Lal Bahadur Shastri was the second Prime Minister of India. Though, diminutive in physical stature he was a man of great courage and will. He successfully led our country during the 1965 war with Pakistan. To mobilize the support of country during the war, he coined the slogan of “Jai Jawan Jai Kisan”. Lal Bahadur Sastri also played a key role in India’s freedom struggle. He led his life with great simplicity and honesty and was a great source of inspiration for all the countrymen.
Lal Bahadur Shastri was born on October 2, 1904, at Mughalsarai, Uttar Pradesh. His parents were Sharada Prasad and Ramdulari Devi who came from a pretty modest and humble background. Lal Bahadur’s surname was Srivastava but he dropped it as he did not want to indicate his caste. Lal Bahadur’s father was a school teacher and later, he became a clerk in the Revenue Office at Allahabad, a man of honesty and integrity, the son inherited that. Though Sharada Prasad was poor, he lived a life of honesty and integrity. Lal Bahadur lost his father when he was only one. Ramdulari Devi raised Lal Bahadur and her two daughters at her father’s house. It was his maternal grandfather Hazari Lal who took care of him. Hazari Lal was especially fond of Lal Bahadur a lot and affectionately called him “Nanhe” which also became his nickname in a way. There is the anecdote about Lal Bahadur Shastri swimming the Ganga, when he had no money for the boat fare, as a teen. Lal Bahadur Shastri was also a voracious reader, he loved to read any book that he came across, was particularly inspired by Guru Nanak.
There is a very famous incident regarding Lal Bahadur Shastri’s childhood which took place when he was six years old. One day, while returning from school, Lal Bahadur and his friends went to an orchard that was on the way to home. Lal Bahadur Shastri was standing below while his friends climbed the trees to pluck mangoes. Meanwhile, the gardener came and caught hold of Lalbahadur Shastri. He scolded Lal Bahadur Shastri and started beating him. Lal Bahadur Shastri pleaded to the gardener to leave him as he was an orphan. Taking pity on Lal Bahadur, the gardener said, “Because you are an orphan, it is all the more important that you must learn better behavior.” These words left a deep imprint on Lal Bahadur Shastri and he swore to behave better in the future.
Lal Bahadur stayed at his grandfather’s house, till he was ten. By that time, he had passed the sixth standard examination. As a school student in Varanasi, Lal Bahadur Shastri was influenced by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and his call for Swaraj. Lal Bahadur Shastri borrowed money and traveled all the way to Varanasi, just to listen to Tilak speak, he revered him so much. He also revered Mahatma Gandhi. It was a speech by Mahatma Gandhi in 1915, that motivated Lal Bahadur Shastri, to dedicate his life for the service of the nation. He went to Varanasi for higher education. In 1921, when Mahatma Gandhi launched the non-cooperation movement against British Government, Lal Bahadur Shastri, was only seventeen years old. When Mahatma Gandhi gave a call to the youth to come out of Government schools and colleges, offices and courts and to sacrifice everything for the sake of freedom, Lal Bahadur came out of his school. Though his mother and relatives advised him not to do so, he was firm in his decision. Lal Bahadur was arrested during the Non-cooperation movement but as he was too young so he was let off.
After his release Lal Bahadur joined Kashi Vidya Peeth and for four years he studied philosophy. That is where he earned the title of Shastri in 1926 and was tutored by Dr.Bhagwandas. Acquiring the degree of Shastri, Lal Bahadur, joined the Servants of People society started by Lala Lajpat Rai in 1921. The aim of the Society was to train youths, that were prepared to dedicate their lives in the service of the country. In 1927, Lal Bahadur Shastri married Lalitha Devi. The marriage ceremony was very simple and Shastriji took only a charkha (spinning wheel) and few yards of Khadi in dowry. With his hard work, dedication and honesty, Lal Bahadur Shastri, earned the respect of Lala Lajpat Rai, later became President of the Society.
In 1930, Gandhiji gave a call for Civil Disobedience Movement (also famously known as ‘Namak Satyagrah’). Lal Bahadur Shastri joined the movement and encouraged people not to pay land revenue and taxes to the government. He was arrested and put in jail for two and a half years. In jail, Shastriji became familiar with the works of western philosophers, revolutionaries, and social reformers. Shastrijee made the jail his second home of sorts. Lal Bahadur Shastri went to prison around 7 times, during the freedom struggle, and spent those times, reading a whole lot of books. Lal Bahadur Shastri also translated the autobiography of Madame Curie into Hindi and conducted himself with dignity in prison too. Lal Bahadur Shastri’s legendary simplicity was due to his own humble background, and also the difficulties faced by him earlier. Lal Bahadur Shastri had great self-respect. Once when he was in prison, one of his daughters fell seriously ill. The officers agreed to release him out for a short time but on condition that he should agree in writing not to take part in the freedom movement during this period. Lal Bahadur did not wish to participate in the freedom movement during his temporary release from prison but he said that he would not give it in writing. He thought that it was against his self-respect to give it in writing.
After Second World War started in 1939, Congress launched “Individual Satyagraha” in 1940 to demand freedom. Lal Bahadur Shastri was again arrested during Individual Satyagraha and released after one year. On August 8, 1942, Gandhiji gave the call for Quit India Movement. Lal Bahadur actively participated in the movement. He went underground and wud send instructions to other freedom fighters. Later again arrested. Lal Bahadur Shastri was released in 1945, along with other major leaders. He earned the praise of Pandit Govind Vallabh Pant by his hard work during the 1946 provincial elections.
Lal Bahadur’s administrative ability and organization skills came to the fore during this time. When Govind Vallabh Pant became the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, he appointed Lal Bahadur Shastri as his Parliamentary Secretary. In 1947, Lal Bahadur Shastri became the Minister of Police and Transport in Pant’s Cabinet and served with distinction in that post. As Transport Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, ensured Govt Buses followed discipline, and also first to appoint women conductors. As Minister of Police, Lal Bahadur Shastri, forbid the use of Lathis and firing, and instead ordered the use of water jets for crowd control. During his tenure of Police Minister in UP, Lal Bahadur Shastri, faced many strikes, but ensured that no unnecessary force was used.
Lal Bahadur Sastri was the General Secretary of the Congress Party when the first general elections were held after India became Republic. He played a crucial role in the selection of Congress candidates. Congress Party returned to power with a huge majority. Though he did not contest the elections in 1952, Jawahar Lal Nehru appointed Lal Bahadur Shastri as the Railways and Transport Minister in the Central Cabinet.
Lal Bahadur Shastri’s contribution in providing more facilities to travelers in third class compartments cannot be forgotten. Putting in many efforts to improve the administration, Lal Bahadur Shastri also worked on minimizing thefts in Railways. He reduced the vast disparity between the first class and third class in the Railways. In 1956, when 144 people died in a railway accident at Ariyalur, in Tamil Nadu, Shastrijee owned responsibility and resigned. Jawaharlal Nehru tried to persuade Shastriji but Lal Bahadur Shastri refused to budge from his stand. By his action, Lal Bahadur Shastri set new standards of morality in public life. Earlier too Lal Bahadur Shastri had submitted his resignation after a rail accident at Mahboobnagar but was not accepted by Nehru.
In the next general elections, when Congress returned to power, Lal Bahadur Shastri became the Minister for Transport and Communications and later the Minister for Commerce and Industry. He became the Home Minister in 1961, after the death of Govind Vallabh Pant. In the 1962 India-China war, Shastriji played a key role in maintaining internal security of the country.
He didn’t even have a home of his own till then.
After the death of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri was elected as the Prime Minister of India against Morarji Desai. It was the backing of Kamraj, the then Congress President, that proved to be vital in Lal Bahadur Shastri, becoming the second PM of India. As Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri retained most of Nehru’s cabinet members and it was in Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet that Indira Gandhi was first appointed as Minister for Information and Broadcasting.
It was a difficult time and the country was facing huge challenges. There was food shortage in the country and on the security threat from Pakistan. One of Lal Bahadur Shastri’s achievements as PM was promoting the White Revolution, also instrumental in creating NDDB. While generally socialist in outlook, Lal Bahadur Shastri, did not really believe in the regimented Soviet style planning. Beyond his frail looking, short physique, Lal Bahadur Shastri, was a man filled with a never say die attitude, stubborn to the core. Lal Bahadur Shastri was more of a pragmatist, who believed in actual ground results than mere theorizing and speculating. Shastri once said he would ask Planning Comission to have one more column in their charts to show how many jobs they actually created. As a matter of fact, Lal Bahadur Shastri, felt that the Planning Commission was nothing more than an “intellectual talk shop”.
Following the debacle in 1962, Lal Bahadur Shastri, laid great emphasis on modernization of Army and Defence Forces. It was Shastri’s leadership during the 1965 Indo-Pak war, that really elevated him, thanks to his decisive nature. Mild-mannered Lal Bahadur Shastri rose to the occasion and led the country ably. To enthuse soldiers and farmers, he coined the slogan of “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan“. During the ’65 War, when the Pakistan forces attacked Chamb, Lal Bahadur Shastri, faced the tough decision to cross the border. Crossing the India-Pakistan border would have meant war, however, Lal Bahadur Shastri, went ahead, and ordered the Indian Army to strike. During the meeting with Pakistan’s Ayub Khan after the War, Shastri insisted he wud sign the peace agreement only if weapons were not used. Lal Bahadur Shastri refused to sign the peace agreement with Pakistan unless they gave a categorical assurance that no arms wud be used. When Ayub Khan tried to get around Shastri’s demand, stating UN resolutions, Shastri bluntly told him “Then you will have to find another PM”.
In January 1966, to broker peace between India and Pakistan, Russia mediated a meeting between Lal Bahadur Shastri and Ayub Khan in Tashkent, Russia. India and Pakistan signed the joint declaration under Russian mediation, though there was much criticism of the Tashkent Pact, as many felt that not enough pressure was put on Pakistan. Under the treaty, India agreed to return to Pakistan all the territories occupied by it during the war. The joint declaration was signed on January 10, 1966.
Lal Bahadur Shastri died of heart attack on the same night. Honestly, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s sudden death at Tashkent would forever be one of the mysteries, nothing still clear about it.
His wife pointed out that no post-mortem had been done either in Russia or in India, there was something that government was hiding about the death. Some have pointed their fingers at Indira Gandhi who benefited the most from his death, but she had a weak motive in my opinion. While some said that the CIA killed him because CIA always had a definite agenda to eliminate nuclear threats from developing countries, Indira Gandhi also probably figured out that it was the CIA (or a foreign power) that killed Shastri. But she definitely has tried to virtually delete Shastriji’s name from India’s history.
Shastri Ji’s son Sunil Shastri have appealed to PM Narendra Modi to declassify all files related to the death of the former PM to clear the air around the circumstances of his death. Sunil Shastri said the previous government refused to reveal information saying they were classified documents.
The mystery continues. I fold my hands and offer my Pranam to the epitome of simplicity, our beloved ex-PM, the great Shashtriji.