As a resurgent BJP and an edgy Congress trade barbs related to past events, each accusing the other of mangling historical facts and staking an exclusive claim to Sardar Patel’s legacy, there is one element in this wrangling that merits elaboration: Patel’s supposedly communal inclination and Nehru’s disapproval of the same.
Was Patel ‘a total communalist’ as Nehru taunted him once? The answer is no. Political correctness was not Patel’s forte, honesty was. It was his candidness that created the dubious impression of him being communal. His intuitive discernment pierced through the guiles of those who would do India harm and laid bare their true intent. Patel was dismayed when no Muslim leader came forward to condemn Pakistan’s aggression in Kashmir in 1947 and made his feelings clear. It was pure nationalism, not religious bigotry.
Viewed objectively, each of his ostensibly prejudiced actions is a pristine act of humanitarian intervention. Take, for example, his decision to order ‘police action’ against the Nizam’s Hyderabad in 1948 which earned him the epithet of ‘a total communalist’. It was in direct response to the reign of terror unleashed by the Razakars against the Hindus.
Similarly, in 1950, when thousands of Hindu refugees poured into Calcutta from East Pakistan, Patel took up cudgels on their behalf and warned Pakistan. This resulted in the Liaquat-Nehru pact that ensured the rights of minorities in their respective countries.
Both Patel and Nehru were secular: only their approach was different. Nehru’s secularism was a reflection of his idealism, a tendency to envision the world as he wanted it to be and an inability to confront ground reality. Patel saw the world as it was: warts and all and made attempts to set right the deficiencies. Nehru’s idea of secularism was akin to patronisation in which Muslims were the passive recipients of State-sanctioned largesse. Patel wanted them to be active participants in a model of inter-religious harmony.
Nehru’s idealism cannot be dismissed as redundant or Patel’s pragmatism be vilified as bigotry. A judicious marriage of the two is vital to the success of genuine secularism in pluralistic India.
Vivek Gumaste is a US-based academic and political commentator
The views expressed by the author are personal