The Untold Story of the Iron Man of India
An illuminating session by Hindol Sengupta on his book ‘the man who saved India’ took place in the ONGC lawns on the second day of Valley of Words Literature Festival 2019. Sengupta’s book is unusual in the sense that it diverts from the conventional history that we have been learning about Indian Independence struggle. The session was chaired by R I Singh and the other members of the panel were Sanjeev Chopra, Robin Gupta and Bindu Katikithala.
Singh eloquently ushered the session with a return to the early Indian Independence history and its fore runners: Gandhi, Nehru and Patel. This was followed by a round of introductions. Sengupta initiated the conversation by shedding light on the problem with history writing in India. Since the 1940s there has been a great deal of consensus in the way the history of India since independence has been written. People are saying the same things again and again. This, for Sengupta is a fundamental problem. History writing, he said, is always an act of contention- it involves looking at events in different perspectives- such differences are bound to lead to contentions. However, the last seventy years of historiography has not relfected this vision. Instead the Indian history writers became cosy with a lazy consensus. This consensus is a problem because it does not reflect the realities of Indian history – India is a very diverse nation with diverse experiences.
Midway during the session Mr Robin Gupta joins them. The conversation carries on and the panel discussed the three core figures of Indian Independence movement: Gandhi, Patel and Nehru. Sengupta observes how myriad texts have been written on Gandhi and Patel but there is a pregnant silence when it comes to Patel. The history which has been made popular by the historians have overemphasised the role played by Gandhi and the non-violent movement. The reality is that Gandhi’s pacifism along with many bloody and violent uprising together contributed to the success of the Independence struggle. These stories have been shadowed by the towering figures of Nehru and Gandhi. The stories of these revolutionaries have been absent from the history taught in Indian education systems.
Sengupta narrates a new perspective to the flight of the British from Indian shores. The rushed exodus from India was not a consequence of Gandhi’s silence and non-violent struggles. It was rather an urgency fired by the revolt of the British Navy. The prospect of being stranded in a land which no longer bowed to it was not a pretty one. This emergency was the primary factor compelling the British to return to its shores even before it had intended to.
Patel’s character and role in consolidating a new born India had been the focus of Sengupta’s book ‘the man who saved India’. He had to made plenty of hard decisions from which Nehru had turned away. Decisions such as sending in the army in Hyderabad in operation Polo, Kashmir and Junagarh are decisions which take great deal of responsibility and urgency. Patel also had to deal with the more than five hundred princely states which were on the verge of breaking away from India. There was no scope of Hyderabad being won peacefully- anyone familiar with the history of Hyderabad would understand that Gandhi’s methods would prove futile in integrating Hyderabad. Patel was compelled to make such tough decisions when he was on the brink of death. He died in the winter of 1950 after insuring that the new map of India was consolidated.
To tell the story of Independence without giving Patel his due would not only be wrong- it would also be a great disservice to Patel. The three stories of Gandhi, Nehru and Patel have to be narrated vis-a-vis to get the real story of the Independence Movement. Regardless of his incomparable contribution to the creation of India Patel received a Bharat Ratna only in 1991. The irony will be palpable to any historian aware of Patel’s contribution. The fact that it took more than five decades for the man who created Bharat to receive the Bharat Ratna is an embarrassing irony.
Patel’s daughter had asked him why he didn’t write his history of India like Gandhi and Nehru. His reply to her became an iconic phrase: ‘some people write history while some people create it’. Sengupta comments that perhaps Patel had been mistaken in this. The absence of a narrative by and on Patel has rendered him susceptible to be forgotten by history. That is why he argued to swim against the stream of conventional historians. This culminated in the writing of his book ‘the man who saved India’: a novel perspective on the Indian freedom struggle and the articulation of the untold story of the Iron Man of India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.
~Samson S Haokip, St Stephens College