India has for long witnessed a troubling blurring of the boundaries of fact from that of fiction. While the Mughals sought to eradicate the culture which preceded them (and which proved itself to be incapable of resisting them), the British altered the history of India so as to dilute the reality of the subcontinent having an unbroken history of five millennia. Whether it be Harappa or Mohenjodaro, Bodh Gaya or Sarnath, Somnath in Gujarat or the Attingal Bhagavathy temple near Thiruvananthapuram, there was a seamless thread of culture and history that got replaced with a construct that was designed to lower pride in heritage of a people that was intended to serve their masters from afar, rather than make progress on their own. The history taught in school and university textbooks contains large doses of fable, as for example some of the characterisations of Hindu kings as redoubtable warriors, when in fact their resistance collapsed in a heap during the Mughal conquests. Another bit of fiction that has been peddled by some historians portrays Aurangzeb as a liberal humanist, when in fact he was intolerant to a level that was visible even in the 21st century in the shape of the Taliban in Afghanistan and their destruction even of the Bamyan Buddhas. Temples were razed and taxes imposed on those who declined to adopt the faith prescribed for them by Aurangzeb’s court, although none of this would be clear from the romantic portrayals of the man who imprisoned his own father and got his own kin killed. Just days ago, the nation was convulsed by protests orchestrated by an organisation calling itself the Karni Sena, which regarded the screening of a movie (Padmavati, later shortened to Padmaavat by CBFC) as having the potential to “do immense harm to the image of the Rajput community”. Despite the ridiculous nature of such a claim, several BJP-run states rushed forward to ban the movie, a set of actions fortunately overturned by the Supreme Court. Following the example set by the Karni Sena, yet another caste-based organisation has demanded a ban on yet another movie, this time for “offending the sentiments of the Brahmin community”. It was Swami Vivekananda who spoke of the “madhouse” created within the nation by notions as unscientific as caste by birth. It is clear that the sage would have had much to say, had he been around to witness the “culture” wars taking place in India in the present. 

Recently, there has been an effort to distance Mahatma Gandhi from Jawaharlal Nehru, by speaking of “Nehruvian India” as distinct from “Gandhiji’s India”. In this context, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed out that Nehru became the first PM of India even though the overwhelming majority of Congress party members wanted Sardar Patel to have that post. The Prime Minister was correct in his view that the whole of Kashmir would have been taken back, were the Sardar to have been the PM rather than Nehru, who was ever ready to give a long rope to both Pakistan and China, in the latter case in the form of a road through Aksai Chin that was allowed to get built with zero interference from the Indian side. Given that Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the leader of the North West Frontier Province, sought to align with India rather than with Pakistan (as did the Khan of Kalat and other members of the Baloch aristocracy), Sardar Patel may have assisted such moves, rather than discourage them the way the Mountbatten-inspired Government of India. Even on Tibet, the Sardar had views that were contrary to Nehru’s, and it is likely that he may have sought in tandem with the US to try and reverse Mao Zedong’s takeover of that territorial buffer between China and India in 1950. It would probably have been democratic Washington and not authoritarian Moscow to which Patel would have turned in the days of the Cold War. Certainly a Prime Minister Patel would not have hobbled private industry in India and created public sector monopolies the way Nehru delighted in doing, eager as he was to ensure that the “commanding heights of the economy” remained entirely in government hands. Later, Indira Gandhi tore up the covenants with the princes agreed upon by Sardar Patel, and nationalised both banks and coal, with consequences that are still rippling through the economy and society. All of this is true, but what seems to have been forgotten by many admirers of the Iron Man of India is that he was denied the opportunity to serve as PM by no less an individual than the saintly Mahatma. Despite contrary views held by all other leaders of the Congress barring Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (who stood by Nehru to the end), Gandhi ensured that the coveted position of PM would go to Nehru and not Patel. According to Gandhiji, “When I (the Mahatma) am gone, he (Nehru) will speak my language.” It was Gandhiji’s wish and his insistence alone that prevailed over the rest of the Congress leadership in the selection of the PM, with consequences that changed the direction of the Republic in its formative years. We need to remember always that the choice of Nehru over Patel was that of Gandhi, and that Nehru’s staunchest supporter was always Gandhi.

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