There are a lot of very tall statues all over the world. Organizations, countries, and governments set up statues to heroes of all kinds. Sometimes real, sometimes spiritual, sometimes allegorical. The Statue of Liberty is certainly very tall (46 meters, 151 feet), and is an allegorical figure of Liberty, the central ideal of the American nation. But it’s only the 48th tallest statue in the world, and is dwarfed by “The Motherland Calls” in Volgograd, Russia (85 meters, 279 feet). That’s a gigantic, beautiful, and stirring statue of a woman warrior holding aloft a massive sword, calling Russians to defend and protect their people and culture, which is probably their most deeply felt ideal. But The Motherland Calls is only the 9th tallest statue in the world.
The rest of the top ten statues are to gods, mostly Buddhas, in Japan, Thailand, Myanmar, and China — except for one. Completed in 2018, The Statue of Unity in Gujarat in western India is the tallest in the world, by a long stretch. It’s 182 meters (597 ft) tall, 136 meters (446 feet) taller than the Statue of Liberty, and 54 meters (177 feet) taller than the Spring Temple Buddha statue in Henan province in China, the second tallest statue in the world.
And the Statue of Unity is only allegorical and symbolic in terms of its title. It’s not a statue of a god. It is a statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, one of The Republic of India’s Founding Fathers, and the person perhaps most responsible for forging India into a unitary state during the difficult and tumultuous struggle for freedom and independence in the early- to mid-twentieth century.
Vallabhbhai Patel’s Early Life and Career
Born in Gujarat in 1875, Vallabhbhai Patel showed his intelligence very early. He moved quickly and easily through his early schooling, and went to England in 1910 to earn his law degree at the Middle Temple in 1913. His law practice in Gujarat was impressive, and he became involved in local Gujarati politics while he was still a young lawyer. Ordinarily, this would have led to an important and prestigious civil service job in the British government in India. But Patel refused those jobs when they were offered to him. From an early age, he opposed British rule over India and did not wish to participate in it.
Patel was initially dismissive of Gandhi’s philosophical approach to Indian Independence, as unrealistic and anti-modern. “Gandhi would ask you if you know how to sift pebbles from wheat, and that is supposed to bring independence,” he said to a colleague in early 1917. But he changed his mind substantially when he met Gandhi in October of that year and they discussed India’s future. He joined Gandhi, and followed the “satyagraha” (non-violent protest) wing of the Indian Independence Movement.
Patel organized and led tax revolts and protests for the rest of the 19-teens and 1920s, earning him the honorific title “sardar” (“leader”). During the 1930s, he was a central figure in the Indian National Congress Party, usually agreeing with Gandhi, and disagreeing with Jawaharlal Nehru, over the question of how independent India would be. Whether, in essence, it would become a Dominion in the British Empire (like Canada) or a fully independent Republic. Gandhi and Patel would have settled for Dominion status, whereas Nehru and other Indian nationalists insisted on full independence, even though that was much more difficult to achieve. Patel was imprisoned several times in the 1930s and 1940s. Perhaps most famously, he was jailed in 1930 for helping to lead the famous Salt Satyagraha (a march to the sea to collect salt, rather than pay for it through the British-controlled markets). And other political jailings followed, even during the Second World War.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel is mostly famous for his work for Indian Unity in the late 1940s, as the Independence Movement became reality. Unity, Indian nationalists believed, could end what was known as “communal violence” (that is, violence between different religious and ethnic groups), and create a great nation. Patel was the key figure getting several hesitant Indian princely states to agree to join a united India in the tense period between 1947 and 1949. This involved a tremendous degree of sensitive negotiation with these princely states. And all the while Patel was doing this provincial negotiation, he had to keep the sometimes divided Indian National Congress leaders from throwing up their hands and allowing for, essentially, a politically-fractured South Asia. His diligence earned him the nickname “the Iron Man of India.”
He succeeded at this arduous task while he was India’s first Deputy Prime Minister, and Minister for Home Affairs from 1947 till December 19150. And he did so without having the benefit (or the personal fame and satisfaction) of serving as Prime Minister, an office that many contemporary Indian politicians (and subsequent political historians) thought he deserved.
And it’s possible that the stress caused by this work led to a relatively rapid decline in his health and a massive heart attack that killed him at the end of 1950.
The Statue of Unity and the Great Man Theory of History
The life and career of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel is well-worth studying in its own right. But learning about him, and especially the central role he played in gaining Indian Independence and forging the Indian state, gives us an opportunity to question the validity of what I sometimes call the “Great Individual Theory of History.” If you hadn’t grown up in India and studied Indian history, you might think that if the tallest statue in the world was being built in 2018, and that it was going to represent an Indian independence leader, it must be of Gandhi.
Just as, when asked about the British and World War II, the first person most people think of is Churchill. But just as Churchill did not “save western civilization” on his own (as he is very frequently praised as doing), Gandhi did not, and could not, alone, bring about the independence of India. There were dozens of national, and thousands of local, Indian leaders in that movement. Each one’s contribution was essential to India’s ultimate independence. We need to more greatly appreciate the wide range of people who make any major historical event or development happen.
Given how relatively unselfish Sardar Patel was in relegating his person political pride to the greater goal of Indian self-determination, he might be surprised (and, indeed, troubled) to see himself represented by the tallest statue in the world. But he might also be somewhat consoled by the fact that the statue is not named after him individually, but is named after a great aspiration for his people. It’s called “The Statue of Unity,” which was the work of his life.
And that’s why he’s the subject of today’s Man Crush Monday.
Balraj Krishna, Sardar Vallabhabhai Patel India’s Iron Man
A comprehensive and vivid narration of Patel’s unique contribution to Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for India’s freedom. Often called the ‘Iron Man of India’, Sardar Vallabhabhai Patel helped to build modern India as a unified state. The history of the Gandhian era cannot be properly understood unless Patel is appreciated for what he did and achieved for India.