Vithalbhai Patel was born in the year 1873, on September 27 according to his biographer, G. I. Patel. He was the third of the five sons of Jhaverbhai and mother Ladba of Karamsad. At an early age he shared with his father the fondness for chess which possibly helped shape his tactical and strategic skills which he used effectively during his remarkable social and political career. Vithalbhai was admitted to the Lincoln’s Inn in England on 9 April 1906 and was called to the Bar on 1 July 1908. He started his legal practice in Bombay. His illustrious younger brother Vallabhbhai, who attended Middle Temple, was called to the Bar at Middle Temple in 1913.
In 1912 Vithalbhai devoted himself to bringing about both social and political reforms to successfully fight for India’s freedom. He became a member of Bombay Legislative Council. He was elected to the Imperial Legislative Council in 1918. He served as the Mayor of Bombay Municipal Corporation from 1923 till 1925. In 1924, he became a member of Indian Legislative Assembly in Delhi. He was elected, by a narrow margin, as the first Indian Speaker of the Assembly. His successful legislative record against all odds, superb legislative skills, impartiality, independence, and fearless approach was appreciated and acknowledged by the members who unanimously re-elected Vithalbhai for a second term as President. He resigned as the President of the Assembly in 1930 to be fully involved in politics by joining the Congress Working Committee.
Vithalbhai, a moderate, took an early interest in politics by joining the Indian National Congress in 1915. When the Special Session of Congress was held in Bombay in August 1918, Vithalbhai was appointed Chairman of the Reception Committee. A year later he went to England, in connection with the Government of India Bill, as a member of the Congress delegation to present their case before the Joint Select Committee. During this visit Vithalbhai met and interacted with Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Vithalbhai became more aligned towards Tilak’s philosophy of direct actions than Gandhiji’s philosophy of peaceful non-cooperation. He believed in erecting as much obstruction as possible to bring the Government to a standstill and taking direct actions when needed but staying within the law. On the other hand, his younger brother Vallabhbhai believed in non-cooperation and remained a trusted deputy of Gandhiji. However, Vithalbhai was astute and practical enough to support Gandhiji whenever they had a common strategy since their goals were the same – freedom for India. Gandhiji said, ““Mr. Patel is doing in the Assembly what an Indian can do for the good of his country. By his fearlessness he is proving worthy of his post and his country.”
The period 1930 to 1933 were eventful but very taxing for Vithalbhai. In August 1930, soon after he resigned as the President of the Assembly and joined the Congress Working Committee, he was arrested as a Congress member and spent five months in Ambala Jail where he fell ill. After his release in early January 1931, he went to Vienna for a prolonged medical treatment and returned in late December of that year. He was rearrested in early January 1932 and sent to Byculla Jail where his health further deteriorated. He was released a few months later and, despite his illness, he toured America and meet influential people to gain support for India’s freedom struggle. His health had worsened by the time he returned to Vienna for medical treatment. Here he met Subash Chandra Bose and they published the “Bose Patel Manifesto” criticising Gandhiji’s leadership and seeking a shift in strategy. Much against the doctor’s advice, he decided to go to Geneva in Switzerland to attend a meeting. His health further deteriorated, and he died at a clinic near Geneva on October 22, 1933. The sad news spread throughout India. The reaction was spontaneous and nation-wide: businesses, textile mills and markets closed, shops downed their shutters and thousands gathered at meetings held all over India to mourn Vithalbhai’s death. Having spent his entire life in the service of the nation his embalmed body was placed in a sealed coffin and shipped, reaching Bombay on November 10,1933. His wish to be cremated at Chowpatty Beach in Bombay, alongside where Tilak was cremated, was not granted by the authorities afraid of any ‘undesirable provocation’. Even his younger brother, Vallabhbhai who was in Nasik Jail, was not allowed to attend the funeral. A mile long procession followed the closed coffin to Sonapur Crematorium, with mourning onlookers along the streets, to pay their homage. Only on reaching Sonapur that the authorities permitted the coffin to be opened and the body placed on the pyre. The final rites were carried out by his nephew, Vallabhbhai’s son, Dahyabhai, before a crowd of 300,000 mourners.
What his contemporises had to say on his death:
“One by one Old Guard leaders – fighters of India’s freedom – pass away leaving a terrible emptiness behind. The strain of the fight breaks their physical strength, and prison life and advanced age ruin their health, but the call of the great cause continues to beckon them and they go forward till the end. Mr. Patel was a fighter for a cause – a warrior battling for India’s freedom.”
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru
Prime Minister of India
“Mr. Patel was one of those political leaders whose sacrifices for the country were immense and whose contribution to the freedom movement was invaluable.”
Dr. Rajendra Prasad
President of India
“Mr. Patel had indomitable courage and was the parent of all national virtues. Besides courage he had wisdom and the divine gift of humour and these were the qualities that carried him from the ploughboy to the President.”
President Indian National Congress 1925/26
Governor of United Provinces
“The public meeting of the Citizens of Bombay mourns the irreparable loss the country has suffered by the death of Vithalbhai Patel, who, as the first Indian President of the Legislative Assembly, won the respect and admiration of all by his mastery of constitutional law and practice, and who, as a great Indian leader, lived a life dedicated to the national cause and by his indomitable courage, steadfastness, and spirit of sacrifice has left a precious memory to his country.”
Resolution passed on December 11, 1933
At the Public Meeting Convened by Sir Hugh Cocke, Sherriff of Bombay