Monday, April 11

Death In Tashkent

Lal Bahadur Srivastava 'Shastri' (1904-66) was the 2nd (not counting the 13-day tenure of acting-PM Gulzarilal Nanda) prime minister of India, succeeding 18 years of uncontested premiership by Jawaharlal Nehru.

During Shastri's tenure as PM, the second Indo-Pak war started, and ended, in September 1965 with a UN-mandated ceasefire. From a book on the war:

Considered a dove in foreign affairs, humble, meek, assailed by Ms Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, Nehru's celebrated sister, as a "prisoner of indecision", Lal Bahadur Shastri was the least likely Indian leader to cope with a determined Pakistan's well-organized military bid to take over Kashmir. Yet Ayub Khan took no chances. He tested Shastri's guts through a calculated and controlled Pak offensive in the Runn of Kutch early in the 1965 summer. Shastri bought peace by entering into an agreement with Pakistan over the Runn issue rather than confronting it head on. Pakistan could not think of a more opportune moment to strike and annex Kashmir. President Ayub Khan recognized the opportunity and decided to act.

Taken by surprise, the Indian forces were nearly cut off in Kashmir; but Ayub Khan had mis-assessed his adversary. Pushed to the wall, Shastri, "the little big man" of the war, ordered Indian armored corps to counterattack in the Punjab instead of trying to relieve pressure in Kashmir. Within weeks, Indian tanks were at the outskirts of Lahore, the complexion of the war had changed completely, and Pakistan, reeling under the stab deep into its heartland, was suing for peace. The war ended after 21 days with India left holding some Pakistani territory.

After the declaration of ceasefire, Shastri and Ayub Khan attended a summit in Tashkent stage-managed by the Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin. On 10 January 1966, Shastri and Khan signed the Tashkent Declaration. The next day, Shastri, who had suffered two heart attacks earlier, died supposedly of another, at 1:32 am.

Shastri’s wife and some family members have claimed he was poisoned by the cook of Indian ambassador in Moscow, who was responsible for preparing his meal in Tashkent, in cahoots with the Uzbek butler. Sunil Shastri, then 16, remembers the body had turned blue in the chest, abdomen, and back, when it finally arrived in Delhi.

There were many loose ends. The butler, Akhmed Sattarov, was arrested on the same night, but later absolved of charges. The cook, Mohammed Jan, later emigrated to Pakistan. Shastri's personal doctor, RN Chugh, who had been taken to Tashkent and had been among the first to rush to the Prime Minister's aid, died in a road accident after returning to India; his family died in another.

Shastri is one of the few heads of government to have died in office overseas. Incredibly, no post-mortem was performed.

In 2009, Anuj Dhar, author of CIA's Eye on South Asia and India's answer to the X-Files, asked the Indian Prime Minister's Office (PMO) under a Right to Information plea that Shastri's cause of death be made public. The PMO refused to oblige, claiming this would lead to harming of foreign relations, cause disruption in the country and cause breach of parliamentary privileges. The PMO did reveal that it had in its possession one document related to Shastri's death, but, in a ham-handedness typical of Indian bureaucracy, refused to declassify it.

It has been said that Nehruvian era did not die with Jawaharlal -- it died with Shastri.

The Tashkent declaration restored the status quo ante bellum, evoking much criticism from many quarters, particularly in the Indian armed forces. The Indian army had won many strategic areas in Pakistan, after the loss of many lives, and now had to vacate these positions at the strokes of the Tashkent pens. In the declaration, there was no mention of a no-war pact with Pakistan, nor any need to stop the ongoing proxy war in Kashmir being carried out by the Pakistani army.

Kosygin was keen that the summit be a grand success, enhancing his image in the Afro-Asian world. Embroiled in Vietnam, alternating between showering abuse at Shastri's government for criticizing US policy towards Hanoi, and trying to please both India and Pakistan, US President Lyndon Johnson managed merely to have the US bitterly hated in both countries. By 1966, the US could only watch, from the audience, the drama playing out in Central Asia.

(The Associated Press also quoted an unnamed Soviet official as saying after the India-Pakistan pact was signed, "Now we will take our team to Vietnam and maybe something will come out of it." The Soviets were clearly cocky with what had been engineered by Kosygin.)

The Pakistani President Ayub Khan was adamant in his demand of the lost territories; China was threatening to get involved if the war resulted in strategic territorial gains by India. Only the Indian Premier was hesitant in agreeing to restoration of boundaries immediately, taking into account the sentiments and sacrifices of the army. He was also doubtful, from past experience, about the sincerity of Pakistan in adhering to the terms of the agreement. Kosygin started intensely pressuring Shastri, threatening him with the possibility of UN sanctions, withholding of Russian military supplies, and recognition of Chinese claims to being a party to the conflict. Shastri broke.

Hajipir Pass and Tithwal are two border posts that have always been in the minds of Indian veterans of 1965. India had wrested these posts after taking horrific casualties. Many soldiers wept, and vowed not to leave despite Shastri's acceptance of their return to Pakistan. (Here is the Kishenganga river separating the Indian and Pakistani positions in the Tithwal sector; the Indian position is to the left; the river had had to be forded under intense enemy fire.)

One vivid account of events in Tashkent is given in India, The Critical Years by veteran Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar, who was part of the traveling press corps to Tashkent.

Nayar writes Shastri had had a hectic day, holding talks with Kosygin and his officials, and hadn't been able to sleep very much. "That evening," writes Nayar, "I met by chance his personal physician Dr R.N. Chugh, who accompanied him. I asked him how Shastri was standing the strain. He looked up to the sky and said: 'Everything is in the hands of God'."

Nayar proceeds to recollect the fateful night. Since he was to travel in the official airplane early next morning to Delhi via Kabul, Nayar retired at 11 pm. "I must have been dozing when someone knocked at my door and said: 'Your prime minister is dying.' A Russian lady was waking up all the journalists." A group of journalists then sped to Mr Shastri's dacha from the hotel. On arriving, Kuldip Nayar found a grief-stricken Kosygin standing on the verandah. "He could not speak and only lifted his hands to indicate Shastri was no more." When Nayar went in, he found Dr Chugh being questioned by a group of Soviet doctors through an interpreter. In the next room Shastri's body lay still on his bed. The journalists emptied the flower vases in the room and spread them on the body. Nayar also noticed an overturned thermos-flask on a dressing-table, some 10 feet away from Shastri's bed, and wondered whether the prime minister had struggled to get get water. "His slippers were neatly placed near the bed; it meant that he walked barefoot up to the dressing table in the carpeted room," Nayar writes.

Nayar pieces together the timeline - how Lal Bahadur Shastri reached the dacha around 10pm after a reception, chatted with his personal staff and asked his staff member Ramnath to bring him food "which was prepared in the dacha by the Russians". "In the kitchen there was a Soviet cook helped by two ladies - both from the Russian intelligence department - and they tasted everything, including water, before it was served to Mr Shastri," Nayar writes. As Shastri ate a frugal spinach-and-aloo meal, he received a call from a PA in New Delhi and sought the reaction to the Tashkent agreement on the streets. Then he spoke to his family in New Delhi. He asked his eldest daughter Kusum, how she found the pact. "She replied, 'We have not liked it'," writes Kuldip Nayar. "He asked 'what about her mother?' She too had not liked the declaration, was the reply given." A crestfallen Shastri, according to Nayar, then remarked: "If my own family has not liked it, what will the outsiders say?"

The prime minister's wife did not come on the line to talk to him despite many requests, because she was aghast at what had been conceded (a contention that is disputed by many of his surviving family members.) This upset Shastri greatly. "He began pacing up and down the room... For one who had had two heart attacks earlier, the telephone conversation and the walking must have been a strain," Nayar writes. Around 1.30 am, his personal assistant Sahai, according to Nayar, saw Shastri at his door, asking with difficulty, "Where is the doctor?" The staff went to fetch Dr Chugh, while Indian security men helped Mr Shastri walk back to his room. "If it was a heart attack - myocardiac infarction, and obstruction of blood supply to the heart muscles, as the Soviet doctors said later - this walk," writes Kuldip Nayar, "must have been fatal."

Nayar writes - presumably from an eyewitness account by Sahai - that Shastri began coughing "rockingly", touched his chest and became unconscious. Dr Chugh arrived soon after, felt the prime minister's pulse, gave an injection into the heart, tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but to no avail. Some more Soviet doctors arrived. They found Shastri dead. The time of the death was recorded as 1.32 am.

Talk about foul play began as soon as the body arrived in Delhi. Nayar says the prime minister's wife asked him why Mr Shastri's body had turned blue. He told her that when "bodies are embalmed" they turn blue. Mrs Shastri was not convinced. She asked about "certain cuts" on Mr Shastri's body. Nayar told her he hadn't seen any. "Apparently, she and others in the family suspected foul play," Nayar writes.

In 2001, Nayar made a final disclosure on

Late that night, Ayub Khan came to the dacha. He prayed. He told me, "If this man had lived, there was a possibility of India and Pakistan coming together to live in peace."

India honoured the Tashkent accord. But Pakistan never implemented it.

In five-years' time, hostilities would break out again, culminating in a Pakistani surrender at the Fall of Dhaka.

Here's the Soviet propaganda clip about the Tashkent meeting and declaration. It has no mention of what preceded it, a brutal but short war in which thousands of lives were lost. The clip shows Shastri wandering around the tourist points of Tashkent trying to look interested; it also neglects to mention that in a few hours, the Indian PM would be dead.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

it was horrible,,,for such a brilliant person...shat shat naman....shastriji

11:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

he is real indian hero

6:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this very informative Blog.

2:41 PM  

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