– V.N. Balakrishna | November 11, 2013
Ahmedabad | When Chief Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for the world’s tallest statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel on his 138th birth anniversary in an island called Sadhu Bet on the river Narmada near Bharuch it provoked war of words over who owns Sardar’s legacy.
A few days earlier on October 29, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said he is proud Sardar Patel belonged to his party provoking Modi to ask, “Rana Pratap, Chhatrapati Shivaji, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru are highly respected. Were they BJP members? Will only those who belong to the BJP be given respect and honour? Country is greater than the party and those who sacrifice themselves for the nation are great.”
Despite Constitution signifying an egalitarian secularism of “Unity in Diversity,” the hullabaloo over Sardar’s legacy ironically hinges on political characterization of who can be secular. Sardar’s baptism in politics was due to Mahatma Gandhi who saw secularism as part of a larger goal of mankind’s betterment based on Sarva Dharma Sambhava despite various religions setting their own goals to reach God. Yet what we see today is secularism in strait-jacket to discomfort political opponents and a pulpit for Congress to decry the main Opposition party, the BJP’s attempt to gain central space.
Sardar was a lawyer with thriving practice in Ahmedabad and would have spent his life unknown to history had he not come under Mahatma’s spell and with whose blessings he launched the Bardoli Satyagraha that catapulted him onto the big league of Congress Party’s key organizers.
If Sardar was the Gandhian face owing allegiance to “secular” Congress then how is the Hindu Right, as much as the Congress, laying claim to his legacy as representing “true” secularism?
The paradox is simple as it is complicated. Sardar despite his towering greatness was a down-to-earth man believing in his Hindu identity and Hindu ethos without being squeamish about it. He was aware that religious labels stamped onto a set of human beings did not alter the basic essence of humanity.
In the aftermath of Pakistan invading Kashmir in January 1948, Sardar told a gathering of Muslims in Lucknow“Those who want to go to Pakistan can go there and live in peace.” He was piqued that Muslims were not denouncing naked Pakistan aggression though were affirming loyalty to the Indian Union.
Only a man who was committed to India’s unity could have said what he said. Yet Muslims were unhappy.“Many Muslim friends had complained to me of the Sardar’s so-called anti-Muslim attitude. I was able to assure the critics that they were wrong in isolating him from Nehru and me, whom they gratuitously raise to the sky. The Sardar had a bluntness of speech which sometimes unintentionally hurt, though his heart was expansive enough to accommodate all,” Gandhi wrote to Sardar in the same month to dispel any doubts of his opinion on Sardar’s integrity.
Today the ebullient patriotic fervor of Independence had long been eviscerated. Crossing the Laxman Rekha is a ‘done thing’ given the overriding supremacy of vote banks. If Sardar was a rabid Hindu would he have banned the RSS in the aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination? The very fact Congress is claiming his legacy today after taking 40 long years to bestow a Bharat Ratna on him in 1991, when even a local actor-turned-politician MGR had one much before in 1988 has a story to tell. The stark truth is Indian politics “divides and rules.” Even Sardar would never have imagined political skirmishes over his legacy. “Statue of Unity” on the island of Sadhu Bet would be attracting world attention to what Sardar once symbolized — United India. Yet all that the statue may symbolize eventually is that Sardar’s dream still remains a dream.