Shastri's Death in Tashkent, 50 Years Ago
India's Lal Bahadur Shastri, Pakistan's Ayub Khan. then Soviet Union's Alexei Kosygin at Tashkent.
How short is the memory of people? Fifty years ago Lal Bahadur Shastri then India’s prime minister died at Tashkent on the 10-11 January night. I was still Shastri’s Press Officer even though I had started working as Editor and General Manager of United News of India (UNI).
The question that still being asked is: whether Shastri died of natural death or because of heart attack. Nobody raised any question at that time of his death although Lalita Shastri, his wife suspected that he had been poisoned. She said so when I met her to offer my condolences.
The poisoning angle was brought to the fore by an independent MP, Dharm Dev Shastri in the Lok Sabha many years later. When he made the statement in the Lok Sabha, there was furor in the house and MPs wanted to know more. After that there was a wide discussion in the house and in the country on the abrupt death of Shastri. The discussion has not died down even today.
What I recall is that I was sleeping at Tashkent hotel when a Russian woman pounded on my door and said: Your prime minister is dying. The Tashkent hotel was the place where Indian and Pakistani journalists had been accommodated.
The pounding at the door woke me up from a vivid dream where I had heard that Shastri had died. This was around midnight.
I was among the first few who went to his room where his body was lying on the bed. It was a huge room with large bed where Shastri’s shriveled body was lying like a full stop on a huge page. Accompanying me was a Press Information Bureau photographer. We both straightened his body and covered it with a national flag, at top a banner resting in a corner of the room. We also reached the vase for the flowers which we scattered on 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 at Shastri’s place when General Ayub, Pakistan’s Marshal Law Administrator came to pay his homage. He looked towards me and said: Here lay a person who could have brought India and Pakistan closer.
Entire Tashkent was on the road when Shastri’s body was taken to the airport. Many people from the crowd tried to shake our hand to register their support and sympathy. In the Lok Sabha, the then foreign minister Swaran Singh made a wrong statement that there was a call bell in Shastri’s room. In fact, there was none.
Talking to Shastri’s aides, staying two rooms away, I found that Shastri had knocked at their room at night and had asked for Chug, the doctor who had accompanied us from Delhi. The personnel did not carry Shastri but only helped him to walk back to his room. This was probably fettle because it was in the midst of heart attack. Chug did say: Babuji you did not give me a chance. He told me later that he put the syringe straight into Shastri’s heart but he was dead by then.
Did the Tashkent agreement way on his mind? There was no doubt about it. He found Indian pressmen accompanying him hostile at the press conference he held. They were resentful over the return of Hazi 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. Shastri faced criticism from his family as well. When he returned to his room after the press conference he asked his secretary, Srivastava, accompanying him to Tashkent to get him his house on the telephone. Kusum, Shastri’s eldest daughter who attended the telephone, said that she was unhappy that he had returned Hazi Pir and Tithwal, the two posts in our part of Kashmir. Shastri told her to give the phone to her mother. Kusum said that maa did not want to talk to him because she was angry over the return of Hazi Pir and Tithwal. And if the family members were so hostile, the others were bound to be still angrier.
My feeling is that this remark hurt Shastri the most and he went on pacing up and down in the room. When his personal servant said that he would sleep on the floor, Shastri did not agree.
Politicians would be politicians. I recall Swaran Singh asked me at Tashkent itself: who would be the next prime minister. I was too drowned in sorrow to reply to him. But he and Y.B.Chavan went on discussing the possible successor. Little did they know that Congress President K.Kamaraj who was then flying in a chartered plane from Chennai to Delhi had already decided that Indira Gandhi would be the successor. Kamaraj did not want Morarji decide to succeed because he found him too rigid and too opinionated.
The Congress party was in favour of a consensus candidate and left to Kamraj to seek the opinion of Congress MPs and decide. He found the majority in favour of. Indira Gandhi. Morarji Desai did not accept that and lost in the election which he forced on the party.
Indira Gandhi was standing in the wings and waiting for her nomination. In an interview to UNI, she had already said that it all depend on the people and not on the party to choose whom they liked. This was a challenge to Morarji Desai who did have most of the Congress chief ministers on his side.
There is no doubt that Kamaraj’s support to Indira Gandhi eventually decided the matter. But rigidity cost Morarji Desai the prime ministership at that time. Even when he became the prime minister many years later, he broke the party and lost the government because of his uncompromising stance.
Fifty years later, Shastri’s example is a lesson for the country because he provided a key which could open any lock. The Modi government should tear a leaf from Shastri’s book and rule the country from the national point of view and not of parties.