Darbar Gopaldas Desai: A Revolutionary Prince

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    ‘We await Surendra Dev’s return.’ This was the concluding thought in Sorath, Taraan Vahetaan Pani (‘Running Streams of Sorath’), Jhaverchand Meghani’s realistic novel about the Kathiawad of the 1920s—its princes, helpless rural women, dacoits, policemen, British officers and young idealists.

    When the novel first appeared more than seventy-five years ago in 1937, readers were quick to recognize ‘Darbar’ or Prince Gopaldas in the character of Surendra Dev, who was presented by Meghani as a prince with a backbone and a ruler with a heart in a period when kissing imperial dust was the norm for rajas and maharajas, when aristocrats liked to whip and schoolmasters liked to cane.

    Meghani is one of Gujarat’s most loved writers. Born in 1896, he died in March 1947—a few months before independence—after presenting novels, short stories, poems and a treasury of Kathiawad’s folklore. He freely admitted that his Surendra Dev had been modelled on Darbar Gopaldas (1887-1951), the prince who, in 1922, chose to forfeit his Saurashtra possessions and preserve his self-respect rather than the other way round.

    Now in her nineties and living in Ahmedabad, Jayaben Shah, who with her husband Vajubhai Shah lived alongside Darbar Gopaldas and his wife in Rajkot in the 1940s, recalls Gopaldas in these words:

    ‘He was straightforward and generous. He was beautiful. He attracted people. If there were a hundred persons sitting in a room, he was the one you noticed.’

    Gujarat, and India as a whole, have travelled far in the nine decades between the 1920s and now. Much has changed, including what Gujaratis (and other Indians) eat or wear, how they travel, the way they communicate, how they furnish their homes, and what they talk or dream about. However, not every change has been pleasing. Darbar Gopaldas has been forgotten. Other heroes are remembered, including imperial ones. Uprightness is mocked, and success is measured in bricks of gold or in million-dollar units.

    Maybe, as Meghani suggested, it is time for Surendra Dev to return.

    What made Darbar Gopaldas unusual is also what makes him relevant for our times. Born into an elite Patidar (or Patel) clan of the village of Vaso in the fecund heartland of central Gujarat—the area known as Charotar—he also spent a great part of his life in the Saurashtra peninsula, which Gujaratis often call Kathiawad.

    A Gujarati in his bones and blood, Gopaldas was a Kathiawadi in his heart and soul. He was not merely a ‘mainland Gujarati’. Neither was he just a Kathiawadi. He was both. Identifying himself with all of Gujarat, in his time, he enabled all Gujaratis to relate to him. Proud yeomen farmers for centuries, the Patidars never thought they were inferior to the Rajputs who ruled scores of large or small principalities in Kathiawad. Gopaldas and his forebears were sturdy Patidars and yet, virtually uniquely among Patels, they were rulers as well.* They ruled pockets in Saurashtra, thanks to the daring of ancestor Desaibhai Amin and his alliance with the Maratha Gaekwads.

    The Patidars were unlike Kathiawad’s ruling Rajputs, who included the Jadejas of Jamnagar and Rajkot, the Jhalas of Wankaner, Wadhwan, Limbdi and Dhrangadhra, the Gohils of Bhavnagar, the Jethwas of Porbandar, the Chudasamas of Junagadh and others. They also differed from the bold Kathis who gave their name to the peninsula, and from the Pashtun chiefs presiding over Junagadh and a few other places in Gujarat. Here was a rare line of Patidar rajas reigning over tiny pockets in Kathiawad, including one very close to the lions of Gir in today’s Amreli district.

    The fascinating haveli in Vaso (12 km west of Nadiad town) that Gopaldas inherited from his ‘Darbar’ or princely forebears is today visited by tourists for its architectural charm and the quality of its intricate woodwork. At times film producers making period movies rent the haveli, which still recalls the family’s royal past.

    It was not only his ability to give up his property that made Darbar Gopaldas remarkable; he was unusual in other ways too. In a period when women were even more neglected or oppressed than they are today, he protected women’s rights, unmindful of the ridicule he thereby invited from relatives and others in his circle. Again, at a time when rulers measured status by the capacity to humiliate their subjects, he held up equality as a value.

    In fact Darbar Gopaldas even laid down—one hundred years ago—procedures whereby his own subjects, his praja, could punish him if he crossed a line.

    Moreover, one of the targets of Gopaldas’s arrow of equality was the hierarchy that the supposedly egalitarian Patels had accepted in their own Patidar world. This hierarchy elevated Patels from a six-village combine—the so-called Chha Gaam bloc to which Vaso also belonged—over other Patels. (Bhadran, Dharmaj, Karamsad, Nadiad and Sojitra were the other five Chha Gaam villages.)

    At a time when Western scholars of Gujarati society were underlining the rumbustious and at times swaggering personality of the Patidar, Darbar Gopaldas offered the example of a strong Patel whose firmness was conveyed not through machismo but through what he quietly did or refused to do. Gopaldas’s strength seemed to emanate not from a metal-tipped rod or a gun but from an inner clarity about what was straight and fair.

    That was not all. Fearlessly proclaiming Swaraj during the Empire’s heyday, Gopaldas also defended Dalit dignity and Muslim lives in that distant time.

    On the Dalit or Harijan question he was quite radical. When in 1930 his wife Bhaktilaxmi was pregnant with their last child, Gopaldas said that if it was a girl he would marry her to a Harijan boy. The boy Bhaktilaxmi delivered eventually married someone outside the pale of Hindu society—an American of German descent. And when towards the end of 1947 there was an attack on Vaso’s Muslim minority, Gopaldas put aside his Constituent Assembly work in New Delhi, rushed to Vaso, rebuked those who had allowed the violence, and arranged relief and compensation for victims.

    His mind and time were applied not to consolidate his power or wealth, but to help others achieve greatness. Men who acknowledged themselves as Gopaldas’s protégés included four who became chief ministers of Gujarat or Saurashtra—U.N. Dhebar, Balwantray Mehta, Jivraj Mehta and Babubhai J. Patel—as well as Tribhuvandas Patel, the man who founded Gujarat’s famed cooperative movement for milk production and helped launch AMUL.

    Within his family, Gopaldas taught children and others around him to think and say nice things about people they found difficult. And he remained cheerful when deprived of his possessions and proud while receiving penalties for his political stands.

    Yes, he had his weaknesses. He found it difficult to say a firm ‘no’ to people he respected. He was unwilling to assert his own claims to high office, even when these claims were strong and the public seemed to need him. And he never could kick the smoking habit, though he was able to control it when in prison.

    Whatever its weaknesses and virtues, Meghani found Gopaldas’s character irresistible in the 1920s and 1930s. Almost a century later, Gujarat, and India as a whole, can only benefit from a reminder of Gopaldas’s story.

    Excerpted with permission from Prince of Gujarat: The Extraordinary Story of Prince Gopaldas Desai (1887-1951) published by Aleph Book Company in 2014. You can buy the book here.

    This article is part of our special series the ‘Making of Modern India’ through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India’s exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.

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