Sardar Patel’s Foreign Policy
Now that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ensured that the country “acknowledges” the contributions of India’s first Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel towards the independence and making of “Modern India”, it is worth debating the relevance of the great man, better known as the “Iron Man”, who could have, had he wanted, become independent India’s first Prime Minister in place of Jawaharlal Nehru. Obviously, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which ruled India for three generations, has underplayed the role of Patel all these years; but that is a different story. In our cover story this week, we have only attempted to highlight why our younger generations must be familiar with Patel’s work, ideas and proud position in India’s history.
Commentators have usually focused on Patel’s record in India’s domestic sphere. And it is understandable as he was the Home Minister. That is why one listens more and more on Patel’s role in the integration of almost all the Princely States, which under “the Independence of India Act”, as determined by the then colonial power Great Britain, were left free to join either India or Pakistan or retain their so-called independence, with what constitutes India today. To Patel goes also the credit for reposing full faith in the importance of the civil service, despite its British legacy. All told, in a diverse and heterogeneous country such as India, a civil service with a national vision and reach had to play the great cementing role.
However, the fact remains, and this is what I will like to concentrate on in this column, that Patel had a strong world-view too. His ideas on India’s long-term security and the emerging geopolitical environment were not only sound but also prophetic in sharp contrast to those of Nehru’s highly idealistic and often suicidal. Patel was well aware of the fact that apart from the Hindu-Muslim factor, the geopolitical rivalry between the Western countries led by the United States and Britain on one hand and the then Soviet Union and China on the other was an equally contributory factor towards the partition of India. As it was, London always suspected Moscow to be nurturing an ambition for having an access to a warm-water port in the Indian Ocean. Besides, the discovery of oil in the Arab countries and the global economy’s increasing dependence on oil made it imperative that Britain, or for that matter the US, must have a strong military presence, whether direct or indirect, in a part of India so as to control and secure the oil production in and oil supply from the Middle East. After all, it was from India that the imperial Britain was mastering the waves east of Suez Canal. An undivided, independent and democratic India would not have played such a role. So Pakistan had to be created out of India at any cost. In fact, in one of his letters to industrialist G D Birla, Sardar Patel had clearly linked the creation of Pakistan to the unhindered access of the Western powers to oil in the Gulf region.
Patel was certainly not comfortable with the British policies. And that is understandable, given the fact that he had earned his identity “Iron Man” for his epic struggle against the British colonialism. But he did believe in the larger Western cause of democracy. He was unquestionably against Communism. Maybe his abhorrence for Communism stemmed from his early realisation of the dangers that a Communist China posed for India. Unlike Nehru who thought that no country other than Pakistan was a security threat to India, Patel was very clear that the real and long-term menace emerged from China, particularly after the evil designs of the Communist regime in Beijing was evident in Tibet. Historically, the Chinese may have had “suzerainty” over Tibet, but that was distinct from “sovereignty”. In internal administration of Tibet and the conduct of its foreign policy, the Chinese exercised no role. Up to 1949, Tibet was an independent country in more senses than one with a distinct civilization having rich culture, language, religion, polity and identity. Historically again, Tibet was not only under the civilisational or cultural influence of India, it also was the buffer zone between the two Asian giants.
In order to realise his dream of Asian-unity, Jawaharlal Nehru was always in favour of appeasing China. And that is why immediately after Indian independence, he legitimised Chinese “sovereignty” over Tibet. In this process, he was helped immensely by K M Pannikar, the then Indian ambassador to China, who was immensely brainwashed by Mao tse-Tung over sumptuous dinners. Little was it realised by Nehru that as Tibet’s boundary with India was never a settled issue, China was bound to exploit the flaw. But this was very well realised by Patel. On November 7, 1950, Patel wrote a letter to Nehru pointing out how the Chinese troops’ entry into Tibet earlier that year resulted in a situation that “for the first time, after centuries, India’s defence has to concentrate itself on two fronts simultaneously”. Patel had suggested, “We have to consider what new situation now faces us as a result of the disappearance of Tibet as we know it, and the expansion of China up to our gates.” Continuing in this prophetic vein, he had noted: “Chinese irredentism and communist imperialism are different from the imperialism of the Western powers. The former has a cloak of ideology which makes it 10 times more dangerous. In the guise of ideological expansion lie concealed racial, national and historical claims… While our western and north-western threats to security are still as prominent as before, a new threat has developed from the north and north-east. Thus, for the first time, after centuries, India’s defence has to concentrate itself on two fronts simultaneously. Our defence measures have so far been based on the calculations of a superiority over Pakistan.”
Declassified Western sources suggest that Patel was deeply critical of Nehru’s foreign policies both towards Tibet and the Korean War in 1950. Though initially India condemned North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, it did not support the subsequent military action by the United Nations against North Korea and its principal backer China. Likewise, Patel did not go with Nehru on India’s “one China policy”, particularly when Taiwan occupied China’s seat in the United Nations. It may be noted that Taiwan had subsequently agreed to the suggestion that it would hand over the permanent seat in the UN Security Council to India, an offer an “idealistic” Nehru did not think worthy of; instead, he was the greatest votary of the time for Communist China’s membership in the world body.
According to British diplomat J L Oliver, London positively appreciated Patel’s attitude towards the West. The then British High Commissioner was quoted to have said, “ I have been told on good authority that Patel disapproved of Nehru’s approach to Stalin and would like to see India come out wholeheartedly on our side of fence and even send token force to Korea. But he does not feel strong enough to press this view on Nehru unless he can point to some countervailing advantage for India, e.g. an American loan for rearmament, a revival of the old project for sending wheat to India, a loan for refugee rehabilitation, or even a more sympathetic Anglo-American attitude to the Indians over Kashmir. He has been recently complaining, and his complaints have been duly brought to me and to the American Ambassador, that we are not giving him sufficient encouragement and that he is in a minority in the Cabinet. He also complains that he is alone in the foreign affairs subcommittee and that Ayyangar and Rajagopalachari are supporters of Nehru. I also am told that
Sardar Patel is carrying this Western orientation so far as to disapprove of Indian attempts to establish better relations with China.”
Was Patel really in minority in Nehru Cabinet? The American version of the issue is little different, going by a declassified US document that on November 10, 1950, Ambassador Henderson informed Washington: “Patel has been stating privately that within next few days he will insist in cabinet meeting that India not only change policy in direction of closer cooperation with western powers, particularly US, but that it make announcement to that effect… Patel and others advocating change in India’s policies are arguing that India must strengthen its military establishment if it is effectively to face its Communist neighbor, and that it cannot properly strengthen its military establishment without aid from US unless it makes clear before (the) whole world that it stands with (the) West against aggressiveness of international Communism.”
It is understood that Patel had made up his mind to oppose Nehru’s foreign policy in a Cabinet-meeting scheduled to be held on November 21, 1950. According to Maniben, Patel’s daughter, he had the support of Rajagopalachari and K M Munshi (cabinet colleagues) and that he “expected support” from other colleagues such as Baldev Singh, Jagjivan Ram and Sri Prakasa, “in the event of a showdown in cabinet with Nehru’s China policy”. Unfortunately, Patel could not attend the scheduled meeting on November 21 as he fell ill. His health deteriorated subsequently, leading to his death on December 15.
Who knows what would have happened to India’s diplomatic course had Patel attended the November 21 meeting? Maybe, India would have become a permanent member of the UN Security Council long ago and India’s military humiliation in the hands of China in 1962 could have been averted.
By Prakash Nanda