‘Man of steel’: In­dia’s hero

The Pres­i­dent of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha, Ash­win Trikam­jee, com­mem­o­rated the birth an­niver­sary of the na­tion­al­ist hero, the first deputy prime min­is­ter of In­dia, Sar­dar Val­lab­hb­hai Patel, at the In­dian Con­sulate of­fices in Durban on Wed­nes­day.

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SAR­DAR Val­lab­hb­hai Patel was known in In­dia as the “Man of Steel”. He was born in Na­diad, a small vil­lage in Gu­jarat. His fa­ther was Jhaverb­hai Patel, and his mother Lad­bai.

Jhaverb­hai was a poor farmer and his coun­try and free­dom were as dear to him as his own life.

Once, as a child, Val­lab­hb­hai suf­fered from a boil in the armpit. There was a man in the vil­lage, who used to cure boils by touch­ing them with a hot iron. The boy went to him and the man heated the iron rod un­til it grew red. But he hes­i­tated, see­ing at the boy’s ten­der years.

“What are you wait­ing for? The iron will grow cold. Hurry up, brand the boil,” said the boy an­grily.

The man was even more fright­ened. The boy picked up the glow­ing rod and burnt the boil. Those who watched him were shocked and screamed. But there was not even a trace of pain in the boy’s face.

This amaz­ing boy was born on Oc­to­ber 31, 1875 (this is the date gen­er­ally ac­cepted).

The el­ders were filled with pride and joy at the fear­less­ness of the lit­tle boy and the younger ones loved and ad­mired him. By na­ture, he re­belled against injustice and showed a gen­uine in­ter­est in the wel­fare of his companions.

A teacher at his school used to sell books, which pupils needed. He used to force all pupils to buy books only from him. Val­lab­hb­hai thought that this was wrong.

He spoke to his companions and saw to it that not a sin­gle pupil at­tended classes. For the whole week, the school could not work. The teacher had to cor­rect him­self.

His cher­ished am­bi­tion was to be­come a bar­ris­ter. But, in or­der to re­alise this am­bi­tion, he had to con­tinue his stud­ies in Eng­land and he did not have enough money to even join a col­lege in In­dia.

In those days, a can­di­date could study in pri­vate and sit for an ex­am­i­na­tion in law. Val­lab­hb­hai’s brother, Vithalb­hai, was also a lawyer. He at­tended coach­ing classes be­fore en­ter­ing him­self for the ex­am­i­na­tion.

But Val­lab­hb­hai did not even at­tend coach­ing classes. He bor­rowed books from the lawyer of his ac­quain­tance and stud­ied their judg­ments. Oc­ca­sion­ally, he at­tended courts of law and stud­ied their judg­ments. He passed the ex­am­i­na­tion.

He had no fa­cil­i­ties when he prac­tised law. He bor­rowed money from his friends and hired a room in a town called Godhra. He fur­nished it with a cou­ple of chairs and mats for those who wished to squat on the floor.

In a short time, Val­lab­hb­hai made a name as an em­i­nent lawyer. By then, he was mar­ried and had two chil­dren – a daugh­ter, Manibehn, and a son, Dhayab­hai.

As Val­lab­hb­hai wished to be­come a bar­ris­ter, he was sav­ing money and mak­ing prepa­ra­tions to go to Eng­land. He wrote a let­ter to a travel agency. By chance, it fell into the hands of Vithalb­hai.

He told Val­lab­hb­hai: “I shall go to Eng­land first, you can go later.”

With­out the slight­est hes­i­ta­tion, Val­lab­hb­hai agreed and al­lowed Vithalb­hai’s wife to stay with his fam­ily. His (Val­lab­hb­hai’s) wife had also died and he re­fused to re­marry.

Val­lab­hb­hai went to Eng­land and stud­ied with a sin­gle-minded de­vo­tion. He stood first in the Bar­ris­ter-at-Law Ex­am­i­na­tion.

Re­turn­ing to In­dia, he set up prac­tice as a bar­ris­ter at Ahmed­abad. Day by day, his fame and in­flu­ence grew. The elder brother, Vithalb­hai, said: “You look after the fam­ily, I shall work, for the coun­try.”

“Yes,” said Val­lab­hb­hai. He spent his leisure hours play­ing cards in a lo­cal club and dressed like an English­man. He was not in­ter­ested in pol­i­tics. He some­times laughed at Satya­graha (non-vi­o­lent nonco-op­er­a­tion) and ser­vice to the coun­try as dreams of crazy fel­lows.

Grad­u­ally, the spell of Gand­hiji spread all over Gu­jarat. It changed Val­lab­hb­hai’s life, too. Gand­hiji at­tended the po­lit­i­cal con­fer­ence at Godhra. He and Val­lab­hb­hai met at that time and soon be­came friends.

Gand­hiji en­tered his home and was like a fa­ther to Val­lab­hb­hai’s two chil­dren.

In 1918, heavy rains de­stroyed the crops in Gu­jarat and the farm­ers in Kaira District were par­tic­u­larly in dis­tress. The gov­ern­ment de­manded the pay­ment of the rev­enue taxes to the last pie. The farm­ers turned to Gand­hiji as their refuge. Gand­hiji said: “I need some­one who will as­sume the en­tire re­spon­si­bil­ity for this strug­gle.”

“I shall be re­spon­si­ble,” said Val­lab­hb­hai.

He in­fused the peas­ants with courage, say­ing: “Why are you afraid of the English? If the peo­ple are united, no gov­ern­ment can do any­thing.”

He gave up his Western cloth­ing and be­gan to dress like the poor and hum­ble a peas­ants.

So, fi­nally, the gov­ern­ment had to yield. The taxes were re­mit­ted. In June 1918, the farm­ers cel­e­brated their vic­tory. They in­vited Gand­hiji and pre­sented him with an ad­dress.

Gand­hiji said: “The credit of this vic­tory should go to Val­lab­hb­hai Patel. You are for­tu­nate to be led by such a great hero.”

Val­lab­hb­hai lived up to his ideals and even­tu­ally gave up his prac­tice as a bar­ris­ter and founded the Gu­jarat Vidyapeetha, to ed­u­cate the chil­dren to grow up to be pa­tri­ots.

In 1923, the rains wreaked havoc in Gu­jarat. Scores of peo­ple lost ev­ery­thing, but Val­lab­hb­hai came to their res­cue. His ef­forts brought 2 000 vol­un­teers to­gether. They sup­plied food and clothes to those that had been se­verely af­fected by floods and looked after them.

But their ser­vices were still needed. Hardly had the floods sub­sided when a ter­ri­ble famine broke out. The farm­ers had no oxen and no seeds. How were they to till the land?

Val­lab­hb­hai drew the at­ten­tion of the gov­ern­ment to the suf­fer­ings of the peo­ple. He ar­gued that the gov­ern­ment col­lected taxes from the peo­ple, and there­fore, it was the duty of the gov­ern­ment to help them in their dis­tress. So force­ful was his de­mand that it spent 15 mil­lion ru­pees to help those in the famine-stricken ar­eas.

As the years pro­gressed, all of In­dia knew of Val­lab­hb­hai as the Sar­dar (chief).

His fiery words pro­voked the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment. It sent him to prison twice in 1930. But this only in­creased his in­flu­ence.

He was elected Pres­i­dent of the Karachi Ses­sion of the Na­tional Congress, which met in 1931. In his speech, Val­lab­hb­hai de­clared in un­mis­tak­able words, “Swaraj (in­de­pen­dence) is our goal. There can­not be the slight­est mod­i­fi­ca­tion of that goal.” The gov­ern­ment was even more in­fu­ri­ated, and sent him to prison again. He was freed only in 1934.

While im­pris­oned, he got copies of the Bha­gavad-Gita and the Ra­mayana through the au­thor­i­ties of the prison. He stud­ied and pon­dered on them ev­ery day.

Elec­tions to the leg­is­la­tures of prov­inces were held in 1937. The Sar­dar was the chair­man of the Congress Par­lia­men­tary Board. He un­hesi­tat­ingly took to task any min­is­ter who did wrong.

In 1942, the Congress called on the Bri­tish to quit In­dia. It started what came to be known as the Quit In­dia Move­ment or the Chale­jav Move­ment.

The gov­ern­ment jailed all the im­por­tant lead­ers of the Congress, in­clud­ing Val­lab­hb­hai. All those lead­ers were re­leased after three years.

Free­dom dawned on Au­gust 15, 1947. Pan­dit Jawa­har­lal Nehru be­came the first prime min­is­ter of In­de­pen­dent In­dia and Val­lab­hb­hai be­came the deputy prime min­is­ter. He was in charge of Home Af­fairs, In­for­ma­tion and Broad­cast­ing and the Min­istry of States.

Val­lab­hb­hai, a man of re­mark­able foresight, died on De­cem­ber 15, 1950, at the age of 75.

Prime Min­is­ter Nehru had said: “His name will live for ever in his­tory. He is the ar­chi­tect of mod­ern In­dia. He was a wise coun­sel­lor in the hour of trial, a trust­wor­thy friend and a mine of courage and in­spi­ra­tion.”

He was known as the Man of Steel. Ten­der­ness was very much alive in his na­ture but, when nec­es­sary, he could be dom­i­nat­ing.

It is 143 years since this hero, the Sar­dar, was born. Let us re­mem­ber him with rev­er­ence.

PIC­TURE: IANS/PIB

Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, Gu­jarat Chief Min­is­ter Vi­jay Ru­pani, Kar­nataka Gov­er­nor Va­jub­hai Vala and BJP chief Amit Shah wit­ness a fly-past by the In­dian Air Force at the in­au­gu­ra­tion of Statue of Unity on the oc­ca­sion of Rashtriya Ekta Di­was – the birth an­niver­sary of the coun­try’s first Home Min­is­ter, Sar­dar Val­lab­hb­hai Patel, at Ke­vadiya, in Nar­mada District, Gu­jarat, on Wed­nes­day.

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