Within the Congress, its Gujarat branch has shown the most conservative inclination. This is evident from the strength of the Congress (O) – arguably made up of the Rightist wing in the undivided Congress – after the party’s split in 1969, and its porosity with the Swatantra Party founded by former Congress leader C Rajagopalachari and, more recently, the Bharatiya Janata Party, from where its last president, Shankersinh Vaghela, came. (Vaghela quit the Congress in July.) To some extent, this conservatism is a result of Mahatma Gandhi’s decision in the 1920s to accept the resignation of peasant leader Indulal Yagnik, prompted by the latter’s inability to work with the Hindu traditionalist, business-friendly Vallabhbhai Patel. In fact, Patel – who went on to become one of the most influential political leaders in Gujarat and the country’s deputy prime minister – epitomised the rise to power of a conservative school of thought.

The episode involving Gandhi, Yagnik and Patel is explained here in an excerpt from a forthcoming special issue on “Political Conservatism in India” of Studies in Indian Politics (Sage) – a journal on various aspects of Indian politics – also featuring Malvika Maheswari, Adnan Naseemullah, Sudipta Kaviraj, Pradeep Chhibber, Rahul Verma, Susan Ostermann and Gilles Verniers:

Yagnik was drawn to Gandhi immediately after the latter returned from Africa in 1914. He then contributed to Young India, the newspaper launched by Annie Besant. When Gandhi took over the newspaper, Yagnik settled in Ahmedabad and worked for him. However, he was more interested in serving the poor in the countryside. In 1917, he was involved in famine relief in the villages of Ahmedabad district. He then discovered, as he writes in his autobiography, that “depressed communities, like Rabaris and Bhois, potters and Chamars, untouchables and Bhangis were shouting for help from the terror of the constant oppressions of compulsory labour (…) Whether a crop or not, village Patels and talatis [village accountants] used to call the farmers [sic] to pay the revenue, abuse them, and at times made them bend over in the heat holding their toes and put stones on their bent backs”.

When Yagnik presented his report before the local Congress committee, which held its meeting at the house of Vallabhbhai Patel, in Ahmedabad, he was criticised by the rich businessmen whose “cooperation was required in the relief work”: he had then his “first experience of the strange combination among the rich people of Ahmedabad of economic prosperity, fear of government, and pride in their superior position”.

The second experience came in 1921 when Yagnik, as secretary of the Gujarat Congress, did some post-famine relief work, this time among the Bhils (tribals) of Dahod. He recalls in his autobiography: “When I saw hungry Bhil children running for a fistful of maize in the bazaar, or when I saw naked girls trying to get a piece of cloth, my misery and sense of shame knew no bounds.” And one page later: “When I presented the requirements for the relief work before the working committee [of the provincial Congress], and pressed them to send the amount that was already approved, I was surprised to see the coldness of their hearts.” The attitude of Patel, the president of the Gujarat Congress, was particularly unbearable to Yagnik, who went to Bombay to meet Gandhi. The Mahatma assured Yagnik “of the approval of the full amount through the Provincial Committee”. Yagnik said that he had “attained victory through Gandhiji”, but “lost Vallabhbhai’s friendship”.

Soon after, Yagnik asked the Congress Provincial Committee for some more money to start a school for Dalit children. He then gave a very interesting speech:

“If we have started a fight for swaraj, not for the handful of elite people but for the poor, we should give a good account of ourselves by establishing such model institutions as a token of our identity with those backward people even while conducting the movement (…) In the present meetings when untouchables arrive, except when Gandhiji makes a special insistence, how close are they invited to sit? Besides, by making them sit near us for a while or by touching them a little bit, how can their progress be achieved?”

Patel only saw in Yagnik’s arguments “airy utopias and feeble sentimentalism”. Once again, Yagnik turned to Gandhi. Once again a new meeting was convened. But this time, Yagnik was in a minority and he decided to resign from his post of secretary. One more meeting was organised to consider his resignation and Gandhi then said:

“There is no doubt that there is no other person as industrious as Bhai Indulal. There is also no doubt that one would not easily come across a sincere person like him. But because of their different natures he and Vallabhbhai cannot work together. Therefore, it is my suggestion to accept Bhai Indulal’s resignation with great regret…”

Yagnik later reflected upon this parting of ways, for which Patel was largely responsible, and described him most acutely:

“Collecting money raining on the Congress table – thanks to Mr Gandhi and his propaganda in his great political movement – and influenced by the conservative and petty-minded counsels of his new-found allies [the businessmen rallying around the Congress], sitting at the headquarters, stationary and immobile like a great god, he increasingly tended to develop into a bureaucratic and centripetal force charged with the onerous responsibility of guarding the people’s treasure in the name of the great Mahatma. While, though I had made Ahmedabad the headquarters of all my public and political activities, I instinctively represented the centrifugal tendency and could not help identifying myself with the needs, the views, and the feelings of the mass of the workers and people in the districts and the village.”

After the resignation of Indulal Yagnik, some progressive leaders continued to play an important role in the Gujarat Congress. Dinkar Mehta, DM Pangarkar, Kamala Shankar Pandya and Ishwarlal Desai took part in all the mass movements initiated by Gandhi, from the Bardoli Satyagraha to the Salt March. In 1934, they created the provincial branch of the Congress Socialist Party. In their classic, The Shaping of Modern Gujarat, Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth point out, regarding these men and women, that “their communication lines with Gandhi always remained open with feelings of mutual regard, though Patel, the leaders within the Majoor Mahajan Sangh and, later, Morarji Desai remained hostile”. As a result, DM Pangarkar left the Congress and switched to communism in the mid-1930s. Others, including Yagnik, used the Kisan Sabha as their main political instrument, so much so that the Sabha became the principal rival to the Congress. In the course of the 1930s, while the influence of Gandhi over the Gujarat Congress eroded, Vallabhbhai Patel epitomised the rise to power of the conservative school of thought.

Mahatma Gandhi leads the Salt March in Gujarat's Dandi village in 1930, to protest the British imposition of a tax on salt production. Through the 1930s, his influence over the Gujarat Congress eroded as Vallabhbhai Patel rose in stature. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Social conservatism, Hindu traditionalism

Sardar Patel was elected municipal councillor from an Ahmedabad ward in 1917 and became mayor of the city in 1924. In parallel, he joined Gandhi in 1917 and became president of the Gujarat Congress in the early 1920s, a position he held for about two decades. His relations with Indulal Yagnik were revealing of his priorities. His proximity with the businessmen who funded the Congress in Gujarat after Gandhi became its leader reinforced his social conservatism. This dimension of his personality found expression in his opposition to “the socialist faction” that emerged in the Congress in the mid-1930s and more particularly in his defence of private property rights. Speaking in Baroda in 1935, he declared, “Our aim should be that no injustice is done either to the big landholders or to the sowkars [money lenders] and at the same time to see that no one’s fundamental rights are ignored.” This view, which echoed the Gandhian notion of trusteeship, remained constant in the discourse of Patel who in October 1950, two months before he died, said in Indore: “I am certainly a friend of rulers and capitalists as I am of Harijan and the poorest of the poor.” Patel usually justified his downplaying of social conflicts on behalf of the priority that had to be accorded to the freedom struggle. In April 1947, he “advised the people not to create trouble, not to disturb the peaceful, harmonious relationship between peasants and labourers. He equated the creation of trouble in a period when India was moving towards independence with sin, a social crime worse than dacoity”.

This approach was well in tune with Gandhi’s ethos (including the Mahatma’s organicist view of the social system) and the mercantile aspect of Gujarati asmita (identity). Not only wasn’t Patel as sensitive to the Dalit question as Yagnik could be, but he was also more favourably inclined towards the Hindu Mahasabha, including its main leader in Gujarat, Vamanrao Mukadam. That was partly a reflection of Patel’s ambivalent attitude vis-à-vis the Muslim minority. In 1919-1921, he supported the Khilafat movement, considering that the abolition of the Khilafat “has, as a matter of fact, been a heart-breaking episode for Indian Muslims, and how can Hindus stand by unaffected when they see their fellow countrymen thus in distress?” This sense of solidarity was fostered by his belief that Muslims “originally belonged to India and were converted from Hindus”. Yet, Patel also complained to Gandhi that “the manners and customs of Muslims are different. They take meat while we are vegetarians. How are we to live with them in the same place?” Gandhi replied, “No, sir, Hindus as a body are nowhere vegetarians except in Gujarat.” Patel’s attitude towards Muslims changed further after the Muslim League’s separatism developed and Partition took place, while he became deputy prime minister and minister for home in the Nehru government. In a letter he wrote to Rajendra Prasad on September 5, 1947, he explains that, as home minister, he has “already given licences to two or three Hindu dealers for the sale of arms,” suggesting that he was helping anti-Muslim militias.

Soon after Independence, in November 1947, Patel came to Junagadh, a princely state whose Muslim ruler wanted to accede to Pakistan, in order to direct the occupation of the state by the Indian Army. He seized this opportunity to visit the ruins of the temple of Somnath. According to his associate VP Menon, he “was visibly moved to find the temple which had once been the glory of India looking so dilapidated. It was proposed then and there to reconstruct it so as to return it to its original splendour”. He declared, “The restoration of the idols would be a point of honour and sentiment with the Hindu public.” While Gandhi and Nehru disapproved of a decision that, in their view, transgressed the religious neutrality of the Indian state, Patel was backed by the Gujarat Congress and other Hindu traditionalist leaders, including Rajendra Prasad – the president of the Constituent Assembly. The ruins of the old temple were pulled down in October 1950 and in May 1951, Rajendra Prasad, the first president of the Republic of India, performed a re-installation ceremony in the face of the opposition of Nehru – and of Yagnik.

As home minister (and deputy prime minister), Patel was also manifesting some sympathy for Hindu nationalism at the Centre. In December 1947, during a speech in Jaipur, he reflected his will “to turn the enthusiasm and discipline of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh into right channels”. On January 6, 1948, he made an even more important speech in Lucknow, inviting the Hindu Mahasabha to amalgamate with the Congress on the ground that its members could not pretend to be “the only custodians of Hinduism”. He held out the same invitation to members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and justified this move while criticising Nehru obliquely:

“In the Congress, those who are in power feel that by the virtue of authority they will be able to crush the RSS. You cannot crush an organisation by using the danda [stick]. The danda is meant for thieves and dacoits. They are patriots who love their country. Only their trend of thought is diverted. They are to be won over by Congressmen, by love.”

Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh member, three weeks later and the organisation was banned. Home minister Patel, who suddenly changed his mind, was in charge of the repression that he justified in eloquent terms to Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, his colleague from the Hindu Mahasabha in the Nehru government:

“The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of the government and the state. Our reports show that those activities, despite the ban, have not died down. Indeed, as time has marched on, the RSS circles are becoming defiant and are indulging in their subversive activities in an increasing measure. The number of persons arrested is not large; it is just above 500 throughout India. This would show that generally only those are in detention whose release is prejudicial to security.”

Still, Patel was prepared to engage the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In December 1948, while the Sangh was still banned, he made a speech in Jaipur in which he “advised members of the RSS to join the Indian National Congress if they had the good of the country uppermost in their hearts”. As home minister, Patel negotiated with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leaders who wanted the ban to be lifted. He was convinced that the organisation could be legalised after it adopted a constitution complying with the Indian Constitution. He then considered that “the only way for them [the leaders of the RSS] is to reform the Congress from within, if they think the Congress is going on the wrong path”. On October 10, 1949, while Nehru was abroad, Patel had a resolution passed by the Congress Working Committee authorising Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh members to be part of the party but the prime minister rescinded the decision soon afterwards.

While Patel appreciated some of the qualities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, he was not in favour of letting the organisation penetrate the state apparatus. In January 1948 – a few weeks before the assassination of Gandhi – he declared that he approved the action “of the Bombay government banning the employment of Rashtriya Swayamsevak men in government service [...] because it was not proper for government servants to identify themselves with a communal organisation”. Similarly, as chairman of the “Minorities Committee” of the Constituent Assembly, Patel never considered Muslims second-class citizens. Instead, he asked them to show their allegiance to the Indian Republic and to be fully loyal to it. He justified his rejection of the old separate electorate (a system where only Muslims voted for a set of Assembly seats reserved for them) on behalf of this sense of patriotism and national unity.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was banned after former member Nathuram Godse killed Mahatma Gandhi. But Vallabhbhai Patel continued to engage with the organisation's leaders, convinced it could be legalised.

Social conservatism in Constituent Assembly

In the Constituent Assembly, Patel continued to show the same lack of empathy vis-à-vis Dalits that had been responsible for Yagnik’s resignation in the early 1920s. As president of the sub-committee dealing with minorities, he objected to the suggestion of one of BR Ambedkar’s lieutenants, Nagappa, who had given up the separate electorate formula but proposed an alternative to it. According to this scheme, in constituencies reserved for Scheduled Castes, candidates winning more than 35% of the untouchables’ votes could be declared as victorious. Such a system would have given more legitimacy to Scheduled Caste MPs and MLAs. Patel disposed of this idea considering that Scheduled Caste representatives themselves were “all against this amendment, and [that] Mr Nagappa knew about it. But Mr Nagappa wanted to move his amendment to fulfil a promise or undertaking or at least to show his community that he was not purchased by the majority community! Well, he has done his job, but other people took him seriously and took a lot of time”. Patel even accused the Scheduled Castes of fomenting fissiparous tendencies:

“To the Scheduled Castes friends, I also appeal: ‘Let us forget what Dr Ambedkar or his group have done’. Let us forget what you did. You have very nearly escaped partition of the country again on your lines. You have seen the result of separate electorates in Bombay, that when the greatest benefactor of your community [Gandhi] came to Bombay to stay in bhangi quarters it was your people who tried to stone his quarters. What was it? It was again the result of this poison, and therefore I resist this only because I feel that the vast majority of the Hindu population wish you well. Without them where will you be? Therefore secure their confidence and forget that you are a Scheduled Caste [...] those representatives of the Scheduled Castes must know that the Scheduled Castes must be effaced altogether from our society, and if it is to be effaced, those who have ceased to be untouchables and sit amongst us have to forget that they are untouchables or else if they carry this inferiority complex, they will not be able to serve their community.”

In other words, Patel told the Dalits that they should be ashamed of their demands that almost amount to separatism, whereas their real hero, Gandhi, kept the nation united. For him, it was up to the Scheduled Castes to regain the trust of the upper castes. The problem lay in the Scheduled Castes’ psychology: they must remove their inferiority complex.

After 1947, Sardar Patel wanted to take the Congress in a conservative direction contra Nehru. He had Purushottamdas Tandon, another Hindu traditionalist, elected Congress president against Nehru – who then resigned from the Congress Working Committee. But Patel died in 1950 and Nehru forced Tandon to resign the following year. Before the 1951-1952 elections, Nehru was fully in control and designated the Hindu nationalists the main enemy of the Congress during the first Indian election campaign.

Mahatma Gandhi with Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel at a Congress meeting. Patel sought to take the party in a conservative direction, which Nehru opposed. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Christophe Jaffrelot is research director at the Centre de recherches internationales and Centre national de la recherche scientifique