They overcame differences


... which neither man kept particularly secret.

... which neither man kept particularly secret.  

AS a recent biographer of Jawaharlal Nehru, I have been somewhat disconcerted to discover that my admiration for my subject immediately prompts people to assume that I must dislike his formidable deputy, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. In fact I count myself among the doughty Sardar's fans, and am at somewhat of a loss to account for the presumed incompatibility of these two inclinations.

It is true, of course, that the two men had their differences, which neither kept particularly secret. Just before independence Patel was privately scathing about Jawaharlal's "acts of emotional insanity" and "childlike innocence, which puts us all in great difficulties quite unexpectedly". Nehru, in turn, could not have been unconscious of the fact that the older man (Patel was 14 years his senior) was seen by many Congressmen as more deserving of the country's leadership than the mercurial Jawaharlal. But it was not true, scurrilous rumours notwithstanding, that Nehru had initially omitted Patel from the Cabinet list and had been obliged by Mountbatten to include him. Nehru, in inviting Patel to serve as his deputy, called him "the strongest pillar of the Cabinet". Patel replied: "My services will be at your disposal, I hope, for the rest of my life and you will have unquestioned loyalty and devotion from me in the cause for which no man in India has sacrificed as much as you have done. Our combination is unbreakable and therein lies our strength." The Sardar's assurances were sincere and their "combination" was indispensable as independent India consolidated its unity and found its feet. (Sadly, though, "the rest of my life" that Patel alluded to would extend no more than another three years.)

But it is true that a key area that divided them was the issue of the treatment of India's Muslim minority, and this may be where the two men's admirers diverge irreconcilably. Both Nehru and Patel strove, like their mentor Mahatma Gandhi, to keep the country united. But once Partition had occurred, Patel was inclined to see India as a state that symbolised the interests of the Hindu majority, while Nehru's idea of India explicitly rejected the two-nation theory; having spurned the logic which had created a state for Muslims, he was not about to succumb to the temptation of mirroring that logic by allowing India to become a state for Hindus. "So long as I am Prime Minister," he declared in 1950, "I shall not allow communalism to shape our policy." Patel, on the other hand, was suspicious of the loyalties of Muslims who remained in India and felt those loyalties had to be proven. On one occasion, he proposed that Muslim officials should seek permission from the government before visiting Pakistan; Nehru objected to any double standard (other officials required no such permission in those days), and the Prime Minister prevailed.

And yet, this does not mean that Patel was communalist in his approach to India's Muslims. As Home Minister, Patel dealt with the communal disturbances that accompanied Partition firmly and even-handedly; he transferred army units from Poona and Madras to restore order in Delhi, and asked the army to move 10,000 homeless Muslims into the Red Fort to protect them from Hindu rioters. But he saw Muslims in India, in the words of the historian Sarvepalli Gopal, as "hostages to be held in security for the fair treatment of Hindus in Pakistan". Temperamentally, the Sardar was more inclined to draw the conclusion from Partition that an entire community had in effect seceded; he once suggested in 1948 that if Hindus were expelled from Pakistan, an equal number of Muslims should be expelled from India, an idea which appalled Nehru, who slapped it down immediately.

No wonder, then, that readers aware of my views on communal bigotry should presume my hostility to Patel. But one must make allowances for the temper of the times; and more important, Patel's fundamental decency became apparent on a communal issue on which he and Nehru in fact disagreed.

This was in 1950, with the Government under pressure from the right to intervene militarily in East Pakistan, where a massacre of Hindus had begun. Jawaharlal first tried to work with his Pakistani counterpart, Liaquat Ali Khan, on a joint approach to communal disturbances and then, when this had been ignored, offered President Rajendra Prasad (a Patel ally) his resignation. But when Patel called a meeting of Congressmen at his home to criticise Jawaharlal's weakness on the issue, Nehru fought back, withdrawing his offer of resignation, challenging Patel to a public debate on Pakistan policy and even writing to express doubt as to whether the two of them could work together any more. The counter-assault was so ferocious that Patel backed off and affirmed his loyalty to Jawaharlal, supporting the pact Nehru signed with his Pakistani counterpart.

Yet Patel did so not because he could not have defeated Nehru politically, but because he felt Nehru deserved his support on an issue of principle. Whereas the Hindu Mahasabha sympathisers in the Cabinet, Shyama Prasad Mookherjee and K.C. Neogi, resigned over the Nehru-Liaquat Pact, Patel not only urged them to stay, he committed himself to the pact's implementation. His logic was Gandhian: the problem may have started with the mistreatment of Hindus in East Pakistan, but the moment retaliatory measures were taken against Muslims in West Bengal, India, in his view, lost the moral authority to put itself on a different plane than Pakistan or to take military action against it. Those who saw Patel as a hardliner and a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) sympathiser were surprised, but those who knew him as a lifetime Gandhian were not.

Mahatma Gandhi's assassination by a Hindu fanatic strengthened the unity of the two men. The Mahatma's last conversation was with Patel; it is believed that the Sardar had been describing his differences with Nehru and seeking permission to quit the Cabinet. Gandhiji again advised them to work together, and his death minutes later made that request a binding obligation upon the Sardar. Nehru (who had been scheduled to meet with the Mahatma, on the same subject, immediately after that fateful prayer-meeting) saw it the same way. Gandhi's death brought the two together again; in their grief they put their differences behind them. It is time that their followers do the same. The heritage of all Indians is richer for having both Nehru and Patel to honour.

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