The details behind the headlines

Ambika Shaligram
Friday, 28 September 2018

Who are the people who shaped and continue to shape India’s narrative? Has history been kind to them? All this and more was discussed at a session in PILF

The triumvirate of the Indian freedom struggle — Mahatma Gandhi, Pt Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel — are making fresh headlines. Their policies, ideological positions, conflicts are discussed, debated with ‘new’ proofs and references in the media and social media. 

It is in this backdrop that a session on ‘The India we know Today: People and Narratives that Shaped Our Nation’ at the PILF was well-received. Ahead of the session, we caught up with one of the panelists, Hindol Sengupta who has written The Man who Saved India: Sardar Patel and his Idea of India, published by Penguin Random House.  

Journalist and historian Sengupta has put together evidences in the form of letters, reports and so on in the book to provide what he says ‘a holistic picture of the man and his contemporaries’. Sengupta said that he was interested in the life of Patel and emphatically added, “We owe the geography of the land, the map of our country to Patel.” Another reason for writing this book on Patel, said Sengupta, was that there are several serious books written on Gandhi and Nehru. None on Patel.

At the moment, there is much noise over BJP appropriating Patel (PM Modi is due to unveil the tallest statue of the ‘Iron Man’ as Patel is known, on October 31) and there are texts circulating in social media that suggest that if Patel’s views had prevailed, much of the problems that we are now facing with our neighbours, Pakistan in particular, would not have existed. 

When asked how the relations between the two leaders were, Sengupta said, “The leaders of our freedom struggle actually had no family life. Look at the disturbed relations between Gandhi and his sons. We don’t know much about Patel’s wife either. Patel’s daughter says, ‘My father could never show his love’, even though she was very devoted to the father. So who were their real family? I would say, ‘Each other’.” 

He went on to add, “The leaders were very close to each other. While there has been a lot of love and affection between them, there have also been very significant differences. Very soon after independence, the conflict between Nehru and Patel grows to such an extent that both men talk of resigning from the cabinet. On the Kashmir issue, the two are quarelling on things like ‘how many cars to be sent to Kashmir’. In my book, I have tried to present a very holistic picture — the love and affection and also the conflict. These are complex characters in history and we should see them in all their complexities, rather than white washing them or black washing them.” 

So can we say history has been unkind to Patel? “We can say that history has forgotten Patel,” said Sengupta, adding, “But his contribution is so large that we forget him at our own peril. In my book, I mention that, in the last two letters that Sardar Patel writes to Girija Shankar Bajpayee and Nehru, all the problems that we have in India now, have been mentioned. There are mentions that China will be a problem. Patel was the one who presciently saw and wrote in his letter to Nehru that, ‘Look Jawaharlal, you rightfully, correctly pay attention to authoritarianism from fascism. However, you fail to pay enough attention to authoritarianism arising from communism. Both are equally dangerous’. He pointed out the Tibet annexation and said it’s a warning to us and we must heed it. Also, Patel pointed out that the then Indian ambassador to China was sounding more like China’s Ambassador to India. Today we are reading reports of honey traps.” 

Moving on to the session which was moderated by Milee Ashwarya, editor at Penguin Random House, Sengupta added, “Gandhi was unfair to Patel. There are clear details.” 

Uday Mahurkar, senior journalist, who was on the panel too, agreed. He said, “I think the Mahatma label had stuck by then and somewhere Gandhi thought that if Patel was made the Congress President, then he would have had the charge of promoting a fellow Gujarati. There is no clear cut evidence, but I am convinced about it.”

We have certain ideologies and terms that are still discussed today — Nehruvian Socialism and Gandhism. According to Sengupta, “We need another adjective, which I would call, ‘Patelian’. Gandhi has been our spiritual and moral leader. Nehru was a romantic idealist, who I think wrote about India that he wanted it to be, while Patel saw India for what it was then. Patel had the pragmatic approach.”

Mahurkar spoke of Savarkar’s narrative which too has not got its due. “What has happened to Sardar Patel has also happened to a certain extent to Vinayak Savarkar. He had warned Congress of all the national front problems we are facing today. In 1940, when Muslim League came with Pakistan resolution, Savarkar said, ‘The way the Congress is dealing with Muslim League, and surrendering ground, it will be very difficult to stop Partition’. In 1954, Pt Nehru floated the Panchsheel treaty, saying that if India and the neighbouring countries follow the five mantras, they will live peacefully. That time Savarkar warned that if India kow tows before China, we will be in trouble. This was proved true in the 1962 war,” said Mahurkar. 

The panelists then discussed B R Ambekar’s relationship with Gandhi and Nehru. Sengupta, who has written Being Hindu: Understanding a Peaceful Path in a Violent World, explained, “There is no doubt that Gandhi forced Ambedkar to sign the Poona Pact where Ambedkar had to rollback the demand for separate electorate. Gandhi’s vision of himself and also for the country was challenged by Ambedkar and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. One place that Ambedkar disagreed with Nehru was on Article 370, according special status to Jammu and Kashmir. The article was being drafted by Gopalswami Iyengar, aide to Nehru. The article had come up because of a promise made to Sheikh Abdullah. Iyengar was asked to draft this because people who were drafting the rest of the Constitution refused to do it. Ambedkar had said, ‘Already India has been divided on one ground, so now you should build one nation, with one law. When we start to make exceptions after the Partition then we are laying the siege of division, which is dangerous for India.” 

Towards the end, the panelists spoke  about the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and PM Modi’s contribution in shaping the narrative. Mahurkar said, “The appeasement of Muslims has led to social unrest in the country and the RSS has solved it to some extent. Yet, I must say that RSS lacks intellectual rigour. Modi is moving ahead in a very logical manner. He has picked up issue of triple talaq which is a very reformist issue. I have seen Modi’s development model in Gujarat, which is, on the whole, a very empowering model. It doesn’t rely on doles. Ujjwala scheme is subsidised and not given free. Except for UP government’s decision to waive off the loan of farmers, rest is all an empowering model. I think for the first time, the benefits of welfare scheme are reaching the last man in a much greater degree than before.” 

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