Prime Minister Narendra Modi never misses an opportunity to blame country’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru for all the ills that the country is facing presently. He has repeatedly asserted that India would be a much better country if Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had become the first PM of independent India. By spinning lies and myths, he wishes, and in fact accomplishes, political benefits for his party.
However, to blame BJP alone for the spread of such misinformation would not be fair. Many contemporary historians and experts endorse the theory that viceroy Earl Louis Mountbatten had partitioned the country. This was not the case as the end of British rule and formation of Pakistan was part of a bigger gameplan of imperialist Britain to plant a loyalist nation between the communist Soviet Union and socialist India.
It is often said that it was only Sardar Patel who united the country by performing a sort of Ashvamedha/Rajasuya yajna, while Nehru was clueless. This narrative is entirely baseless as Nehru was internationally respected for his statesmanship. Interestingly, Congress never really challenged this theory. Perhaps because of apprehension of losing Gujrati votes or the awkwardness of berating the senior and significant congress leader.
This narrative, however, not just insults Nehru, a prominent maker of modern India, and other national leaders of that time but also thousands of freedom fighters in the princely states as well as their comrades in the British Administered Provinces. While Sardar Patel’s contributions cannot be trivialised, one should remember that he was just the minister in-charge from 1947-50 and that he worked under Prime Minister Nehru whom ironically enough, BJP portrays as dictatorial megalomaniac when it suits their argument.
Just imagine Rajnath Singh invading Nepal, Bhutan and Burma without informing Narendra Modi or P. Chidambaram doing so against the will of Manmohan Singh, even when as weak of a PM as MMS was. LK Advaniji wrote a series of blogs portraying an all-knowing Patel and incompetent Nehru, which would have been funny if they were not so pathetic and baseless.
Integration of princely states into rest of India was executed under a robust constitutional framework that was supervised not just by Nehru and his cabinet but by the Parliament (Constituent Assembly) in which the princely states held a considerable number of seats. In fact, the constitutional process for integrating the states into India had begun with the colonial Government of India Act of 1935. Linlithgow who championed the act through British Parliament became the Viceroy of India in 1936. As part of the implementation of the act, the elections for the Provincial Assemblies were held in 1937.
According to VP Menon (who later worked under Sadar Patel in the Ministry of States), when it came to the states, Linlithgow was hamstrung by various treaties and agreements executed by the Crown with the rulers of those states. Nonetheless much of the formula down to the Privy Purses were established before World War and later resumed by Nehru’s government in which Sardar Patel was the Minister for Home and States.
It has become common to blame Congress for the country’s partition and praise Sardar Patel for the unification of the country. Such assertions deviate from the fact that Sardar Patel was also a dedicated Congressman and that Patel was among first to accept partition (for very good reasons) is another discussion. What is relevant here is that partition, as well as unification, were facilitated by the same group of people and the same Indian Independence Act of 1947.
Of all the evils of the Independence Act of 1947, it also offered opportunities for India where most of the states were located. First of those was that the Act recognised only two dominions: India and Pakistan. Secondly, the paramountcy of the crown over the states was allowed to lapse, voiding all the treaties that constrained Linlithgow. Congress (which already formed the interim government by September 1946) was initially nervous about the lapse of paramountcy, which they wanted to be transferred to India. In theory, when paramountcy expires, monarchs become independent and will not be obligated to join India.
But these fears were allayed when Mountbatten stuck to the script and repeatedly told the rulers of the states that the crown does not recognise any dominion other than the two mentioned in the act and hence none of them could be recognised as an independent state. Mountbatten further made it clear to the rulers that they will have no direct relation with the crown and will have to deal with one of the two dominions forever in future whether for trade, movement outside their boundaries or dealing with any domestic unrest and other threats. Mountbatten also laid the restriction that the states will merge with the dominion with which it had geographic contiguity, which sealed the fate of most states including Hyderabad and Junagarh, the states that initially wanted to be part of Pakistan. Pressure mounted on the rulers when Nehru declared that those states that refuse to join the Constituent Assembly will be considered hostile states.
Was Sardar Patel the one-man Army as claimed by the BJP and the “historians” of today? Mountbatten not only continued to live in Delhi as Governor-General until June 1948 but signed the Instruments of Accession (on behalf of India) with all the 560 Princely States. The only exception would be the accession of Hyderabad which was signed a couple of months later by his successor Governor General Rajaji. In June 1947, Mountbatten held a series of meetings with rulers of states and gave them the deadline of August 15 to complete accession.
The Indian Army which is claimed to be commanded by Sardar Patel was in fact under control of the Mountbatten (later under Rajaji), and it had British generals until January 1949, while Sardar Baldev Singh was the Defense Minister. It was Mountbatten and Douglas Gracey (CoGS, Pakistan Army) who prevented the Pakistani Army’s direct involvement during the crucial early days of Kashmir conflict. Within the Ministry of States, Sardar Patel was assisted by VP Menon who did most of the negotiations and travelling. VP Menon not only worked earlier under Linlithgow but was close to Mountbatten (having served him as Constitutional Advisor) and had direct access. While Sardar Patel was a great patriot, leader, and an able administrator, he was 72 years old and kept feeble health. Patel suffered a heart attack in March 1948 and was advised against serious work.
A Telugu saying preaches that “not even an ant could bite without Mahadev Shiv’s orders”. Not only did Patel have the approval and support from Nehru at every stage but they both cleared all actions through the Constituent Assembly. Many other leaders were instrumental in the process, like Sri Prakasa, then governor of Assam, who secured accession of Manipur.
Much of the credit for the 560 states signing the Instruments of Accession goes to Mountbatten’s royal lineage, the status of war hero and a charming personality. However, VP Menon’s role chasing down the rulers to obtain signed documents, given the narrow window of a few weeks cannot be ignored. But the “accession” was limited to defence, external affairs and communications/railways. One cannot ignore the significant contribution of Ministry of States was in the later stages when rulers retired with Privy Purses, and the administration of their states was handed over first to “responsible governments” within the state and later to the neighbouring provinces. Although this was not a trivial task, it was precipitated by the civil unrest that started in Orissa and Chhattisgarh but spread elsewhere. While Sardar Patel was a minister in-charge who managed the politics in Delhi and the Constituent Assembly, trench work was done by VP Menon, local leadership, neighbouring provincial governments and other cabinet members and party colleagues of Patel and Nehru. For example, the privy purse negotiation with the Deccan States was delegated to B. Pattabhi Sitaramayya and Rajendra Prasad. One must not forget that the “unification of India” did not stop even after Patel’s death but was continued by Gopalaswami Ayyangar who succeeded as Minister of States.
During the freedom struggle, the activities of the Indian National Congress were largely confined to the provinces. Jawaharlal Nehru was the first national leader to recognise that the destiny of the states was linked to provincial India. While Mahatma Gandhi himself was born and raised in Porbandar and Rajkot, he mostly stayed away with few exceptions like the entry of Dalits in temples.
In his first adventure, Nehru travelled to Nabha in 1923, marched with the Akalis for protection of Gurudwaras, arrested, chain-ganged and sentenced to prison. By 1939, Nehru became the permanent President of All India States Peoples Conference (ASPC) which was an umbrella organisation for freedom struggles against the rulers of states who were allies of British. ASPC demanded not just self-determination within the states but integration with (free) India. One can only be naïve to imagine that while every man, woman and child in the provinces have given up their careers and family for freedom and self-determination, nearly equal number of people (who shared languages and customs) in the states could have just waited for the arrival of Sardar Patel’s (Ashvamedha) stallion. After the accessions were signed, the restlessness among the peoples grew even more.
Many of the leaders of ASPC negotiated with the rulers on behalf of Nehru, Patel, and VP Menon and had become members of responsible governments in the states. One can only be delusional to pretend that the first Prime Minister of India, as well as the leader of peoples of the states, had no role in the unification of India. Constituent Assembly had a States Committee of which Nehru was the Chairman.