Sardar Patel – The Great Captain With A Mind Of Steel And Vision
On 15th December, 1950 at 9.37 a.m., Bharat Ratna Sardar Vallabhbhai Jhaverbhai Patel breathed his last after a massive cardiac arrest within the palatial confines of the iconic Birla House in Mumbai. The “Iron Man of India“ or “Bismarck of India“, who was one of the principal architects of the Republic of India, was no more. Within barely an hour of Patel’s death, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru paid a moving tribute to Patel in the Indian Parliament – “he will be remembered as a great captain of our forces in the struggle for freedom and as one who gave us sound advice in times of trouble as well as in moments of victory, as a friend and colleague on whom one could invariably rely, as a tower of strength which revived wavering hearts.”
Patel’s cremation was initially planned at Girgaum Chowpatty, Mumbai,on a grand scale.However, this was changed to the public cremation ground at Sonapur (now Marine Lines) when his daughter and servitor Maniben declared that it was his wish to be cremated like a common man on the very spot where his wife and brother had been cremated earlier. His cremation in Sonapur was attended by a staggering crowd of over one million mourners, including President Dr.Rajendra Prasad, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the last Governor General of India Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. On 16th December, 1950,in an unparalleled gesture, more than 1,500 officers of India’s civil and police services congregated at Patel’s residence at 1,Aurangzeb Road in Delhi to pay their last tearful repects to their “Patron Saint” and pledged “complete loyalty and unremitting zeal” to the service of India.
In the academic arena, Patel was a late starter and passed his Matriculation examination from the Nadiad High School in 1897 in Nadiad,the city of his birth, at the age of 22.At this juncture in his life, he was generally regarded by his elders as an ordinary mortal sans any worthwhile ambition and earmarked only for an insignificant job.The great English poet John Milton described ambition as the “last infirmity of noble minds” but in Patel’s case,his first infirmity was a strong and irresistible ambition to become a limb of the law,work and save funds, travel to England and study to become a Barrister. But his father Jhaverbhai Galabhai Patel, a petty landowner from Karamsad,did not have the wherewithals to enable him to realise his ambition.As Patel had neither the money nor the time to spend on a proper legal education in a Law College,he opted for a short-cut route to become a District Pleader. Patel scrupulously stayed away from his family, studying tirelessly on his own with books borrowed from his lawyer friends and attending the privately conducted Gokhale law classes. Occasionally, he attended courts of law and listened attentively to the arguments of lawyers. He passed the District Pleader’s Examination within two years with flying colours.He eventually set up his home in the holy city of Godhra, meaning “Land of the Cows”. He joined the Bar in 1900 and proudly displayed on the front door of his modest home-cum-office a nameplate reading “Vallabhbhai J.Patel,District Pleader,Godhra”. Within an incredibly short time, Patel earned an enviable reputation as a firebrand and skilled Pleader who used to send cold shivers down the spines of the Police prosecution.
In 1902,Patel shifted to Borsad which bore the ill repute of having the highest number of criminal cases in the entire Bombay Presidency.One day,when he was appearing in the court of a British Sub-Judge in Borsad,he found the judge holding court without wearing his gown on a hot and sultry day. Patel opened his arguments by fearlessly declaring, “As the Hon’ble Judge is not properly dressed, this seems to be no court!” This caught the Judge completely off guard and he promptly donned his gown and offered Patel an instant apology. In another historic case in the Borsad Court, Patel, employing his unmatched legal acumen and amazing gift of the gab, proved that the liquor inside the two bottles seized from his bootlegger client had turned into “water”.Ravji Patel, a freedom fighter and contemporary of Patel, chronicles the rare legal skills of Patel in his well known Gujrati book “Hind na Sardar” or “India’s Chief”. In that book, the author narrates a very interesting account of this case. When the case of the bootlegger, was taken up for hearing in the court, Patel insisted that the seized bottles be forthwith examined by doctors. Everyone was befuddled when the medical report revealed that the bottles contained only plain water. The police inspector who had arrested the bootlegger was taken totally by surprise and implored Patel for an explanation after the accused had been released. Patel gilby told him that the Magistrate was a habitual alhoholic who used to often target seized bottles and later replace the liquor with water. Perturbed by Patel’s ceaseless triumphs over the Police prosecution in Borsad, the authorities in Bombay decided to shift the criminal court from Borsad to Anand (now famous as the “Milk Capital of India”), a distance of only 15 miles, hoping that Patel would stay put in Borsad. Undeterred, Patel belied their hopes by travelling in style to and fro Anand in his private “tonga” or “horse carriage”. Patel’s overbearing presence in the re-located criminal court remained unchecked.The authorities were perforce forced to eat humble pie and shift the criminal court back to Borsad after a year, adding yet another triumphant feather in Patel’s already overcrowded cap or more appropriately the red “Patidar Pagdi” he used wear to court!
When Patel had saved just the right amount of money to undertake a voyage to England, he approached Thomas Cook & Sons for a passport and a booking on the Harland and Wolff built steamliner SS Maloja of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. But by an unfortunate twist of fate, the envelope containing his passport (and passports in those days did not carry any photographs!) and travel documents arrived in the name of “V. J. Patel” at his brother Vithalbhai’s residence in Borsad. Vitalbhai himself harboured an insatiable desire to study in England and pleaded with his younger brother to let him go to England in his place and stead.As a devout Hindu, Patel willingly bowed to his brother’s wishes and Vithalbhai went to England. He even went to the extent of financing his brother’s education in England but began saving de novo for the achievement of his own cherished goals.
Towards the fag end of 1908, Patel’s spirited wife Jhaverba was admitted to the Cama Hospital in Mumbai to undergo a major surgical operation for malignant intestinal cancer. Her health deteriorated suddenly and, despite the best efforts of her doctors, Patel’s “partner-in-life disappeared suddenly, leaving two young children” at the tender age of 29 on 11th January, 1909. At the moment of her untimely death, Patel was busy cross-examining a key witness in the Anand Court.At around 2 p.m., he was handed over a telegram out of the blue informing him of his wife’s death. According to eye witness accounts of those who were present in court, Patel quietly read the telegram, folded it and put it in his pocket and continued to doggedly cross-examine the witness until the witness broke down and Patel won the case. The stoic “volcano in ice” broke the tragic news to others only after the court had risen for the day. Such was his unshakable sense of commitment to his clients and his indefatigable dedication to the legal process! In July,1910, at the age of 36, Patel sailed for England clad for the first time in his life in trousers,jacket and necktie. Two months after his arrival in England,he enrolled himself at the Middle Temple Inn in London,where Mahatma Gandhi had laid the foundations of his own legal career.It was a curious co-incidence that Nehru,younger to Patel by 14 years,joined the Inner Temple Inn in the very same year 1910 but the two great leaders never got to meet each other in London!Patel plunged himself into serious, relentless studies putting in not less than 11 hours of hard,painstaking labour every single day.After a grueling 20 month sojourn in London, Patel passed his Bar-at-law examinations on 7th June,1912 obtaining a first class first that earned him the coveted prize of £50.On 27th January,1913,he was called to the Bar in a glittering “Call Night” ceremony in the majestic Middle Temple Hall which marked the fulfillment of his long conceived ambition of becoming a Barrister.
Returning to India on 13th February,1913, Patel settled down in Ahmedabad and successfully rose to become one of the city’s most sought after barristers exhibiting,according to his well known biographer Narhari D.Parikh, “a thorough mastery of facts, proper and correct estimate of the opponent’s points and line of attack,and a carefully planned defence and attack.” Wearing well tailored English style clothes and adopting urbane mannerisms, he also became a skilled bridge player and was a frequent visitor to the prestigious Gujarat Club. Patel expanded his practice considerably and accumulated great wealth that enabled him to provide his children with a first class modern education at the reputed St.Mary’s School in Mumbai. Patel’s fellow lawyer friend and neighbour Ganesh Vasudev Mavlankar, who rose to become the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha,wrote about Patel’s memorable years at the Bar in glowing terms noting that Patel “would never allow a judge to overstep in the least the limits of courtesy,nor would he allow or tolerate any improper leaning on the part of the court in favour of the police…he would spare neither the judge nor the police,and called a spade a spade.”To buttress his point,Mavlankar gave an illustration.A Sessions Judge was trying two brothers accused of murder who belonged to Patel’s own crime prone Kheda district.When Patel applied for bail for the accused,the police stoutly opposed the plea contending that it was a “Kheda case and the accused should be taken to be dangerous persons.” The judge agreed and refused bail, whereupon Patel remonstrated with the judge – “No accused from Kheda gets a fair trial in this court….The district is considered to be criminal, so the accused, must be convicted–that appears to be the reasoning.” When the judge retired to his chamber, realisation struck him as hindsight and he promptly passed an order granting bail to the accused.The trial also resulted in the acquittal of the accused.During his golden harvest period 1913-1917, Patel earned a phenomenal average monthly income of Rs.40,000!
In 1915, Patel fortuitously came into contact with Gandhi at the Gujarat Political Conference in Godhra and became the secretary of the Gujarat Sabha, the Gujarati arm of the Indian National Congress,with Gandhi’s tacit blessings. Patel now fought with all the legal acumen at his command against the draconian “veth” or “unpaid service”, that sanctioned the forced servitude of Indians to Europeans, and spearheaded relief operations in the wake of a violent outbreak of plague in famine struck Kheda. The Kheda peasants made a fervent plea to the British authorities for an exemption from taxation on purely compassionate grounds, but such plea was rudely brushed aside by the powers that be. Gandhi mulled waging a people’s movement there, but could not lead such movement as he was deeply embroiled in his own struggle in Champaran, Bihar. When Gandhi called upon a Gujarati social activist to lead the movement, Patel volunteered without even batting an eyelid throwing his lucrative legal career and material interests literally to the winds. Patel thereafter threw all his weight behind Gandhi’s Non-co-operation movement and extensively toured the entire length and breadth of Gujarat managing to recruit more than 300,000 volunteers and raise over Rs.1.5 million. In keeping with his spirit of intense nationalism, Patel encouraged public bonfires of British goods in Ahmedabad and provided a worthy example to his fellow countrymen by publicly setting to flames his own English clothes. As an act of self transformation, he switched completely to wearing “khadi” following in the footsteps of Gandhi. In the following years, Patel worked valiantly in Gujarat against the deeply rooted evils of alcoholism,untouchability and casteism, as well as for the empowerment of women. Upon the abject failure of the Round Table Conference in London, Gandhi and Patel were arrested in January 1932 when the struggle re-opened, and imprisoned in the Yeravda Central Jail. During their period of incarceration, Patel and Gandhi grew extremely close to each other, and developed an indestructible bond of affection, respect, trust and frankness akin to the special relationship that existed between the legendary Indian saint and mystic Ramakrishna Parmahansa Dev and his chief disciple Swami Vivekananda. The rest is history! And words would simply fall short if one were to write about the Herculean contribution of Patel to our freedom struggle and the unification and consolidation of our infant nation.In his last Independence Day message, Patel confessed with a sense of immense fulfillment and utmost humility – “Looking back at the broad sweep of events since we became free,my predominant feeling is one of thankfulness and relief.” Significantly, when Patel took leave of this world,he left behind a paltry sum of Rs.300 in his bank,4 sets of clothes,two pairs of slippers,one spectacle case containing a pair of eyeglasses (with a broken handle tied to the frame with the aid of a string!),one steel trunk,2 tiffin boxes and an aluminium “lota” or “tumbler”.Those were his only worldly possessions!
In a moment of deep reflection, Patel’s daughter Maniben once so very aptly observed,“It is not for me to interpret and assess the role of my father in the shaping of modern India.Like my father,I leave it’s judgment to my countrymen and the historians of the future. I must however confess that like millions of my countrymen I feel and feel it so acutely that if the realism and the ideo-practical approach of Sardar would have prevailed on all things concerning the vital interests of India, the picture of India would have been greatly different from what it is today.”
In addition to that observation, I am highly emboldened to commend to you the glorious tweeter tribute that our very own Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi paid to Patel on the occasion of his 139th birth anniversary on 31st October, 2014 – “Sardar Patel’s life is a journey of deep-rooted courage, dedication & service to the Motherland. He is truly the architect of Modern India.” The Great Captain with a “mind of steel and vision” is no more in our midst, but like those long extinguished stars whose fires still give us light, his fragrant memory will remain long and mellow in our hearts, minds and souls and in the annals of the turbulent times we live in and will continue to inspire generations of Indians to come.
Supreme Court of India
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