The life of Lal Bahadur Shastri (1904-66), India’s second prime minister and successor to Jawaharlal Nehru, is the absorbing saga of a little man who, while suffering the rigours of poverty in early life, rose to political eminence on the strength of moral principle. When Shastri died, he left no house, no land, and no money. But he did leave behind an example which is morally inspiring. In an age riddled with political corruption, his career of examplaryintegrity possesses a special relevance for readers in contemporary India as well as abroad.
Although Shastri’s tenure as Prime Minister lasted only nineteen months, it was a period of high excitement and drama. Under Shastri’s leadership India successfully fought a major war against Pakistan. This came as a tremendous boost to India after the China debacle three years earlier. The Indo-Pak war was followed by successful peace negotiations between the two countries at the famous Tashkent Congerence, where, with the ink scarecely dry after all the momentous signatures, Shastri dramatically died of a heart attack.
Several social and political issues of national importance and international interest emerged or found successful resolution during the time that Shastri held political power in Nehru’s cabinet, as well as when he took over the premiership of India. There was the Kamraj Plan; the question of Nehru’s successor; the English-Hindi national language controversy; the problems of food scarcity and food grain imports; the Hazratbal episode of the stolen sacred relic from the shrine in Kashmir; the complicated diplomatic negotiations over Kashmir in the United National; the tangled web of tightrope relations with China, the USA and the USSR; the controversy and suspicion over the circumstances of Shastri’s sudden death; and finally the heroism and acclaim that came to Shastri. All this is recounted with vivid detail in the book, which also unearths and sets many facts right for the first time. This is the first and only biography for the general reader based on detailed and impeccable scholarship.
The author of the biography, C.P. Srivastava, was Shastri’s personal aide for several years. He was with Shastri until the last day of his life in Tashkent. He collected a large number of original documents from the USA; he interviewed bureaucrasts, politicians and diplomats who were associated with Shastri’s footsteps within India and abroad; he consulted medical experts to ascertain the truth about Shastri’s death. The result is this superbly detailed and scholarly work which will be of interest not just to scholars of politics and history, but also to an informed lay audience of political leaders, activists, bureucrats, and journalists.
C.P. Srivastava formerly of the Indian Administrative Service, served as Shastri’s private secretary when the latter was in the central cabinet as Minister for Transport and communications, and then for Commerce and Industry. In 1964 he joined Prime Minister Shastri’s secretariat as aide. After Shastri’s death he served as Chairman and Managing Director of the Shipping Corporation of India and was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1972. In 1974 he was elected Secretary-General of the International Martime Organization, United Nations, London for a four-year term. He was unanimously re-elected for three further terms. On retirement, he was designated as Secretary-General Emeritus, the only Indian to have been so honoured by the United Nations. He was also Founding Chancellor Emeritus of theWorld Maritime University, conceived and established by him in 1983 under auspices of the Internaional martime Organization. For his outstanding achievements, the Queen of England conferred knighthood (KCMG) upon him. Similar national honours have been bestowed upon him by the Kings of Sweden, Norway and Spain and by the Presidents of Germany, Polant, Portugal, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt and other countries.
I first met Mr Lal Bahadur Shastri in June 1950. A few weeks earlier, I had been appointed as the city magistrate of Lucknow. * My immediate superior, the district magistrate of Lucknow, had asked me to meet Mr Shastri who was then UP's home and transport minister, to receive any guidance that the minister might wish to provide with regard to the discharge of my responsibilities.
I sought an appointment and was informed that the minister would meet me at 6 p.m. the next day at his official residence. I arrived there five minutes ahead of the appointed time and noticed that the minister's car was parked at the entrance to the bungalow, with a rear door open, indicating that he was about to go somewhere. His personal assistant appeared at the door and told me that the minister had been suddenly called to a meeting convened by the chief minister and that another appointment would be fixed for me soon. He gave the same message to another visitor who had also just arrived.
The next moment Mr Shastri emerged from his house. I had never seen him before and was struck by his small height and extremely neat appearance. He was wearing a well-pressed and spotlessly dean kurta and dhoti, and a Gandhi cap, all of home-spun cotton. He greeted the other visitor with folded hands in the traditional Indian style, with a kind smile on his face, and began to talk with him in a strikingly polite manner. After a couple of minutes the visitor handed some papers to Mr Shastri and moved away after exchanging the usual greetings. The P.A. then went up to the minister and, pointing to me, whispered a few words. I remained standing at some distance in order not to force myself on the minister's attention. What Mr Shastri did next left a deep impression on me. He moved a number of paces towards me and, looking up, greeted me with folded hands in a very kind manner. I was dumbfounded: a cabinet minister taking the initiative in greeting with folded hands a junior civil servant! This was a new experience and a lesson to me. I tried to retrieve the situation- by responding promptly with great respect, but I knew within myself that I had been remiss. The minister put me at ease by inviting me to join him in his drawing room. Being aware of his important engagement, I pleaded with him not to delay: I could come another day. But he insisted that I sit and talk awhile. In an unhurried manner, he enquired whether I had been allotted a residence and whether I had settled down. I replied in the affirmative, and then I asked whether he had any special instructions for me. He thought for a moment and said: 'Lucknow, being the capital of the state, is the centre of a great deal of political and other activities. Clean and efficient administration is of vital importance. There is also the need for constant vigilance about the law and order situation. The relations between the police and the people must be based on mutual regard and respect. Your district magistrate is an extremely able and experienced officer and he would be the best person to guide you.' When he had finished I stood up and apologized for delaying him. He smiled and asked me to see him again, later. We came out of his house together. He paused for a moment and asked if I had transport. I had. He then moved towards his car and bade me goodbye. As his car slowly moved away, I folded my hands and he smiled.
After he had gone I stood in the driveway, reflecting on the experience. An important political leader and busy cabinet minister had gone much out of his way to be overwhelmingly kind and gentle to a junior civil servant. I had known some ministers in New Delhi: their response to juniors was a cursory and rather busy nod of the head. I learnt later that Mr Shastri extended the same courtesy, consideration and kindness to all he met, regardless of their station in life.
After a few months I was promoted and transferred to Meerut as additional district magistrate. There was no particular need for me to meet the minister again and I left Lucknow. That, I thought, was the end of my brief acquaintance with Mr Shastri. Fortunately for me, it was not.
Two years later, in 1952, I happened to go from Meerut to Delhi's railway station to meet my wife Nirmala and my daughters Kalpana and Sadhana, who were due in from Nagpur. Their train steamed in and I received my family. The platform was now crowded with disembarking passengers, all jostling to get away as quickly as possible. Nirmala and I decided to stay back, holding on to our two children who were then four and two years old. At this time another train arrived on the other side of the platform, from Lucknow. A large number of railway officials had arrived earlier and were obviously waiting to receive some very important person. All at once I saw Mr Shastri emerge from one of the compartments and be welcomed by the awaiting railway officials. Mr Shastri had by that time moved to New Delhi and was then the cabinet minister for railways and transport in the government of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Accompanied by these officials, Mr Shastri began to move away. My family and I remained standing on the other side of the platform. Suddenly, Mr Shastri happened to glance in my direction; but the next moment he looked away as someone in his group began to talk to him. I was hesitant to push my way through to greet him, for I was more or less sure he would have forgotten me. We had met in Lucknow two years earlier, for barely three or four minutes. As this thought passed through my mind, Mr Shastri looked again in my direction. I wondered who he might be looking for. I looked on either side. What happened next put me to shame. Minister Shastri left his group, walked towards me and, just as he had done two years earlier, raised both his hands to greet me, saying: 'Srivastava saheb, namaste. Aapne mujhe pahchana nahin. Main Lal Bahadur hoon.' (Srivastava saheb, namaste. You did not recognize me. I am Lal Bahadur.)
I was understandably stunned and lost for words. Recovering my wits, I responded respectfully, saying that everyone recognized him, and so of course did I, but I did not know how he could be so gracious as to remember me after all this time. Smiling benignly, Mr Shastri recalled our meeting in Lucknow and said he knew of my posting to Meerut. He enquired after my welfare and my family's; I murmured in answer and, smiling broadly again, he went back to resume his departure.
After this chance second meeting in 1952, I had no occasion to meet Mr Shastri until 1957. That year he became the union cabinet minister for transport and communications. By this time I had been transferred back to the Government of India: in 1957 I was posted as deputy director general of shipping in Bombay.
As minister for transport, Mr Shastri was responsible for shipping. He asked the director general of shipping, Dr Nagendra Singh, who was stationed in New Delhi, whether he could recommend an officer of the Indian Administrative Service for the post of his private secretary. Dr Nagendra Singh suggested my name. I was summoned to New Delhi and was asked to see the minister immediately. I entered his room in the secretariat building and succeeded in greeting him first. Apparently the minister had already seen my confidential curriculum vitae and was satisfied as to my suitability. Therefore, after welcoming me with his usual kindness, he asked whether I would like to assist him. I expressed my extreme gratitude to him for his confidence in me and added that it would be a great privilege to serve him. Within a few days I joined the minister's office as his private secretary.
With each passing day I got to know his requirements with regard to official work better and better. He wanted everything done on the basis of absolute integrity and complete truth. For me there could be nothing more congenial and, indeed, elevating. He worked for long hours and so did I, happily, along with him.
All was going well when, one day, the occasion arose for yet another lesson - my third from Mr Shastri. One afternoon, when I was with him in his office discussing official matters, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru telephoned, inviting Mr Shastri to join him next morning at 9 a.m. for a flight in a new Fokker Friendship plane which the Dutch ambassador wanted to show the prime minister. I offered to ask the personal assistant dealing with the minister's appointments to make the necessary arrangements for Minister Shastri to get to the airport a few minutes before the prime minister. On leaving the minister's office, I spoke with the personal assistant, who got busy with the necessary enquiries and arrangements.
Next morning I reached Mr Shastri's residence at 9.30 a.m. and, to my consternation, learnt that the minister had missed his appointment with the prime minister, because he had been driven to the wrong airport. Now, in India more than anywhere else, ministers do not take chances with their prime ministerial engagements. I was deeply distressed at letting down Mr Shastri in this rather crucial and delicate matter. I did not know how Mr Shastri had reacted, but I was ready for the dressing down of my life.
Someone went into the house and informed the minister that I had arrived. Almost immediately he came out of his residence and we exchanged silent greetings. To my utter surprise he wore his usual smile, as if nothing untoward had happened. My face, which always mirrors my feelings, showed how very upset I was. The minister looked at me for a moment and then enquired: 'You are not looking too well. Are you alright?' All I could do was offer unconditional apologies: 'I am awfully sorry, sir, that I did not ensure proper arrangements.' Without a moment's pause, the minister responded with soothing words: 'There is nothing to worry about.' Then, with an even broader smile, he added: 'I sent a message to the prime minister well in time and he took off with the Dutch ambassador. I will have a look at the plane some other day.'
'It is most kind of you, to say so sir,' I said, 'but I still feel very unhappy with myself. This should never have happened.'
Mr Shastri said, with his usual immense kindness, 'Please remember that I have asked you to join me for assistance in my official work. It is not your responsibility to look after my appointments at all. There are personal assistants for that purpose. You must not feel that you were in any way responsible for the mishap today. So, please, just give no further thought to this matter.' After a moment's pause he added: 'Also, I request you not to say anything to the P.A. As it is, he is very upset. He is a very conscientious worker and he did his best to ascertain all the facts. Really, there was no carelessness at all. Sometimes things go wrong despite all the care that we take. Let us get on with our work. I will take a few minutes to get ready, then we will go to the office together.'
Mr Shastri never demonstrated his feelings by gestures of the hand. He expressed himself through the way he looked, and his look was one of soothing kindness and benevolence, which were expressions of an unusually deep magnanimity of soul. I saw with complete clarity Mr Shastri's ethical stature, his warm humanity, his extreme decency, his capacity for understanding and forgiveness.
The cumulative effect on me of the three incidents I have described was enormous. It set the tone for the whole of my working life. I continued to work for Mr Shastri with complete devotion. In discussions, he seemed to appreciate my views and comments, which were based, to the best of my ability, on objective criteria. He began to place great confidence in me, and soon I became a sort of personal advisor to the minister.
When in 1959 Mr Shastri assumed the portfolios of commerce and industry, he took me to that ministry as his private secretary. This was a heavy charge and our working day seldom, if ever, finished before 10 p.m. Life went on like this for a few months. Unfortunately, my health suffered. The extreme climate of Delhi, particularly its heat and dust, caused me problems. The seaside climate of Bombay had suited me better. By chance, the ministry of transport were very keen to get me back to the directorate general of shipping in Bombay, to deal with certain urgent and complex issues. Accordingly the director general of shipping, Dr Nagendra Singh, prevailed upon Mr Shastri to release me.
It was with some emotion that I took leave of Mr Shastri. He had remarkable control over his feelings and was never demonstrative. But he expressed his affection and regard by telling me that this was not the end of our relationship, and that I should keep in dose touch with him. Thereafter, whenever I went to New Delhi or whenever Mr Shastri came to Bombay, we always met for a brief while, and the personal bond between us remained strong.
Then suddenly in the month of October 1959 came the upsetting news that Mr Shastri had suffered a heart attack and been hospitalized in Allahabad. I felt deeply distressed and concerned. My friends in New Delhi who were in touch with the hospital in Allahabad told me Mr Shastri's condition had stabilized and that there was no cause for anxiety. This was most gratifying. I felt, nevertheless, that I should go to Allahabad. Within a few days I arrived there and, with feelings of trepidation, entered Mr Shastri's room in the hospital. He was resting in bed and his face wore his usual smile. We exchanged greetings, as we had always done. He obviously pleased to see me and said he was feeling better. His voice was firm and clear and he showed no anxiety whatsoever. I stayed a few minutes and came away, greatly relieved. After about three weeks, Mr Shastri returned to New Delhi and resumed his responsibilities.
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