Extracts from TIME Cover Story
January 27, 1947
Princes and Paupers. On the 17th anniversary of the Indian Congress’ Purna
Swaraj (complete independence) resolution of Jan. 26, 1930, India was
almost completely free of Britain but in danger of lapsing into anarchy.
The infant country faced these problems, among others:
· Hatred between
the Hindu and Moslem communities, which flared last August into the Great
Calcutta Killing when 6,000 died, has now hardened into a grim struggle
· Rising prices and falling production have intensified
the conflict between millions of the poorest and some of the richest people
in the world. Strikes are bubbling all over India. Communist power is
rising. The Congress Party is likely to split into right and left groups
and the Moslems face a similar division.
· While Gandhi continues to
attack industrialization, some of his most devoted followers go ahead with
plans to make India the industrial heart of Asia.
· Freedom for India
does not affect the princely states, where 93 million (25%) Indians live.
These are more or less despotically ruled by an anachronistic group of
princes who have, on the average, 11 titles, 5.8 wives, 12.6 children,
and 3.4 Rolls-Royces. Sooner or later a free Indian nation will have to deal
with them; right now the Communists are advocating expulsion of the
Power is the Spur. To bring under control this vast interplay of seemingly
irresistible forces and immovable bodies would take more than the
fanaticism of Moslem Leaguer Mohamed Ali Jinnah, more than Jawaharlal
Nehru’s eloquent idealism more, perhaps, than Gandhi’s combination of
mysticism and manipulation. India needed an organizer. It had one. Gandhi
listened to God and passed on his political ideas to Vallabhbhai (rhymes
with “I’ll have pie”) Patel; Patel, after listening to Gandhi, translated
those ideas into intensely practical politics.
Patel has no pretensions
to saintliness or eloquence or fanaticism. He is, in American terms, the
As Home and Information Minister of the new Central
Government, as boss of the Congress Party, Patel
represents what cohesive power Free India has. This cinder-eyed schemer
is not the best, the worst, the wisest or the most typical of India’s
leaders, but he is the easiest to understand, and on him, more than on any
man, except Gandhi, depends India’s chance of surviving the gathering
The first movement Patel ever organized was a student revolt against a teacher
he accused of profiteering in pencils and paper. Later, Patel went to London,
studied law 16 hours a day, topped the list in a bar examination and headed back
for his beloved India without stopping to tour the Continent. He has never left
His legal career was mainly defending murderers and bandits and
frightening district magistrates with his caustic tongue. One magistrate,
hearing that Patel was expanding his practice, moved his court to a town out of
Patel’s reach. In later years Gandhi found in Patel “motherly qualities” that
eyes less inspired than the Mahatma’s never saw….Enemies and friends tell an anecdote of his criminal law days. He had just put his wife in a Bombay
hospital, returned to Ahmedabad to argue a murder case. He was on his feet
when a telegram arrived. He read that his wife had died, put the
telegram into his pocket and went on with his argument as if he had
never been interrupted.
In 1915 Patel was playing bridge in Ahmedabad’s
Gujarat Club when he first saw his fellow lawyer Gandhi, fresh from
agitational triumphs in South Africa. At that time Patel dressed in fancy
Western clothes and affected the manners of the most pukka sahib Briton.
When his eyes fell upon Gandhi, Patel interrupted his game long enough
to make a few scathing remarks. A year later he joined Gandhi’s movement.
By 1927, when Patel had become the mayor of Ahmedabad,
unofficial capital of Gujarati-speaking India, his extraordinary skill as an organizer
showed itself for the first time during the great Gujarat floods.
Every-thing broke down – transport, communications, all methods of
distribution. The general Indian attitude used to be to regard such
catastrophes as acts of God. What little relief there was usually came from
a British Government which took its good time to relieve distress. Patel
initiated an unheard-of fund-raising drive for the relief of the flood victims.
Supplies were moved into the flood areas by hundreds of volunteers wading
through waist-deep water, carrying boxes and sacks on their heads. When lumber
was required for constructing small bridges or building houses, Patel arranged
for it all without making a single approach to the Government. It
seemed a miracle to Indians when all the lumber arrived on the scene in the
needed sizes. By the time the Bombay provincial representatives got there,
no official assistance was needed.
Nothing like it had ever been seen
before in India. Here at last was organization by and for Indians.
Somber Masterpiece. Now that India seems to require miracles of organization
if its Government is to survive, Indians recall Patel’s organizational
masterpiece, the Bardoli no-tax campaign of 1928. Despite the fact that
crops had been bad for several years in the Bardoli district, a 25% tax increase
was ordered by the Government assessors. This was precisely the
opportunity Gandhi had been waiting for to launch the first real
experiment in mass civil disobedience.
charge. Dressed in simple dhoti and shirt, he trudged from village to village,
day after day, exhorting the peasants at every stop to stand fast and pay no taxes.
“Some of you are afraid your land will be confiscated,” he said in one
speech. “What is confiscation? Will they take away your lands to England?”
In another speech he set forth the principle that was to govern every
Congress struggle of the future: “Every home must be a Congress office and
every soul a Congress organization.” Under Patel’s orders the peasants’
buffaloes, which the Government might have taken, were brought right
into the peasants’ houses. No servants would work for the Government
collectors. Nobody would sell them food or give them water. Some property
was, of course, confiscated and sold, but bidders were few. In all Bardoli
not one rupee was collected in direct taxes.
A stunned Government
finally asked Gandhi for terms. The upshot was a 6¼%, not a 25% increase in
taxes. Patel emerged from Bardoli with a new and exalted status. He
received the unofficial title of “Sardar,” meaning captain or leader, which
he has carried ever since.
Money Makes the Mare Go. After Bardoli, Patel became recognized as the
Congress Party’s chief organizer and disciplinarian. He checked up on what
Gandhi’s followers ate, drank, and wore. He passed on the party lists in
provincial elections. He approved party-sponsored legislation, and personally
drafted much of it. No detail was too unimportant or sordid for Boss Patel.
Recently he took charge of negotiations between the Congress Party Ministry in
Bombay and the Western Indian Turf Association, which
wanted to renew its license for the Bombay racetrack. Patel, who has never
seen a horse race, knew what the traffic would bear. He upped the
license fee from half a million rupees to three million.
Although he has
handled millions in party funds, Patel has no personal love of money. With
his daughter Maniben, who acts as his secretary (she has accompanied
him on most of his sojourns in British prisons), he now lives in a little
suite in his son Dahyabhai’s Bombay house. He eats little, drinks no
alcohol, quit smoking when he first went to jail. In recent years he has
had serious stomach trouble. His only exercise is a walk when he rises, at
4:30 a.m. His only recreation is bouncing a ball across the room to his
grandchildren. He has never seen a movie. He cares little about the
world outside his country. Of 300 books in his Bombay library, every one
is by an Indian, mostly about India….