How the BJP has manipulated Sardar Patel’s legacy to suit its needs

Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid homage to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the first deputy Prime Minister of India, on the occasion of his birth anniversary on October 31.

“Today, India pays homage to Sardar Patel, whose life was devoted to furthering national progress, unity and integration. India should be strong, inclusive too. Be sensitive, alert, humble and developed too. Sardar Patel always kept the interest of the country first. Today, due to his inspiration, India is being fully capable of dealing with all kinds of challenges,” tweeted Modi.

While the legacy of Sardar Patel is mired in controversies, it is important to note that the highly celebrated leader and freedom fighter was a lot more complex than what the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) makes him out to be.

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To start with, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) celebrates the life of Sardar Patel claiming that all the previous governments had forgotten his legacy and his contribution to the country’s independence struggle. While there is perhaps truth to the sidelining of his legacy, it is unlikely that Patel would have favoured the ruling dispensation today.

The right-wing (across religious lines) has managed to manipulate the image of Patel and has turned him into an icon for their Hindutva ideologies.

“If Sardar Patel had become the prime minister, today a part of our beloved Kashmir would not have been under Pakistani occupation,” remarked the PM Modi in his 90-minute address in the Lok Sabha in 2019.

Patel was not without contradictions. He was heavily critical of the Muslims who supported the partition of Pakistan but chose India after it which exhibits a certain lack of nuance on Patel’s part. He had also on an occasion asked them not to return if they chose to leave India. The BJP has cashed in on Patel’s open address to the Muslims during a politically sensitive time and has used the same for their political benefit thus distorting history and the very legacy of Patel they claim to protect.

Modi on many occasions has lauded Sardar Patel and disapproved of Nehru’s appointment as Prime Minister over him. “Out of 15 Congress committees, 12 chose Vallabhbhai Patel, 3 chose not to take any sides, and still, Vallabhbhai Patel was not allowed to lead the country. What sort of democracy was that?” Modi stated.

The BJP alleges that Congress has attempted to erase Patel’s name out of history. The allegation how drips with irony as the BJP decided to rename the Motera cricket stadium which carried Patel’s name to Narendra Modi Stadium, on February 24, this year.

Vallabhbhai Patel: The man behind the saffron noise

Patel worked under the initial guidance of Mohandas Gandhi and much later alongside India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru when India’s first government was formed after indepenence in 1952. Although Patel and Nehru held ideologies different from each other, they shared some values in common which aided the newly formed republic.

In the words of academic and Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi, “Nehru did not command the love of the Hindu fanatic. Patel did not enjoy the confidence of the Muslim bigot. The two did converge in the overwhelmingly large middle ground that existed between the two communities — a fact which Right-wingers in both sections would want to deny today.”

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in fact was vociferously against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and banned the organisation post the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi in 1948. This is noteworthy considering the fact that the BJP was built atop the RSS and has in current times given them a free pass to carry out their rabid ideology.

“India is a secular country and it will be nothing else. There is no doubt in my mind that the extreme section of the Hindu Mahasabha was involved in the conspiracy. The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of the government and the state. Our reports show that those activities, despite the ban, have not died down. Indeed as time has marched on the RSS circles are becoming more defiant and are indulging in their subversive activities in an increasing measure,” remarked Patel in a letter to Hindu Mahasabha leader Syama Prasad Mukherjee in 1948.

Patel’s empathy for the Muslim community is exhibited when he spoke out after the massacre of countless people in Jallianwalah Bagh. This is worthwhile (and perhaps amusing) considering the Modi government has whitewashed the history of the massacre by “renovating” the Bagh.

“Here, in this same city, the blood of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims mingled in the bloodbath of Jallianwala Bagh. I am grieved to think that things have come to such a pass that no Muslim can go about in Amritsar and no Hindu or Sikh can even think of living in Lahore. The butchery of innocent and defenceless men, women and children does not behove brave men…” remarked Patel.

He also called for peace post the partition which arguably is not high on the current establishment’s agenda.

“I am quite certain that India’s interest lies in getting all her men and women across the border and sending out all the Muslims from east Punjab. I have come to you with a specific appeal. Pledge the safety of Muslim refugees crossing the city. Any obstacles or hindrances will only worsen the plight of our refugees who are already performing prodigious feats of endurance.” remarked Patel.

As far as the Kashmir issue is concerned, VP Menon in his book Integration of Indian states discusses how Patel was uncomfortable with Kashmir’s accession to India considering the political climate at that point of time.

“He went so far as to tell the Maharaja (king of Kashmir) that if he acceded to Pakistan, India would not take it amiss and that he had a firm assurance from Sardar Patel himself…” writes Menon.

This piece of history is pivotal especially since the Central government scrapped Article 370 in August 2019 which granted special status to Kashmir.

The argument is clear. Simple even. Patel’s actions, ideology and worldview did not coincide with the Bharatiya Janata Party despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claims that they do. In fact, the first deputy prime minister is likely to have been at loggerheads with a lot of what is happening in today’s India.

(Compiled and curated Sharif Marziya and Syeda Faiza Kirmani)

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