Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, the Iron Man of India and sometimes called Bismark of Indian Union, for his charismatic approach of leading the divided Indian States under British to unite under the umbrella of the Union of India. Given the title of “Sardar” or “The Chief/Leader” by the women of Bardoli, for who Vallabhbhai Patel was fighting against the British Municipal Duty imposed during the time of double predicament of famine and steep hike in taxation for the farmers. So let us explore the story of what made Sardar out of Vallabhbhai.
The floods and famines of 1925 in Bardoli taluka, Gujarat, caused crop failure which became an economic distress for the farmers. During the time, adding salt on the wound, the British Administration of Bombay Presidency raised the tax rate by 30% on the particular year. Even after Indian civic societies registered their protests requesting withdrawal of the tax hike at the face of the natural calamities, but Colonial Government was adamant on extracting money through taxation. The condition of the farmers had worsened as they barely had enough property and crops to pay off the tax, let alone having food to sustain themselves afterwards.
The initiating activists like Narhari Parikh, Ravi Shankar Vyas, and Mohanlal Pandya talked to village chieftains and farmers and solicited the help of the then well-renowned barrister and the prominent freedom fighter, Shri Vallabhbhai Patel. Vallabhbhaiji had previously guided Gujarat’s farmers during the Kheda struggle in 1918 and had served before as Ahmedabad’s municipal president. He was widely respected by common people across the region.
When approached by the delegation of farmers, Vallabhbhaiji told them frankly that if they should realize fully what a revolt would entail. He would not lead them if not he had the unanimous understanding and unity of action among all the villages involved. Refusal to pay taxes could mean the confiscation of their property, including their lands, and many would go to jail. The villagers replied in unison that they were prepared for the worst, but certainly could not accept the government’s injustice. Vallabhbhaiji asked Gandhiji to think about and take up the movement. But Gandhiji merely asked what Vallabhbhaiji’s own vision on this matter. Vallabhbhaiji replied with confidence about the prospects and Gandhiji just gave his blessings to him to lead the movement. But Gandhi and Vallabhbhaiji agreed that neither the Congress would directly involve themselves, or the struggle left entirely to the people of Bardoli.
Starting the action, Vallabhbhaiji first wrote letters to the Governor of Bombay, asking him to reduce the taxes for the year in face of the calamities. But the Governor ignored the letter and announced the date of tax collection. Vallabhbhaiji then instructed all the farmers of Bardoli to refuse payment of their taxes. Aided by local leaders, he divided Bardoli into several zones – each with a leader and volunteers with specifically demarcated roles and duties. Vallabhbhaiji also placed some activists close to the government, to act as informers on the movements of government officials. Vallabhbhaiji had instructed the peasants to remain completely active but non-violent, and not respond physically to any incitements or antagonistic violent actions from officials. He reassured them that the struggle would not end until not only the cancellation of all taxes for the year but also when all the seized property and lands were returned to their rightful owners. May be the character of Bhuvan from Lagaan movie was inspired by him, with addition of cricket.
The farmers got complete support from their compatriots. As a help, many hid their most precious belongings with their relatives in other parts/areas, and the protestors received financial support and essential supplies from supporters in other parts. But Vallabhbhaiji refused permission to enthusiastic supporters in Gujarat and other parts of India from going on the sympathetic protest. The Government stated that it would crush any uprising. Along with tax inspectors, bands of Pathans were gathered from northwest India to forcibly grab hold of the property of the villagers and intimidate them. The Pathans and the men of the collectors forced themselves into the houses and took all property, including livestock. The government began to public sale the houses and the lands. But not a single man from Gujarat or anywhere else in India came forward to buy them. Vallabhbhaiji had appointed volunteers in every village to keep watch. As soon as he sighted the officials who were coming to auction the property, the volunteer would sound his bigul. The farmers would leave the village and hide in the jungles. The officials would find the entire village empty. They could never find out who owned a particular house.
However, several rich people from Bombay came to purchase some lands. There was also one rural community recorded who paid the tax. An absolute social boycott was organized against them upto the extent that the relatives broke their ties to families residing in the tax-paying village. Other ways social boycott was enforced against landowners who broke with the tax strike or purchased seized land were to refuse to rent their fields or to work as laborers for them.Bombay’s MLCs and leaders across India were angered by the horrifying treatment of the protesting farmers in the hands of tax collectors. Indian members resigned their offices and expressed open support for the farmers. The Government was criticized by many, even in the Raj’s offices.
In 1928, an agreement was ultimately brokered by a Parsi member of the Bombay government. The Government decided to reinstate the confiscated lands and properties, as well as revoke revenue payment not only for the year but cancel the 30% raise until after the succeeding year.
The farmers celebrated their success, but Vallabhbhaiji continued to work to make sure that all lands and properties were returned to all farmers of Bardoli and that no one was left out. When the administration refused to ask the people who had bought some of the lands to return them, affluent sympathizers from Bombay bought them out and returned the lands in the rightful manner to the original owners.