Vithalbhai J. Patel: A Great Freedom Fighter and Parliamentarian

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On Vithalbhai’s Death Anniversary (Oct. 22, 2010)

The role of Vithalbhai J. Patel (1873-1933) in the freedom struggle of India and in the development of democratic institutions of the country is significant. Indians must acknowledge his noteworthy and exemplary contribution.

Vithalbhai Patel was one of the front rankers leading the compatriots in their fight for freedom from colonial rule in the Indian political scene when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi returned to India from South Africa in 1915. Vithalbhai, along with stalwarts like BG Tilak, GK Gokhale, Dinshaw Wacha and Firozeshah Mehta, became a well-known public figure. He worked with organizations like the Gujarat Sabha, the Gujarat Political Conference and the Indian National Congress in the effort to awaken the masses particularly peasants and common men in the Gujarat region.

Vithalbhai’s role in the Kheda Kisan Satyagraha (1918) and the Non-Cooperation and Khilafat Movement (1920), launched by Gandhiji was immense. Further, in 1923 he along with his younger brother Vallabhbhai Patel, lead the Nagpur Flag Agitation and actively participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1930. Along with Subhas Chandra Bose Vithalbhai successfully drew the attention of crores of people all over the world when he travelled widely outside the country for the cause of India’s freedom between 1920 and 1933.

The second great work, which Vithalbhai accomplished, and which will be remembered by generations to come, is how he emphasized on the need to develop stable democratic institutions in India.

For the first time in 1913 he was elected to the Bombay Legislative Council as a representative of the District Local Board of Gujarat. As a member of the Council he along with people like Gokuldas Parekh constantly raised issues relating to farmers and common men on the floor of the House on the one hand, and about rights of elected representatives on the other. It was also to the credit of Vithalbhai’s efforts that the Compulsory Education Bill and the Ayurvedic and Yunani Medicine Bills were passed by the Bombay Legislative Council. Not only this, he drew the attention of the House to the injustices to women after the enforcement of the Hindu Law. To quote from a portion of his speech in the House, “Hindu society cannot exist unless it has victims (women) who are forcibly compelled to live the life of falsehood and cowardice…”

Besides the Bombay Legislative Council, Vithalbhai Patel was elected to the Imperial Legislative Council in 1918 and to the Viceregal Legislative Council in 1919 respectively. In both these institutions his work was extraordinary and significant. Further, in 1924 he was elected as the Mayor of the City of Bombay where his nationalistic approach asserted him to refuse to receive the Viceroy, Lord Reading. He resigned his Mayorship rather than receiving the Viceroy who was recognized as a symbol of the state of the country’s subjugation.

The same year in 1924 Vithalbhai Patel was elected to the Central Legislative Assembly as one of the candidates of the Congress Swarajya Dal and in 1925 as the first Indian President of the House where he created history. Particularly, during his tenure as the President of the Central Legislative Assembly healthy traditions were set out when democratic institutions matured in an unprecedented way. Vithalbhai had not only maintained the dignity and status of the chair by deciding that the Viceroy wouldn’t enter the House with pomp and retinue but would enter from the President’s chamber and occupy a chair next to the President.

This practice was never witnessed before. He also didn’t permit the Commander-in-Chief to address the House till an apology was received for disregarding the House by absenting from the House when his speech was under discussion. For, in his obituary to Vithalbhai, Nalini Ranjan Sarkar had written in the Amrit Bazar Patrika on October 24, 1933, “He had created traditions for the honour and self-respect of the House.”

Such action, besides being a great freedom fighter, illustrates his checkered parliamentarian life. Nationalism, selflessness, indomitable courage and firm belief were the main facets of his personality. These can be considered his legacy for his compatriots, the ideals to be followed by those concerned for the prosperity of the nation and growth of democracy. His life exemplifies the performance of social responsibility, national unity and integrity.