become in 1946 in his uncontrollable impatience to capture power. Didn’t, for instance, the Governor of Burma flatly refuse to let him visit Rangoon when Mountbatten invited him there? Statesmen don’t carry their giant size egos on their shirt sleeves; only the small-minded politicians do.

As a matter of fact, Nehru was most responsible of all for the Kashmir mess. Surprisingly enough, he failed to inform his Cabinet colleagues on October 19, ’47 when the Maharaja offered to accede to the Indian Union. How do you explain that? In Kashmir 1947, P S Jha says it could have happened “inadvertently. That’s the kindest possible construction one can put on it if you don’t like calling it outright trickery.

Nehru insisted on maintaining that the Maharaja “was criminally irresponsible and out of touch with reality”. More than the Maharaja it was Nehru. He completely misjudged Abdullah’s super ego who was far more interested in power for himself than the people of Kashmir. Nehru realized this six years too late in 1953 when the very bold writing on the wall (that could be read from Washington DC) forced him to put his dear comrade in jail.

On whose prompting, one wonders, did Nehru involve the United Nations in the dispute? The man who offered his daughter from prison very selective glimpses of world history miserably failed to foresee the international balance of power that was emerging as the cold war politics unfolded. Thoughtlessly, he offered himself as a spare pawn on the international chessboard for world powers to toss around. Patel could foresee its ramifications and did everything possible to stop him from making a foolhardy commitment. Even Gandhi had warned Nehru that India’s reference of the dispute to the UN will be sucked in the vortex of international politics.

It is a mystery indeed what prompted Nehru to concede almost on silver platter - stained though with the blood of Indian jawans who fought against overwhelming odds - one third of the state to Pakistan in 1949 when the Pakistani army was on the run. Jha thinks it was a case of “farsighted calculation” on the advice of Abdullah who realized that he couldn’t reconcile “the ethnic and religious dissimilarity of the people of Kashmir valley from the Muslims of Poonch, Mirpur, Muzaffarabad and Gilgit”. Mercifully, Abdullah didn’t advise Nehru to pass on Jammu and Ladakh too to Pakistan since neither shares that mystical quality that has cost our polity dear, called Kashmiriyat (which quintessentially means substitution of the Dogra dynasty by Abdullah rule).

Uncannily, Abdullah knew the limitations of his political appeal and realized that in the state of Jammu and Kashmir - with all its erstwhile constituents intact - the National Conference would never be able to get a political mandate to rule for ever. Hence, his devious idea of keeping only the valley under his wing even at the cost of perpetuating the Kashmir dispute . It is very likely that Nehru was talked into this arrangement to suit the Sheikh’s political convenience which, however, proved too costly for India. How one man’s sentimental attachment to Kashmir and another man’s latent ambitions and hidden agenda played havoc with the polity, adds up to a dismal tale of most inept handling.

The Reward?

Patel knew what his goal was. While launching the PEPSU Union at Patiala, Sardar Patel said:

This is the first time in history, after centuries that India can call itself an integrated whole in the real sense of the term ... We must work with unity. If we falter or fail, we shall consign our­selves to eternal shame and disgrace.

And how did we reward the man and his most memorable achievement? A 1947 batch IAS officer, M K K Nair, who was a close witness to the goings-on of the period and had close personal ties with both Sardar and VP Menon, recorded in his memoirs With No Ill Feeling to Anybody how Patel was rewarded.

Nair writes that Nehru’s personal mean-mindedness towards Sardar Patel came out blatantly in the open on December 15, 1950, the day the Patel breathed his last in Bombay.

Immediately after he got the news about Sardar Patel’s death, Nehru sent two notes to the Ministry of States. These notes landed on VP Menon’s desk, the then Secretary to the Ministry. In one of the notes, Nehru had asked Menon to send the official Cadillac car used by Sardar Patel to the Prime Minister’s former’s office. The second note was shocking. Nehru wanted government secretaries wanting to attend Sardar Patel’s last rites to do so at their own personal expense.

Menon (on whom I propose to write next week the last piece in this series), convened a meeting of all secretaries and asked them to furnish the names of those who want to attend the last rites of Patel. He did not mention anything about the note sent by Nehru. Menon paid the entire cost of the air tickets for those secretaries who expressed their wish to attend Sardar’s last journey. That’s how Menon discharged his debt of gratitude to his boss who empowered him to accomplish so much for the country and how Nehru revealed the crass meanness of his character which he kept covered under the cultivated veneer of sophistication.

Ten years later in February 1960, the same Jawaharlal dispatched all the way to the English Channel at the cost of the taxpayers of India, INS frigate Trishul to escort HMS Wakeful to cast a wreath of marigolds on his behalf, into the waves after Edwina Mountbatten’s coffin was discharged into the sea as per her wishes. Isn’t there is a difference — a profound difference - between one who was so meaningful to the personal life of the Prime Minister and the one who selflessly toiled for the consolidation of the polity?

But as Nani Palkhivala famously said: “You cannot conceive of a solar system without the sun, and you cannot con­ceive of modern India without Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.”

Continued to “The Forgotten Architect”

Sardar Patel Assessed (All the Links):


More by :  H.N. Bali

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Views: 3358      Comments: 2

Comment More amusing is your ignorance of modern Indian history, dear Ashby. In Sanskrit there is a saying which means - until the fool opens his mouth.

13-Dec-2013 09:48 AM

Comment It is quite amusing how your perception is so tinted in respect of, or should I say, lack of respect of the British, that you even credit V Patel with the idea of India as a unity. May I refer you to any map of the British Empire, c 1880, for example, to see that India is painted red from head to toe, which at least defeats your claim on behalf of V Patel of an original idea. In fact, quite the converse, it probably explains where he derived his idea of India as a unity from. Not merely that, but it explains that India the country was by virtue of British Rule rendered a concept in the minds of Indians in all princely states, that made V Patel's role more of a catalyst than an innovator.

07-Dec-2013 21:56 PM

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