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Patel is depicted as a supporter of Hindu chauvinism,
but his major concern was national unity

Fifty years after India won freedom, the myth that Sardar Patel was anti-Muslim persists. In this fascinating essay, Dr Rafiq Zakaria, the respected scholar, reveals the truth about Patel and India's Muslims.

Sardar Patel Commenting on the above letter, S Gopal, whose three-volume biography of Nehru has become a classic, and who is quite critical of the Sardar, wrote that 'Patel is usually depicted as a supporter of Hindu chauvinism, but actually his major concern was national unity.' He has even observed that Dr Rajendra Prasad was more non-secular than Patel.

I come to the question of separate electorate for Muslims in various elective bodies, from panchayat samitis and municipalities to the state legislatures and the two houses of Parliament; again I do not propose to go into its history or the why and how of its introduction by the British way back in 1906. Suffice it to say that the Muslims believed that it was the only safeguard for their due representation, while the Hindus, by and large, felt that it was a clever way to keep the two apart.

At first, the Constituent Assembly had conceded that the minorities, including the Sikhs and the Muslims, along with the Scheduled Castes be given reservation of seats under joint electorate; that was in July 1947, a month before Partition. Its aftermath changed the whole outlook of most members; they apprehended that even such reservations would strike at the root of secularism.

A sub-committee was, therefore, constituted under the chairmanship of the Sardar to review the question; at this time the Sikhs more than the Muslims were vociferous in their demand for separate electorates for their people. They also asked for many more guarantees. Among the members of this committee was Begum Aizaz Rasul, the most prominent woman in the League hierarchy, who had chosen to remain in India; she was a Sunni Muslim. So was Maulana Hifzur Rehman, a confidant of Azad. The other Muslim member was Tajammul Husain, a Shia. Dr B R Ambedkar, the Scheduled Caste leader, was naturally on it and played a notable part.

At the very first meeting Dr Ambedkar objected to the reopening of the question; but the Sardar, as the chairman, overruled it. Maulana Hifzur Rehman then pleaded for reservation; Tajammul Husain chided him for his volte face in encouraging communalism. The Sikh members were firm on the retention of the old formula. All through, the Sardar sat in stolid silence, easing the tension occasionally by a light remark here and there. As there were differences among the members, the chairman adjourned the meeting, requesting the members to work out, in the meanwhile, some agreed solution.

At the next meeting on May 11, 1949, the nationalist Muslims, on the advice of Azad, proposed the abolition of separate electorate for the Muslims; Begum Aizaz Rasul seconded the proposal on behalf of the League. She spoke, surprisingly, with great eloquence on the virtues of a united front with Hindus. The Sikhs were taken aback by the Muslim turn-about. They had relied on the Muslim stand to make their demand. No dissident voice was, therefore, raised.

The Sardar kept quiet all through; he gave no indication of his views; their volte face cut off the ground of the Sikhs. It is not known whether he had any discussion with Azad to the issue; but the sudden change in the Muslim attitude was apparently due to Azad. Consequently, the Sardar wound up the proceedings on a note of satisfaction; he was happy that there was a consensus on the abolition of separate electorate for minorities. So he put the seal of the Committee on it. Only for the Scheduled Castes, a ten-year period of grace was accepted.

Excerpted from Sardar Patel and Indian Muslims, by Rafiq Zakaria, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1996, Rs 125, with the author's permission. Readers interested in buying a copy of the book may write to Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Kulapati K M Munshi Marg, Bombay 400 007.