From Ahmedabad’s sanitation commissioner to the founding father of the Republic of India
He was neither ever really inclined towards the idea of holding posts, nor was he a big fan of politics. To put it correctly, he was an England-returned, urbane mannered, European-style clothed distinguished barrister who had a cynical attitude, rational mindset, excellent Bridge skills and a lot of confidence.
This was Vallabhbhai Jhaverbhai Patel till that one historic day in 1917 when he not only contested elections for the post of Ahmedabad’s sanitation commissioner, on the behest of friends, but also won it.
Thereafter, began a journey that traversed through extraordinary times and gave the Bismarck of India, the Architect of United India, the Iron Man of India – Sardar Patel.
Of Borsad & Kheda
A meeting with Mahatma Gandhi, in October 1917, fundamentally changed Vallabhbhai Patel and led him to join the Indian independence struggle. He initially quit his job and joined the movement to fight for exemption of taxes in Kheda at the time of plague and famine.
In September 1917, his speech in Borsad encouraged Indians across the nation to sign Gandhi’s petition that demanded ‘Swaraj’ (self rule). He met Mahatma Gandhi at the Gujarat Political Conference, a month later, in Godhra and thereafter went on to become the secretary of the Gujarat Sabha that later became the Gujarati arm of Indian National Congress.
In 1918 he became the principal figure behind the first satyagraha in the nationalist struggle, held in his home district of Kheda, in Gujarat. With Mahatma Gandhi away, Patel took charge impressively, instilling in the resisters the importance of collective action. It was not just a struggle at local level but a fight shaping up for the Swaraj of all of India.
It was sometime between 1924 and 1928, during his days as the president of Municipal Board of Ahmedabad, that Vallabhbhai taught a valuable lesson of cleanliness to the people. Not one to sit in the comforts of an office and boast of power, he himself took to the streets of the city, joining hands with a squad of volunteers, and started sweeping clean the quarters of ‘harijans’ (or ‘untouchables’, as they were considered back then).
No less a heroic moment for the people, especially the youth, of Ahmedabad, the gesture widened eyes and dropped jaws. This was something never quite witnessed before.
“No amount of effort on the part of the municipal administration can keep the city clean without your active co-operation. If you put rubbish in the bins provided by the Municipal Board, instead of throwing it into the street, you will make your locality look clean, help to reduce sickness and add a few years to your span of life,” he had urged the locals.
During his multiple terms as municipal president (1922, 1924, 1927), he oversaw improvements in infrastructure: the supply of electricity was increased, and drainage and sanitation systems were extended throughout the city. The school system underwent major reforms.
He also worked extensively against alcohol consumption, untouchability, caste discrimination and for women emancipation in Gujarat and outside.
A ‘Sardar’ is Born
Patel’s most famous intervention came between 1925 and 1928, leading a similar tax agitation in the drought-stricken district of Bardoli as that of Kheda.
“Challenge the Government to take up your land, if they can, to England!” thundered Vallabbhai urging the peasants of Bardoli to resist.
Organising 16 camps under the charge of 250 volunteers, he arranged a peasants conference in Bardoli in February 1928 calling upon landholders to refuse payment of the revised assessment to the Government until a Tribunal to settle the matter was appointed.
The peasants adored their leader. To honour his extraordinary leadership, with great affection women, peasants and then others started calling him ‘Sardar’.
Building a United India
In a freshly-independent India, 565 princely states were of the belief that they would become independent rulers of their kingdoms as in the pre-British era. As the first Home Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of Armed Forces of Independent India, Sardar Patel used his insight, wisdom and diplomacy to forge a united India. Thus was founded the Republic of India as we know it today.
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