Was Thomas Jefferson a pioneer of freedom or a hypocritical slave owner? Was Winston Churchill a war hero or a racist? The Americans and British debate such matters all the time. Indians are shy of debating even their recent history. The Congress, having nothing to show on the economic or governance front, is nervous that its last strong card — its monopoly of Indian history — is being challenged by Narendra Modi, who recently claimed Sardar Patel as his icon.
The Congress believes it made India’s history all by itself — the Independence movement led by Gandhi-Nehru and the Nehru-Gandhi years in government. Suddenly, Congress leaders are falling over each other praising Patel. But alas, their knowledge of their own history is fragile since the memory of Patel has been erased from books written by their house historians. Patel is now hailed as ‘secular and liberal’, and an enemy of the RSS. For those who were alive then, history is very different.
The Congress had, from 1885 onwards, a predominantly Hindu membership. This was inevitable because the Hindu elite had taken advantage of British education and joined new professions. Muslims lagged behind. Gandhiji tried to forge a united Hindu-Muslim struggle for Khilafat. When he abandoned it after Chauri-Chaura, he alienated Muslims.
The Congress never regained the support of the Muslims. The Motilal Nehru Report spurned Jinnah’s request for seat sharing because the Hindu Mahasabha was against it. The Congress promised a coalition with the Muslim League in UP after the 1937 elections. When it got absolute majority, Nehru reneged on the promise. In the 1946 Constituent Assembly polls, the Congress did not win a single Muslim seat, despite the fact that Maulana Azad was its president.
The leadership of the party was largely Hindu. Nehru was isolated as a rare secular liberal leader who had the backing of a few ‘nationalist’ Muslims and socialists. And he was Gandhiji’s choice for PM. The other leaders — Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Purushottamdas Tandon — were staunch Hindu traditionalists. Mountbatten first convinced Patel about why Partition made sense. Patel got Nehru to go along. Patel was