The legacy of Sardar Patel – the Unification of India

The great contribution of Sardar Patel to India is the political integration of India soon after independence. At the time of independence, the region was a mess, the country was being divided into three regions and two countries, there were hundreds of regional rulers who were finally free from the British, then there were colonies of other European powers, there was no clarity about what goes to Pakistan and what remains with India, there were ever increasing demands from the Pakistani side.

Amidst all this chaos, the Iron man of India, Sardar Patel not only ensured the seamless political integration of India, but also made sure with his statesmanship that the terms of integrations did not lead to any future instability. This article details the efforts of Sardar Patel, and the special cases of Kashmir, Junagadh and Hyderabad.

Political regions of India before independence

Just before India became independent in 1947 from British rule, there were three types of political territories in the undivided India.

  • British India – the territory that was directly ruled under the British crown
  • Princely States – around 565 princely states that were ruled by local rulers under subsidiary alliance with the British
  • non-British Colonial enclaves – regions like Pondicherry, Goa, etc were ruled by non-British colonial powers like French and Portuguese

Radcliffe line – the line that divided India into three regions

By 1947 it was decided that India would be free, but not as one nation, but as India and a separate Pakistan. The British then divided the British India between India and Pakistan along the Radcliffe line.

The line essentially cut India into three regions – West Pakistan, East Pakistan and India. So on the west, it formed the border between India and Pakistan (West Pakistan then). On the east, it formed the border between India and Bangladesh (East Pakistan then). So all British provinces that were inside this line became part of India, that included Bombay Presidency, Madras Presidency, Bengal Presidency, the provinces of Orissa, Delhi, Coorg, Assam, Bihar Delhi etc.

The irony was that the person who drew this line, Radcliffe, had never been to India in the past till he was appointed to draw that line to divide India! How can you divide a nation without knowing its culture, geography and history?! He destroyed all the paper work he did to draw the line before he left India.

So nobody knows the logic that was used to draw these lines. Radcliffe was in a hurry to leave India because his body could not stand the Indian climate. The line was drawn in a hurry! Even after the line was drawn, the Indian and Pakistani representatives were given just two hours to study it, before it was announced as the final boundary!

But this was as far as the British territory went. Now, since the British were leaving, the 565 princely states that were earlier under subsidiary alliance with British, were now free to decide their fate.

India before Partition - princely states and British provinces

The 565 Princely States and their Subsidiary Alliance with British

Apart from the region directly ruled by the British crown, the British India also had 565 princely states that were in subsidiary alliance with the British. The rules of the Subsidiary alliance were as follows:

  • The ruler would accept British East India Company as the paramount power in entire India.
  • The foreign affairs of the state would be managed by the British
  • The state cannot have an independent armed force. The British army would protect the state from any threats.
  • If the ruler fails to make the payments required by the alliance, a part of his territory would be taken away by British as penalty.
  • The ruler would accept the decisions of British regarding to all other states of India

In other words, the subsidiary alliance ensured that the British made good amount of money as well as retained power over the princely states, with the ruler restricted only to his regional administration.

But with the British gone in 1947 and the subsidiary alliance gone with them – the princely states had become independent! They were free to decide whether to join India or Pakistan or remain independent.

Integration of the Princely States into India

The Indian National Congress however was against princely states becoming independent because that would amount to the Balkanisation of India. The Congress was not very active in these princely states during the freedom movement. So there came a urgent need to actively engage with the princely states to convince them to merge with the Indian union.

The moment it was announced that the British would be leaving India and the princely states would become independent, every princely state had a different view about its future and relations with India. Some states like Bikaner, Jawhar were ready to merge their states with India.

But states like Bhopal, Travancore, Hyderabad, etc wanted to become independent countries. The Nizam of Hyderabad started negotiations with other countries to set up foreign trade relations, and also planned to lease Goa from the Portuguese to give sea access to his state. The ruler of Travancore asked recognition from western countries pointing to its rich Thorium reserves, and the strategic sea based location of the state.

Some states who planned to remain independent, also proposed an alliance of all such independent princely states as a third political entity in the region in addition to India and newly formed Pakistan. The ruler of Bhopal actually tried to forge an alliance of princely states with Pakistan to counter India.

Sardar Patel – the Iron Man of India

Sardar Patel and V. P. Menon – The duo that ensured the political integration of India

Amidst all this chaos, Sardar Patel was appointed as the first Home Minister of India, with the gigantic task of persuading and integrating all the princely states into India. V. P. Menon was an Indian civil servant who was the political advisor to the last viceroy – Lord Mountbatten. He caught the eye of Sardar Patel who recognized and appreciated his ability to manage diplomacy in an ingenious way.

So, when Patel became the Home Minister, he appointed Menon as the secretary of the Ministry of the States – that was in charge of relations with princely states and was headed by Patel himself. So while Patel was the political head in charge, Menon was the administrative head in charge – of the task of integrating princely states with India.

Menon and Patel worked closely, came out with an action plan, and worked very hard, interacting with each and every princely state on a one-to-one basis to engage them into discussion, and persuade them into signing the instrument of accession to merge their states with India. Menon visited each of these rulers as the envoy of Sardar Patel to get things done.

Note that these were the times when all politicians from Congress who became ministers in the new government of India, including Nehru, were allergic to civil servants as they were part of the earlier British Raj. So the special bond of trust and mutual respect between Sardar Patel and V P Menon was a rare one. It is this relationship between the two that made it easy to carry out both political and diplomatic measures in a smooth manner to integrate the hundreds of princely states with India in a seamless manner.

It should also be noted that Menon quit the Indian Administrative Service immediately after Patel’s death in 1950. But the three years of his tenure with Sardar Patel ensured the political integration of India.

The princely states were convinced by Patel and Menon about the eventual necessity of integrating with India. Each of the princely state was deal with on an individual basis, and factors were listed out that would convince them about acceding to India. Many princely states also were persuaded by popular sentiment in their states to join India.

Role of Lord Mountbatten in the integration of India

It is also to be noted that Lord Mountbatten himself played a crucial role in the integration process. He made it clear to the princely states that post independence, no princely state would be accepted into the Common Wealth. That no recognition would come from British for them unless they merged with India or Pakistan. He also pointed out that the states would suffer huge economic loss if they did not accede to India or Pakistan.

It was Mountbatten who personally persuaded the Nawab of Bhopal to join India. Mountbatten was severely criticized for his actions by both the princely states as well as his political opponents in Britain. British civil servants like Conrad Corfield resigned protesting these policies of Mountbatten helping India.

The Process of merger of princely states

Sardar Patel and Menon handled each princely state on a case by case basis. Three different types of Instrument of Accession – the legal document signed by the government of India and the ruler of the princely state – were prepared to facilitate the merging of the princely states with India.

  • The first type was for those states that had internal autonomy in terms of administration under the British rule.
  • The second type was for those states where a large amount of administration was carried out by the earlier British government.
  • The third type was for those states which were neither fully autonomous nor completely under British administration under British rule.

Thus, by coming up with customized agreement for each princely state, Patel and Menon tried to allay the fears of their rulers about losing all their rights and protection on merging their states with India. A number of promises were made to the rulers about their rights, properties, immunity from prosecution in the Indian courts, exemption from customs duty, etc. This was meant to allow the democratization of these states as a slow and steady process. The princes were also promised an annual payment from the India government in the form of privy purse as a compensation. Their private property was promised to remain theirs.

These agreements gave the rulers a lot of independence similar to what they had as rulers, and so encouraged them to merge their states with India. At the same time, Patel and Menon also made it clear to these rulers that, if they did not agree to the proposed agreements that gave them so much freedom, then they would not get any such favorable agreements if they were to reconsider their decision later. In other words, it was, accede now and enjoy all the benefits. Stay out at your own risk.

So most princely states saw this as the best deal of agreement possible and agreed to merge their territories with India.

Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel

Integration of border states with India

At the same time Jinnah was trying to persuade border states to merge with Pakistan instead of India. The ruler of Jodhpur wanted to join Pakistan. Jinnah promised to allow the merger of Jodhpur and Jaisalmer with Pakistan by agreeing to any and every conditions they had for merger. He gave them blank papers to write down all their conditions and that he would sign them without any questions.

But the people in Jodhpur and Jaisalmer were against merging with Pakistan. The ruler of Jaisalmer chose India. The maharaja of Jodhpur was persuaded by Mountbatten and Menon to join India. In the process, the maharaja is said to have also pointed .22 calibre pistol towards Menon. Menon instead told him that it would be a serious mistake to threaten him, and the will of the people of Jodhpur would anyway force its merger with India. Finally, Jodhpur also merged with India.

The integration challenge – Kashmir, Junagadh and Hyderabad

While all states inside the Radcliffe line merged with India, three states remained undecided or decided otherwise. They were Kashmir, Junagadh and Hyderabad.

The Nawab (ruler) of Junagadh, Muhammad Mahabat Khanji III, decided to accede his state to Pakistan. The majority of the people of his state were Hindus and wanted to accede with India. Mountbatten had pointed out it was not geographically viable as the state was surrounded by India on land and had no land route connecting to Pakistan. The Nawab argued that they could reach Pakistan by sea!

Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir wanted his state to remain independent without joining India or Pakistan. So he offered a status quo agreement with India and Pakistan. Pakistan accepted the offer, but India rejected it.

The Nizam of Hyderabad also wanted his state to remain independent. He offered a status quo agreement with India, and India agreed to it. So the agreement was that for one year, the status quo would be maintained between India and Hyderabad

Jammu and Kashmir – the first integration challenge

Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir had signed a status quo agreement with Pakistan, and had opted to remain independent. India had not agreed for an agreement with Kashmir. It is said that the Maharaja wanted to remain independent because he thought Muslims in his state would feel vulnerable if he joined India, and Hindus and Sikhs of his state would feel vulnerable if he joined Pakistan.

It is often said that Patel was not interested in integrating Kashmir with India. But if that were the case, then India would have signed the status quo agreement with it, just like Pakistan had. It did not sign only meant that India had other plans for Kashmir.

Also, it has to be noted that in 1947, the supply of essential goods to Kashmir and its trade was via Pakistani side of British India. The road from India to Jammu then was in a very bad shape, almost non existing in placed. Patel had ordered an improvement of infrastructure all along this road. Would Patel have done this if he did not want Kashmir to integrate with India? This was also the reason why India had to send its air force to fight Pakistani invasion of Kashmir.

The Pakistani side however did not honor its standstill agreement with Kashmir. It first wanted its army to invade and take over Kashmir, but that did not happen as the then Pakistan Army’s British chiefs, Sir Frank Messervy and Douglas Gracey, refused to get the military involved in the invasion of Kashmir.

So Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan of Pakistan came up with two plans to take over Kashmir. The first was to encourage an armed insurgency in its western districts. And the second was a Pushtoon tribal invasion of Kashmir valley. The first plan led to the Poonch Rebellion which alarmed the Maharaja who dismissed his pro-Pakistan Prime Minister Ram Chandra Kak, and appointed a pro-India, retired Major Janak Singh in his place. The second plan of Liaquat Ali Khan led to the tribal invasion of Kashmir with active assistance of Pakistan.

Patel wanted to immediately send Indian troops to Kashmir when the Pakistani invasion news came out. But Nehru and Mountbatten convinced him to wait till the ruler of Kashmir formally acceded to India. Their argument was that this would give India the right to respond, and Patel agreed.

The Maharaja of Kashmir, asked for Indian assistance to fight the Pakistani threat, but Patel refused to help unless the king signed instrument of accession with India. So the maharaja of Kashmir signed the document on 26 October 1947.

It has to be noted that it was Sheikh Abdullah, the popular leader in the Kashmir valley and a friend of Nehru, who came to Delhi to convince Nehru that India should accept the merger of Kashmir. So it was not only the ruler, but also a popular Muslim leader from Kashmir valley, Sheikh Abdullah, who wanted Kashmir to join India. This is in stark contrast what is being told these days that, a Muslim majority state was forced by its Hindu ruler to join India.

The next day Indian troops landed at the Srinagar airport before the Pakistani supported tribesmen could reach there, and went on to remove the invaders from Kashmir Valley. As the war continued to clear Kashmir of its invaders from Pakistan, the blunder of taking the issue to United Nations was made by Nehru.

Patel was very much against Nehru’s decision of taking the matter to UN. He rightly pointed out that Pakistan had violated its stand still agreement with Kashmir by supporting the invasion, and Kashmir had legally acceded to India. Patel considered it a purely bilateral affair between India and Pakistan, and opposed internationalization of the issue.

Patel also had opposed the decision of Indian government of giving Rupees 550 million to Pakistan, as he was convinced that the money would be used by Pakistan to fight India. Even Nehru agreed with Patel, but it was Mahatma Gandhi who insisted that Pakistan be given the money, and Patel was deeply hurt by this decision.

So, thanks to Nehru’s decision to take the matter to UN, Kashmir remained an unresolved issue. Had Patel known that Nehru would be later taking the matter to UN, he would have not agreed initially to wait till the Maharaja signed the instrument of accession with India.

Integration of Junagadh with India

The Nawab of Junagadh, against the wishes of his people, signed for merger with Pakistan. India rejected this merger. This was also against the principle of geographical continuity that was required for merger of princely states. Mountbatten was of the view that states which were surrounded completely by India cannot merger with Pakistan, and vice versa, as it was not practically viable.

Jinnah accepted this merger, which went against his very own theory for the formation of Pakistan that Hindus and Muslims could not live together, and hence Pakistan was needed. Now here was Junagadh, a Hindu majority state that was not compatible with the very idea of Pakistan!

Patel, in response ended all trade of India with Junagadh. The Nawab fearing for his life escaped to Karachi in Pakistan. Patel gave time to Pakistan to reverse the merger, and go for a plebiscite if required. On getting no response, Patel ordered forcible annexation of Junagadh in November, 1947. He was not ready to repeat the mistake India made at Kashmir. The people of Junagadh were more than happy to merge with India. The government of India held an election in Junagadh in which 99.95% voted in favor of merging Junagadh with India.

Integration of Hyderabad with India

The Nizam (ruler) of the then Hyderabad State opted to remain independent as well. He signed a treaty with India to maintain status quo for an year, so that he had more time to discuss things in detal.

But he did not honor the treaty. Patel who always doubted the intentions of the Nizam had set up an investigation team to find out what Nizam was up to. And it revealed that Nizam was carrying out communications with Pakistan, which was against what was agreed in the treaty with India.

The Nizam had transferred 15 million pounds of money to Pakistan from his London account. He also built a semi private army of his own. His government interfered with the road and rail traffic with India. All this clearly violated the agreement with India. Patel was losing patience. He is popularly quoted to have said that

If Hyderabad does not see the writing on the wall, it goes the way Junagadh has gonesIf Hyderabad does not see the writing on the wall, it goes the way Junagadh has gone

This was a warning to the Nizam that, if he does not honor the agreement with India, then India would be forced to act, like it did in Junagadh. But Nizam paid no heed to Patel’s warning. The Nizam also created a private militia called the Razakars, who opposed the integration of Hyderabad with India.

This started a chain of violence, where Razakars started killing Hindus, brutally put down the armed rebellion by communists in Telangana, and they even killed progressive Muslims like Shoebullah Khan who wanted Hyderabad to merge with India. Thousands of Hindus and progressive muslims were killed by Razakars in Hyderabad.

Once these atrocities started, Patel had it enough with the Nizam. More than 40,000 people, majority of them Hindus had fled Hyderabad and entered neighboring states as refugees. Nehru was still reluctant, wanted to go through the UN route as he feared international repercussions and a military action by Pakistan. But Patel had decided enough is enough.

Menon on his part interacted with France and prevented an arms purchased that was being made by Nizam to fight India. This caused a severe shortage of weapons to the Nizam’s army. Pakistan supplied around 20,000 rifles to Nizam, but Nizam’s army did not get a chance to use it. Patel had already ordered Operation Polo.

The Indian army had entered Hyderabad on 13 September, 1948, and five days later on 17 September, the Nizam surrendered. Hyderabad was finally integrated into India. Patel was wary about the Hyderabad issue becoming internationalized like Kashmir, and hence the official name given to operation Polo was “Police action”, to insist it was not a military action against another country, but a local law and order issue that was being dealt with.

Police action is a military action without the formal declaration of war. Patel ensured Hyderabad did not become another Kashmir. He had learned his lesson with Kashmir, so neither did he delay the military action, nor allow any internationalization of the issue.

Statue of Unity – a tribute to Sardar Patel

Given the great contribution of Sardar Patel and his huge efforts in getting all the princely states integrated with India, post-independence, the Congress party almost forgot Sardar Patel. While hundreds of government schemes and projects were named after Nehru and Gandhi, hundreds of statues built for them, nothing was done that reminded the countrymen of the contributions of Sardar Patel in building this great country.

Statue of Unity - Sardar Patel
Statue of Unity, Gujarat, India – The world’s tallest statue built to honor Sardar Patel

It was only when Narendra Modi as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, announced the Statue of Unity in 2010, the world’s tallest statue, to be built to honor Sardar Patel, did Congress suddenly remember Patel as one of its own.

As far as Patel goes, all he wanted was the successful political integration of India, he had achieved it, and rightly the grand statue is called “The Statue of Unity”.

Today, the statue stands as a grand symbol of United India, honoring the man who left no stone unturned to integrate India into a single political union.

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