It has been said that in 1947, the British left India fragmented in hundreds of independent princely states with a supposedly incompetent Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in-charge. While no other hope was in sight, Sardar Patel reportedly saved India by performing an Ashvamedh, led the army from the front like Bairam Khan, and doubled the empire of clueless Nehru.
This narrative does not just insult Nehru but other cabinet ministers, the Constituent Assembly, and the provincial governments. It also ignores the active if not violent involvement of millions of ordinary people who forced the ruling classes into progressively giving up their control over these states. Acceptance of such a narrative by history experts stems not just from ignorance of history but their inability to distinguish between the palace coups of the ancient feudal era and the checks & balances of the modern parliamentary democratic era.
Sardar Patel is often dubbed “Indian Bismarck“. This is a misnomer because Otto von Bismarck was the Prime Minister (Chancellor) of Germany. If any comparison could be made to Bismarck in the Indian context, it should be to Prime Minister Nehru.
From the Battle of Plassey to Battle of Jhansi, it took the mighty British empire an entire century to subdue the Indian Princely States. One should be sceptical of claims of Sardar Patel subduing the same princely states within a few weeks, regardless of Patel’s position. Bismarck himself took a decade to unify Germany.
The Partition of India, as well as the Unification of India, took place on the same day: 15 August 1947. The Viceroy and Governor-General Earl Louis Mountbatten was responsible for both the events. Mountbatten‘s royal lineage, the status of war-hero, charming personality as well as his British military power were instrumental in forcing the hands of the monarchs of the princely states. Sardar Patel’s own trusted lieutenant VP Menon in his book “The Transfer of Power in India” describes Mountbatten and his wife Edwina as “true friends of India“.
All the 560 Princely States except for a handful, signed the Instruments of Accession even before the Partition of India and the Radcliffe Line was drawn between the two countries accordingly. Any claims of princely states being added to Indian territory only after the Partition are false and mischievous. The only states that were supposed to join India by then but did not were: Junagarh, Kashmir, and Hyderabad. India would eventually absorb the Princely States of Manipur and Sikkim as well.
Junagarh and Kashmir were annexed later under Mountbatten himself, while Sikkim and Hyderabad signed Standstill Agreements. When Rajaji became the Governor-General, Hyderabad and Manipur have finally signed the Instruments of Accession. While Sardar Patel and VP Menon were instrumental in cases of Junagarh and Hyderabad; Manipur annexation was spearheaded by then Assam Governor Sri Prakasa.
The Chogyal of Sikkim had acceded to India in 1950. Patel’s deputy VP Menon made no mention of Sikkim in his magnum opus ‘Integration of the Indian States’. It is safe to say that, for whatever reason, Sardar Patel paid no attention to Sikkim as was the case with Kashmir. While the details are sketchy in popular literature regarding the involvement of national leaders, the groundwork was done by Sikkim State Congress.
Sardar Patel died very early after independence while his colleagues like Rajaji, Azad, Kriplani, Rajendra Prasad, and Nehru lived until much later. His friends and enemies were generous in the eulogies and credited Patel with all the success including their own while avoiding the mention of any of his shortcomings. These narratives, unfortunately, have taken a life of their own as time had passed and the memories have faded.
The modern-day historians and experts have knowingly or unknowingly played into this hysteria. While his contributions to the nation cannot be trivialized, Patel was 72 years of age and was spread too thin between the two ministries: Home and (Princely) States. Patel suffered a heart attack in March 1948 and was advised against serious work.
Note: It was originally published here.