The Mystery Behind Our Prime Minister’s Death

The Prime Minister

India’s second Prime Minister, Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri died on 11 January 1966 and the reason behind his death that is known to all is a heart attack. But was it a heart attack that was the reason for his death? Or was it something else? Was it a natural death or a murder? Why hasn’t the government ever made any disclosure related to his death?

The India-Pak war of 1965

It has always been said that India and Pakistan have been in a state of war since the time of 1947’s partition and never actually maintained peace and friendly relations. The reason lies in the partition of the country during the British Colonial Rule. One country became the state with a majority of Hindus and the other with a majority of Muslims. The debate over which nation to form a state led to the first India-Pakistan war in 1947-48 and ended with the intervention of the UN. Jammu and Kashmir, also known as “Indian Kashmir” or simply “Kashmir,” joined the Republic of India, but the Pakistani government continued to believe that this majority Muslim state rightfully belonged to Pakistan. The 1965 war between India and Pakistan was the second war between the two countries in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The conflict did not resolve the issue but engaged the United States and the Soviet Union in ways that could have a significant impact on regional power.

How did the Soviet Union come to the fore?

Air forces of both countries were battling airstrikes over a local dispute over the Kashmir situation. The war had taken its toll on the world, especially the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union.

The United States had a history of secretive relations with India. During the 1950s, U.S. officials viewed Indian leadership with some caution because of India’s involvement in the non-alignment movement, especially its prominent role at the 1955 Bandung conference. The United States hoped to retain regional power, which meant not allowing India to maintain good political relations with other countries. However, the 1962 border dispute between India and China ended with China’s victory, prompting the United States and the United Kingdom to provide Indian troops with their military equipment. After clashes with China, India also sought help from the Soviet Union, which posed challenges to US-India relations. However, the United States also provided India with significant development assistance throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

U.S. Relations with Pakistan were good at that time. The U.S. government viewed Pakistan as an example of a balanced Islamic state and appreciated Pakistan’s support for its anti-communist role by joining the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954 and the Baghdad Pact (later renamed the Central Treaty Organization, or CENTO) in 1955. Pakistan’s interest in these pacts was based on its desire to improve its military and defence capabilities, which were much weaker than those of India. Both the United States and the United Kingdom supplied arms to Pakistan over the years.

After the Pakistani forces invaded Kashmir, India quickly took a step forward to turn the regional conflict into an international one. They called on the United Nations to reconsider its role in the First World War in India and Pakistan and to end the current conflict. The Security Council adopted a resolution on September 20 demanding an end to the Kashmir dispute. The resolution was supported by the United States and the United Kingdom and they showed their support for the same by cutting down arms supply for both belligerents. The UN resolution and the suspension of arms sales had an immediate impact. Quitting the war alone did not resolve the situation in Kashmir, where both sides accepted the Soviet Union as an independent mediator. Negotiations in Tashkent were concluded in January 1966, with both sides withdrawing their troops from the disputed area. However, although the Tashkent agreement achieved its short-term goals, the conflict in South Asia resumed a few years later.

What was the Tashkent Treaty?

When both India and Pakistan accepted the Soviet Union to act as an independent mediator between both nations, the Tashkent Treaty was introduced. The agreement was mediated by Soviet premier Aleksey Kosygin, who had invited the parties to Tashkent.

The Agreement mentioned that both, the Prime Minister of India Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri and Pakistan’s President, Mohammad Ayub Khan will be signing a declaration that declared “their firm resolve to restore normal and peaceful relations between their countries and to promote understanding and friendly relations between their peoples” and reaffirmed “their obligation under the Charter not to have recourse to force and to settle their disputes through peaceful means”.

However, the agreement did not contain anything related to the “no-war pact”.

Why was the Treaty Criticized in both the Countries?

The agreement was criticized in India and Pakistan as people were expecting more from their leaders. In Pakistan, much to the shock of the people as they were expecting to find a place in Pakistan after the defeat in the war. This continued to get worse when Ayub Khan went into hiding and refused to comment on anything instead of explaining the reasons for which he signed the agreement.

While in India, the Treaty was criticized because the treaty did not contain a war resolution and did not contain the abandonment of the war in Kashmir. The sudden death of Shastri Ji also raised many questions and conspiracy theories among the people.

The conundrum and controversies behind his death

The leaders of both countries signed the treaty on 10th January 1966 and within a few hours, Shastri Ji was declared dead at 1:30 am on 11th January 1966. A lot of questions were raised and it remains a mystery to date. Officially, his cause of death is heart attack but there remains three most talked about conspiracy theories-

  1. That Shastri Ji was killed by the Soviet Union’s KGB
  2. That he was murdered by the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency)
  3.  Victim of Indian Political Intrigue.

The eyewitnesses during the incidents were-

  1. Security Officer R Kapur
  2. Personal Physician Dr RN Chugh
  3. Private secretary JN Sahai
  4. Personal assistant MMN Sharma 
  5. Personal attendant Ram Nath
  6. Cooks (Including Mohammad Jan)

It was said by the eyewitnesses that after having his dinner followed by taking a glass of milk, Shastri Ji had a heart attack. He had to walk to the door of his room to call for assistance. 

The various questions and objections have been raised over the years2

  • A question was raised in the parliament by Atal Bihari Vajpayee that why did Shastri Ji had to walk and call someone rather than just call. The answer to this was that he had a phone in his “suit”. 
  • The other question that remains is that where did the new cook (Mohammad Jan) of the Indian embassy, who served Shastri Ji’s last meal came from and where did he vanish? 
  • The most disheartening fact of the incident was that to date there hasn’t been any kind of proper investigation.
  • The most important prime witnesses of the case which were Ram Nath (his personal attendant) and Dr Chugh (his personal physician), died soon after they made their suspicions over the death of Shastri Ji.
  • Lalita Shastri, the wife of Shastri Ji in one of her interviews disclosed that when she saw Shastri Ji’s body it had been turned blue and black and swollen entirely, there were holes behind his neck, bandages on the stomach as if covered after stitches and constant bleeding from behind his head. She even said that when questions were raised for post mortem, the officials ignored the question and even restricted their family members from going near his body.

Our right to know the truth

The government, under the Right to Information Act 2005 mandates timely response to citizen requests for government information. The Act has established a three-tier structure for enforcing the right to information guaranteed under the Act.

Public authorities designate some of their officers as Public Information Officers. The first request for information goes to Central/State Assistant Public Information Officer and Central/State Public Information Officer, designated by the Public Authorities. These Officers are required to provide information to an RTI applicant within 30 days of the request.  Appeals from their decisions go to an Appellate Authority.  Appeals against the order of the Appellate Authority go to the State Information Commission or the Central Information Commission.  These Information Commissions consists of a Chief Information Commissioner and up to 10 Information Commissioners. There have been numerous questions raised by certain activists, journalists, lawyers and other people on Shastri’s death and various appeals been made to the government to disclose the information on Shastri Ji’s death. But in response, nothing has been disclosed to date. Recently, in a response to an RTI application filed by Jammu-based activist Rohit Choudhary, the PMO admitted that it possessed only one classified document relating to the former PM’s death, but it could not be shared as it was exempted from disclosure under the RTI Act, 2005.

“As per the record, this office has one file, bearing no. 2(579)/66-PM, regarding the death at Tashkent (USSR) of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, having three volumes,” Parveen Kumar, Chief Public Information Officer (CPIO), PMO, said in response to the RTI application.

“The classified files/documents as requested by the applicant are exempted from disclosure under Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act, 2005,” the CPIO said while responding to the request of the activist to provide him certified copy of the classified file or document.

Conclusion

There have been numerous allegations, suspicions and questions raised on Lal Bahadur Shastri’s Death. What remains to date are only suspicions, doubts and mysteries along with, of course, some conspiracy theories. After all such strong objections and questions raised on the death of India’s second Prime Minister, it is hard to believe that it was a normal heart attack. The Government including Indra Gandhi, if not partners in the murder, definitely had a hand in hiding a lot of things. Dayabhai Patel, in one of his speeches in the parliament, made a statement saying “If Shastri died immediately after signing the Declaration, there would be such a strong emotional groundswell in his favour that it would effectively neutralise any conceivable opposition”. When Anuj Dhar filed an RTI under the government, for seeking information on Shastri’s death, the government denied so by stating “Information cannot be stated under national security-related issues”. But why was it said so? What is the actual reason behind Shastri Ji’s death? No one knows and it continues to remain a mystery. The government should conduct an actual investigation or at least reveal the truth behind his death. It is the right of every citizen to know the truth behind Shastri Ji’s death. Coming from the country where the father of the nation is Mahatma Gandhi, the man of honesty, it is every individual’s right to question the reality and know what really caused the death of our second Prime Minister.

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Kirit P. Mehta School of Law Publications