Pilot Fish Trailblazer Nominee: The Iron Man of India

I am delighted to announce this week’s guest blogger, Rajiv Chopra, who is introducing his third trailblazer nominee: Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.  Rajiv is a very talented writer and photographer who is writing about several Indian trailblazers to open our eyes to Indian culture, its history, and its people.

The Great Divide

The nation of India was born, on the 15th August, 1947. Pakistan was born on the 14th August, 1947.

The border between the two countries was not revealed until a few days later. What followed then was a period of howling madness. Hindus from the new Pakistan lost their assets and came to India as refugees. My family was amongst them. Muslims from India suffered likewise.

What followed was an orgy of violence. New-found hatred gave way to bloodshed. People who had been neighbours for generations, hacked away at each other. An estimated half million to one million people died in the waves of violence that followed Independence. Others have estimated that about 15 million people were displaced from their homes and came across to the other country as refugees.

What should have been a moment of celebration for two new nations was a period of bloodshed, where bonds of love were replaced by bonds of hatred. What’s more, India still had over 500 autonomous princely kingdoms that were yet to be integrated into the Indian Nation.

The violence had to be stemmed; a strong voice of sanity was needed, and a fractured Nation had to be converted into a Republic. The man considered the architect of this process was known as The Iron Man of India – Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

His legacy, while simple in a sense, is not unblemished; or, shall we say, free of all controversy. He was a strong person, one capable of making strong decisions. However, as the senior politician J.B. Kriplani says, he showed shrewdness, determination, administrative capability, and the ability to make definitive decisions at all important occasions. However, he could not bear opposition and saw to it that all those who opposed him would pay the price.

Lord Wavell, the Vicerory of India before Lord Mountbatten, dubbed him as anti-Muslim. However, others say that he should be judged by his actions, not by some of the things he said.

But, I get ahead of myself. This is his story, not the story of India’s Independence.

Early Years

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was born in humble circumstances in Nadiad – Gujarat, on October 31, 1875. He died on December 15, 1950 in Bombay as the Deputy Prime Minister of Independent India.

Vallabhbhai Patel showed signs of strength and displayed a certain stoic nature, even in his younger years. Stories about him say that he lanced his own boil rather than waiting for medical help.

It also seems that he did not show much promise in his youth, and was even dubbed as unambitious. Yet, there were signs of a fierce will and determination that seemed to have escaped many around him. He studied using borrowed books and passed his exams in two years. Later, in his 30’s, he went to London to study law at the Honorable Society of the Middle Temple. Despite not having a formal college background, he finished the 36-month course in 30 months, topping his class.

Neither was he an early entrant to politics. After taking the bar, he started a legal career. Indeed, it was his ambition to become a rich barrister. In Ahmedabad, where he took up shop, he adopted Western wear and a rather urbane manner. Bridge, it seems, was another passion.

His Political Career

His fierce discipline and focus were aspects of his character that started to surface early on in his professional life. For example, when he learned via a note that his wife, who had been operated for cancer, suddenly died he was cross-examining a witness. He folded the note, proceeded with the cross-examination, and won the case.

He only entered politics in 1917 at age 42, which is rather late for a person to enter this field. He did so after much thought and introspection, and with the clear realisation that he would have to give up much material wealth. This is a far cry from politicians of today, who enrich themselves first and then belatedly think of the nation.

I won’t go too deeply into the events of the next years, except to say that he rose rapidly in Congress. In 1934, he became the chief fund raiser for the Congress and was instrumental in organising Congressional elections in 1934 and 1937.

As he grew, people started to address him as ‘Sardar’, which means “Chief” in Hindi, Urdu and Persian.

Studio/31.10.49,A22b Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel photograph on October 31, 1949, his 74th birthday.By Government of India work - http://photodivision.gov.in/waterMarkdetails.asp?id=11604.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22298495

He knew his mind and often disagreed with Nehru. In 1936, for instance, he disagreed with Nehru’s proposal of adopting socialism as a guiding principle. For him, there had to be complete focus on the goal of achieving total independence.

He was an energetic proponent of the Quit India Movement, and was one of the key figures in mobilising support for this movement. For those who don’t know much of India’s fight for independence, this was one of the more famous, non-violent movements of civil disobedience that were organised as part of the protest against British Raj.

Fast forward to 1946, and things had changed dramatically. From the vision of an independent, united India, we now had the certainty of a fractured independence, with Jinnah’s Pakistan now looming on the horizon. While, we don’t know his exact views of this during the build up years, it seems that he was one of the first to recognise the certainty of the division of India into India and Pakistan. For him, pragmatism always ruled over sentimentalism.

The situation had become complex, and it seemed to him that if a solution were not devised, there would be an ugly civil war.

The plan of 16 June, 1946 proposed the partition of India on religious lines with 565 princely states free to choose between independence, or accession to either dominion.  Between December 1946 and January 1947, he worked with civil servant V.P. Menon on the latter’s suggestion of a separate dominion of Pakistan created out of the Muslim majority states.

Punjab and Bengal were divided. However, neither he nor any leader foresaw the orgy of violence that followed the Partition. He led the efforts to organise relief camps for refugees and visited the border areas to encourage peace.  An estimated 500,000 to 1 million people died and 15 million refugees fled their countries.

As first Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, he organised relief for refugees fleeing from Delhi and Punjab and tried to restore peace across country.

He travelled to Amritsar* to appeal to people to find peace:

Here in this very same city, the blood of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims mingled in the bloodbath of Jallianwalla Bagh. I am grieved to think that things have come to such pass that no Muslim can go about in Amritsar and no Hindu or Sikh can even think about living in Lahore.–Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel

His Legacy as a Trailblazer

The well-known historian Rajmohan Gandhi says – judge him by his actions, not just his words.  He often personally travelled to flashpoints to ensure Muslims were not attacked.

He was strong, however, in his communication with Muslims.  He remonstrated a group of Muslims in Lucknow, post Pakistan’s attack on Kashmir:

I want to tell you frankly that mere declarations of loyalty to the Indian Union will not help you at this critical juncture. I ask you why you do not unequivically denounce Pakistan for attacking Indian territory with the connivance of Frontier tribesmen. Those who want to go to Pakistan can go there and live in peace.

In September 1947, when the news that those taking shelter in the Dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya in South Delhi were threatened, his private secretary recorded his response:

The sardar wrapped his shawl around his neck and said, “Let us go to the saint before we incur his displeasure”. We arrived there unobtrusively. Sardar spent a good 45 minutes in the precincts, went around the holy shrine in an attitude of veneration, made inquiries here and there of the inmates, and told the police office of the area, on pain of dismissal that he would hold him responsible if anything untoward happened.

As I mentioned earlier, Lord Wavell thought him to be anti-Muslim. Yet, Articles 25 & 26 of the constitution crafted by Sadar Vallabhbhai Patel include the right to convert people, and the right of all religions to set up their own institutions and manage their own affairs. These are articles that were inserted by the Sardar to help ensure that all minority religions could pursue their activities without fear of persecution.

Apart from the bloody massacres and killings that followed the Declaration of Independence in 1947, there were 565 self-governing states that had the freedom to choose whether they would be part of India or Pakistan. He took charge of the task of integrating India into a Republic. The methods used were those of frank diplomacy and the threat of military action. Thus, he earned the name The Iron Man of India.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/08/13/exit-wounds

Sikhs migrating to East Punjab in October, 1947. Photograph by Margaret Bourke-White. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/08/13/exit-wounds

Patel was the force between appointing B.R. Ambedkar. He recognised his calibre, and realised that he was the best person to lead the task of creating the Constitution of India.

He was also instrumental in founding of the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service, and was described as the patron saint of India’s civil servants for organising the modern all-India services system.

When Pakistan invaded Kashmir in 1947, he oversaw the military operations to secure Srinagar and the Baramulla Pass.

Many people – including me – believe that Patel would have been a better person to lead independent India than Nehru, despite Nehru having had a much wider world view. Many of India’s problems – Pakistan, China – would possibly have been avoided if Nehru had heeded Patel’s advice at that time.

One of the defining characteristics of Sardar Vallabhai Patel was his concern for the downtrodden. When a delegation of farmers came to him citing their inability to sell milk to the markets without being fleeced by intermediaries, he exhorted them to form a co-operative. This led to the creation of the Kaira District Co-Operative Milk Producers Union Limited, which preceded the creation of the Amul milk brand.

However, growth of this brand is the story of my next trailblazer in India.

*Note:  For those who do not know of this bit of history, it was in 1919 that Gen Dwyer ordered the British troops to fire upon innocent civilians and pilgrims gathered in Jallianwallah Bagh in Amritsar for a peaceful protest. The shooting lasted 10 minutes. By some estimates, 379 people were killed and 2,000 wounded in a massacre, where there was no means of escape.

Article Sources:

To learn more about Rajiv and his creative work, click on this link:

To read more about Sardar Vallabhai Patel click on the following links:

This is the eleventh in a series of articles about forward thinkers who are helping to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. These remarkable people are helping to define the future direction of their community, country, and even our global society.   To read more about the Pilot Fish Trailblazer Awards and the nominees Dr. Fred Sanger, Paolo Soleri, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jane Goodall, Alice Waters, Swami Vivekananda, The Man in Black, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Dr. Jean Raffa, and Astrid Lindgren click on the embedded links.  Suggest new nominees in the comments section below.

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28 replies »

  1. You’re very welcome, Sally. I’m hoping to bring in writers from other parts of the world so we can get beyond my/our America-centric view of the world. 🙂 Speaking of the world…where’s your next travel adventure going to be?

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  2. While I did enjoy reading this, I wonder whether the author’s admiration for his subject did not allow for an equal measure of the man’s failings. No one, not the least a politician, is without a darker side.

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  3. India has such a rich and varied culture and history. Thank you for writing about this. I think often on Pakistan, it’s turbulent birth and of the remaining violence. I could not begin to grasp the complexities.

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    • Thanks so much for your thoughts, Dunelight, and joining in the conversation. It’s true that our history in the USA is much “shorter” than in other countries. We are just aware of some of the complexities…which makes diplomacy and foreign policy so challenging.

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  4. this is a fascinating read and I have, I confess, had to read it three times now to understand and digest everything. Well as much as I can. My thoughts and sympathies swung back and fro several times. So much to learn; so much more to understand…

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  5. You are not alone, LooneyB! That’s why I started this series…to open our eyes to trailblazers all over the world. We are all so much more aware of what’s going on in our little corner of the world. 🙂

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