If Mr Narendra Modi’s admiration for Sardar Patel is born of a genuine understanding of the latter, his Statue of Unity project merits the nation’s approval.
Modi has decided to spend an estimated sum of Rs 2500 crore to erect Patel’s statue in the Narmada. Cynics and Modi’s critics will thumb their noses at the expenditure incurred at a time when a large number of people in Modi’s state are labouring under the burden of day-to-day subsistence. But Shahjahan would not have built the Taj Mahal had he applied this kind of logic to his historical aspirations. India would have missed one of the world’s wonders. Modi is the contemporary Shahjahan giving us the world’s tallest statue.
Is Modi merely a modern day Shahjahan trying to engrave his name indelibly in the annuls of history? Or is he playing yet another political game to add a new avatar to the already overcrowded pantheon of the Sangh Parivar?
Does Modi know what the Sardar really was, how diametrically opposed his views were to those of Modi?
People like Modi have tried off and on to portray Sardar Patel as a champion of Hindutva. Modi’s recent remark that Patel would have made a better PM than Nehru is not without substance. Nehru was a Romantic “with child-like innocence,” as Patel described him in his letter to D P Mishra on July 29, 1946. Patel was a very pragmatic man who never hesitated to call a spade a spade. In fact, Patel’s pragmatism coupled with his ruthless frankness was a tremendous asset to Nehru in the traumatic days that followed India’s Independence. It was that ruthlessness which brought Liaquat Ali Khan rushing to Delhi in April 1950 leading to the Nehru-Liaquat Pact. Patel might have made a better PM. But such conjectures don’t take us anywhere really.
Patel was never a Hindu communalist. On the contrary, peaceful coexistence of all communities was as close to his heart as it was to Gandhi’s. Under pressure from many lobbies to declare India a Hindu state since Pakistan had become a Muslim state, Patel told B M Birla who had strongly advocated such a step, “I do not think it will be possible to consider India as a Hindu state with Hinduism as a state religion. We must not forget that there are other minorities whose protection is our primary responsibility.” (P N Chopra, The Sardar of India). Patel asked the senior civil and police officers to protect the Muslims in case of any communal riot.
True, Patel did not like Jinnah whom he viewed as a mere power-seeker. He was deeply anguished by the “gullibility” of the Muslims who put their trust in the crafty Jinnah rather than in the visionary Mahatma. He dared to question Gandhi whether there were any Muslims who would listen to him. He did not mince words when he warned the Muslim nationalists, “I want to tell you frankly that mere declarations of loyalty to the Indian Union will not help you.... You must give practical proof of your declarations. I ask you why you did not unequivocally denounce Pakistan for attacking Indian territory with the connivance of Frontier tribesmen? Is it not your duty to condemn all acts of aggression against India?” (quoted from The Statesman, Dec 28, 1947 in Sardar Patel and Indian Muslims, Rafiq Zakaria)
When Pakistan drove out Hindus in large numbers especially from East Bengal, Patel thundered, “We would have no alternative left except to send out Muslims in equal numbers.”(Rafiq Zakaria)
Such utterances of the Sardar are quoted by certain members of the Sangh Parivar as evidence for his Hindutva legacy. But as Mahatma Gandhi said, “The Sardar had a bluntness of speech which sometimes unintentionally hurt. Though his heart was expansive enough to accommodate all.” (Gandhi, Communal Unity)
Patel’s was a magnanimous heart which loved the country and all its people. He does deserve a Statue of Unity. But he certainly does not deserve to be metamorphosed into a symbol of any factional ideology.
If Mr Narendra Modi has a proper understanding of what Sardar Patel stood for, we should salute his new venture. Some conversions are welcome.