As Pakistan smarts under India’s decisive and deadly response to its continued misadventure across the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir, the nation should spare a thought to that diminutive but doughty man from Uttar Pradesh whose tiny feet easily stepped into the giant shoes of India’s first prime minister Pandit Nehru in June 1964 at a most critical period in the nation’s post-independence history.
Nehru’s death on May 27, 1964, came suddenly even as the nation was grappling with the agonising question of ‘After Nehru who?” and more ominously “After Nehru What?” Some western commentators had readily answered, “deluge”. But the dark prediction was belied by Shastri, lily white in simplicity and character. While there are more reasons than one to remember Lal Bahdur Shastri on his 111th birth anniversary today, the immediate thought is the way he stood up to Pakistan’s earlier misadventure in 1965 when the two neighbours fought their second war over Kashmir. India emerged decisive winners but acted with magnanimity and returned all Pak areas it had captured. Lahore was within its grasp when the two countries agreed to a ceasefire. A true Gandhian, Shastri shares his birthday with that of Mahatma Gandhi. The man who gave the nation the brave, new slogan “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” at the height of the 1965 war, was appointed India’s home minister By Nehru after the death of Govind Bhallab Pant’s death on 7 March 1961.
“Shastri’s simplicity and modesty were as impressive as Pant’s sagacity and maturity. Both represented the best of the Indian independence movement and its traditional values. They wanted to do all they could to take the country forward, personal interest never so much as crossing their minds. Nehru depended on a great deal on Shastri who literally worshipped him, writes Kuldip Nayar in his book “Beyond the Lines.” Though Nehru himself treated Shastri with respect, the attitude of his immediate family members towards Shastri was rather condescending and even hostile at times. Shastri was extremely careful when dealing with Nehru’s two sisters – Vijayalakshmi Pandit and Krishna Hatheesingh, and daughter Indira Gandhi.
As Home Minister, Shastri was startled when he received a copy of the letter Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit had written to Nehru that the Raj Bhawan (she was the governor of Maharashtra) were being used as dak bungalows by central ministers. Shastri received the complaint after he had stayed at Raj Bhawan, Bombay. From then onward, Shastri and his staff stayed at the airport even at night, with the attendant discomforts, but never at any Raj Bhawan.
Shastri, who belonged to Varanasi, was conscious that he was way down in the social ladder in comparison to the Nehru family. After all Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal’s father was an iconic figure and a dashing social personality, while Shastri was a struggling lower-middle-class individual.
“I recall Indira Gandhi’s remark about ‘middle-class living’ when she visited Shastri’s residence after his death,” Nayar who was Shastri’s information officer, writes in his book. Shastri, a simple man from a village, was overawed by the English speaking ‘elite’ who he thought came from highly educated families. There are any number of instances in his life that showed the man’s simplicity.
One prominent Congress leader had written to Shastri when he was Home Minister that Lolita, the celebrated Russian novel which had reached bookshops in India, was so lewd that it should be banned. Shastri promptly wrote to Nehru that the book be banned. Nehru wrote back, arguing at length why he thought Lolita should not be banned and why DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover should continue to be. Lolita was not banned.
Of another instance, Nayar writes: “Shastri was not a moralist but he was a traditionalist. When he watched Swan Lake performed by the Bolshoi Ballet group at Leningrad he was uncomfortable. At intermission, I asked if he was enjoying the show. He said he had felt embarrassed throughout because the legs of the dancers were naked and amma the word with which he addressed his wife Lalita Shastri was sitting by his side. He was equally embarrassed at the reception hosted by Kamal Amrohi in Bombay at the sets of his film Pakeeza. Meena Kumari, then at the peak of her career, garlanded him and read out a small speech in his praise.
Before responding, he took me aside and asked who she was. I was flabbergasted and told him she was Meena Kumari, leading film star. He began his speech in Hindi: “Meena Kumariji mujhe maaf karen (forgive me) for admitting that I heard your name for the first time in my life!”
Shastri had a different view of China from that of Nehru’s and always thought China would one day betray India. It was a pity that Panditji did not see the writing on the wall.
Nehru had appointed a Citizen’s Council to generate public opinion against China’s attack in 1962 and Shastri was a member of the Council. Indira Gandhi headed this council, an example of Nehru’s way of building up his daughter.
Shastri addressed many meetings not only to criticise China but also to defend Nehru who was pilloried for having trusted China. Nehru was smarting under the criticism by key cabinet ministers on his China policy when Congress president K Kamaraj suggested he let his top cabinet members work in the organisation to strengthen the party.
Kamaraj was only mouthing Nehru’s sentiments. Morarji Desai and Jagjivan Ram, the two principal critics, and Shastri were dropped from the cabinet to work for the party.
Nayar asked Shastri why he had been ‘Kamarajed’ when he had been loyal to Nehru. Shastri said that Panditji had been obliged to do so because he did not want to be accused of using the Kamaraj plan to get rid of his critics.
On the day Shastri left the government, Nayar went to his bungalow in the evening as usual. It was dark at his house, with only the drawing room lit. Nayar thought he was not at home because the one man guard was also not on duty. Nayar found Shastri sitting in the drawing room all by himself, reading a newspaper. He asked him why there was no light outside. Shastri replied that from now on he would have to pay the electricity bill for his house himself, and could not afford extravagant lighting.
It is reminiscent of an incident involving Rajaji when he was Chief Minister of the erstwhile Madras state. Whenever he stayed at Dak bungalow while on tour, after finishing his official work and cleared files, he would switch off the electric light and lit an oil lamp and begin writing his personal letters and also his literary work. Asked why he was not using electricity, he would reply it was his personal work and he would not like to use government money for that. Though it may look a bit too farfetched and needless in today’s environment, it only showed the high standards of probity in public life in a bygone halcyon era.
When Shastri died in Tashkent on that cold January 10, 1966, The Statesman wrote in an editorial/obituary, quoting a Tagore poem, that just as earthen lamps were lit in the gathering darkness after the sun had set, Shastri was “India’s earthen lamp in an hour of destiny”.