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The Man Who Saved India

An old Hindi song from my childhood had the following memorable lyrics-

अमन के दुश्मन जंग के बेटे भूल गये अब चाल ऍटम बॉम्ब से जा टकराया वीर जवाहरलाल

enemies of peace, sons of war have all forgotten their moves. The brave Jawaharlal went and took atom bomb head-on

More than the historical inaccuracy or the craven personal worship expressed therein, what strikes me today about this song is the sheer level of infantalization of the history in it. Lest you think this was restricted to popular culture alone, sample this line from my high-school history textbook with the picture of Mahatama Gandhi at Dandi Satyagraha- उचललेस तू मीठ मूठभर साम्राज्याचा खचला पाया (you picked up a fistful of salt and shook the foundations of the empire). Without disputing the courage and the resolution of those involved in the above-mentioned protests, this description is simply not true. Ironically, the recent trend, mostly promoted by social media, to take down important figures in India’s freedom struggle, most prominently Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, has in a perverse way, further contributed to the pettiness and infantilization of our discourse.

On this background, The Man Who Saved India- Sardar Patel and his idea of India by Hindol Sengupta breaks important, largely uncharted grounds and also lends the discourse the gravitas robbed by overeager left leaning historians of our textbooks on one side and frothing at mouth perpetually indignant social media warriors on the other. What is more, this is merely one of the many remarkable aspects that makes this biography of India’s ironman and first Home Minister apart from the run-of-the-mill biographies.

From the time Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel came in contact with Mahatma Gandhi (around 1915 or so), thereby creating perhaps the most significant partnership of India’s freedom struggle, this book traces the remarkable journey of the Sardar’s life from the Kheda Satyagraha all the way to his death due to heart attack in 1950. In many ways, the book is an intimate, as-it-happened account of India’s remarkable non-violent Satyagraha movement as it is the life account of the Sardar. The author mentions that the Sardar never wrote a book because he used to say he was busy making history, perhaps it is a fitting tribute to the great man’s life’s work that his biography keeps its focus on his life’s work with very little digressions into his somewhat dysfunctional personal life.

Like Sanjeev Sanyal, Hindol Sengupta too views history as a complex adapting mechanism and therefore his reading of the history is dynamic rather than static. In the introduction, he talks about the rigid linear understanding of India’s freedom struggle that he was taught in school and how as he grew up and read more, he realized the falsehood of that understanding. As we read this book, we share the sense of discovery with him. India’s freedom movement wasn’t an inert, static stage where the actors came and performed. It was a dynamic, almost sentient being that was constantly exerting influence on the actors while getting influenced by them. Reading this book makes your realize the futility of analyzing the hard decisions made by these men without understanding the role of history itself.

The first quarter of the book is a ‘gathering storm’ of sorts giving details of Sardar Patel’s patient grassroots level work to build support first for the kheda Satyagraha, then for Bardoli . These parts are remarkable when you realize the amount of micro-management that went into such agitations and the monumental patience that must have taken to build such a grassroots movement. In this age of social media, when we see movement after well-meaning movement failing to garner the required traction, I wonder if many modern day activists wouldn’t benefit at least a little by reading of this part of the history. In this part, the author introduces the Sardar as an “Instinctive Nationalist”, whose “sense of self and freedom needed no theories by what we call as Dead White Males, it came straight from a connection with the soil, the earth that he had seen his father till. “ In understanding the differences between Nehru (who knew many of the aforementioned Dead White Males by heart) and the Sardar, this difference should prove pivotal.

A section of today’s students of history sees Patel and Bose as the unsung heroes and consequently Nehru and Gandhi as the two men who robbed them off this credit. Considering a large part of the potential audience would have been similarly inclined, it does special credit to the author to see how painstakingly neutral he remains and makes an effort to present all sides of the complex relationships these leaders shared with each other. Especially the trio of Gandhi Patel and Nehru who spent almost their entire working lives together. The author argues, successfully for me at least, that this would not have been possible without a genuine affection and respect for each other’s work. In case of Gandhi and Patel the author sees this as a partnership where “the moral imperative was provided by Gandhi and the action on ground, coordinated and delivered successfully by Patel”. The relationship between Patel and Nehru, as we can see from the book, was far more complex than even the one between Gandhi and Patel. Going back to the theme of the complex adaptive system, this understanding of the relationship dynamics between the three leaders is dynamic not static. As we see, while Gandhi’s assassination brought Patel and Nehru together in a moment of almost brotherly warmth, the same duo threatened to walk out on each other a few months later over the Hyderabad issue. This duality doesn’t make the affection or the respect fake, it merely strives to underscore the impossible demands the situation made of these men. Their differences make them as human as their affection for each other.

During a book launch function in Pune, Hindol had talked about how the 21st century Indians take our freedom for granted and how dangerously false that is. As the last third of the book gives account of India’s march towards freedom, we realize how true that is. Saying India’s freedom was hard fought is one thing, understanding how every moment of those tumultuous days had been an exercise in survival is another. As a seriously ill Sardar dealt with challenges inside the party, Gandhi’s obstinate refusal to accept partition and Jinnah’s monstrous ego on one side, his desire to see his life’s work bearing fruit on the other and tried to weigh it all against the mindless, soul-crushing violence that had engulfed India, the true bleakness of the situation helps us understand the enormous will-power, courage and pragmatism it must have taken to salvage freedom out of it. The enormous challenges thrown by the 500 odd princely states, mostly ruled by petty, selfish rulers willing to side with Pakistan or the British to keep their fiefdom intact had to be dealt with one state at a time and the Sardar was nothing short of a chess grandmaster, moving pieces on a board the size of a continent. Bargaining, negotiating, threatening, cajoling for the fruition of an idea of India that he must have seen along with Gandhi in the 1920s. By this time, he must have known he would never be a Congress President and/or an Indian Prime Minister in his life. He must have been also aware of his own failing health. The enormous love for the country and spirit of selflessness it must have taken to put this herculean effort under the circumstances is truly inspirational and the author’s success lies in making us realize the full weight of history that was weighing down men like Patel and their heroic, stubborn refusal to wilt under it.

In many places, you wonder if you are reading the Sardar’s biography or a book about India’s freedom struggle. I suspect this is intentional, the Sardar dedicated all his life for India’s freedom struggle in a shining example of selflessness and that same selflessness demands that any book that truly does justice to his work cannot focus on him alone. A must read!

Book Details

Title: The Man Who Saved India – Sardar Patel and his Idea of India

Author: Hindol Sengupta


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