Vallabhbhai Patel (1875/6–1950)
Patel was born between October 1875 and May 1876 (31 October 1875 was used in official documents) in Nadiad in the state of Gujarat. He grew up in a village together with his five siblings. Their parents had no formal education.
Patel visited several schools including a private English school. He was keen to learn English. ‘Socially, the language had already become a status symbol; but, more importantly, it had opened the gates to higher employment in service for Indians, or a more respectable and lucrative position in one of the newly thrown open professions – particularly the legal.’ He moved to Nadiad to finish his studies. Even though Patel did not pass his Matriculation for the first time, he succeeded a year later at the age of 22.
Patel started his legal career as a pleader in 1900 because he had neither higher education, nor the money to become a barrister straight away. He studied for three years to achieve this qualification. Then he and his wife moved to Godhra and, with borrowed money, Patel set up his first practice. After surviving bubonic plague, he moved to Borsad where he practiced criminal law. He kept his dream to become a barrister alive and worked hard to save money for his journey to England.
When he had saved enough, an unfortunate event happened. His passport and travel documents were sent by mistake to his brother. His brother, being older, took the opportunity to go to England to become a barrister first. Patel postponed his departure until his brother had returned from England, and finally left India in 1909 when he was already 34 years old, his wife having died in the meantime. He never married again and raised his two children with the help of his family.
After his arrival in England, he joined Middle Temple and allegedly studied at least 11 hours a day. Because he was not able to afford books, he used the services of the Middle Temple Library where he spent most of his days. He finished his exams in 1912 and was called to the Bar on 27 January 1913.
He returned to India in February 1913 and set up his practice in Ahmedabad. Patel was later involved in politics and joined Mahatma Gandhi in the Indian Independence movement. He became one of the leaders of the Indian National Congress and, because of his political activities, he was imprisoned several times.
After WWII, he was ‘a critical figure […] in the final negotiations with the British concerning the transfer of power, in the deliberations of the constituent assembly, and in the first government of independent India’. After India gained independence in 1947, he served as Minister of Home Affairs and the first Deputy Prime Minister. He was also known as Sardar (headman) Patel and ‘Iron Man of India’. He died after suffering a heart attack on 15 December 1950.
Balraj Krishna, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. India’s Iron Man (Rupa Publications India 2005)
Rajmohan Gandhi, Patel. A Life (Navajivan Publishing House, 1991)
This biography is featured at the Library exhibition at Middle Temple Library – “Becoming a barrister. Overcoming barriers on the path to the Bar” (Jan – Apr 2020)