Narsinhbhai Patel, a remarkable social reformer ahead of his time, an early champion of women’s rights, and a staunch atheist known for his outstanding Gujarati book on atheism, has an intriguing life story. The former Bombay Presidency’s Criminal Investigation Department regarded him as the most dangerous figure in the resolute Patidar community.
Initially, Patel embraced a revolutionary path and followed the bomb cult of Bengal, drawing inspiration from the Indian philosopher Aurobindo Ghosh and his more radical brother, Barindra Kumar Ghosh, during his college days at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. Upon completing his studies, Patel became a school teacher in Baroda State and was stationed in Mehsana, Gujarat. There, he established a printing press and published a monthly magazine called “Shikshak” (The Teacher).
Besides, Patel authored, translated, and compiled books on European revolutionaries like James A. Garfield, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and Giuseppe Mazzini in Gujarati. However, his most infamous work was a DIY guide on bomb-making, deceptively titled “Vanaspatini Davao” (Herbal Medicines), which was a translation of Barindra Ghosh’s “Mukti Kon Pathe” (Which Way to Liberation). These publications incurred the British government’s wrath.
Revolutionary at heart
In a significant turn of events, the British authorities imposed a ban on a book related to bomb-making, sparking a series of actions against Patel. This led to his incarceration for a brief period in 1912. Adding to his predicament, the Gaekwad state also expelled Patel for five years, coupled with a fine of Rs 300. It was disclosed that failure to pay the imposed fine would extend his exile by another year. Seeking refuge, Patel sought solace in Pondicherry, which was a French colony during that time. However, the British diligently pursued him, even putting pressure on his employer in Pondicherry.
In an effort to evade the relentless pursuit, Patel took the daring step of relocating to Africa. His destination was Mombasa, East Africa, where he settled for a considerable period. Later on, he shifted to Mwanza, which was a German colony, and this stay provided him with a unique opportunity to learn German. During this period, Patel’s wife and two daughters joined him in Africa.
With the outbreak of the First World War, the British captured Mwanza, prompting Patel to move his base to Jinja in present-day Uganda. This chapter in his life offered him ample time to engage in introspection and intellectual pursuits. One pivotal moment was when Patel came across Leo Tolstoy’s work, “A Murderer’s Remorse,” which had a profound impact on his beliefs and principles. He underwent a profound transformation and embraced non-violence as a way of life.
During his time in Africa, Patel crossed paths with CF Andrews, a Christian missionary and a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. This encounter proved influential, and Andrews suggested that Patel consider joining the Shantiniketan ashram upon his return to India.
Patel, following Andrews’ counsel, journeyed to Shantiniketan and imparted German education there. Accompanied by his family and prominent figures of Shantiniketan, he resided in the place for about three years (1920-1923). A revolutionary by nature, Patel fearlessly expressed his thoughts to everyone, including his high regard for Tagore and Gandhi.
During an informal night gathering, Patel confronted Tagore when the latter praised the Japanese and their artistic sense. He directly questioned, “Who has enslaved Korea and inflicted atrocities on the Koreans?” Tagore attempted to present the Japanese perspective, claiming their popularity among Koreans, to which Patel countered, “By that standard, Nero playing the fiddle from his terrace while Rome burnt must be popular as well.” Tagore, unlike some of his disciples, gracefully accepted Patel’s remarks and appreciated his candidness.
Leaving Shantiniketan, Patel settled in Anand, a town in the Charotar region in central Gujarat, which later earned the title of India’s milk capital. The town was situated near his native village Sojitra. Disturbed by the societal problems prevalent in his community, Patel initiated a monthly magazine named Patidar in 1924. The magazine aimed to bring about positive changes and free fellow Patidars from the clutches of caste-based practices. Patel’s writing style was straightforward, impactful, and fearless.
A prominent figure in India’s freedom movement, who actively participated in key events such as Gandhi’s Dandi March, has expressed his disagreement with Mahatma Gandhi’s stance on gender equality. During Gandhi’s visit to Anand, he was received by this individual, who also faced imprisonment for his involvement in the struggle for independence.
Recently, when Gandhi scolded his wife, Kasturba, for visiting the Jagannath temple in Puri, where Dalits were prohibited, the individual expressed his dissent in Patidar. He firmly stated that it is not Gandhi’s place to dictate his wife’s actions or choices regarding her whereabouts. In doing so, he highlighted that even a revered figure like Mahatma Gandhi was not entirely free from the influence of traditional patriarchal norms.
He gained recognition as a strong advocate for women through his book “Lagnaprapanch” (the fraud of Marriage) published in 1937. This substantial 650-page book, with a preface by Gandhi’s close associate Kishorelal Mashruwala, put forth a bold argument that marriage was designed to oppress and subjugate women. Patel’s radical views were also evident in his 1932 book “Ishwarno Inkaar” (denying God), where he openly expressed his atheistic beliefs. Raised in a family of Swaminarayan followers, Patel was influenced by certain aspects of Arya Samaj, but he disagreed with the notion that the Vedas were of divine origin.
Narsinhbhai Patel, who resided in Anand and called his home Patidar Mandir, urged readers, especially the youth, in his book “Ishwarno Inkaar” to question and critically analyze religious beliefs. He fearlessly expressed that he would stand by his convictions, even if he stood alone in believing them. Patel’s writings caught the attention of Mahatma Gandhi, who read his books, including “Africana Patro,” during his imprisonment and admired Patel’s honesty and sincerity.
Despite facing personal challenges, such as the loss of his wife Diwaliben and a paralytic attack, Patel’s spirit remained unshaken. In the later stages of his life, when former Prime Minister Morarji Desai inquired if he would eventually come to believe in God, Patel remained resolute in his views. During his imprisonment and illness, his daughters Shantaben and Vimlaben actively carried forward his legacy, proving themselves as capable successors to their illustrious father. His son Ramanbhai had spent his early life in Africa, but Ramanbhai’s son Shantibhai joined his grandfather in the freedom movement.
Narsinhbhai Patel passed away before witnessing India’s Independence, yet he exemplified the ideal qualities of a responsible citizen in an independent and democratic nation. His ideas and contributions continue to inspire generations.