Two Poclain excavators snap at the loose earth of Sadhu Bet, their Transformer claws sending up clouds of dust towards the graceful grey slopes of the Narmada dam some three klicks east. A tent has been erected to give construction labour respite from the sun. On either side of this island—a speck of riverine rock and red soil upon which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to build a 182m statue of the Gujarati stalwart of the nationalist movement, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel—are the basalt hills of Satpura and Vindhyachal, low-slung, black earth covered by parched summer scrub.

By the third week of March it is an island largely in name. Summer has arrived, and with the various manipulations of flow that a large-scale dam needs, the Narmada is a trickle here. Yet Sadhu Bet was famous in local lore even before it became the site of the “Statue of Unity". In 1970, a Hindu godman, Varita Baba, was meditating alone atop the small hillock on the island when the undammed Narmada suddenly flooded. It was the worst flood in a hundred years. As the waters rose around him, the Gujarat government reportedly sent a helicopter from Gandhinagar to rescue the baba. Since then the river island has been known as Sadhu Bet.

The Statue of Unity , as it’s envisaged
The Statue of Unity , as it’s envisaged

In addition, L&T has committed to building a lift that will take visitors to a viewing gallery atop the statue. The company will maintain the structure for 15 years, and be paid 657 crore.

And there lies one of the key objections to building the statue: its extraordinary cost. L&T’s winning bid came in at 2,989 crore, almost half a billion dollars. This presumably does not include the money paid to Turner Construction, project consultants known for designing the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. At any rate, this is an incredible amount to spend in a country of India’s social and economic development level, on what will essentially be a political ornament, albeit to an illustrious leader. It’s unlikely this sum can be recovered via tourist levies.

Contrast this with the hydel power plant at the Sardar Sarovar dam, just 3.2km east, completed in 2007 and supplying electricity to Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat. The government of Gujarat had to borrow money from Japan to complete it. Yet it took many years of selling electricity to Gujarat and its neighbouring states for the project to break even, late in 2013. The Statue of Unity does not offer the same promise of revenue.

It’s hard to shroud a project this big but there seems to be a measure of secrecy about key aspects. I was first assured that someone at L&T would speak about it, but after repeated requests, the company’s communications officer referred me to the press release issued when they won the bid. While in Ahmedabad, I tried to meet a member of the SVPRET, constituted especially for this purpose. K. Srinivas, who heads the project apart from running bureaucratic affairs for the Gujarat government, is the only one authorized to speak to the media, but he was unwell during my time there. I was told he would reply over email, but a detailed questionnaire about cost, sources of funding and other logistics got no response despite a 10-day window before publishing.

The site of the Statue of Unity in Gujarat, where construction is in progress. Photo: Prayag Akbar
The site of the Statue of Unity in Gujarat, where construction is in progress. Photo: Prayag Akbar

Both the domestic and non-resident Indian collection drives, projected as the primary sources of funding for the statue, did not gather as much as expected. A movement to collect agricultural implements, which Modi hoped would give farmers across the nation a symbolic stake in the statue, also failed to yield anything close to the iron needed. Some corporate funding has also been elicited.

After widespread criticism when he allocated 200 crore of Central funds to the Statue of Unity in his first, interim budget, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley did not repeat the bequest in his second, presented in February. Much of the money seems to be coming from Gujarat’s coffers: In March, it allocated 915 crore to the statue in its budget.

A number of environmental concerns have been raised. A team in Vadodara, led by activists Rohit Prajapati and Trupti Shah, is demanding that SVPRET appoint a consultant to carry out an environmental impact assessment (EIA). The EIA is mandated by law but has not been conducted so far. There are particular concerns about the effect on the Narmada riverbed and the Shoolpaneshwar Wildlife Sanctuary, which borders the project site.

Talk of the Statue of Unity has focused on its eventual status as the tallest such structure in the world. The official website provides a visual comparison—reminiscent of a Hollywood police line-up—of the existing statues and just how much bigger this rendering of Patel will be than the Spring Temple Buddha in China, the Ushiku Daibutsu (a statue of the Buddha) in Japan, The Motherland Calls in Russia, New York’s Statue of Liberty, and Christ the Redeemer in Brazil.

Yet lining these colossuses up against each other leaves you with one pressing question: Why is India building a statue of a political leader on a scale other nations have reserved for gods, prophets or ideals? A statue this size becomes an international symbol of a society. This one seems to want to catapult Patel above any figure in the nation’s history.

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Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (centre) with Mahatma Gandhi during the freedom movement. Photo: Hindustan Times Files
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (centre) with Mahatma Gandhi during the freedom movement. Photo: Hindustan Times Files

The son of a landed but impoverished farmer, Patel spent much of his early childhood working the plough himself. He came from a much poorer background than most of our nationalist leaders. Mahatma Gandhi, conscious of his own privilege and that of many of the Congress cohort, valued Patel’s ability to communicate with the peasantry in an idiom they appreciated. Though Patel read at Middle Temple, the prestigious London law college, at the same time that Jawaharlal Nehru went to the Inner Temple, as his biographer Rajmohan Gandhi puts it, “Jawaharlal came to his Inn by way of Harrow and Cambridge, not via Petlad, Nadiad and Borsad or its equivalents."

In 1918 Patel became the principal figure behind the first satyagraha in the nationalist struggle, held in his home district of Kheda, in Gujarat. The Champaran agitation in Bihar in 1916 is usually described as the crystallization of Gandhi’s satyagraha strategy, but the term was first used in Kheda while describing the resistance of the peasant community, comprising Patidars, Muslims and landless labour, against an unfair new agricultural cess. With Gandhi away, Patel took charge impressively, instilling in the resisters the importance of collective action. As Gandhi wrote to Patel at the time, “We can certainly tell the Kheda peasants that through our local struggle we are fighting for the Swaraj of all of India."

Patel’s most famous intervention came between 1925 and 1928, leading a similar tax agitation in the drought-stricken district of Bardoli, after which he became known nationally as “Sardar". Gandhi was in an apolitical bent of mind after the disappointing end to the non-cooperation movement at Chauri Chaura, but upon his instruction, Patel led the satyagraha. Kheda and Bardoli are notable because Patel united town and country, generating monetary and moral support for a farmers’ agitation in urban areas all over Gujarat. They remained completely non-violent, despite the forced capture of land by the British.

Patel (left) with Jawaharlal Nehru in 1949. Photo: Hindustan Times Files
Patel (left) with Jawaharlal Nehru in 1949. Photo: Hindustan Times Files

Gandhi again chose Nehru over his faithful lieutenant when anointing the first prime minister of India. This was to be Patel’s greatest disappointment, though he quickly set it aside, and in the two years before his death, served as the finest home minister India has had. Yet in Gujarat, Gandhi’s choice of Nehru over Patel has rankled unusually long. It has in fact become something of a political football in the near 70 years since.

Patel inspecting a guard of honour. Photo: Hindustan Times Files
Patel inspecting a guard of honour. Photo: Hindustan Times Files

The idea that Patel was marginalized in turn led to an amorphous movement, beginning in the 1960s, that has repositioned Patel in various politically expedient ways, most hinging upon an opposition to “Nehruvian" ideals: as a secret votary of Hindutva politics, as ultra-nationalist, as virulently anti-Muslim. In the same time the Patel community, numerically only 15%, has established a firm grip over Gujarat’s politics and culture.

In some ways, the Statue of Unity is the culmination of a decades-long resistance to Jawaharlal Nehru’s family and their supporters.

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In the state this sentiment is sometimes referred to as “Gujarat ki chot"—a hurt or grievance that has been inflicted upon this province and its people.

“In Gujarat the memory and discourse around Patel takes on a regional pride quality," explains political scientist Mona Mehta, who teaches at IIT (Indian Institute of Technology), Gandhinagar. “But there are political forces beyond the state, even nationally, for whom Patel has been especially marked as a great leader, sometimes to project a certain polarity with Nehru. Many Gujaratis—especially middle-class Gujaratis, when they think and talk about Patel—hold on to a sense of hurt, because they feel that Patel was passed over for Nehru for the post of prime minister. They blame Gandhi’s partiality towards Nehru for this decision. This is puzzling because the figure of Gandhi, also a Gujarati and the ultimate symbol of the nationalist movement, does not seem to offer consolation to this sentiment."

The grievance is not wistfulness about Patel’s lost opportunity. Instead it percolates into the idea that India itself has missed out. In this entrenched counterfactual—never mind that he was dead by 1950—Patel’s no-nonsense stewardship would have ensured the impasse in Kashmir would not have transpired. There would have been no electorally motivated pandering to Muslims. Valuable years would not have been spent pursuing the fruitless internationalism that marked India’s early foreign policy. And perhaps most crucially in this famously mercantile state, socialism and populism would never have been part of India’s political vocabulary.

Patel’s motivations and accomplishments can be debated and interpreted endlessly, and should be... (but) Clearly there is a desire to narrow the way in which he is remembered.

Or take his position on Kashmir, usually misrepresented. As Rajmohan Gandhi established in his comprehensive biography: “Mountbatten had told Maharaja Hari Singh ‘that if Kashmir joined Pakistan this would not be regarded as unfriendly by the Government of India.’ According to V.P. Menon, Mountbatten said to Hari Singh ‘that he had a firm assurance on this from Sardar Patel himself.’" This is notably different from the narrative now adhered to, which claims Patel would never have accepted Pakistan’s claim on Kashmir. The pragmatist recognized the relative importance of Hyderabad, sitting in the stomach of India, and instead worked to ensure that it would be part of the Union.

Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, at a statue of Patel in Varanasi last year. Photo: Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times
Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, at a statue of Patel in Varanasi last year. Photo: Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times

The Union government’s recent announcement that it will build a memorial to former prime minister Narasimha Rao can be seen in the same light. Rao may be the architect of India’s economic reforms, as this government is now projecting, but what makes him palatable to the BJP is his struggle against the Congress’ first family. Modi is marking a new fault line in Indian politics—he seems happy to appropriate leaders from his party’s chief rival, as long as their distaste for the Nehru-Gandhis is well known.

Travel around Ahmedabad or other parts of Gujarat today and you see roads, dams, colleges and airports named after Patel. Gandhi’s memory seems tucked away in comparison. The ubiquity is reminiscent of the way the Maratha king Shivaji, another figure firmly categorized in popular memory as a vanquisher of Muslims, has been elevated above all others in Maharashtra.

“A parallel can be drawn between the construction of a regionalist memory of Shivaji and Patel," says Mehta. “The invocation of Shivaji in the narrative of Marathi pride evident in the Shiv Sena’s regionalist politics is similar to how Patel has emerged in Gujarat as a figure of Gujarati pride, when in fact he was always a national figure. There is a certain regionalization of the story of Patel, who is now being remembered as a Gujarati who has been sidelined."

But was Patel adamantly opposed to considering Muslim interests within India’s democracy? Mint Lounge columnist Aakar Patel, citing Rafiq Zakaria’s study of Patel, argues he wasn’t. To paraphrase him: ...the two most important minority-specific parts of the Indian Constitution are a gift to Muslims from Vallabhbhai. These are articles 25 and 26…the right to convert people, and the right of all religions to set up their own institutions and manage their affairs.

One example used by those who wish to reconstruct Patel as an anti-Muslim figure is his support for the restoration of Somnath, the famous temple on the Gujarat coast that was destroyed by a succession of Muslim invaders. The restoration was led by K.M. Munshi, a Congressman whose Hindutva sympathies are rather easier recognized. Patel’s steadfast support for the restoration is often contrasted with Nehru’s refusal to get involved. “But how that translates into being anti-Muslim is not clear," says Mehta. “Gandhi and Nehru did not want the state involved, but Patel didn’t think there was a conflict there. You can read that as pro-Hindu but that doesn’t mean he was pro-Hindutva."

Political scientist Ghanshyam Shah offers a nuanced reading of Patel. “Maybe he has this reputation because he was autocratic," he says. “In the 1930s, he was referred to as the Stalin of the Congress party. He was much more conservative than Nehru. During the Bardoli Satyagraha, he had no problem using caste and gender to mobilize people. He did whatever was needed. He used traditional idioms that today would be considered objectionable. During the agitation, he told bonded labour that their relationship with their landlords was like that of a devoted wife, so that they would support the landlord’s interests against the British. He appealed to tribal groups via superstition."

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Another statue at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport, Ahmedabad. Photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP
Another statue at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport, Ahmedabad. Photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP

But by allowing one reading of Patel to supersede all others, we are unjust to a man who gave up family and the best years of his life to marshal the ground fight against Britain’s colonialists. We are allowing the parts of his story that serve contemporary interests to take precedence.

Take the decisive military action Patel ordered in the Muslim principalities of Hyderabad and Junagadh, a favourite of Hindu nationalist rhetoric and writing. Given the overwhelming resources of the Indian state compared to even large princely states like Hyderabad, this was the only expected result. Less often celebrated in firebrand speeches and books, perhaps because quiet negotiation does not rouse the senses in the way that marching an army into the territory of a long-reviled Other does, is the adroit manner in which he and V.P. Menon convinced some 560 other reluctant and cossetted princes to hand over their fiefdoms peaceably.

Patel’s motivations and accomplishments can be debated and interpreted endlessly, and should be. But in 2009, Jaswant Singh’s book Jinnah: India-Partition Independence, claiming Partition was a concession made by Patel and Nehru, was immediately banned in Gujarat. Singh was subsequently expelled from the BJP. His claim might well have been erroneous, but preventing the discussion aids no one. Clearly there is a desire to narrow the way in which Patel is remembered.

In a sense, building a statue is a similar enterprise. It seeks to grant definite form and size to the more flexible, nebulous suggestions that memory and history offer. Let us hope all those who some day look upon the Statue of Unity remember that Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel stood not for this or that, but for all of India.

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