Was Lal Bahadur Shastri murdered?
S Madhusudhana Rao
Now, it is the turn of the family of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to demand a fresh probe into his death and declassify all files relating to it. Known for his honesty, integrity and simplicity, Shastri died in Tashkent on January 11, 1966, a day after signing truce with Pakistan following the 1965 war.
Shastri’s demise at the age of 61 in his hotel room under mysterious circumstances had raised many questions at that time which have remained unanswered even today. His sudden death was attributed to cardiac arrest but news reports at that time had cast doubts about the government’s claim because he was reported hale and hearty before going to bed and he had no medical history of heart ailments. With more details emerging a few days later, it was found his dairy had been missing and a thermos flask from which he drank milk before going to bed was also missing. Deepening the mystery, his body was found to have turned blue. Neither was the cause explained nor a post-mortem conducted before or after the body had been flown to India for cremation.
Since that time, Shastri’s death has shrouded in mystery and occasional attempts by his family members and others to know the truth have been stonewalled by successive governments on the specious plea that disclosure of files would damage relations with foreign governments. Now, after the Mamata Banerjee government in West Bengal made public Netaji files in its possession, Shastri’s sons pulled up courage to speak out and seek BJP government’s help to ferret out the truth about their father’s death on Russian soil. The sons’ revelations are startling and they are bound to pile up pressure on the Modi government to declassify the Shastri files. In the coming days, the demand for the “nation wants to know the mystery deaths of Netaji and Shastriji” is going to get shriller.
Anil Shastri, son of the former Prime Minister and a Congress leader, told CNN-IBN news channel in an exclusive interview on Saturday that his mother had believed that her husband didn’t die a natural death. He said blue marks and white spots were found on his father’s body indicating foul play. “I personally feel there could have been foul play. Can’t say so conclusively, but the negligence is clear, everyone went scot free, no one was punished,” Anil Shastri told the TV channel.
He disclosed, probably for the first time, that “there was a butler who was arrested and released. My mother wanted to meet him when she went to Tashkent. But she was told he could not be traced. His personal diary never came back. He jotted down notes daily in it. It could have mentioned Tashkent agreement. Even the thermos next to him was never brought back. His death could have been from something in the thermos flask.”
More shocking was both his personal physician RN Chugh and personal assistant met with accidents. Both had to depose before inquiry commissions. Coincidence twice is a little improbable, Anil Shastri told CNN-IBN. Urging the Modi government to make files relating to former PM public, Anil Shastri called for a probe into his father’s death.
Sunil Shastri, a BJP leader, too joined his brother in demanding an inquiry and declassification of Shastri files. He said he had requested former prime ministers Chandra Shekhar, IK Gujral and Manmohan Singh to open the files but never got answers.
Like Shastri’s death, the Tashkent accord was also controversial. Signed between Pakistan President Ayub Khan and Lal Bahadur Shastri on January 10, 1966, it formalized a ceasefire secured by the UN Security Council on September 22, 1965 after a 17-day war. The agreement was mediated by the then Soviet Union under the aegis of Premier Alexei Kosygin who had invited Indian and Pakistani leaders to Tashkent (now the capital of Uzbekistan) to sign the pact.
Under the accord, both sides had agreed to pull out all armed forces to positions held before August 5, 1965; restore diplomatic ties; address issues such as refugees, damages, etc. Observers had felt that the deal had benefited Pakistan more than India because it did not incorporate any no-war clause. Nor had it barred Pakistan from infiltrating Kashmir, the prime cause of 1965 conflict.
Military strategists and political leaders still debate whether the Tashkent pact had done anything good for India except halting the war. Otherwise, our armed forces would have captured the Pak-occupied Kashmir and brought it under Indian control. On the other hand, India gave up the strategic Haji Pir Pass linking Uri and Poonch sectors the Indian army had captured. But the ‘goodwill gesture’ has turned out to be a war bonanza for Pakistan to push militants into India.
Ironically, both countries celebrated the 50th anniversary of 1965 war with claims of victory and warnings. Had Lal Bahadur Shastri taken a decisive step to resolve the Kashmir problem once and for all, he would have changed the course of history. But his aim was obviously to restore normalcy which he did admirably. But among the unanswered questions were did he succumb to Soviet pressure to sign the Tashkent accord and was there a conspiracy behind his death?
Shastri’s files, if the government opens, may provide valuable clues to these puzzles. It should no longer consider Netaji and Shastriji dossiers as “diplomatic hot potatoes” and continue to keep them under wraps. Seventy-five and 50 years, respectively, after the two leaders’ mysterious deaths, it is imprudent on the part of the present government not to disclose what the people want to know. If the Modi government fails to act, it is failing in its responsibility of fulfilling the public wish like Congress governments.
Predictably, reacting to Anil Shastri’s demand, Congress has questioned his motives and asked why he had been silent for so long!