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I Respect Your Leader, Please Don’t Insult Mine: Remembering Pattabhi

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Many south Indians made huge contributions during the freedom struggle and towards building a modern India.  Yet, they are unknown to the people outside of their own states. If at all they get discussed at a national level, it would be in the context of conflicts between the other national icons of Indian history. The references to them are condescending or outright offensive.

There is much hysteria and urgency towards revisionist history to credit few people like Sardar Patel, Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose with all the great things that happened in India. The justifications employed in the process are further marginalizing and vilifying those that are not considered mainstream Indians. December 24 is the birth anniversary of Dr. Bhogaraju Pattabhi Sitaramayya, one of the founding fathers of India.

Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramayya

Indians will probably never forgive Mahatma Gandhi for his audacity of nominating Dr. Pattabhi as the President of Congress in 1939.  It is widely believed that Gandhi snatched away something that rightfully belonged to Subhas Chandra Bose and tried to hand it to his “crony” Pattabhi. The real enemies of Subhas Chandra Bose at the time were Sardar Patel and rest of the right-wing of the party such as GB Pant, Rajaji, Rajendra Prasad and JB Kriplani.  However, Jawaharlal Nehru is thrown in the mix to divert attention away from Sardar Patel.

From being born in a poor family to educating himself as a medical doctor to his contributions to Satyagraha, Pattabhi’s life is no less inspiring than anyone else of that era whose tall statues are now being built. From founding the still flourishing financial institutions to documenting the history of freedom struggle and of Congress, Pattabhi possessed the unique nation building skills that many of his colleagues did not. Leaving the factor of elect-ability aside, Pattabhi was just as qualified (if not more) to be the President of Congress as Subhas Chandra Bose was in 1939.

Pattabhi, along with Subhas Bose, supported Nehru’s Purna Swaraj in 1927-28 against the resistance of Mahatma Gandhi as well as Motilal Nehru. While all three were Socialists, Pattabhi was like Nehru and different from Bose in one aspect. While Bose considered Gandhi a spent force who had no further use for the country, Pattabhi and Nehru understood that independence from colonial rule could not be achieved without the Mahatma.

Congress Presidency

Presidency of the party was a one-year honorary rotation at which diverse people were supposed to get a chance each. Mahatma Gandhi himself served one and only one term in his life time. It was never meant to be a popularity contest nor were south Indians prohibited from aspiring for it. The nominations were generally made by Gandhi and were unanimous, including Subhas Bose’s first term in 1938. The magnanimity of Mahatma Gandhi in offering that honor to Subhas Bose in 1938 seem to have been lost these days.

While in Europe in 1935, Subhas Chandra Bose wrote his book The Indian Struggle. In that book, he was critical of Gandhi as well as the entire Congress organization. Bose called Gandhi a “spent force” and saw no future for him in the freedom struggle. Yet by the time he returned to India in 1938, a telegram from Gandhi awaited Bose inviting him to become the President at Haripura Session. Those that condescendingly refer to Dr. Pattabhi as Gandhi’s candidate in 1939 conveniently never mention that Subhas Chandra Bose was “Gandhi’s candidate” in 1938!

In his presidential address at Haripura session, Bose talked about Congress raising an army which turned off everyone especially Gandhi. But despite what Bose may have done during 1938, he was completely out of line for seeking a second term immediately in 1939. Such a thing never happened in history of Congress with sole exception of Nehru in 1937 for the only reason that Congress was in middle of the provincial elections. In 1939, there was no compulsive reason that would require Bose continue as the President for another term. To make matters worse, Bose turned this dispute into an “anti-Bengal conspiracy” and brought Rabindranath Tagore to lobby for him, annoying even his supporters like Nehru.

The Right-Wing Versus The Socialists

Until Gandhi’s arrival in India, Congress belonged to wealthy people who met in their Drawing Rooms, humored the British and petitioned for more legislative powers. Gandhi turned that organization into one that represented peasants and millions of underprivileged people of India. Yet by late 1920s Gandhi understood that the socialists represented the aspirations of those masses better than the conservatives like himself. The willingness of Gandhi to trust this organization that he built into a mighty force that would eventually destroy the British Empire, with socialists like Nehru, Bose and Pattabhi was remarkable. This vision and generosity of Mahatma Gandhi cannot be understood by casual observers.

The problems which Subhas Bose encountered with the right-wing even during 1938 were not unique to him.  Jawaharlal Nehru had similar problems during his tenure 1936-37 and many times Nehru contemplated resigning himself. Nehru was willing to take Congress through the election process but was opposed to forming the provincial governments. That in his opinion would distract from the goal of Purna Swaraj. The right-wing humored Nehru until he won the elections but then set him aside and went ahead with forming governments in the provinces. With Gandhi siding the right-wing, Nehru had no option but be quiet.  On the bright side, the Congress governments have demonstrated that Indians can rule themselves with likes of Rajaji providing fine governance in the provinces.

Nehru stayed away from the provincial governments and kept himself busy. He toured the country preaching the socialist reforms that they should expect and prepare for when they eventually attained Purna Swaraj. Even that activity of Nehru was cut short when the right-wing complained to Gandhi and forced his interference. On many occasions, the Mahatma had chided Nehru that he should carry the right-wing with him. Gandhi’s approach to Subhas Bose was no different from that of Nehru. Gandhi expected Bose to reconcile with the right-wing and agree on a workable solution.

The Election And Aftermath

Much is made of Dr. Pattabhi losing the election by about 200 votes. Gandhi’s claim of “Pattabhi’s defeat is my defeat” was his magnanimity as opposed to using Pattabhi as a pawn and dropping him like a hot potato upon defeat. That statement was interpreted as Bose’s triumph and superiority over Gandhi, which is laughable. Pattabhi’s electability being a south Indian should be considered before much is made of that victory. To complicate the matter further, those days Pattabhi picked a fight with Tamil speaking people of his Madras Province over formation of a new Telugu province.

Why did all those who voted against Pattabhi quickly abandon Bose after election? If Bose really triumphed in party over Gandhi and everyone else in Congress, where was the need for him to resign? Much is made of Bose’s claim of not receiving expected support from Nehru. Bose’s actions and attitude were indefensible, even for friends like Nehru. Despite Nehru asking him to finish his term after having won the elections, Bose resigned.

During 1938, Sardar Patel called Bose “incompetent” and “impossible to work with”. At Tripuri, Rajaji called Bose’s leadership compared to Gandhi’s as a “leaky boat”. Rajendra Prasad who became President in Bose’s place was attacked by Bose’s Bengali supporters. JB Kriplani in his book “My Times” describes Rajendra Prasad’s clothes being torn. Kriplani himself was attacked but rescued by his Bengali wife Sucheta.

Bose is considered a martyr for being disliked in Congress and Congress becomes the persecutor in his case. But if Pattabhi was disliked for being a south Indian and a champion of Telugu peoples, Pattabhi is just declared a loser!  Today, the tallest statue is built for Sardar Patel, funded by our taxes and increased petrol prices. Attempts are to declare Subhas Bose as the first Prime Minister of India despite coronation in a foreign land under protection of brutal Japanese Imperial Army.

What has the nation done for Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramayya?

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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