In September 1947, Mahatma Gandhi, heady from the success of his four day fast in Calcutta (September 2-5) that stopped riots in the city, wanted to do the same to quell violence in Punjab.
He discussed the idea with the then Home Minister - also his comrade most responsible for the success of many agitations from Bardoli and Borsad Satyagragh to the more recent Quit India Movement – Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.
Sardar heard him quietly but with a sense of unease. The man who was once called the ‘number one disciple’ of Mahatma Gandhi was worried that another fast would kill this frail septuagenarian. Ever the practical and straightforward man, Sardar reminded his ‘Bapu’ that the politics of Punjab and Bengal were different and that Gandhi did not know Punjab.
That left Gandhi in a pall of gloom. Millions of people were busy trying to kill each other on either side of the Indo-Pak border. Convoys were attacked, women raped and while the Hindus and Sikhs in India sent train full of corpses to Pakistan, Muslims there responded in kind sending the trains back with only one survivor, the driver.
Something needed to be done to stop this. But how? That’s when Gandhi came up with a masterstroke. If Sardar knew Punjab better than him, why didn’t he go to Punjab instead asked Gandhi. The Sardar thought about this. It was a good idea. But impractical at that moment because of the situation in Delhi.
Thousands of refugees from Pakistan were pouring into the streets of Delhi bringing tales of misery, death and rape which incited the local Hindus and Sikhs to take up arms against their Muslim brothers of Delhi. Sardar had thundered: “I will not tolerate Delhi becoming another Lahore.”
Sardar Patel had threatened the police to be non-partisan in dealing with rioters and daily went to every camp for Muslims he had helped set up across Delhi. He was the man who was holding the reigns of Delhi in his own hands with the able help of another old comrade – Jawaharlal Nehru. The two were doing the impossible with majority of the burden falling in Sardar’s shoulders.
Sardar knew that if he went from Delhi even for a day during this crucial time, chaos would reign. Then there was the fight against the kings and rulers of the Princely states which as the Minister of the Department of State he had to oversee.
He knew, and so did Gandhi, that Sardar could go to Punjab only after Delhi was in control. However, at the end of September when a report reached him that Sikhs in Amritsar planned to block and attack a large Muslim convoy on their way to Pakistan, Sardar made his way to Punjab.
On September 30th he met Sikh leaders and ever the practical man spoke in a tone that they understood, stating that the safety of their Sikh and Hindu brothers was linked to the safety of Muslim convoys. He told them: “I think it is in keeping with your dignity, reputation for valour and self-respect that you should raise a volunteer force which will protect these refugees”
He made a practical suggestion: “Break the vicious circle of attacks and retaliation at least for a week.” And if Pakistan did not respond in kind, India would take them to task.
The leaders promised Sardar that they would do so. However, on the way to the airport, Sardar was mobbed by thousands of refugees with blood in their eyes. Sardar could have avoided them but he chose to address them.
The speech he made to this crowd which swelled to over a lakh of people, according to his daughter and shadow Manibhen, was one of the best he made in his life.
“Here in this very same city, the blood of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims mingled in the bloodbath of Jallianwalla Bagh. I am grieved to think that things have come to such a pass that no Muslim can go about in Amritsar and No Hindu or Sikh can even think off living in Lahore.
The butchery of innocent and defenceless men, women and children does not behove brave men… I am quite certain that India’s interest lies in getting all her men and women across the border and sending out all Muslims from East Punjab.
I have come to you with a specific appeal. Pledge the safety of Muslim refugees crossing the city. Any obstacles or hindrances will only worsen the plight of our refugees who are already performing prodigious feats of endurance.
If we have to fight, we must fight clean. Such a fight must await an appropriate time and condition and you must be watchful in choosing your ground. To fight against the refugees is no fight at all. No laws of humanity or war among honourable men permit the murder of people who have sought shelter and protection.
Let there be truce for three months in which both sides can exchange their refugees. This sort of truce is permitted even by laws of war. Let us take the initiative in breaking this vicious circle of attacks and counter-attacks.
Hold your hands for a week and see what happens. Make way for the refugees with your own force of volunteers and let them deliver the refugees safely at the frontier.”
Like Rajmohan Gandhi writes in his well-researched book ‘Patel’: “Again the message went home. His actions had been brave, his words candid, his plea realistic. No convoys were attacked after this speech, which marks a turning point in Punjab’s story.”
Patel is often looked upon as a leader for the Hindus and communal aspersions are cast upon him. Rajmohan Gandhi writes, “Vallabbhai’s was a Hindu heart. He was, unquestionably, roused more by a report of 50 Hindus or Sikh deaths than by another of 50 Muslim deaths. But his hand was just. Patel agonized over Hindu and Sikh suffering but punished Hindu and Sikh offenders, a sense of duty rather than his heart governing the Home Minister’s hand.”
Today, on his 151st birthday as political parties across the board pay homage to this great unifier of India, it is imperative for them to remember his ‘just hand’. Because in truth, this is what makes a great politician: one who loves people more than his own ideology, more than his own politics, more than his own political party even. Look around you. Is there even one politician in the country who does that, who has half the even hand of a Sardar?
And that is reason why we must remember the man who Sardar was, but more than that we must remember what he stood for and how he worked.Satyen K. Bordoloi is a scriptwriter based in Mumbai. He has written a film on the last few years of Sardar Patel and how he integrated 565 Princely States into one India.
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