Between two Indian Independence days, last year and this year, I spent most of my time reading the letters and speeches of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel for my new book on Patel, The Man Who Saved India.
Two letters, in particular, have stayed with me. They justify, in a sense, the title of the book. They were written barely days before the death of India’s first deputy Prime Minister in mid-December 1950.
In November 1950, barely a month before his death, Patel wrote two letters on China, Tibet (which China annexed in 1950) and India’s north-eastern frontier which are acutely prescient.
The first letter, the shorter of the two, is addressed to Girija Shankar Bajpai, the Secretary-General in the External Affairs Ministry, where Patel warns about everything from Communist arms smuggling in the northeast to the impact of European missionaries on the hill tribes including the Nagas “their influence was, by no means, friendly to India and Indians”. On China he writes, “we cannot be friendly with China and must think in terms of defence against a determined, calculating, unscrupulous, ruthless, unprincipled and prejudiced combination of powers, of which the Chinese will be the spearhead”. It might be fair to say Patel did not buy into that infamous Nehruvian slogan Hindi-Chini, bhai-bhai.
The second letter is addressed to Jawaharlal Nehru and is written only days before Patel’s death. He begins by pointing out, correctly, that the Indian Ambassador to China was being fooled and he was being fed the idea that the Chinese would solve the Tibetan issue through dialogue. No such thing would happen, predicted the Sardar, and said that “there was a lack of firmness and unnecessary apology” in the attitude of the Indian Ambassador to China towards his hosts.
Patel warned Nehru that the Prime Minister’s strategy of championing the cause of China’s entry into the United Nations Organisation was flawed and “the Chinese do not regard as their friends”. Patel warned that Nehru’s idea that the Himalayas was a natural barrier between India and China was wrong, “The undefined state of the frontier and the existence on our side of a population with affinities to Tibetans or Chinese have all the elements of potential trouble… Recent and bitter history also tells us that Communism is no shield against imperialism and Communists are as good or as bad imperialists as any other.”
Of course, Patel’s warnings were ignored. But when I read them, I remembered another man whose biography I had written in The Modern Monk, Swami Vivekananda.
The biggest political truth of Vivekananda’s life was that he came from a country which was under colonial rule. So, what did Vivekananda think of nationalism, which was springing in fits and starts all around him? What did he think of the idea of an independent India?
I think the answer to this, first, is given in a rather funny tale. It appears in the writings of Marie Louise Burke, who, in turn, quotes from the notes of another prominent follower of Swami Vivekananda in America, Mary Tappan Wright, the wife of Professor John Henry Wright of Harvard who facilitated Vivekananda’s participation at the Parliament of Religions. The incident takes place when Vivekananda is staying at Annisquam, a little New England village. The swami tells a tale after supper.
‘It was just the other day,’ he (Vivekananda) said, in his musical voice, ‘only just the other day – not more than four hundred years ago… Ah, the English, only just a little while ago they were savages… the vermin crawled on the ladies’ bodices… and they scented themselves to disguise the abominable odour of their persons… Most hor-r-ible! Even now, they are barely emerging from barbarism.’
This shocked some of his listeners. One of them said – that’s not true, this was almost 500 years ago!
Said Vivekananda: ‘And did I not say ‘a little while ago’? What are a few hundred years when you look at the antiquity of the human soul? They were quite savage. The frightful cold, the want and privation of their northern climate has made them wild. They only think to kill… The love of man is on their lips, in their hearts there is nothing but evil and every violence. I love you my brother, I love you… and all the while they cut his throat! Their hands are red with blood.’
This is dramatic fare for a sleepy New England audience. This is not a well-known story in the Vivekananda chronicles. But more than his lectures and talks on nationalism, more than his serious tomes, this almost funny, almost mocking, over dramatic story perhaps gives a brief but illuminating glimpse into the nationalist mind of Vivekananda telling us in an instant what the man really thinks. I read it again and again. Hidden in Mrs. Wright’s half-stumbling prose, in the swami’s mocking words, and his dramatics, there occurred to me that there could have, indeed most likely would have, been tremendous sorrow at the state of his country. Even at Vivekananda travelled through the free world, his evolved sensibilities no doubt would have considered how bereft his own home truly was. I see this incident as one of the most powerful recorded instances of the rawness of the swami’s nationalistic feelings, though conveyed in a half joking manner.
But he isn’t done that day yet.
‘But the judgment of God will fall upon them,’ says the swami. ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord’, and destruction is coming. What are our Christians? Not one third of the world. Look at those Chinese, millions of them. They are the vengeance of God that will light upon you. There will be another invasion of the Huns,’ adding, with a little chuckle, ‘they will sweep over Europe, they will not leave one stone standing upon another. Men, women, children, all will go and the dark ages will come again.’
At this point, Mrs. Wright notes, Vivekananda’s voice became ‘indescribably sad and pitiful; then suddenly and flippantly…’Me, I don’t care! The world will rise up better from it, but its coming. The vengeance of God, it is coming soon.’
How soon, he is asked here, is soon?
Perhaps a thousand years, he answers. This brings some succor.
Mrs Wright does not most likely doesn’t quite realize the comedy when she jots down: ‘They drew a breath of relief. It did not seem imminent.’
‘And God will have vengeance,’ said the swami, ‘You may not see it in religion, you may not see it in politics, but you must see it in history, and as it has been, it will come to pass. If you grin down the people, you will suffer… If man cannot believe in the Vengeance of God, he certainly cannot believe in the Vengeance of History. And it will come upon the English; they will have their heels on our necks, they would have sucked the last drop of our blood for their own pleasures, they have carried away with them millions of our money, while our people have starved by villages and provinces.’
But this ‘vengeance’ – how will it come to pass? Who will bring it forth? Who will fight? Who will defeat the English? How will God get His revenge? There again comes a bit from Vivekananda’s teachings and writings which are so recent, in a sense, it could have easily been written today. He says: ‘And now the Chinaman is the vengeance that will fall upon them: if the Chinese rose today and swept the English into the sea, as they well deserve, it would be no more than justice.’
I am not suggesting that Vivekananda foresaw, Nostradamus-like, the future rise of China. I am merely pointing out that he had a certain pulse to history, that he, through his travels, had picked up nuances of global history and could, long before India received her independence, describe a sense of the changing world order to come. He was able to look far beyond the status quo of his environment, beyond current affairs, so to speak, to discern hints and signs about the future. Nations rise and fall, one would imagine, what consequence is that to a yogi? Enough, this tale seems to suggest, if the colonial yoke is on you. Little wonder, then, that with such opinion, ‘The British government kept a vigil on him during his stay in England in 1896’, and ‘while Vivekananda was at Almora (in India), his movements were seriously watched by the police.’
This story is an interesting starting point to consider Vivekananda’s thoughts on nationalism.
On April 5, 1894, the Boston Evening Transcript reported that Swami Vivekananda ‘made a profound impression here’. ‘Brother Vivekananda considers India the most moral nation in the world. Though in bondage, its spirituality still endures.’ That could well be the summation of his nationalist pitch – and a constant urgent prodding that runs through his work for the people of India to shrug their lethargy and discover their true potential and glory. Arise, awake – the words he has put in a million calendars – are like his vigorous shaking by the shoulder for his country. Look at the names of many of his talks/writings about India – ‘A plan of work for India’, ‘The problem of modern India and its solution’, ‘The education that India needs’, ‘Our present social problems’, ‘The work before us’. It is almost as if the more he travelled in India, and later extensively overseas, the more Vivekanda was convinced that in order to change the world, he must change India. That in order to take the immortal message of the Hindus to the world, he must do his level best to uproot the sloth and malice that he saw among Hindus around him.
He is the first modern Indian spiritual figure to emphasize on the word – strength. Without strength, literally in the body, there can be no national greatness, Vivekananda is telling us, and the search for god too is incomplete with strength. ‘Struggle, struggle,’ he writes in a letter in 1894, ‘was my motto for the last 10 years. Struggle, still say I. When it was all dark, I used to say, struggle; when light is breaking in, I still say, struggle. Be not afraid, my children. Look not up in that attitude of fear towards the infinite starry vault as if it would crush you. Wait! In a few hours more, the whole of it will be under your feet.’
Vivekananda is rich and realistic today because his philosophy is at once entirely materialistic – and ascetic. While he is constantly urging that ‘money does not pay, nor name; fame does not pay, nor learning. It is love that pays’ – but these transcendental exhortations would almost be meaningless without his engagement with the temporal.
‘We talk foolishly against material civilization,’ he writes, ‘The grapes are sour… Material civilization, nay, even luxury, is necessary to create work for the poor. Bread! Bread! I do not believe in a God, who cannot give me bread here, giving me eternal bliss in heaven. Pooh! India is to be raised, the poor are to be fed, education is to be spread, and the evil of priestcraft is to be removed. No priestcraft, no social tyranny! More bread, more opportunity for everybody!’
He urged: ‘Have fire and spread all over. Work, work.’
Vivekananda’s nationalism is also intriguing because he never really engaged directly with politics, but he seems to have been cognizant of the fact that his work could, indeed would, form the base of a political consciousness, of a new spirit of re-contemplating the nation. When he returned to India in 1897, he declared: ‘For the next 50 years, this alone (the motto of work) shall be our keynote – this our great Mother India. Let all other vain gods disappear for the time from our mind.’
As the historian Jayashree Mukherjee says, ‘Perhaps he was the only monk in history who could so vociferously relegate to the background god of his own religion for the greater cause of his country.’
This is a lesson Patel would have instinctively understood. After all he is the man who argued that it was better to create history than write it. He even warned Jawaharlal Nehru not to put too much faith in British socialism: ‘all their class rivalries disappeared when it came to imperial exploitation of India’.
This advice too was ignored but we ignore them at our severe peril today.