FIGHTING FOR INDEPENDENCE
At the urging of his friends, Patel won an election to become the sanitation commissioner
of Ahmedabad in 1917. While often clashing with British officials on civic issues, he did not
show any interest in politics. Upon hearing of Mohandas Gandhi, he joked to Mavlankar that
Gandhi would “ask you if you know how to sift pebbles from wheat. And that is supposed
to bring independence.”
But Patel was deeply impressed when Gandhi defied the British in Champaran for the sake of
the area’s oppressed farmers. Against the grain of Indian politicians of the time, Gandhi wore
Indian-style clothes and emphasised the use of one’s mother tongue or any Indian language
as opposed to English – the lingua franca of India’s intellectuals. Patel was particularly
attracted to Gandhi’s inclination to action – apart from a resolution condemning the arrest of
political leader Annie Besant, Gandhi proposed that volunteers march peacefully demanding to
Patel gave a speech in Borsad in September 1917, encouraging Indians nationwide to sign Gandhi’s
petition demanding Swaraj – independence – from the British. Meeting Gandhi a month later at
Gujarat Political Conference in Godhra, Patel became the secretary of the Gujarat Sabha – a public
body which would become the Gujarati arm of the Indian National Congress – at Gandhi’s
encouragement. Patel now energetically fought against veth – the forced servitude of Indians to
Europeans – and organised relief efforts in wake of plague and famine in Kheda.
The Kheda peasants’ plea for exemption from taxation had been turned down by British authorities.
Gandhi endorsed waging a struggle there, but could not lead himself due to his activities in
Champaran. When Gandhi asked for a Gujarati activist to devote himself completely to the
assignment and Patel volunteered, much to Gandhi’s personal delight. Though his decision was
made on the spot, Patel later said that his desire and commitment came after intensive personal
contemplation, as he realised he would have to abandon his career and material ambitions.