Vallabhbhai Patel was born on October 31, 1875, in a farmer’s family in Nadiad, Gujarat. His father, Zaverbhai, had served in the army of Jhansi ki Rani, and his mother, Ladbai, was a deeply religious woman.
Vallabhbhai’s initial schooling was in Gujarati. His brother Vithalbhai, after completing middle school, had enrolled himself in English tutorial classes in a nearby town. Vallabhbhai followed suit. Vallabhbhai’s superior organizational skills became evident while he was in high school at Petlad when he coordinated the entire campaign for a poor teacher who he thought deserved a seat on the local municipal committee. Vallabhbhai persuaded his fellow students to work for the campaign. So impressively was the campaign handled that the teacher was elected over the rich local businessman. Vallabhbhai matriculated from Nadiad High School in 1897.
Vallabhbhai was married to Zaverbai in 1891. The couple had two children-a daughter Maniben, born in April of 1904, and a son Dayabhai, born in November of 1905. Zaverbai died in January of 1909.
Vallabhbhai sailed for England in August of 1910 to study law. He qualified as a barrister in 1913 and returned to India to a lucrative practice in Ahmedabad. He joined the Gujarat Club and took to western dressing and a comfortable lifestyle.
Gandhiji started coming to the Gujarat Club to give lectures. He came again and again, propagating the idea of his newly wielded weapon of “satyagraha” or truth force. Vallabhbhai was impressed with Gandhiji and slowly began to adopt his view. The relationship between Gandhiji and Vallabhbhai was concretely defined when Gandhiji was elected the President of the Gujarat Sabha and Vallabhbhai the Secretary, in 1917. It was a relationship of a guru (teacher) and disciple.
Vallabhbhai got his first opportunity to utilize Gandhiji’s philosophy of satyagraha in 1918 for the farmers of Kaira who had lost their crops to heavy rains and floods that year. The government disregarded the farmers’ misery and insisted on collecting land revenue. Vallabhbhai organized the No Tax campaign on peaceful, Gandhian lines. The government held out and began confiscating land and what little crops and cattle the farmers still had. Vallabhbhai, now decked in a dhoti, kurta and cap urged the farmers not to buckle. The government eventually relented and returned the confiscated property. This was the first victory of satyagraha for Vallabhbhai. He was jubilant.
Vallabhbhai took to spinning the charkha, boycotted foreign goods and clothes and burned his foreign possessions on public bonfires. He even discarded the western dresses he once so coveted. There was no stopping Vallabhbhai. He participated in the Nagpur flag satyagraha from May to August in 1923 in
protest against the stopping of a procession which carried the national flag.
In 1928, Vallabhbhai once again came to the rescue of the farmers, this time it was in Bardoli, which was then a part of Surat district. The Government increased the tax on the land. Vallabhbhai urged the farmers not to pay, declaring the hike unjust. He prepared the farmers for satyagraha. The farmers refused to pay the tax hike. In retaliation, the Government confiscated their land, cattle and crops and arrested hundreds of farmers. There was a mass exodus from Bardoli to escape the Government’s atrocities. The farmers that remained continued the satyagraha.
Vallabhbhai told the farmers not to sell milk, vegetables and necessities to any person unless they produced a chit assigned by the local satyagraha committee. The “peaceful” war raged for six months. Finally Vithalbhai, Vallabhbhai’s brother, who was President of the Central Legislative Assembly, brokered a comprise. The Government agreed to hold an inquiry into the justification of the tax hike, released the satyagrahis and returned all confiscated items back to the farmers. So pleased was Gandhiji with Vallabhbhai’s effort that he gave him the title of “Sardar” or leader.
On March 12, 1930, Sardar Patel left for Dandi to prepare for Gandhiji’s Salt satyagraha. He went to villages to organize for the food and lodging of the marchers. In every village he went, he made stirring speeches, rousing the people to join the march to Dandi. The Government swooped down and arrested him while he was in the village of Ras. This was Sardar Patel’s first prison sentence. He was released after the Gandhi-Irwin pact of March 1931. That year he presided over the Congress session in Karachi.
Gandhiji sailed for London to attend the Round Table Conference in 1931. Sardar Patel regularly updated him on the situation in India. Ironically, the British Government in India stepped up repression just when the Conference was going on in London. Gandhiji was arrested on his return from the Conference. Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru were also imprisoned. Sardar Patel was imprisoned with Gandhiji in Yeravada Jail, Pune, where they spent 16 months together. While Sardar Patel was in jail, his mother and brother died. He refused to be released to attend to their last rites.
In 1937, elections for the provincial governments were held under the Government of India Act of 1935. Sardar Patel was elected Chairman to the Parliamentary Sub-Committee which was to select Congress candidates and organize the elections. Sardar Patel’s hard work resulted in the Congress forming majority governments in most Provinces. All the Congress ministries resigned when the British arbitrarily included India in the war effort against Germany and Japan. Gandhiji planned an individual satyagraha to protest India’s inclusion in the war without being consulted. Sardar Patel was among the first batch of leaders to offer satyagraha. Arrests of the participants followed.
On August 8, 1942, the Congress and Gandhiji passed the “Quit India” resolution, calling upon the British to withdraw from India. The Government responded with arrests of Sardar Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhiji and other eminent Congress leaders. Sardar Patel was imprisoned in Ahmednagar Fort while Gandhiji was kept in Aga Khan Palace.
On March 23, 1946, the Labor Prime Minister of Britain arrived in India to assure independence for India. An Interim Government was proposed and Sardar Patel once again was asked to handle the campaign for the Congress. Again the Sardar delivered. The Congress won thumping majorities in almost all provinces. Jawaharlal Nehru became Prime Minister in September 1946 and Sardar Patel held the portfolios of Home and Information and Broadcasting. On August 15, 1947, India became free, but only after Pakistan was created.
When Pakistani infiltrators attacked Kashmir, Sardar Patel proposed withholding Pakistan’s share of cash balances left by the British. Gandhiji felt such an act would be morally wrong and went on a fast unto death. Sardar Patel tried to prevail over Gandhiji, but he finally relented in order to save the life of the “Father of the Nation.”
Sardar Patel handled the portfolio of Home Minister, Minister of States and Minister of Information and Broadcasting. As Home Minister he had to deal with communal disturbances that continued to rock the nation after partition. He transferred army units from Pune and Madras to deal with the disturbances in Delhi. He had the army move ten thousand Muslims to Red Fort to protect them from the riots.
Sardar Patel handled the integration of all the princely states into the Indian Union with great expertise. Under the Cabinet Mission, all the princely states had the right to join Pakistan, India or remain independent. The Sardar declared that “we are all knit together by bonds of blood and feelings… Therefore, it is better for us to make laws sitting together as friends.” Sardar Patel dealt with Hyderabad and Junaghad firmly when these states tried to join Pakistan or remain independent. Gandhiji was full of praise.
As time passed, differences in opinion formed between Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru. Gandhiji wanted both to work together for the betterment of India. On January 30, 1948, Sardar Patel met Gandhiji who expressed his wish that Sardar Patel work side by side with Nehru. The same day Gandhiji was assassinated. Sardar Patel was crushed. He was further hurt when he was criticized for not protecting Gandhiji. Sardar Patel wanted to post plain-cloth policemen at the Gandhiji’s prayer meetings, but Gandhiji had forbidden it. After Gandhiji’s death, Sardar Patel acted as Gandhiji had wished and worked closely with Nehru.
Sardar Patel formed the Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service and other Central Services to assist in the process of nation building. The “Iron Man of India” died in Bombay in December 1950. He left behind a united India.