In view of the recent burst of interest in the media, I would like to recall the association that I was privileged to have, over six decades ago, with the great Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. In fact, had it not been for the Sardar, I would have spent the rest of my life in a wheelchair. In my youth I had developed a problem in my hip and had been confined to a wheelchair for many months. When Gandhiji visited my father in August 1947, I insisted on sitting in at the meeting and my chair was wheeled in under the chinar tree at Gulab Bhavan Palace with its magnificent view of the Dal Lake.
When towards the end of October, after the Pakistani tribal invasion, we moved to Jammu on the advice of V.P. Menon, my chair was brought down in a station wagon. In November 1947, Sardar Patel visited Jammu and came to see us. When he learnt that I had been confined to a wheelchair for six months, he told my father that I should immediately be sent to America for treatment. Since I was an only child, my mother, of course, was very reluctant for me to go abroad. But my father realised that Sardar’s wise advice needed to be followed. As a result, arrangements were made to send me to New York for medical treatment, and it was due to surgery and prolonged treatment in the United States that I was able to walk again and finally resume a normal life, including playing tennis (doubles), badminton and golf. I, therefore, owe an undying debt of gratitude to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, without whose intervention I would certainly have spent my whole life under a severe handicap.
In 1949, relations between Sheikh Abdullah and my father, Maharaja Hari Singh, had become so estranged that it was no longer possible for both of them to continue to function in the state. Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel finally took the decision to ask my father to leave the state “for a while” and appoint me as his regent, although in fact he never returned to the state. In this context, the Sardar invited us to come to Delhi, and at a meeting with my parents, broke the news to them. Sheikh Abdullah had insisted that my mother should also leave the state because she was active in helping the tens of thousand of refugees who were streaming into Jammu from the areas occupied by the Pakistani incursion, including Mirpur and almost all of the erstwhile Poonch Jagir, except the town.
This came as a severe blow to my parents, who were shocked that after acceding to India they were now being virtually exiled from the state. However, they had no option but to accept, and it was decided that my father would issue a proclamation appointing me as regent on June 20, 1949, soon after I had turned 18. Before then, while we were still in Delhi, Sardar Patel graciously invited me to spend a fortnight with him in May at the Dehra Dun circuit house. He was keeping poor health and was nursed with great affection by his daughter Maniben Patel. He would call for me from time to time, and I had the privilege of hearing his views on various matters, including, of course, Jammu and Kashmir, where he did not share Nehru’s very close and trusting relationship with Sheikh Abdullah.
Of late, Sardar Patel has come back into the political discourse. There is no question that among the amazing galaxy of leaders in his team, the Sardar and Nehru were the two closest political associates of Mahatma Gandhi. However, it is also clear that the decision to choose Nehru as the first prime minister was taken by Mahatma Gandhi himself. It was not as if it was a party decision; it was Gandhiji who, as the unquestioned leader of the freedom movement, took all the major decisions. He rightly realised that although the Sardar was senior in age and experience, he was much older and did not have the vitality, charisma and international prestige that the younger man enjoyed. Prescient as he was, he had decided well before Independence that Nehru was the one who would take over as prime minister when the British left, which was why Nehru became the head of the first interim government in coalition with the Muslim League in 1946, and remained prime minister from 1947 for 17 years until 1964, while the Sardar passed away in 1950.
The fact that Gandhiji chose Jawaharlal Nehru, first over Subhas Chandra Bose and later over Sardar Patel, in no way detracts from the stature of those two great leaders. Netaji’s heroic role in raising the Indian National Army and infusing a new revolutionary spirit into the freedom movement will always be remembered with pride. As far as the Sardar is concerned, he achieved a task the like of which had never before been attempted in world history. He succeeded in integrating over 500 Indian states and principalities into a united India with the consent and cooperation of the princes themselves, except in the cases of Hyderabad and Junagarh. The peaceful transition from feudalism to democracy laid the solid foundation of Indian unity, and this is an achievement for which the entire nation, regardless of party affiliation, will remain eternally indebted to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, rightly called the Iron Man of India.
As published in IndianExpress