Today is the 50th anniversary of the passing away of former prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri - one of modern India's icons whose enduring popularity cuts through all divides. What really happened in the wee hours of January 11 in Tashkent (Uzbekistan) in 1966 remains shrouded in mystery, largely thanks to the gratuitous state secrecy resorted to by our government.
Generations have gone by, but conspiracy theories about what caused Shastri’s death have not ceased. In some other country, the strange case of a prime minister’s death would have been inquired into by a high-powered team long ago and all relevant documents placed in the public domain.
After signing the Tashkent accord, around 4pm on January 10, prime minister Shastri reached the villa he was provided by his Russian hosts. Late in the evening, he had a light meal prepared by Jan Mohammad, the personal cook of TN Kaul, the Indian ambassador to Moscow.
There were other Russian butlers at his service in the same villa. At 11.30pm, Shastri had a glass of milk brought by the ambassador's cook. When his personal staff took leave of him at that time, he was fine.
But around 1.25am on January 11, Shastri woke up, coughing severely. The room he was in had no phone or intercom. So he walked out to another room to tell his staff to inform his personal doctor RN Chugh. By the time Dr Chugh arrived, Shastri was dying. The symptoms were of a heart attack. There was not much Dr Chugh could do now. He began to cry. "Babuji, you did not give me enough time." Shastri took Lord Ram's name and he was gone.
What happened next had a ring of unusualness about it. Given here for your consideration are four reasons that make Shastri’s death suspicious:
1. The KGB suspected poisoning
At 4am, Ahmed Sattarov, the Russian butler attached to Shastri, was rudely woken up by an officer of the Ninth Directorate of the KGB (responsible for the safety of VIPs). In Sattarov's own words, the KGB officer "said that they suspected the Indian prime minister had been poisoned".
Sattarov was handcuffed and, along with three junior butlers, was rounded off to a location 30km away. Their harsh interrogation commenced in a dungeon. After some time, Jan Mohammad was brought in. In Sattarov's words again: "We thought that it must have been that man who poisoned Shastri."
Decades after the harrowing interrogation he was subjected to, Sattarov continued to reel under its impact. "We were so nervous that the hair on the temple of one of my colleagues turned gray before our eyes, and ever since I stutter".
2. Shastri’s near and dear ones see a needle of suspicion pointing towards an insider's hand
When Shastri’s body was brought to Delhi, no one had any clue about what the KGB was suspecting. But seeing strange blue patches on Shastri’s body, his mother screamed that someone had poisoned her son. “Mere bitwa ko jahar de diya!” The old woman’s wail continues to haunt the Shastri family till date.
Shastri’s sons Anil and Sunil Shastri (one in Congress, another in BJP) and grandsons Sanjay and Siddharth Nath Singh have often spoken about their ongoing anguish and pain about what happened so long ago.
Shastri’s wife Lalita died thinking that her husband had been poisoned. Other family members and near and dear ones, like childhood friend TN Singh and close follower Jagdish Kodesia, were not able to make sense of the cut marks on Shastri's stomach and back of the neck. The cut on his neck was pouring blood and the sheets, pillows and clothes used by him were all soaked in blood. A grandson of Shastri told me that he still has his nanaji’s blood-soaked cap.
Back in 1966, the family sought clarification and action from the government. Whatever was done did not satisfy them. Kodesia, a former Delhi Congress chief, even began to think that Shastri’s death had some link to the Netaji mystery.
Veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar, who was in Tashkent on that fateful day as Shastri’s advisor, opened up recently to state that his suspicions were aroused some time after the tragedy when a Member of Parliament raked up the charges of poisoning and TN Kaul, by then the foreign secretary, "rang me up to issue a statement" against it.
"He badgered me literally four-five times."
Jan Mohammed was employed in the Rashtrapati Bhavan after the Tashkent tragedy.
Dr Chugh, his wife and two sons were run over by a truck in 1977. Only his daughter survived, but was crippled.
3. No post mortem was carried out on Shastri’s body
The only sure-shot way to find out whether or not Shastriji was poisoned was to carry out a post-mortem on his body. The family demanded it. But the demand was not accepted. Interim prime minister Gulzarilal Nanda was to later on feign ignorance about Shastri’s family approaching him with the demand.
4. RTI responses muddied the water further
In 2009, I tried to get some clarity on the issue by filing RTI applications. The prime minister's office (PMO) told me that it possessed only one classified document relating to the former prime minister’s death, and that there was no record of any destruction or loss of any document related to the tragedy.
The ministry of external affairs (MEA) informed me on July 1, 2009 that the division concerned had no information on the subject. It was quite strange because the sudden death of the prime minister must have thrown the Indian embassy in Moscow and the ministry in New Delhi into a tizzy.
Ambassador Kaul must have scrambled to inform Delhi of the tragedy. The ministry would have gone on an overdrive to find out the circumstances leading to the prime minister’s death. The ambassador must have been asked to send blow-by-blow reports, and he must have done that.
The Russians too would have felt obliged to tell the Indians about their handling of the matter. And as the charges of foul play emerged, the government of India, through the ministry of external of affairs (and also the intellligence bureau, which was then responsible for foreign intelligence), must have tried to get to the bottom of the story. So how could the division in the ministry have no records?
On July 21, I filed another application seeking copies of the entire correspondence between the MEA and the embassy and between the embassy and the Soviet foreign ministry over the issue. I requested the ministry to clearly state in case no such records were extant. In its belated response, the MEA refused to release the information, pleading that doing so would harm national interest.
It was only after the intervention of chief information commissioner Satyananda Mishra that the MEA, in August 2011, supplied me copies of Dr Chugh’s medical report and a copy of the statement made by the external affairs minister in the Rajya Sabha. Neither of them was classified. There was no word about the secret documents.
Mishra upheld the PMO’s decision in withholding the single secret record with it. Later, I learned that this record contained a conspiracy theory that the Americans had spread rumours about foul play in Shastri’s death. I see nothing to back this mindless charge.
Anyhow, today there must be several classified records about Shastri’s death in the non-accessible archives of our intelligence agencies. The Russians will have interrogation records of the butlers at least. In the fullness of time all of that must come out. Perhaps time has come for Shastriji’s family to seek an appointment with the prime minister.