Monday, 1 October 2012

A Short Man with a Tall Legacy

When travelling to my ancestral place in a train, I cross a railway junction by the name Mughalsarai. My father would point the station to me and ask, "Can you tell me which famous Indian was born here?".

I would proudly say " My favourite Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri".

His legacy has been conveniently forgotten by the political party that he belonged to. Great leaders and freedom fighters do not die a mortal death, they die when the public forgets them. On his birthday, which he shares with the Mahatma, let me tell you the story of this selfless, honest and brave leader.

Shastriji was born in a Kayastha family(His original surname was Sriwastava) at Mughalsarai. He lost his father at the age of 1 and was raised by his mother at Varanasi.

There was an incident that almost denied India it's best PM. Once when Shastriji's mother was bathing on the Ghats of the Ganges, she lost her kid in the teeming fair crowd. The child was found by a childless cowherd family, who took him as a gift of god. But the child was restored to his birth mother after the police traced the child.

This diminutive kid showed glimpses of his bravery and honesty, as he swam the swelling Ganges when he did not have the fares to give to the boatmen to ferry his across the ghats. Another incident that he recalled in an interview, was when he was caught stealing mangoes from an orchard. He was held by the chaukidaar and was slapped. A teary Lal Bahadur pleaded to stop the beating because he was an orphan. The chaukidaar's response stayed with him for his lifetime. He said "Because you are an orphan, you must be more responsible in the way you behave". It was a lesson well learnt.

He was awarded the title of "Shastri" by the Kashi Vidyapeeth, which stuck as a part of his name. He joined the freedom struggle and was heavily influence by Lokmanya Tilak and the Mahatma.

Once India got it's independence, he was invited by the first chief minster of UP, Govind Vallabh Pant to join his cabinet as the Transport Minister. He is credited for opening the post of bus conductor for women. He was later given the portfolio of Home Minister in the Pant government, where he introduced water jets to disperse unruly crowds, rather than the inhumane Lathi charge.

During this time, he was the General Secretary of All India Congress Committee, which selected candidates for general elections. He was urged by Panditji to fight the elections, but declined the offer by indicating a conflict of interest between selecting and fighting elections. Nehru was impressed by this behaviour.

Post 1952 elections, Jawaharlal Nehru, in a surprise move called Shastriji to join his cabinet as the Transport and Railways Minister. It was during his tenure, that the Indian railways went for a large overhaul and increased the comforts for people travelling in 3rd Class. During those days, there were 4 classes of seats in the railways. The first class was royal in nature, followed by the second and the intermediate class. But the third class was a hell hole, with no decent seating arrangements, fans or water facilities. Shastriji abolished the first class, made the second to the first class, the intermediate class became the second class and the third class was given proper seating facilities and other amenities.

But his tenure as a railway minister is remembered for the moral fabric that he showed. There was a railway accident in Mehboob Nagar, which saw 112 passengers dead. He resigned from the post after the accident, but his resignation was turned down by Panditji. Unfortunately, 3 months later, another accident at Ariyalur killed 144, and he resigned again, this time with a request to the PM to accept. A visibly glum Nehru explained to the Parliament that the acceptance was not a question on his ability and a lesson in Constitutional properiety.
(On the other hand, modern day railway ministers dispense some compensation and conveniently forget the resignation and give a lip service to the modernisation of railways)

1964 saw the demise of Jawaharlal Nehru, and  the re-emergence of a question---"Who After Nehru".
International newspapers and magazines wrote that the experiment of Indian democracy will die along with the death of Nehru. India was facing problems of hungry millions, neighbours ready for war and drought. The Idea of India was in serious danger of becoming a footnote in history.

There were two main contenders for the post. Nehru's daughter Indira and the Morarji Desai. The syndicate headed by K. Kaamraj(often referred as the Chankya of Indian Politics), did not like the loud ambition of Desai(Congress never likes loud ambitions, hence neither Desai nor Sharad Pawar ever became Prime Ministers of a Congress Government) and deemed Indira to be too inexperienced. An experienced Shastriji was given the reins of the government.

His first Major challenge was the persistent hunger that India was facing, which lead to the country standing with a begging bowl. He initiated steps to increase the productivity of wheat and milk in the country.

He was so impressed with Verghese Kurien's(founder of Amul) efforts that he decided to stay a whole night to see the working of a dairy in the morning.(Another very interesting story....but more of it sometime later)

Another major challenge was when Pakistan attacked the Rann of Kutch. He asked the Army to give a befitting reply for this mistake. But the war escalated when Pakistan, attacked Kashmir, by moving towards Chaamb. He met all the 3 military chiefs and asked for a breifing. The Indian army chief informed that once Chaamb falls, it will be difficult to hold on to Kashmir. He suggested that India must open a front and attack Lahore. Shastriji's instructions were clear....Get Lahore before they get Chaamb. He also involved the Navy (Karachi was under a naval blockade) and the Airforce to help the army.  

This response stunned Pakistan and it tried to wriggle out the situation by asking USA and China to help. China threatened to attack India from the Western flank, but did not after a sternly worded letter by Shastriji, by telling that they shall not be cowed down by this bullying. An international conference was hurriedly called at Tashkent, where both sides went back to the pre-war positions(which I think was a mistake).

But what happened after this is a real mystery. Shastriji was found dead in his hotel and it was initially suspected to be a case of poisoning. No postmortem was ever conducted and it was declared a case of heart attack(with out postmortem). Shastriji's wife, Lalita Shastri claims that the body had turned blue(an indication of poisoning) and there were certain cuts on the body that were not investigated.

Adding grist to the rumour mill is the extraordinary secrecy over the case. For instance, various RTI applications over the years have sought information both on what documentation is available on the matter and if the government could kindly declassify it. In 2009, the PMO had replied that it had only one document relating to Shastri’s death but refused to declassify it under a clause that would “prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of the country, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state, relation with foreign state or lead to incitement of an offence”. (I never understood what the above lines meant)

11 years after his death, the Janata Party Government set up an enquiry comittee. Called the Raj Narain Inquiry, it never came up with any conclusions but began the process. However, no record of this can be found in the Parliament library—by itself not a sinister event as lots of vital documents have disappeared often due to carelessness.

But there is an even more curious series of events linked to the inquiry. Two witnesses were scheduled to depose before this parliamentary body in 1977. One was R.N. Chugh, Shastri’s doctor who accompanied him to Tashkent. The second was Ram Nath, his personal servant, who was also present on the day of his death. Chugh was travelling to Delhi by road to testify before the committee and was hit by a truck and died. Ram Nath came to Delhi and visited Shastri’s widow before the deposition. According to family members, he told her, “Bahut din ka bojh tha, amma. Aaj sab bata denge (I have been carrying this burden too long. I will shed it today).” Ram Nath left the 1, Motilal Nehru, residence to make his way to Parliament. He was hit by a moving vehicle, his legs crushed (eventually amputated) and he lost his memory.

To-date, the Shastri family maintains that his death was not an accident, but a international muder. We shall never know the whole truth, but surely know that India was robbed of a great Prime Minister at the peak of his abilities.

To the believers, God just exists. I am sure God exists, but in Shastriji's case he was not just.

P.S :: Can you name the Prime Ministers, who preceded and succeeded Lal Bahadur Shastri???

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