Indian National Congress

Vallabbhai J. Patel

President: 1875-1950 (Karachi, 1931)

Vallabhbhai Jhaverbhai Patel, one of the six children of Jhaverbhai Patel and Ladba was born in Nadiad, Gujarat. There is no record of his date of birth. The generally accepted date 31 October, 1875, of which the source is his Matriculation Certificate, was chosen by Vallabhbhai Patel himself while filling in the form.

His family was an agriculturist one, of the Lewa Patidar Community, and could in terms of economic status be described as lower middle-class. They had no tradition of education.

His childhood was spent away from books, in the ancestral fields at Karamsad. He was already in his late teens when he passed out from the Middle School at Karamsad and went to the High School at Nadiad from where he matriculated in 1897.

Even as a young boy Vallabhbhai Patel displayed qualities of organisation and leadership that marked him out for his future role. Once as a sixth-form boy, he organised a successful strike of his classmates that lasted for three days to teach a lesson to one of the teachers who was unduly fond of the rod. He must have inherited these attributes from his father who, it is said, had fought in the Mutiny under the Rani of Jhansi and was subsequently taken prisoner by Malharrao Holkar.

He was a mature young man of twenty-two when he matriculated. Owing to the family’s impecunious circumstances, higher education was not within his reach. The next best thing was to take a course in law and set up as a country lawyer. This he did and established a small practice at Godhra. But an attack of plague, which he contracted while nursing a friend, made him leave the town and after spending some time in Nadiad, he moved on to Borsad in 1902, a town in the Kheda district where at that time the largest number of criminal cases in Gujarat were recorded.

He became quite popular here as a defence lawyer. He now wanted to go to England and qualify as a Barrister. From his practice at Borsad he had earned enough for his expenses there but owing to certain circumstances he was not able to make the trip at once.

His brother Vithalbhai Patel desired that he should complete his education in England and he readily acquiesced in this. His wife, Jhaverba, died early in 1909 after an operation for some abdominal malady. When news of the bereavement reached him, he was cross-examining a witness in a murder case at Anand. With an impregnable composure for which he became known later, he did not show grief but went on with the cross-examination in hand and even won the case. He finally sailed for England in 1910 and joined the Middle Temple. Here he worked so hard and conscientiously that he topped in Roman Law securing a prize, and was called to the Bar at the end of two years instead of the usual period of three years.

On his return to India in 1913, he set up practice in Ahmedabad and became a success. He had ready wit, a fund of common sense and a deep sympathy for those who were the objects of the British officials' wrath and were caught in the clutches of the law, which was not uncommon in Kheda district. He came to enjoy a position in public life with his eminence as a Barrister.

He accepted Mahatma Gandhi's leadership, having been tremendously impressed by the fearless leadership that Mahatma Gandhi gave in order to right public wrongs. In 1917, he was elected for the first time as a Municipal Councillor in Ahmedabad.

From 1924 to 1928 he was Chairman of the Municipal Committee. The years of his association with the Municipal administration were marked by much meaningful work for the improvement of civic life. Work was done to improve water supply, sanitation and town planning and the Municipality came to be transformed from being a mere adjunct to British rule into a popular body with a will of its own.

There were also calamities like plague in 1917, and famine in 1918, and on both occasions Vallabhbhai did important work to relieve distress. In 1917, he was elected Secretary of the Gujarat Sabha, a political body which was of great assistance to Gandhi ji in his campaigns.

The association with Mahatma Gandhi became closer during the Kheda Satyagraha of 1918, which was launched to secure exemption from payment of the land revenue assessment since the crops had failed. It took three months of intense campaigning marked by arrests, seizure of goods, chattel and livestock and much official brutality before relief was secured from an unwilling Government. Gandhi ji said that if it were not for Vallabhbhai Patel’s assistance "this campaign would not have been carried through so successfully".

The five years from 1917 to 1922 were years of popular agitation in India. The end of the war was followed by the Rowlatt Act and still further curtailment of individual freedom. Then followed the Khilafat movement with massacres and terror in the Punjab. Gandhi ji and the Congress decided on non-cooperation. Vallabhbhai Patel left his practice for good and gave himself up wholly to political and constructive work, touring in villages, addressing meetings, organising picketing of foreign cloth shops and liquor shops.

After the Khilafat Movement came the Bardoli Satyagraha. The occasion for the Satyagraha was the Government's decision to increase the assessment of land revenue from Bardoli taluka by 22 per cent and in some villages by as much as 50 to 60 per cent. Having failed to secure redress by other means the agriculturists of the taluka decided, at a Conference on February 12, 1928 to withhold payment of land revenue under the leadership of Vallabhbhai Patel.

The struggle was grim and bitter. There were seizures of property and livestock to such an extent that for days on end, people kept their buffaloes and themselves locked in. Arrests followed and then brutalities of the police and the hired Pathans. The attention of the whole country was drawn to the movement. Patels and Talatis resigned their jobs, Government revenues remained unrealised. The Government had to ultimately bow before popular resolve and an inquiry was instituted to find out to what extent the increase was justified and the realisation of the increased revenue was postponed.

It was a triumph not only of the 80,000 peasants of Bardoli but more particularly of Vallabhbhai Patel personally; he was given the title of ‘Sardar’ by the nation.

About this time the political situation in the country was approaching a crisis. The Congress had accepted its goal of Purna Swaraj for the country, while the British Government through their policy of pitting one interest against another and through constitutional tricks were trying to stifle the voice of freedom and doing everything they could to perpetuate their rule.

The boycott of the Simon Commission was followed by the launching of the famous Salt Satyagraha by Gandhi ji. Sardar Patel, though he had not committed any breach of the Salt Law, was the first of the national leaders to be arrested. He was in fact arrested on 7 March 1930, some days before Gandhi ji set out on the march to Dandi. He was released in June. By then Gandhi ji, Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders were in jail and the tempo of the struggle in the country was rising. In a few months Sardar Patel was back in prison.

In March 1931, Sardar Patel presided over the 46th session of the Indian National Congress which was called upon to ratify the Gandhi - lrwin Pact, which had just then been concluded. The task was not an easy one, for Bhagat Singh and a few others had been executed on the very day the Congress session opened and delegates, particularly the younger sections, were in an angry mood, while Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Bose were not happy with the terms of the Pact.

But the Congress finally put its seal on the Pact with one voice. Civil Disobedience was suspended, political prisoners were released and the Congress agreed to participate in the Round Table Conference. The Round Table Conference failed. Gandhi ji along with other top leaders were arrested and a policy of repression followed. Sardar Patel was lodged with Gandhi ji in Yeravada Jail and they were together there for sixteen months - from January 1932 to May 1933. He then spent another year in the Nasik Jail.

When the Government of India Act 1935 came, the Congress though generally critical of the Act, decided to try out those of its constitutional provisions that seemed to grant to India a measure of self - government and to take part in the elections for Provincial legislatures that were envisaged under it. In seven of the eleven Provinces Congress majorities were returned and Congress Ministries were formed. Sardar Patel, as Chairman of the Congress Parliamentary Sub - Committee, guided and controlled the activities of these Ministries.

Not for very long, however, for, on 3 September 1939 when Britain declared war on Germany, the Viceroy without consulting either the Central or the Provincial Legislatures, proclaimed India as having entered the war as an ally of Britain. The Congress could not accept this position and the Congress Ministries resigned. Gandhi ji launched Individual Civil Disobedience opposing India's participation in the war, and the Congress leaders began to court arrest. Sardar Patel was arrested on17 November 1940. He was released on 20 August 1941 on grounds of health.

The All India Congress Committee passed the famous Quit India resolution in Bombay on 8 August 1942, and Sardar Patel along with the other members of the Working Committee, was arrested on 9 August 1942 and detained in the Ahmednagar Fort while Gandhi ji, Kasturba and Mahadev Desai were detained in the Aga Khan's Palace.

The Sardar was in jail for about three years this time. When, at the end of the war, the Congress leaders were freed and the British Government decided to find a peaceful constitutional solution to the problem of India's Independence, he was one of the chief negotiators of the Congress.

When India attained Independence he became the Deputy Prime Minister and was responsible for the Home, States and the Information and Broadcasting portfolios. It was in this capacity that he was called upon to tackle the most intricate and baffling problem of the States' integration into the Union of India. And it is here that his tact, his powers of persuasion and his statesmanship came into full play.

He handled the issue as only he could have handled it, managing, in less than a year's time, to reduce the Princely States from 562 to 26 administrative units and bringing democracy to nearly 80 million people of India, comprising almost 27 per cent of the country's population. The integration of the States could certainly be termed as the crowning achievement of Vallabhbhai Patel's life. But for him, this may not have been achieved easily and quickly.

As Minister of Home Affairs, he presided over efforts to bring back order and peace to a country ravaged by communal strife unprecedented in its history. He accomplished this task with the ruthless efficiency of a great administrator. He sorted out the problems of partition, restored law and order and dealt with the rehabilitation of thousands of refugees with great courage and foresight. He reorganised our Services which had become depleted with the departure of the British and formed a new Indian Administrative Service, to provide a stable administrative base to our new democracy.

While Gandhi ji gave to the Congress a programme for a broad-based action, it was the Sardar who built up the Party machine to carry out that programme. No one before him had given adequate thought to the need to have an effective organisation, but he realised this need during his campaigns and devoted his organisational talents and energy to the building up of the strength of the Party which could be geared to fight in an organised and effective manner.

His grip over the Party organisation was complete. Vallabhbhai Patel was thus one of the chief architects and guardians of India's freedom and his contribution towards consolidating the freedom of the country remains unrivalled.

He died on 15 December 1950 leaving behind a son, Dahyabhai Patel, and a daughter, Maniben Patel.

“I am not interested in loaves and fishes, or legislative honours. The peasantry do not understand them; they are little affected by them. I believe that Gandhi ji's eleven points mean the substance of Swaraj. That which does not satisfy them is no Swaraj.

Whilst I would respect the rights of landlords, rajas, maharajas and others to the extent, that they do not hurt the sweating millions, my interest lies in helping the downtrodden to rise from their state and be on a level with the tallest in the land.

Thank God the gospel of Truth and Non - Violence has given these an inkling of their dignity and the power they possess. Much still remains to be done. But let us make up our minds that we exist for them, not they for us.

Let us shed our petty rivalries and jealousies, feuds and let everyone realise that the Congress represents and exists for the toiling millions and it will become an irresistible power.”

From the Presidential Address - Sardar Vallabbbhai Patel I.N.C. Session, 1931, Karachi.