Half a century after the death of Indian premier Lal Bahadur Shastri, Kuldip Nayar recalls his own experience of this tragic event, examining the ongoing suspicion that surrounds it and considering what India’s current politicians could learn from Shastri.
How short are people’s memories? Fifty years ago, Lal Bahadur Shastri—then India’s prime minister—died at Tashkent on the night of 10-11 January. I was still Shastri’s Press Officer at that time, even though I had started working as editor and general manager of United News of India (UNI).
The question still being asked today is whether Shastri really died of a heart attack. Nobody raised any questions at the time of his death as to the cause, although his wife Lalita Shastri suspected that he had been poisoned, and said so when I met her to offer my condolences.
Many years later, this notion of poisoning was brought to the fore by an independent MP, Dharm Dev Shastri, in the Lok Sabha. When he made his statement, it sparked a furore in the house and MPs wanted to know more. Consequently, there was wide discussion both in the Lok Sabha and throughout the country about the sudden death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, who had gone to Tashkent in good health, with no signs of any heart problems. The discussion is still simmering today.
I recall that I was sleeping at a Tashkent hotel, one where various Indian and Pakistani journalists were staying, when, around midnight, a Russian woman pounded on my door and said, ‘Your prime minister is dying.’
Oddly, the pounding woke me up from a dream in which I heard the news that Prime Minister Shastri had died.
I was among the first few people to go to Shastri’s room. It was a huge room and his shrivelled body was lying on the large bed, like a full stop on a page. Accompanying me was a Press Information Bureau photographer. The two of us straightened the prime minister’s body and covered it with a national flag. A banner rested in one corner of the room, and we found a vase of flowers, whose petals we scattered over the body. I was conscious that soon, leaders of the Soviet Union and Pakistan would be knocking at the door to pay homage to Shastri.
Soviet Prime Minister A.N. Kosygin was still in Shastri’s room when General Ayub, Pakistan’s Chief Marshal Law Administrator, came to pay his respects. He looked towards me and said, ‘Here lies a person who could have brought India and Pakistan closer.’
It seemed as though the entire population of Tashkent was lining the road when Lal Bahadur Shastri’s body was taken to the airport. Many people from the crowd tried to shake our hands to convey their support and sympathy.
Later, in the Lok Sabha, the then foreign minister Swaran Singh made an erroneous statement that there was a call bell in Shastri’s room, which he could have used to summon help. In fact, there was no such bell.
After talking to Shastri’s aides, who were staying two rooms away, I found that the prime minister had knocked at their door that night and asked for Chug, the doctor who had accompanied us from Delhi. The aides helped Shastri to walk back to his room. By this time, he was probably in the midst of having a heart attack. Chug apparently said, ‘Babuji, you did not give me a chance.’ He told me later that he put a syringe straight into Shastri’s heart but he was already dead by then.
Was the Tashkent Agreement weighing on Shastri’s mind? There is no doubt it was. He had found the Indian journalists who were accompanying him hostile at a recent press conference. They were resentful over the return to Pakistan of Haji Pir and Tithwal, the two posts which were part of our Kashmir. Shastri explained to me that he could not help it because the Soviet Union had threatened to use their veto against us in the Security Council, where the Kashmir issue was pending.
In addition to this, he was facing criticism from his family. When he returned to his room after the press conference, Shastri asked his secretary Srivastava, who was with him in Tashkent, to call his home number on the telephone. When the call was put through, Shastri’s eldest daughter Kusum told him she was unhappy that he had returned Haji Pir and Tithwal to Pakistan. Shastri told her to give the phone to her mother, but Kusum said her mother did not want to talk to him because she too was angry about Haji Pir and Tithwal. In Shastri’s thinking, if his own family members were so hostile, others were bound to be even more so.
My feeling is that this remark hurt Shastri deeply and set him pacing up and down in his room. When his servant said that he would sleep on the floor, Shastri did not agree.
Politicians will be politicians. I recall cabinet minister Swaran Singh asking me, after Shastri’s death and while we were still in Tashkent, who I thought would be the next prime minister. I was too drowned in sorrow to reply to him. But he and fellow minister Y.B. Chavan went on discussing Shastri’s possible successor, little knowing that Congress President K. Kamraj, who was then flying in a chartered plane from Chennai to Delhi, had already decided that Mrs Indira Gandhi would take over from Shastri. Kamraj did not want the nationalist Morarji Desai to succeed because he found him too rigid and opinionated.
The Congress party was in favour of a consensus candidate and left it to Kamraj to seek the opinion of Congress MPs and then decide. He found the majority in favour of Indira Gandhi. Morarji Desai did not accept that, and lost in the election which he subsequently forced on the party.
Indira Gandhi was standing in the wings, waiting for her nomination. In an interview with UNI, she had already said that it was down to the people, not the party, to choose whom they liked. This was a challenge to Morarji Desai, who had most of the Congress chief ministers on his side.
There is no doubt that Kamraj’s support for Indira Gandhi eventually decided the matter. But Morarji inflexibility cost him the premiership at that time. Even when he did become prime minister many years later, he broke the party and lost the government because of his uncompromising stance.
Fifty years on, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s example is a lesson for the country because he provided a key that could open any lock. The Modi government should tear a leaf from Shastri’s book and rule the country from a national point of view, not that of individual parties.