The biggest challenge India faced on 15 August, 1947 when it attained Independence was the presence of 554 Princely states within its territory. These states—some small, some big—were spread over two-fifths of the land mass and were in every region of the land. As per the British government’s decision, each of these states had the right to declare independence or become part of either India or Pakistan.
The integration of these states into the Indian Union was the biggest political and administrative challenge that the country faced on the day of Independence and the man who picked up the gauntlet was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for States Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.
Thanks to his singular determination, sagacity and statesmanship, the amalgamation of all these disparate states into India became possible. It is also true that without Sardar Patel, this could never have been accomplished. The nation is also indebted to him for many other foundational initiatives including the idea of central services. Yet, thanks to the pettiness and insecurities of the Nehru-Gandhis, the Sardar has not got his rightful place in the nation’s consciousness. That is why the efforts being made by the Narendra Modi government to observe the Sardar’s birth anniversary in a befitting manner on October 31 every year deserves to be lauded.
The process of integration was complicated and painful. The Nizam of Hyderabad declared that his state would accede to Pakistan. Sardar Patel is quoted as saying that he would never allow undigested lumps in India’s belly! He sent in the Army to take control of the administration and to integrate Hyderabad into the Indian Union. But for his foresight, a part of Pakistan would have come into existence in South India with all its concomitant problems.
Junagadh was yet another challenge. The ruler of this state, which was surrounded by states which had acceded to India, signed the instrument of accession with Pakistan. But for Sardar Patel, we would have had another slice of Pakistan in what is now the state of Gujarat! The Nawab of Bhopal and the Maharajah of Indore resisted integration with India. The Nawab wanted Bhopal to remain independent and have cordial ties with both nations. The two had to be brought around. The Maharajah of Jodhpur had his own demands. V P Menon, who has written the most authoritative account of the events that unfolded around the time of Independence in his book Integration of States says “the Maharajah was prepared to line up with Pakistan” because Jinnah signed a blank sheet and asked the Maharajah to fill in all his conditions.
Eventually, the Maharajah was tactfully weaned away from the idea of joining Pakistan. V P Menon attributes the success of ‘Operation Integration’ to “the masterly handling of the rulers” by the Sardar. Though he was known as the ‘Iron Man of India’, “his unfailing politeness” endeared him to the rulers of the states and they accepted his advice without demur. In the Constituent Assembly, Sardar Patel described the integration of states as “the consummation of the great ideal of geographical, political and economic unification of India, an ideal which, for centuries, remained a distant dream and which appeared as remote and as difficult of attainment as ever even after the advent of Indian independence”. Sardar Patel realised that if every Maharajah or Nawab had his way, India would be in tatters with several unviable “independent” nations and states owing allegiance to Pakistan existing in the heart and belly of India. This would have injected congenital maladies that would have imperilled the unity and integrity of independent India and its internal security on the very day of its birth.
The story of the integration of India is truly one of the most outstanding achievements of any political leader in the world. However, unfortunately, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru failed to acknowledge Patel’s contribution. Nehru announced Sardar Patel’s demise in the Provisional Parliament on 15 December, 1950 and hailed him as “the builder and consolidator of new India”. However, these were empty words because his actions did not measure up to his public utterances. He advised his cabinet colleagues and officers not to go to Bombay to attend the funeral on the specious plea that “the work of the country never stops and never should stop”. There are also first hand accounts which say that Nehru issued two instructions the day Patel died—Patel’s Cadillac car was to be returned to the foreign ministry immediately and no official should attend the funeral in Bombay at the government’s expense.
What was even worse was that although the national awards were instituted in 1954 Nehru did not propose the name of Sardar Patel for the Bharat Ratna. Instead, shockingly, Nehru gave himself the Bharat Ratna in 1955! The nation honoured Sardar Patel with the Bharat Ratna in 1991 when the Nehru-Gandhis were out of office.
There has been a sustained effort to keep the country in the dark on the achievements of Sardar Patel, the biggest of which was the unification of India. The mischief done by historians and academics who were courtiers of the Nehru-Gandhis must be corrected forthwith. A detailed chapter on the superhuman effort put in by Sardar Patel to build a united India must be taught in our schools and an institution worthy of the Sardar must be built alongside Rajpath, so that every citizen will remember the man who stitched together a nation that was in 555 parts (554 princely states and the territories that were part of the British presidency).
A Surya Prakash
Chairman, Prasar Bharati