“I am just an ordinary man and not a very bright man.”
May 27, 1964- The first Prime Minister Jawharlal Nehru passed away due to a heart attack, and sent a nation into mourning. Coming right on the heels of a humiliating defeat to China two years earlier, Nehru’s death further sent a country into mourning. “After Nehru , who?” was the question on every one’s lips. And then the choice fell on a short, lean man with wide eyes, with a soft voice, and as humble as one could find. At first glance he never seemed like a likely leader, with his unassuming build and soft spoken nature, nor did he ever aspire for power. He considered himself quite an ordinary man, and was content being in the background. Yet destiny had other plans, for a man with no interest in the crown, it choose him as the ruler. The man had a formidable task on hand, he had to lead a nation, that was coming to terms with the humiliating rout to China in 1962, a new nation that was facing the issues of poverty, inflation, and more than anything he had to live up to the legacy of Nehru.
This man was none other than Lal Bahadur Shastri, the 2nd Prime Minister of India. Every one is familiar with October 2nd as Gandhi Jayanti, but very few even know that it also happens to be the birth anniversary of this great man. For decades he was in the background, with few even aware of his contribution. It did not help that in an academia dotted with historians who could not see beyond Gandhi and Nehru, he never got due acknowledgment either. Yet this was the man who restored hope to a nation, leading it to victory in the 1965 war against Pakistan. That rather unassuming build and soft voice, marked a fiercely strong spirt, that refused to buckle in the face of adversity. And yet in his greatest moment of triumph when he made Pakistan sue for peace, he passed away, a death that remains a mystery to date. Lal Bahadur Shastri was short in build, but when it came to stature, he was a colossus, a true giant. A man of integrity, courage and honor, who could stand tall in moments of adversity.
That character was shaped by his childhood, in Mughal Sarai, where he was born in 1904, just at that time Gandhi ji turned 35 and was agitating for better rights for Indians in South Africa. He was born to Sharada Prasad and Ram Dulari, who were farmers. Contrary to popular view, Shastri is not his surname, it was Srivastava, he dropped that, as he did not believe in caste. In fact Shastri was the title he received from Kashi Vidyapeeth. Sharada Prasad initially worked as a teacher, and then a clerk at the Revenue Office in Allahabad, but he always found it hard to meet ends, due to his low salary. Inspite of the poverty, though he never accepted bribes, and that integrity and honesty was imbibed by Lal Bahadur. His father passed away when he was just a year old, and it was his maternal grandfather, who bought him up along with his mother and two sisters. Hazari Lal, his grandfather had a huge family, and he was the patriarch every one looked up to. Lal Bahadur was the favorite of his grandfather, who called him “Nanhe” affectionately. There was an interesting anecdote about how his mother lost him when she was bathing In the Ganga, and he was found by a cowherd’s family. Fortunately his mother with the help of the police traced him back.
At the age of 10, he went to Varanasi for higher studies, and was known for his self respecting nature. There is another anecdote of him, about swimming across the Ganga, when he had no money to pay for the boat. For some one with a small build, he possessed a whole amount of energy. He could swim for long distances, walk and run, and was usually fit. He loved reading, and was especially fond of Guru Nanak’s verses. He also loved the stage, and played the role of Kripacharya in the the Mahabharat. It was when he was studying at Harischandra High School in Varanasi, that he was drawn into the freedom struggle, inspired by Lokamanya Tilak’s slogan of “Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it”. He was inspired by Tilak and travelled all the way to hear him speak. That speech made him a life long follower of Tilak, and he began to carry his message in his heart. It was however Gandhiji who would be the biggest influence on Lal Bahadur, the former’s 1915 speech at Varanasi, motivated him to dedicate his life to the nation. He took part in the 1921 Non Cooperation Movement, and left school, inspired by Gandhi’s clarion call. He did his studies at the Kashi Vidyapeeth, where he was mentored by Dr.Bhagwan Das whose lectures on philosophy touched his heart. He got the degree of Shastri after finishing his studies from the Vidyapeeth, and threw himself headlong into the freedom struggle. He joined the Servants of India Society started by Lala Lajpat Rai, whose aim was to train youths in the service to the nation.
In 1930, he took active part in the Salt Satyagraha on Mahatma Gandhi’s call, and was arrested, put in prison for 2.5 years. That started a long phase where he spent most of his time in and out of jails for 9 long years. It was during his stay in prison, that he began to read a lot, and that is how his ideology was also shaped. He read the books of many Western philosophers, reformers and also translated the autobiography of Madame Curie into Hindi. Even in prison, he conducted himself with dignity and restraint, and was a role model of sorts to others. It was a tough life for him, he was away from his wife, one of his daughters passed away, and his son fell seriously ill too. While he loved his family and children, he did not let that come in the way of his ideal, of service to the nation. Neither his daughter’s death nor his son’s illness nor his family’s poverty made him swerve away from the chosen path. Simple living and high thinking was what he followed to the letter, even when he became the Prime Minister. He was sent to prison again in 1940 when he offered Satyagraha against the British, and when the Quit India movement broke out in 1942, he had just come out of prison then. He lived underground for some time, often communicating with other freedom fighters from Anand Bhavan, the ancestral home of the Nehrus in Allahabad. He was once again arrested by the British and sent to prison.
1947, India was a free nation, by then Lal Bahadur was noted for his organizing skills and administrative abilities. Earlier during the 1946 elections in United Provinces( now Uttar Pradesh) he had proved his mettle by organizing the Congress campaign, and leading it to a resounding victory. It was this that caught the attention of Gobind Ballabh Pant, and when he became the CM of UP, he choose Lal Bahadur to be his Parliamentary Secretary. Pant had high praise for Shastri, calling him “likable, trustworthy, non controversial and devoted”. Later he became the Minister for Police and Transport in Pant’s cabinet, and took many noteworthy steps. He prohibited the use of lathi charge and firing on protesting crowds, and instead asked the cops to use the water jets. As Transport Minister, he was the first to appoint women conductors too. Congress party won a huge majority in the first ever General Elections, and Shastri had a major role to play in its success. As General Secretary of Congress, he played a major role in candidate selection, as well as directed the campaign and electioneering. Though he did not contest elections directly, Nehru desired that a honest man like him should be in Government. In 1952, he was appointed as the Railways Minister, taking charge of one of the most crucial sectors in the economy. He had to get the Railways back on track, after the disruption due to Partition, and the new birth pangs of a nation. The first class, which offered royal comforts was abolished, and he took upon himself to provide better facilities to passengers in the general or 3rd class compartment. He provided fans to passengers in 3rd class compartments, and in a way made the travel better for them. He took up complete ownership of the Railways, and made himself accountable for anything untoward that happened. When 2 major railway accidents happened at Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu and Mehboobnagar in Andhra Pradesh in 1956, that killed close to 250 people, he took the responsibility and resigned. Though Nehru refused to accept his resignation, Shastri, insisted he must take up the responsibility, and the former had to let him go with a heavy heart.He later served as Minister for Communications and then for Commerce and Industry. In 1961, he became the Home Minister, when Gobind Ballabh Pant passed away. He was called as the Home Minister without a home, he did not have his own residence, and stayed in a very modest quarters. During the Chinese attack on India in 1962, it was Shastri who took up the responsibility of ensuring no internal troubles broke out during his tenure as Home Minister.
When Shastri became the Prime Minister in 1964, he was faced with many a formidable challenge. The nation was still under the trauma of the defeat in the 1962 war, and Pakistan sensing an opportunity began to attack along the borders, as well as instigate Muslims in India. Shastri however was made of sterner stuff, he toured Russia, Egypt, Canada, UK explaining India’s stand, and also put forth India’s position at the Non Aligned Movement. In 1965, Pakistan attacked India, making it’s foray into the Rann of Kutch. However they underestimated Shastri, who gave Indian Army the full power, and they managed to beat back the Pakistani forces and force them to sign a peace agreement. Hardly had the ink dried on the Kutch agreement, when Pakistan again attacked in the Chamb area, in September 1965. War had broken out all along the Kashmir border, as Pakistani forces forayed into Indian territory. At the same time, China was also playing mischief on the Eastern Front. It was in such a moment of crisis, that Shastri displayed his character and fortitude. For a man with a small build, Shastri possessed a courage and iron will that belied his physical appearance. He gave full powers to the Commander of the Army, and told them “Go forth and strike”. Shastri’s message to Pakistan was simple “We are for peace, but force will be met with force”. Addressing the nation on Independence Day he declared from the ramparts of Red Fort “It does not matter if we are destroyed, we will fight to the last to maintain the honor of India”. Around the same time, the Chinese tried to play mischief claiming that India had set up armed equipment in it’s territory, and if it were not removed, it would have to face it’s wrath. Shastri shot back saying that the allegations were untrue, and if China attacks, India would not cow down to them, and defend it’s territorial integrity resolutely. In spite of full backing from US, and more advanced weaponry, the Pakistani forces were beaten back in crucial battles.
Ayub Khan felt that with a “weak” Shastri at the helm, and a nation demoralized by the 1962 rout, Pakistan would easily overrun India. However he underestimated the resolve of Lal Bahadur Shastri, who led the nation with distinction when it was needed, and gave him a fitting reply. The UN Security Council called for a ceasefire and the then Premier of Soviet Russia, Alexei Kosygin, invited both Shastri and Ayub Khan for peace talks at Tashkent in 1966. While many felt that India should not return back the territory India had taken back from Pakistan, Shastri felt otherwise and wanted to give Pakistan a chance. Sadly that would be another mistake, repeated often by Indian leaders on Pakistan, trusting a nation whose sole reason for existence was the destruction of India. On 10th January 1966, he signed the joint Declaration of Peace with Pakistan and he died the same night. It was believed he died due to a heart attack, but like the death of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose, it remains a mystery to date. The tiny man with a will of iron, had passed away. A man small in build, but a giant in stature was no more, and yet he would forever be remembered for the way he led India during a critical phase.