The history of 20th century India can be summed up around the lives of these significant leaders.
The history of 20th century India can be summed up around the lives of Mahatma Gandhi, 1869-1948, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, 1815-1950, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, 1889-1964, and Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar, 1891-1956.
Mahatma Gandhi is the greatest Indian of all times. He was a saint among politicians and politician among saints. Only he and he alone could combine the two with uncanny God given gift. Gandhi radically changed the thinking of hundreds of millions of people not only in India, but also in several countries of the world. He converted the Congress into a mass organisation in record time.
His message of truth, non-violence, spirituality was so noble and unique that it spread to every nook and corner of India and beyond. That too at a time when technology had not appeared in India—a few telephones, a small number of motor vehicles, electricity totally missing in rural India. Poverty was all prevailing.
Under him, our freedom movement took wings. It resonated round the globe. It made the British Empire stick in the throats of colonialists and imperialist. He was the first Indian to grasp the importance of PR. He never avoided the camera. Throughout his life he was good copy.
His life is very well documented. His selected works run into 150 volumes. Not enough has been written about his eye to attract men of the highest character, dedication, devotion, intellect. Who were these faithful agents who carried his plans and programmes to the world? Vallabhbhai Patel, C. Rajagopalachari, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Abul Kalam Azad and many more. Gandhi is immortal.
Several biographies of Sardar Patel exist. The outstanding one is by Rajmohan Gandhi. Sardar Patel was born with a wooden spoon in his mouth. After his bar-at-law from London in 1912, he became a renowned and wealthy lawyer in Ahmedabad. In 1916, he came under Gandhi’s spell. The Mahatma immediately spotted his ability, realism, organising capacity. Patel was a doer, not a talker. Economy of words was a part of his personality, as was tranquillity under pressure. His capacity to suffer fools was limited. He was endowed with sound and measured judgement. His authority was derived from his character.
He was never a mass leader like Gandhi or Nehru. His forte was party management. To flout him was to invite his wrath. He had no time for Nariman of Bombay or the Bose brothers. His hold on the party machine was total.
Sardar Patel has been called the Bismarck of India. This is rubbish. The German operated on a much smaller scale. Patel dealt with huge princely states, several of them the size of France, Italy and Spain. He, almost singlehandedly, saved the Balkanisation of India. He did so without a shot being fired except in Hyderabad against fanatical Islamists, the Razakars, whose leader was the bigot, Kasim Rizvi. The British were clandestinely helping the Nizam, so was Louis Mountbatten. It was only after his departure that Hyderabad signed the Instrument of Accession.
In Congress Working Committee his words carried weight. He was elected president of the Congress in 1931 at the Karachi meeting of the All India Congress Committee.
He was the best Home Minister India has produced. He and Nehru had serious differences, both before and after Gandhiji’s death. Gandhi alone could ensure reconciliation. After him the Nehru-Patel team was often at loggerheads. This was no secret. For the good of India both did try to get along. At times they succeeded. Nehru resented Patel’s not letting Nehru interfere in the working of the Home Ministry. Patel was vigorously critical of Nehru’s handling, rather mishandling of Tibet, China and Kashmir. His famous letter of 7 November to Nehru, tearing his China policy showed amazing foresight. Nehru did not reply. Sardar Patel passed away in Bombay on 15 December 1950. After that Jawaharlal Nehru had no rival, if that is the appropriate word.
Jawaharlal Nehru was born with a golden spoon in his mouth. At the time of his birth his father Motilal Nehru was on the way to becoming an exceptionally well known lawyer and very wealthy man. The Nehrus soon adopted the Western lifestyle. Jawaharlal Nehru was educated at Harrow, Trinity College, Cambridge and Lincoln’s Inn, where he got his law degree. He never practised. He lived on his father’s income. But when he joined Gandhiji, he, in a short time became a political start of high voltage.
He spent more time in British jails than any other leader. By the age of 40 his all India popularity was second only to that of Gandhiji, who had genuine affection for Jawaharlal Nehru.
Except for a few misguided individuals and narrow minded, conservative and reactionary groups, it is universally accepted that Jawaharlal Nehru was the maker of modern India. He was for a decade world statesman. I might add that I am a dyed in the wool Nehruite.
Here I am mentioning of the grave errors he made. He, unwisely, underestimated M.A. Jinnah. “There are only two parties in India, the British and the Congress.” Jinnah’s reply, “There are three, the British, the Congress and Muslim League.”
More seriously, Nehru made a hash of his Kashmir policy. He treated Kashmir as a personal matter. Emotions took precedence over realpolitic. He did not let Patel deal with Kashmir. Patel in late October over the heads of Mountbatten and the British army chief got his way to fly troops to Srinagar. They arrived in the nick of time.
Nehru failed to read the nature and ambitions of the People’s Republic of China. He patronised and failed to match Chou En Lai’s diplomatic skill and detailed knowledge of the Sino-Indian border dispute. When China attacked eastern India in 1962, Nehru, for the first time in his life, panicked. As late as July 1956 he wrote to K.N. Katju, the Defence Minister, “I am more worried about the Naga trouble…than about anything that the Chinese may do.”
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was born in 1891 (the day and month are not known) into an “Untouchable” (Dalit) family. He died as a Buddhist on 6 December 1956. He was perhaps among the most erudite, educated intellectual Indian of the 20th century. He was also a deep thinker. He immensely “transformed the social and political landscape…” He challenged Gandhi for almost two decades. He was not intimidated by the Mahatma.
He tore into the holy books of Hinduism and denounced the Manu Smriti and publicly burned it, “placing it on a special funeral pyre”.
I shall only name one of his blemishes. Mahatma Gandhi went on a three-week fast in March-April 1943 while in prison at the Aga Khan Palace in Poona. Three Indian members of the Viceroy’s Executive Council resigned when the Viceroy refused to release Gandhiji. These were Sir N.R Sarkar, Sir Homi Modi and Shri M.S Aney. Dr B.R. Ambedkar did not do so.
On 15 August 1947, Gandhiji asked Nehru to include Ambedkar in his Cabinet as Law Minister. He was made Chairman of the Drafting Committee for drawing up the Constitution.
The concluding sentences of his speech in Parliament are worded in soaring prose: “If we wish to preserve the Constitution in which we have sought to enshrine the principle of Government of the people, for the people and by the people, let us resolve not to be tardy in the recognition of the evils that lie across our path and which induce people to prefer Government for the people, to Government by the people, nor to be weak in our initiative to remove them. This is the only way to serve the country. I know of no better.”