Jawaharlal Nehru with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel
Jawaharlal Nehru with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel | Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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In his last week’s National Interest column analysing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s seeming obsession with India’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru, Shekhar Gupta noted that a new biography of V.P. Menon — a senior civil servant who worked closely with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel — by Narayani Basu asserts with much documentation that Nehru had indeed excluded Patel from the list of his first Cabinet members. Referring to this claim, Karan Thapar wrote on 2 February that the book “more or less confirms something about which there has been a lot of speculation”.

At a time when pitting Patel against Nehru has become the stock-in-trade of the Narendra Modi government, it is not surprising that this particular point in Basu’s important book has attracted attention.

This claim was first made by H.V. Hodson in his 1969 book The Great Divide: Britain, India, Pakistan , drawing on an interview with Menon that the latter’s biographer cites. Menon had told Hodson that he had learnt that Nehru had dropped Patel and had warned India’s last Viceroy Louis Mountbatten of the dire consequences that would ensue.

At his urging, Mountbatten had met Gandhi and “as a sop, Sardar’s name was finally included”. Basu also quotes a letter from Mountbatten to Hodson in March 1970: “this story does ring a faint bell with me … I have a feeling this was such a hot potato that I probably just mentioned it quickly to Nehru at teatime and made a point of not recording it anywhere and probably not even of passing on the story.”


Also read: When Nehru sat down for a tell-all on Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad & Netaji’s Hitler leaning


The letters that spill the truth

We have been reminded in recent times of the need to grasp the chronology. So, let’s get that straight. Basu writes: “In the first week of August, Nehru submitted his official list of the people he wanted to serve in independent India’s first Cabinet. The list should have been headed by Sardar Patel. It wasn’t”. We know for a fact that Nehru submitted this list to Mountbatten on 4 August 1947. But in reality, the list was indeed headed by Patel. We can now step back and trace the chain of events.

First, Basu quotes a report on Mountbatten’s staff meeting on 28 July, where V.P. Menon notes that he hoped “this would be a Ministry of Talents, possibly including a number of younger men. However, it appeared that Pandit Nehru was having great difficulty forgetting his loyalties”. Menon’s concerns about inducting younger ministers and Nehru’s loyalties to his old colleagues was relayed by Mountbatten to Nehru when they met on 1 August (Mountbatten was in Calcutta on 30-31 July 1947).

The details of their discussion are worth noting. Mountbatten bluntly told Nehru that “unless he [Nehru] got rid of a lot of top-weight like Rajagopalachari and Maulana Azad, he would find himself greatly hampered”. Patel was not discussed at all. On the contrary, Mountbatten reported on 1 August that Patel was directly involved in the formation of the cabinet: “Patel came down heavily on ‘my’ side and they are now sitting night and day trying to produce a better cabinet”.

Indeed, Nehru had been working closely with Patel in drawing up the new cabinet. On 30 July, he wrote to Patel that he had met and persuaded Ambedkar to join the cabinet as law minister. He had also spoken to Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, senior congressman from UP. Nehru requested Patel to approach Syama Prasad Mookerjee and R.K. Shanmukham Chetty (neither was from the Congress) as well as talk to Rajaji (about becoming the governor of West Bengal). On 1 August, Nehru wrote to John Matthai: “As you know, all existing Members of the Cabinet (minus the Pakistanis) will continue with the exception of Rajaji who will become a governor”.

The same day, 1 August 1947, Nehru wrote a brief letter to Patel: “As formalities have to be observed to some extent, I am writing to invite you to join the new Cabinet. This writing is somewhat superfluous because you are the strongest pillar of the Cabinet ”. Patel’s reply to Nehru on 3 August also deserves to be quoted in full: “Our attachment and affection for each other and our comradeship for an unbroken period of nearly 30 years admit of no formalities. My services will be at your disposal, I hope, for the rest of my life and you will have unquestioned loyalty and devotion from me in the cause for which no man in India has sacrificed as much as you have done. Our combination is unbreakable and therein lies our strength”.


Also read: Sardar Patel wanted RSS to be merged into Congress but Nehru & Golwalkar stood in way


Mountbatten’s unreliability & Menon’s error

This was the bedrock of mutual regard and willing partnership that sustained Nehru and Patel’s relationship despite their differences. Only after Nehru received Patel’s assent did he send the list of cabinet members to Mountbatten on 4 August. Patel was not only at the top of the list, but would be deputy prime minister.

But, what to make of V.P. Menon’s claims to Hodson? The most defensible interpretation is that Menon picked up an unfounded rumour about Patel’s exclusion and relayed it to Mountbatten. There is not a shred of archival evidence that Mountbatten broached the matter with either Gandhi or Nehru. Megalomania was central to Mountbatten’s character. He never passed up an opportunity to claim that he was the principal orchestrator of developments around him. For instance, in the same note of 1 August 1947, Mountbatten claimed that he had dissuaded Nehru from travelling to Kashmir and that Patel had told a friend that in so doing “I [Mountbatten] had probably saved Nehru’s political career”. As for the effect of his own discussion with Nehru on bringing younger talents into the cabinet, Mountbatten boasted: “Sensation!!!” So, it is inconceivable that Mountbatten would have kept to himself such an important thing as Patel being inducted into the cabinet at his behest.

Mountbatten’s unreliability in this matter is evident from another source. Even as he wrote to Hodson on 16 March 1970 about his “faint” recollection of this episode, he told Nehru’s biographer Sarvepalli Gopal on 28 May 1970 that while he had heard this rumour, he did not even mention it to Nehru. The transcript of this interview is available in Gopal’s private papers.


Also read: Sardar Patel’s one comment proved all was not well between Nehru and Constitution in 1950


It is equally inconceivable that a Congress member would have swallowed this rumour as did a bureaucrat like V.P. Menon. Patel was the strongest pillar not just of the cabinet but also of the party over which Nehru presided. There was no question of Nehru leaving him out. And, as Patel assured him, their partnership proved unbreakable.

The author is Professor of International Relations and History at Ashoka University and a Senior Fellow at Carnegie India. Views are personal.

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28 Comments Share Your Views

28 COMMENTS

  1. The reference of Patel’s letter is not any original letter but someone’s version of the letters. Wish the author had given link to the real letter of Patel rather than someone’s interpretation, which at best is another interpretation

  2. The Nehru-Patel controversy: A look at something of as little relevance to suicidal Quota (Reservations / License) and Corruption (Extortion / Percentage) present day India as the Indian National Congress or its creator, the Indian Political Service; How do you Square the Circle? By knowing that Indians, particularly politicians are devious and that Nehru and Patel seldom meant what they wrote or said in public. Patel, personally, supervised the cremation of the Indian Political Service archives at Calcutta (witnessed by Sam Bahadur) to ensure that there would be no documented History of how the British extinguished the genuine freedom fighters and created and propped up stooges like Gandhi, Nehru, Kartar, Karag, Phule, Amebdejar and EVR Naiker to achieve their political ends:

  3. THE PEOPLE , WHO HAVE CRYING HOARSE OVER DISTORTED VERSION /S OF HISTORY BEING FED TO MASSES, SEEM TO HAVE ENGAGED ” HISTORIANS” OF THE SAME ” INTELLECTUAL AND LEARNED STANDARDS” AS THEIR OWN TO DISTORT EVEN RECORDED FACTS AS EVIDENCED BY NEHRU IN HIS LETTER GIVING FULSOME PRAISE TO PATEL . VERY FEW HAVE NOTED AND EXPRESSED CONSTERNATION ABOUT THE FACT OF NEHRU LEAVING OUT THAT MOST MODERN THINKER OF HIS TIMES AND THE MAN CALLED , C. RAJAGOPALACHARI, UNDER WHOSE CHARGE, IN THE MINISTRY OF SCIENCE IN THE INTERIM GOVERNMENT ,NUCLEAR, & SPACE ESTABLISHMENTS AND SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH LABORATORIES WERE ESTABLISHED AND THESE VERY INSTITUTIONS , MORE THAN ANY OTHER INSTITUTIONS, HAVE RAISED INDIA’S STATURE & PRESTIGE AND MADE INDIA A NUCLEAR CAPABLE STATE AND ONE OF THE LEADERS IN SPACE TECHNOLOGY IN THE MODERN WORLD

  4. INDIANS SEEM TO BELIEVE MORE IN BEING WISTFUL AND WORK TOWARDS IMPROVING THEIR PAST RATHER THAN LOOK FORWARD TO IMPROVING THEIR PRESENT AND WORKING FOR A FUTURE. THAT MAHATMA GANDHI ,NEHRU AND PATEL WERE PREJUDICED AGAINST PEOPLE FROM THE SOUTH IS NO SECRET . UNTIL RAJAJI TOTALLY DISAGREED -HE HAD HAD MANY DISAGREEMENTS WITH GANDHI-WITH GANDHI, NEHRU AND PATEL- GANDHI CONSIDERED HIM HIS SUCCESSOR .ONCE GANDHI’S LINE WAS DEFEATED BY RAJAJI’S LINE IN 1940-41 RAJAJI WAS FORCED TO QUIT THE CONGRESS . RAJAJI’S LINE WAS THAT PARTITION WAS INEVITABLE AND SHOULD HAPPEN IN A FRIENDLY SETTING RATHER THAN WHEN THE CONGRESS AND THE MUSLIM LEAGUE START SUSPECTING AND DESPISING EACH OTHER . HIS SECOND LINE WAS THAT NOTHING WOULD COME OUT OF QUIT INDIA MOVEMENT AS THE BRITISH ARE UNLIKELY BUCKLE UNDER THE PRESSURE OF WORLD WAR AND THE DEMAND OF THE CONGRESS . HOW PROPHETIC RAJAJI WAS . THE NET RESULT WAS THE NON-SOUTHERNERS GOT RAJAJI OUT OF THE WAY AND PAVED WAY FOR THE NORTHERNERS TO HAVE A GRIP OF INDIAN POLITY . MORE IMPORTANTLY THE BRITISH DID NOT SUCCUMB TO THE PRESSURE OF GANDHI & THE CONGRESS AND MOST IMPORTANTLY THE PARTITION WAS THE BLOODIES ONE SEEN IN HUMAN HISTORY . INDIA INSTEAD OF CELEBRATING SUCH A VISIONARY HAS CONSIGNED RAJAJI TO SIDELINES . IN FACT , SPACE COMMISSION, NUCLEAR ESTABLISHMENT AND RESEARCH LABORATORIES WERE ESTABLISHED AT THE SOLE INSTANCE OF RAJAJI WHEN HE WAS THE SCIENCE MINISTER IN THE INTERIM CABINET BEFORE AUGUST 1947 . IF GANDHI WAS DISPASSIONATE MINDED RAJAJI SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE FIRST PREMIER AFTER INDEPENDENCE RATHER THAN NEHRU . BUT NONE OF THIS MADE THE MAN BITTER FOR HE CONTINUED TO SERVE INDIA UNTIL HIS DEATH , THOUGH HE HAD HIS FETISH FOR TOO MUCH DISCIPLINE AND WAS TOO SAINTLY FOR POLITICS . HE MUST HAVE SENSED AN INDIA WHERE PEOPLE FROM THE SOUTH WOULD BE DISCRIMINATED AGAINST AND HAD EVEN CAUTIONED SHASTRI AND INDIRA GANDHI ABOUT MAJORITARIANISM BEING INDULGED IN BY THE POLITICIANS FROM THE NORTH-HE , IN FACT, LIT THE FIRE FOR AN ANTI-HINDI AGITATION AND HAD THUNDERED THAT ONE DAY THE SOUTH MAY NOT BE A PART OF INDIA IF SOUTHERNERS CONTINUE TO BE DISCRIMINATED AGAINST . MOUNTBATTEN’S DISLIKE FOR RAJAJI MAY HAVE BEEN BECAUSE OF HIS MODERN OUTLOOK AND EXTRAORDINARY SHARP INTELLECT . THE VICEROY BEFORE MOUNTBATTEN CALLED RAJAJI -WITH GANDHI PRESENT- THAT RAJAJI WAS INDIA’S BIGGEST MAN . RAJAJI WAS ALSO A MAN OF GREAT INFLUENCE ON WORLD LEADERS DESPITE NOT HOLDING ANY PARTY OR ADMINISTRATIVE AS BORNE OUT BY HIS MEETING WITH KENNEDY IN 1963 AND KENNEDY’S AND AMERICAN RESPONSE TO HIS PLEADINGS ON NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT . NO ONE IN INDIA- INCLUDING NEHRU THEN AND NO BODY ELSE SINCE- WAS /IS CAPABLE OF WIELDING THAT KIND OF INFLUENCE . HIS HORTATORY TO NEHRU ,PATEL , SHASTRI AND INDIRA ON KASHMIR FELL ON DEAFEST EARS POSSIBLE . HAD ONLY DELHI HEEDED HIM THERE WOULD HAVE BEEN NO FESTERING PROBLEM WITH PAKISTAN

    • IT SHOULD SHOCK THE CONSCIENCE OF ALL OF US THAT THERE ARE A FEW ” COURT WRITERS” WHO HAVE SPAWNED IN THE LAST SIX YEARS OR SO TO DISTORT EVEN WRITTEN FACTS OF RECENT HISTORY TO PLEASE THEIR MASTERS WITH DUBIOUS INTELLECT & LEARNING

  5. Excellent piece by Srinath Raghavan quoting archival evidence to counter a point. Besides all this, common sense should tell us whether any prime minister elect can afford to drop a man of the stature of Patel with immense power in the party and from all accounts ,a contender for PMs post. Usually the PM will ask the senior leader to select the portfolio himself. It is not Nehru giving, it is Patel choosing his portfolio. That was the stature of Patel. It is unimaginable that when Nehru was offering ministries to people from opposition parties for getting talent, he drops his own party man of the stature of Patel from the cabinet. Nehru bashing is order of the day. It is not unusual these days that authors tend to pepper their books with gossip for obvious reasons.

  6. The author of this article brought out many supportings to establish that Sardar was indeed made minister and questioned the veracity of the contents of new book by Narayani Basu on VP Menon. The speed with which the author responded to content of the is is appreciated. Recently, all opposition parties and especially, some leaders from Cong have issued statements on mercy petitions of Savarkar and also say he has no for India’s freedom. Would request the author to enlighten everyone from the archival documents which the author is accessible to on the following.
    1. Whether Savarkar fought for freedom ?
    2. Is it true that he was kept in solitary confinement by British ?
    3. Were any other notable freedom fighters of the undergone similar punishment?
    4. Why he was treated as a criminal instead of political prisoner ?
    5. What are the reasons for Savarkar’s mercy petitions ?
    6. Is oppn of the day justified in calling him names ?
    Hope the author with his erudition in the history of indian freedom struggle, will enlighten the readers of The Print on the above, including the great grandson.

  7. Sir with due Respect , we did understand the facts and dates but “Action speaks louder than word”. Mr MB can not be more clearer than this when he said this. The claim that being made by person like Mr Guha that Nehru allow dissent is just fell flat. He did not include Mr Patel at first place because he is not his loyalist. Later realizing that it is going to back fire as he is never the first choice for PM of Congress , he came with damage control mode.

  8. Nehru was a notorious manipulator with a questionable character. If Nehru was such a honest man as the blogger wants us to believe why did he not attend the funeral of Sardar Paterl and desisted the then President Rajendra Prasad from attending the funeral. It is a matter of fact that Nehru out of his peculiar complex did not bother to confer Bharat Ratna on Patel while he shamelessly conferred one on himself. The only thing probably Nehru has not done is to garland his own photo in his office. All said and done, the first Lok Sabha elections which the Congress won was largely name sake. Indians wanted a Government in place and did not have the luxury of time to choose. Nehru chose as was to be to side line Sardar Patel, Ambedkar, Shyamaprasad Mukherjee, Rajagopalachari and host of his contemporaries. Any way Nehru failed miserably to find a successor and did not mind to groom talents from the party. It was only cham chas from then.

  9. No one can hide Truth ,Sathya meva Jayathey, Our PM who wanted to damage the image of Nehruji must try to understand tht there was no difference between Nehrji and Payelji. We request him not to fabricate History and play between the dead Souls, Nehrji was dearly called Chacha Nehru and not as a Hitler.

  10. People who of politics over dead people have no agenda or future for India .
    Nehru and Patel were Great and made India strong . It’s today’s politicians who have nothing in mind are creating imaginary differences between both .
    God save our India from such politicians.

  11. Had he been left out Mahatmas Gandhi’s life would have been saved. As a Home Minister Patel failed to provide adequate security when he appeared in public like he did on that fateful evening in the Birla grounds.

  12. Can expect better lies from The Print. History is altered to justify Nehru dynasty that has left India bleeding from 1000s of cuts. Such is expected only from those who have unquestionable respect for the dynasty in their pockets.

  13. In 2020, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee met P.M Modi in Bengal…. After 80 years people like Shekhar Gupta may claim that both Modi and mamata had very friendly relations…. Very basic things people should understand about formal conversation” It don’t fill with venom or one’s hatred against others’…..

  14. Nehru was leader par excellence and he believed in full inclusive democracy .His relationship with patel was beyond doubt great and well bonded.Modiji is trying to demean Nehruji because nobody till now has reached Nehrus stature in terms of all parameters relevant to the administration.

  15. This seems to be more credible version of the history. There is another story. At the time of oath taking ceremony, Nehru handed over to Mountbatten an envelope which purported to contain list of ministers, but in reality the envelope contained a blank sheet of paper. Whatever may be the case, by no stretch of imagination, Nehru could have excluded Patel from the cabinet. This is unthinkable. The government simply could not have survived in the times of extreme uncertainty and violence.

  16. It is not surprising that dubious individuals are writing to smoke up what had happened in 1947. Nehru was a notorious manupulator with a questionable character. If Nehru indeed have so much regard for Patel how come it didn’t strike on Nehru not to confer Bharat Ratna on Patel. Nehru confered Bharat Ratna on himself. The only thing Nehru probably did not do is to garland his own photo in his office. Nehru was utterly selfish and was interested in promoting his own interests.

  17. Why the government led by Modi should waste time in resurrecting dead leaders who cannot defend or agree. NEHRUJI has become very useful boy for Modi and company who were neither born during independence or any of their party leaders were part of freedom struggle. Let the government govern and take refuge under dead leaders.

  18. I have never come across another article like this which is NOT based on own research and mere speculation., and critiquing someone else’s book.

    • So all the docs mentioned here are imaginary? He has RELIED on more than one source to debunk the half assed claim by the author of that book. Even VP Menon in his book has not mentioned this.

    • @Gururaj: DId you read the full article ? He is quoting at length from sources , whose details also he is providing in the article. I am surprised at your comment of “NOT based on own research and mere speculation”.

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