“Rise above sectional interests and private ambitions…Pass from matter to spirit. Matter is diversity; spirit is light, life and unity”, was the clarion call of poet, philosopher, academic and politician Muhammad Iqbal, widely known as Allama Iqbal, from an undivided India of the first half of twentieth century. Further, as if caught up in a fervour of patriotism and anti-colonial ire, he went on to wax poetical with, “Sāre jahāṉ se acchā, Hindositāṉ hamārā / Ham bulbuleṉ haiṉ is kī, yih gulsitāṉ hamārā / G̱ẖurbat meṉ hoṉ agar ham, rahtā hai dil wat̤an meṉ / Samjho wuhīṉ hameṉ bhī dil ho jahāṉ hamārā / Parbat wuh sab se ūṉchā, hamsāyah āsmāṉ kā / Wuh santarī hamārā, wuh pāsbāṉ hamārā / Godī meṉ kheltī haiṉ is kī hazāroṉ nadiyāṉ / Guls̱ẖan hai jin ke dam se ras̱ẖk-i janāṉ hamārā / Ai āb-i rūd-i Gangā! wuh din haiṉ yād tujh ko? / Utrā tire kināre jab kārwāṉ hamārā / Maẕhab nahīṉ sikhātā āpas meṉ bair rakhnā / Hindī haiṉ ham, wat̤an hai Hindositāṉ hamāra…..”, roughly translating to: “Better than the entire world, is our India, / We are its nightingales, and it is our garden abode / If we are in an alien place, the heart remains in the homeland, / Know us to be only there where our heart is. / That tallest mountain, that shade-sharer of the sky, / It is our sentry, it is our watchman / In its lap where frolic thousands of rivers, / Whose vitality makes our garden the envy of Paradise. / O the flowing waters of the Ganges, do you remember that day / When our caravan first disembarked on your waterfront? / Religion does not teach us to bear animosity among ourselves / We are of Hind, our homeland is Hindustan…” Such an outpouring of patriotism notwithstanding, it would appear ironic that it was the selfsame Iqbal who played an influential role in sowing the seeds of partition, leading to violent secession that forced millions of people to embark on separate ways, carving out regions to eventually constitute new identity.
Into such a cauldron of conflicting politics, struggle for freedom and subsequently the herculean task of stabilizing a free country’s governance, stepped in the man of clear vision and iron will proclaiming that “The main task before India today is to consolidate herself into a well-knit and united power”. He was none other than Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, who played a stellar role in the country’s struggle for independence and went on to become a founding father of the Republic of India, steer the nation and guide its political integration as the first Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister of India. Fondly called Sardar, meaning “chief” in Hindi,, he led the challenge of forging a united India, successfully integrating those British colonial provinces, that had been “allocated” to India, into the newly independent nation. Besides those provinces under direct British rule, around 565 self-governing princely states had been released from British suzerainty by the Indian Independence Act of 1947. Through tact and coercion, Patel managed to secure every princely state to accede to India because his commitment to national integration was total and uncompromising. These efforts earned him the sobriquets, ‘Iron Man of India’ and the ‘Bismarck of India’.
For having established the all-India services system comprising, inter alia, the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service, he is remembered as the patron saint of India’s civil servants. Describing the all-India services as the country’s “Steel Frame” in his address to the probationers of these services, he urged them to be guided by the spirit of service in day-to-day administration, maintaining utmost impartiality and incorruptibility, which is as relevant today as it was then. “A civil servant cannot afford to, and must not, take part in politics. Nor must he involve himself in communal wrangles. To depart from the path of rectitude in either of these respects is to debase public service and to lower its dignity,” he had cautioned them on 21st April 1947. He, more than anyone else in post-independence India, realized the crucial role that civil services play in administering a country, in not merely maintaining law and order, but running the institutions that provide the cementing factor to a society. He, more than any other contemporary of his, was aware of the imperative of a stable administrative structure as the linchpin of a functioning polity. The present-day all-India administrative services owe their origin to the man’s sagacity. Speaking at the Constituent Assembly discussing the role of All-India Services, Patel observed, “There is no alternative to this administrative system… The Union will go, you will not have a united India if you do not have good All-India Service which has the independence to speak out its mind, which has sense of security that you will stand by your work… If you do not adopt this course, then do not follow the present Constitution. Substitute something else… these people are the instrument. Remove them and I see nothing but a picture of chaos all over the country”..
Given the background constituted by pre-cited profile of a man who gave it his all to forge a united India, it can be opined that the foremost attributes, in the context of countries as in individuals, are unity and integrity. A robust unity that sustains for all times, as “unity to be real must stand the severest strain without breaking”, which Hermann Hesse described as wisdom when he propounded that “wisdom is nothing but a preparation of the soul, a capacity, a secret art of thinking, feeling and breathing thoughts of unity at every moment of life”. Almost in metaphysical concord, is Paramahansa Yogananda’s statement that “The physical ego, the active consciousness in man, should uplift its body-identified self into unity with the soul, its true nature; it should not allow itself to remain mired in the lowly delusive strata of the senses and material entanglement”. Similar unity ought to inform nation states as enunciated by Yemi Osinbajo, “The most successful of the nations of the world are those who do not fall into the lure of secession but who, through thick and thin, forge unity in diversity”. Almost in consonance are the words of Lal Bahadur Shastri, “Our country has often stood like a solid rock in the face of common danger, and there is deep underlying unity which runs like a golden thread through all our seeming diversity”. In this regard, it is relevant to also quote Klaus Martin Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, “Europe has grown to 27 member states, encompassing an amazing diversity and richness. Some argue this is part of the problem. Europe is simply too big and culturally disparate to be managed properly. But look to India for an example of how social unity can be forged within a culturally, linguistically, and ethnically complex nation”.
The lives of Mohammed Iqbal and Vallabh Bhai Patel ran contemporaneously with Patel outliving Iqbal by a little more than a decade. The former was a poet-politician and the latter a statesman. Probably it was nature’s way of ensuring that forces of secession were deftly countered by impulses of unity and nation building.
Seven decades after his passing away in 1950, the country erects a befitting monument in honour of the man who epitomized unity, Vallabh Bhai Patel. Hailed as the Statue of Unity, the structure stands tall at a net height of 597 feet (or 182 metres, conforming to 182 seats in the Legislative Assembly of the Indian state of Gujarat), Set on a base of 190 feet, it soars upwards into the sky attaining an inclusive height of 797 feet making it . in both net and gross height, the tallest statue in the world, taller than China’s Spring Temple Buddha, the Statue of Liberty in New York, and the Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square. Located in a river island on Narmada facing the Sardar Sarovar Dam at Kevadiya colony, 100 kms south east of Vadodara in Patel’s home state of Gujarat, the monument was inaugurated on 31st October 2018. The other attributes of the structure, which I visited on 31st March 2019, are that it can withstand winds of up to 180 kmph and earthquakes measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale occurring at a depth of 10 kms and within a radius of 12 kms of the statue. The statue is divided into zones of which three are accessible to visitors. The first zone contains a memorial garden and museum. An adjoining audio-visual gallery features a short presentation on Patel and the tribal culture of the region. The concrete towers forming the legs of the statue are equipped with two lifts each of which can speed up 26 visitors in around thirty seconds to the viewing gallery in the third zone where at a time 200 people can enjoy the aerial view from its height of 153 metres. Relishing overview of surrounding landscape in the company of family friends, it was also for me a fusion of moments giving definition to new associations and relationships.
Sculpted by Ram Sutar, the statue is a marvelous work of art. The cost of USD 420 Mn has attracted criticism from a few sections of people slamming it as wasteful expenditure. The fitting answer to it is already visible in the pace of development of the entire area surrounding the monument and its beneficial impact on lives of people. Inspiring awe and a profound sense of the country’s history, the place is visited by several thousands of people every day. The ensuing financial returns will not only offset the project cost over a period of time but it will also have a multiplier effect in terms of boost to tourism and accelerated development. Towering amidst enormous diversity of people and cultures not only in India but also around the world, the iconic figure of Vallabh Bhai Patel serves as a colossal symbol of the strands of unity binding large nation states and larger conglomerations of smaller nations.