Ever since I read the highly infantalized and somewhat inaccurate version of India’s freedom struggle in history textbooks, I used to wonder about how literally millions were mobilized by the Satyagraha movement during an era when communication devices were primitive at best, and where the infrastructure ranged between crumbling to non-existent. Well, reading Hindol Sengupta’s ‘ The Man who saved India - Sardar Patel and his idea of India’ helped me understand how leaders like Patel managed to mobilize the masses. Patel’s first two agitations, for farmers in Kheda and Bardoli are especially very instructive
For those who do not know, the Kheda Satyagraha was undertaken to seek postponement of revenue collection from the flood ravaged Kheda area of Gujarat in the aftermath of the 1917 floods. Similarly, Bardoli Satyagraha was undertaken to protest the British government’s decision to increase the tax rate by more than 30% and reclassifying twenty three villages from lower tax rate to higher one. Both agitations largely achieved their objectives. Here then are my learnings from the great man’s life as described in Hindol’s book.
- It is very important, that within leadership, there is a clear understanding of individual roles and division of labour- As the author says “Gandhi provided the moral imperative and Patel the on ground execution”. This was a conscious division by the two men and even Gandhi acknowledged that he would not have been able to do the kheda Satyagraha without Patel’s on ground execution.
- Understanding the territory – In the early twentieth century, it might have only been a necessity out of lack of other communication methods, but I think the fact that Sardar Patel grew in that area, and knew it like the back of his hand helped immensely in building the kind of grassroots support needed. You cannot do activism without knowing the situation on ground.
- Take care of your people- Whenever a man jailed for Satyagraha would be released, Patel and Gandhi would walk miles to greet him outside the prison. Forget politicians, how many of today’s self-obsessed social media superstars acknowledge their supporters who have helped them build their profiles over the years by selflessly promoting/recommending and sharing their works?
- You cannot separate the economic concerns from the political or the cultural- Please remember that the agitations at Kheda and Bardoli were both done not for the loftier goal of Swarajya but over economic concerns. Also, a large part of Patel’s credibility was built around the work he had done during the Ahemdabad floods where he mobilized over 2000 volunteers in no time and demonstrated such efficiency in relief work that even the government teams doing the relief work turned to him for advice and support. When you contrast this with the sheer disdain demonstrated today by many on the cultural right for the everyday economic concerns of the poor people, you understand how their movements fail to gain traction on ground. Patel even ensured that his participation in Bardoli did not imperil the funds sanctioned for flood relief.
- No substitution to doing the grunt work yourself- In Bardoli, even after his own faithful team had given the on ground assessment which in turn made Gandhi give his go-ahead for the agitation, Patel still went ahead and did his own ground work. He went and met leaders from seventy nine villages from the area and took confirmation from the leaders and the women that the villagers had the understanding of the possible costs involved and the sacrifices demanded of them. He even went to the extent of warning them that “this is not a question of only one taluka. It concerns many talukas and many districts. If you lose, all will suffer”. This is the hallmark of a grassroots movement where the leader transfers the ownership to the followers.
- Define the contours of your struggle wherein the followers have no option but to join- This sounds contrary to point no 5 about transferring the ownership to the followers and yet it is not. Like Gandhi in Kheda, Patel too framed the Bardoli agitation not only in terms of money but as a “fight against government’s practice of not giving any hearing to the agriculturist”. By elevating it from beyond mere monetary dispute and then asking the farmers to join only if “you are satisfied that this government is not prepared to listen to any fair proposal and that by failing to stand up to it, you will only ruin yourselves and your children and in addition lose your self-respect, then alone you should undertake the fight.” Patel ensured voluntary participation with almost no back-tracking. Contrast this with the shrill shame- based rhetoric (you are not a true ____ if you don’t endorse ______) that you see on social media every day on all sides, and you start to appreciate why Patel’s movement went on to become a national force within years.
- Use existing structures – Bardoli struggle was unique in that it brought patidars, baniyas, Christians and Muslims on the same platform for a common cause. Since the government decision had affected the dominant caste organizations, their caste councils were used as the primary unit of action during the agitation. This was an excellent example of how a wise leader could utilise existing social structure to raise consciousness against an alien government.
- Attention to details- It is said that great leaders can think at the most abstract and yet have the capacity to execute at the most mundane level. Once the agitation started and government started confiscating property, cattle et as a form of revenue recovery, Patel told his followers “Arrange matters that the government would find it impossible to discover a single man to help them in carrying away any confiscated property. I am yet to see any officer with any authority carrying away on his shoulders the property confiscated by him” Such seemingly simple yet devastatingly effective plan could only be conceived by a leader who understood the bureaucratic process as well as the mind-set of a typical officer. More importantly, it shows the level of detailing the Sardar did to make the agitation successful.
Ironically, while we are often reminded that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, we are very rarely reminded of the other side of the same coin, namely a, those who refuse to learn from history are also doomed to reinvent the wheel all the time. The nature of agitations done by today’s activists is substantially different from the two Satyagrahas mentioned above. But the learnings from them are still very much relevant.
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