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'The majority community has to show they
can behave towards others in a generous, fair
and just way. Let us live up to that faith'

Sardar Patel Fifty years after India won freedom, the myth that Sardar Patel was anti-Muslim persists. In this fascinating essay,Dr Rafiq Zakaria, the respected scholar, reveals the truth about Patel and India's Muslims.

Presenting the unanimous report of the committee to the Constituent Assembly, the Sardar cautioned Hindus that it was a sacred trust, which had been entrusted to them by the minorities and that they should take all care to honour it both in letter and in spirit. He also warned 'that a discontented minority is a burden and a danger and that we must not do anything to injure the feelings of any minority so long as it is not unreasonable.'

He said, 'It is up to the majority community, by its generosity, to create a sense of confidence in the minorities, and so also it will be the duty of the minority communities to forget the past and to reflect on what the country has suffered owing to the 'sense of fairness', which the foreign rulers though was necessary to keep balance between community and community.'

He was happy that the minorities had come to the conclusion -- he hoped honestly -- that in the changed conditions, it was in the interest of everyone to lay down real and genuine foundations of a secular state. In fact, he stressed, nothing would be better 'for the minorities than to trust the good sense and sense of fairness of the majority and to place confidence in them.'

Turning towards the members of the majority, he told them emphatically 'it is for us who happen to be in a majority to think about what the minorities feel and imagine how we would feel if we were treated in the manner in which they are treated.'

Nehru was jubilant at the happy turn of events and endorsed what Patel had stated. He said, 'This is an act of faith for all of us, an act of faith above all for the majority community because they have to show after this that they can behave towards others in a generous, fair and just way. Let us live up to that faith.'

The Sardar passed away on December 15, 1950, almost two years before the first general election under the Constitution. He was a man of his word and would have been saddened to see how this trust was not honoured by his co-religionists. As I have pointed out in may latest book: The Widening Divide: An Insight into Hindu-Muslim Relations(Penguin), 'In the very first test, therefore, the claim made by Hindu nationalists during the freedom struggle that the abolition of separate electorates for the minorities would usher in a broad, non-communal political environment, failed. In subsequent elections to the Lok Sabha, the situation did not improve. It turned out to be worse, as results of the elections to the various state legislatures clearly indicate. And in elections to panchayat samitis, municipalities and zilla parishads, the Hindu communal and casteist factor played havoc with the fortunes of Muslim candidates; in several places not even one Muslim got elected.'

This does not mean that the Sardar was opposed to the preservation of the identities of the Muslims and other minorities, on the contrary on three matters which were of supreme importance to them, he stood up for them, despite the pressure of Hindus. These were (1) the right to propagate their religion; (2) the right to preserve their language, script and culture; and (3) the right to run their educational institutions. As the chairman of the advisory committee on minorities and fundamental rights, these came directly under him.

J N Nehru Much heat was generated among the members, in particular on giving the right to non-Hindus to proselytise. Christian and Muslim members were adamant; they said it was a vital part of their religion. The Hindus, on the other hand, were dead against it. They pointed out that even the 1931 Karachi session of the Congress, over which the Sardar presided, had only guaranteed to a citizen 'the right freely to profess and practice his religion' and not to propagate.

K M Munshi and Purushottam Das Tandon, both closest to the Sardar, argued vehemently against incorporating the word; this would open, they pointed out, the floodgates of conversion by various kinds of inducements. Tandon said that it was 'very improper to convert from one religion to another' or to allow such activities. The Christian and Muslim members emphasised that propagation was an article of faith with them.

Excerpted from Sardar Patel and Indian Muslims, by Rafiq Zakaria, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1996, Rs 125, with the author's permission. Readers interested in buying a copy of the book may write to Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Kulapati K M Munshi Marg, Bombay 400 007.