He joined the Indian independence movement in the 1920s. Deeply impressed and influenced by Mahatma Gandhi (with whom he shared his birthday). Following independence in 1947, he joined the latter’s government and became one of Prime Minister Nehru’s principals, first as Railways Minister (1951–56), and then in a variety of other functions, including Home Minister….
He led the country during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965. His slogan of “Jai Jawan Jai Kisan” (“Hail the soldier, Hail the farmer”) became very popular during the war. The war formally ended with the Tashkent Agreement on 10 January 1966; he died the following day, still in Tashkent, with the cause of his death in dispute and it was reported to be a cardiac arrest but his family was not satisfied with it.
Shastri was Congress loyalist. Although Shastri faced stiff opposition from within his party, his relationship with the party and his work aided his ascension to the office of Prime Minister.
Lal Bahadur Shastri and War with Pakistan
Shastri’s greatest moment came when he led India in the 1965 Indo-Pak War.
In the utilization of our limited resources, we have always given primacy to plans and projects for economic development. It would, therefore, be obvious for anyone who is prepared to look at things objectively that India can have no possible interest in provoking border incidents or in building up an atmosphere of strife… In these circumstances, the duty of Government is quite clear and this duty will be discharged fully and effectively… We would prefer to live in poverty for as long as necessary but we shall not allow our freedom to be subverted.
On 1 August 1965, major incursions of militants and Pakistani soldiers began, hoping not only to break down the government but incite a sympathetic revolt. The revolt did not happen, and India sent its forces across the Ceasefire Line (now Line of Control) and threatened Pakistan by crossing the International Border near Lahore as war broke out on a general scale.
Massive tank battles occurred in the Punjab, and while the Pakistani forces made gains in the northern part of subcontinent, Indian forces captured the key post at Haji Pir, in Kashmir, and brought the Pakistani city of Lahore under artillery and mortar fire.
The Indo-Pak war ended on 23 September 1965 with a United Nations-mandated ceasefire. In a broadcast to the nation on the day of the ceasefire, Shastri stated:
While the conflict between the armed forces of the two countries has come to an end, the more important thing for the United Nations and all those who stand for peace is to bring to an end the deeper conflict…. How can this be brought about? In our view, the only answer lies in peaceful coexistence. India has stood for the principle of coexistence and championed it all over the world. Peaceful coexistence is possible among nations no matter how deep the differences between them, how far apart they are in their political and economic systems, no matter how intense the issues that divide them.
During his tenure as Prime Minister, Shastri visited many countries including Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, England, Canada, Nepal, Egypt and Burma. Incidentally while returning from the Non Alliance Conference in Cairo on the invitation of then President of the Pakistan, Mohammed Ayub Khan to have lunch with him,
Shastri made a stop over at Karachi Airport for few hours and breaking from the protocol Ayub Khan personally received him at the Airport and had an informal meeting during October 1964. After the declaration of ceasefire with Pakistan in 1965, Shastri and Ayub Khan attended a summit in Tashkent (former USSR, now in modern Uzbekistan), organized by Alexei Kosygin. On 10 January 1966, Shastri and Ayub Khan signed the Tashkent Declaration.
Many among Shastri’s supporters and close relatives, refused at the time, and have refused since, to believe the circumstances of his death and allege foul play. Conspiracy theories appeared within hours of his death and have thereafter had a long shelf life.
He was eulogized as a national hero and the Vijay Ghat memorial established in his memory. Upon his death, Gulzarilal Nanda once again assumed the role of Acting Prime Minister until the Congress Parliamentary Party elected Indira Gandhi over Morarji Desai to officially succeed Shastri.
After Shastri’s death, his wife Lalita Shastri had alleged he was poisoned. An epic poetry book in Hindi titled Lalita Ke Aansoo written by Krant M. L. Verma was published in 1978. In this book, the tragic story about the death of Shastri has been narrated by his wife Lalita Shastri.
The Indian Government released no information about his death, and the media then was kept silent. The possible existence of a conspiracy was covered in India by the ‘Outlook’ magazine. A query was later posed by Anuj Dhar, author of CIA’s Eye on South Asia, under the Right to Information Act to declassify a document supposedly related to Shastri’s death, but the Prime Minister’s Office refused to oblige, reportedly citing that this could lead to harming of foreign relations, cause disruption in the country and cause breach of parliamentary privileges.
Another RTI plea by Kuldip Nayar was also declined, as PMO cited exemption from disclosure on the plea. The home ministry is yet to respond to queries whether India conducted a post-mortem on Shastri, and if the government had investigated allegations of foul play. The Delhi Police in their reply to an RTI application said they do not have any record pertaining to Shastri’s death.
The Ministry of External Affairs has already said no post-mortem was conducted in the USSR. The Central Public Information Officer of Delhi Police in his reply dated 29 July said, “No such record related to the death of the former Prime Minister of India Lal Bahadur Shastri is available in this district… Hence the requisite information pertaining to New Delhi district may please be treated as nil.”This has created more doubts.
The PMO answered only two questions of the RTI application, saying it has only one classified document pertaining to the death of Shastri, which is exempted from disclosure under the RTI Act. It sent the rest of the questions to the Ministry of External Affairs and Home Ministry to answer.
The MEA said the only document from the erstwhile Soviet Government is “the report of the Joint Medical Investigation conducted by a team comprising R. N. Chugh, Doctor in-Attendance to the PM and some Russian doctors” and added no post-mortem was conducted in the USSR. The Home Ministry referred the matter to Delhi Police and National Archives for the response pertaining to any post-mortem conducted on the body of Shastri in India.
Later, Gregory Douglas, a journalist who interviewed former CIA operative Robert Crowley over a period of 4 years, recorded their telephone conversations and published a transcription in a book titled Conversations with the Crow. In the book, Crowley claimed that the CIA was responsible for eliminating Homi Bhabha, an Indian nuclear scientist whose plane crashed into Alps, when he was going to attend a conference in Vienna; and Lal Bahadur Shastri.
Crowley said that the USA was wary of India’s rigid stand on nuclear policy and of then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, who wanted to go ahead with nuclear tests. He also said that the agency was worried about collective domination by India and Russia over the region, for which a strong deterrent was required.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Lal Bahadur Shastri did not die of natural causes. He was in very good health just a short time before his death. He had no major history of heart disease. His body had turned blue suggesting some kind of poisoning.
Other reasons to suspect unnatural death: the absence of a post-mortem, suspicions of his family members, lack of serious investigations after his death, unnatural deaths of witnesses who were going to depose before the parliamentary body, and the refusal of Indian government to release documents relating to his death.
However, all of the above evidence does not tell us who killed Shastri. The common suspicion is often directed towards Indira Gandhi because she benefited from Shastri’s death. However, we must realize that although Indira Gandhi became a very powerful PM later on, she was a political nobody in 1965 when the conspiracy to kill Shastri must have been hatched.
She was not even a senior level cabinet minister. Nor could she have predicted with any degree of certainty that she would become the next PM and would be able to avoid being caught for her criminal conspiracy (of killing Shastri).
To convict someone of a crime, you need to establish three things: motive, means (ability to commit the crime), and opportunity.
Indira Gandhi had a weak motive, weak means, and weak opportunity (unless you assume that Russians were a party to the crime). The same can be said of any other Indian political leader who may have benefited from Shastri’s death.
The Russians had no reason to kill Shastri. They were an ally of India. They did have the means and the opportunity, but lacked the motive.
I was a child when Shastri died, but I vividly remember that day on January 11, 1966 when All India Radio announced Shastri’s death. From that day until a few years ago, I had been unable to solve this whodunnit, until I came across this interview (see link below) by a CIA “director of plans” named Robert Crowley. In this interview, Crowley tells a journalist Gregory Douglas that it was the CIA which killed both Shastri and Dr. Homi Bhabha in January 1966. Crowley also told the journalist to publish this interview only after his death.
Of course, one cannot simply take Crowley’s claims at their face value. So let us look at some other evidence/reasons that support his claims:
1. There are good reasons to believe that these two deaths (Shastri and Bhabha) were not due to acts of God.
2. The proximity of these two unnatural deaths (just two weeks apart) adds credibility to CIA’s claims. Also, both these deaths occurred outside India which would have made it easier for CIA.
3. I have never come across any alternative explanations of these two deaths that is half as convincing. The official explanations (heart attack for Shastri, and pilot error for Bhabha’s plane crash) are not based on any hard evidence. They are just convenient speculations designed to stop further investigations.
4. There is no good reason/motive for Robert Crowley to fabricate these fancy claims.
5. CIA used to routinely assassinate unfriendly foreign leaders in 1960s. CIA’s several (unsuccessful) attempts on Fidel Castro’s life during 1960-1965 are well documented (see link below). In the cold war calculus of those days, Shastri was deemed unfriendly to US. Shastri had defeated a US ally (Pakistan) and had refused to shut down India’s nuclear program.
6. CIA always had a definite agenda to eliminate nuclear threats from developing countries.
7. CIA and/or Mossad are believed to have killed several Iranian nuclear scientists in more recent times.
8. Shastri’s being in the USSR provided a unique opportunity to CIA to poison him. CIA could have easily used a Russian double agent to do the dirty job.
Thus CIA had the means, the motive, and the opportunity. Moreover, CIA has even confessed to the crime, albeit not officially. Therefore, my estimate of the probability of Crowley’s claims being true is very high. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Shastri’s death, it is possible that CIA will declassify some documents that may shed more light on these assassinations.
Note that after Indira Gandhi became PM, she probably figured out that it was the CIA (or a foreign power) that killed Shastri. But she certainly did not want to make Shastri into a martyr. In fact, the Gandhi dynasty has tried to virtually delete Shastri’s name from India’s history. So it is quite possible that Indira effectively stopped the investigations into his death for these reasons.
PS: Two more arguments against Indira Gandhi being involved:
1. Indian politics was very strongly male-dominated in 1965 (and it still is). As of 1965, India had no history of powerful women politicians in the ruling Congress party (or in any other major party). Thus it is extremely unlikely that, Indira Gandhi, a woman, would have had the vision or ambition to become the next PM of India by hatching a conspiracy to kill Shastri.
2. Nehru, her father and political mentor, was a gentleman–as far as things like political assassinations go. (Perhaps he was too much of a gentleman–he even trusted the Chinese in 1962!) Thus Indira had had no training in the art of political assassination. Of course, after being elected the PM in 1966 (and winning the Indo-Pak war in 1971), she became a much bolder politician as illustrated by her declaration of Emergency in 1975.
Incidentally, it is likely that the assassination of Shastri was not authorized by the US President (Johnson). The CIA was the most powerful rogue agency in the world in the 1960s. In fact, many Americans believe that CIA was also behind the assassination of president John Kennedy in November 1963.
If you carefully observe the facts surrounding his death, the people he met, conversations he had had etc, you should be able to find the answers yourself.
Few things to ponder upon:
- Indira Gandhi was next in line to become the prime minister so she would be the greatest direct beneficiary.
- It is very likely that he met Subhash Chandra Bose during his trip. There has been conspiracy theories floating around since the 50s which categorically state that Subhash Bose did not die in the plane crash in 1945 and there is enough evidence to support his escape to Soviet Russia. Shastriji’s third son Sunil Shastri, once mentioned in an interview that shortly before his death, Shastriji had told him that he was going to meet “a special person” very soon. Who was this special person?
- The Tashkent man theory adds fuel to the fire. Sidhartha Satbhai commissioned Neil Millar, a former veteran of the Royal Signals Regiment of the British Army, to conduct Facial Mapping and imagery analysis on the video and photographic evidence supplied by Satbhai. Millar firmly concluded that the photographs of the Tashkent man and Subhash Chandra Bose had incredible facial, cranial and Rhinal similarities. Therefore Bose and the Tashkent man, may and very well be one and the same person. We all know that Bose was a master of disguise!
- Why did Shastriji, while talking to his family, say something about bringing home a news that would overshadow any ongoing demonstrations(by the opposition) against the release of Haji Pir pass and the Tashkent declaration? Sounds like this news would have created significant ripples in Indian society. It is a well known fact that Shastriji was a staunch supporter of Subhash Chandra Bose and never for once believed that he died in a plane crash. He was very interested in finding the truth about Netaji.
- It is quite likely that his phone calls were being monitored by the IB (Intelligence Bureau). If indeed this “incredible news” were to be about Subhash Bose being alive, its would have shaken the Congress Party to the very core of its foundation. The congress party and their allies have always been the biggest supporters of “Bose died in 1945 “ theory, even though the British Intelligence services had expressed their doubts. Therefore they would have suffered huge backlash and quite possibly have lost their status as India’s political family, if it was found that Subhash Bose was indeed alive and well. It is a well known fact that Bose was the biggest threat to the existence of INC and to Gandhian/Nehruvian ideologies even when he was alive. So whom do you think benefits from silencing Shastriji?
- Shastriji was hale and hearty when he took his dinner at around 10 PM. A dinner that was cooked by Jan Mohammed, personal cook of the Indian Ambassador, Triloki Nath Kaul. Around 11:30 PM, he was given a glass of milk by his Personal man servant Ram Nath. At around 1:25 am Shastriji started experiencing violent bouts of incessant coughing. Dr. R.N. Chugh was the first to arrive on the Scene after being called to the scene by Shastriji’s personal Assistant, J.N. Sahai.
- Before they could depose before the investigative committee, Dr. Chugh’s car met with a fatal collision with a truck (accident or otherwise?) that claimed the lives of his wife Sarojini, son Shailender and severely injured their daughter Shobha. Ram Nath met with a similar fate. As he was riding his bicycle down the road, he was hit by a speeding truck. Both his legs were crushed, necessitating amputation, and suffered a brain injury that affected his memory permanently. Both of them were on the verge of deposing before the Inquiry Committee! This seems like too much of a co-incidence.
- Why did the Indian Govt not encourage a post mortem even though the Shastri family firmly requested it? It seems highly improbable that a man occupying one of the highest seats in the government, dies in a foreign land and that too under mysterious circumstances, does not even warrant an investigation. It seems very clear that someone higher up in the echelons of the ruling party desperately needed to hush it all up.
- Why hasnt the government released more information under the RTI act? For years people have been requesting for more information, specific requests have been made but to no avail.
- Why were there cuts marks on his body if he did die of ‘an acute attack of INFARCT MIOCARDIC’? As reported, no autopsy was carried out by either the Russian Government or the Indian Government, despite repeated requests of the Shastri Family.
There are several questions that yet remain unanswered, just like the mystery surrounding the death of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. In fact this may be one of the biggest cover ups in the history of Independent India.