Lal Bahadur Shastri was the second Prime Minister of independent India. He took oath after the sudden demise of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister. Relatively new to the high office, he led the country successfully through Indo-Pakistan War in 1965. He popularized the slogan ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’, recognizing the need for self-sustenance and self-reliance as the pillars to build a strong nation. He was a man of exceptional will power that was belied by his small frail stature and soft-spoken manner. He wished to be remembered by his work rather than well-rehearsed speeches proclaiming lofty promises.
Early Life and Education
Lal Bahadur Shastri was born on October 2, 1904, to Ramdulari Devi and Sharada Prasad Shrivastava, in Mughalsarai, United Provinces (modern day Uttar Pradesh). He shares his birthday with Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation. Lal Bahadur was against the prevailing caste system and therefore decided to drop his surname. The title “Shastri” was given after the completion of his graduation at Kashi Vidyapeeth, Varanasi in 1925. The title “Shastri” refers to a “scholar” or a person, adept in the “Holy Scriptures”.
His father Sharada Prasad, a schoolteacher by profession, passed away when Lal Bahadur was barely two years old. His mother Ramdulari Devi took him and his two sisters to their maternal grandfather, HazariLal’s house. Lal Bahadur acquired virtues like boldness, love of adventure, patience, self-control, courtesy, and selflessness in his childhood. After completing his primary education at Mirzapur, Lal Bahadur was sent to Varanasi, where he stayed with his maternal uncle. In 1928, Lal Bahadur Shastri married Lalita Devi, the youngest daughter of Ganesh Prasad. He was against the prevailing “dowry system” and so refused to accept dowry. However, on the repeated urging of his father-in-law, he agreed to accept only five yards of khadi (cotton, usually handspun) cloth as dowry. The couple had 6 children.
Young Lal Bahadur, inspired with the stories and speeches of national leaders, developed a desire to participate in the Indian nationalist movement. He would also spend time by reading foreign authors like Marx, Russell and Lenin. In 1915, a speech of Mahatma Gandhi changed the course of his life and decided to actively participate in India’s freedom struggle.
In order to participate actively in the freedom movement, Lal Bahadur compromised even with his studies. In 1921, during the non-cooperation movement, Lal Bahadur was arrested for demonstrating defiance against the prohibitory order. Since he was a minor then, the authorities had to release him.
In 1930, Lal Bahadur Shastri became the secretary of local unit of the Congress party and later the president of the Allahabad Congress Committee. He played a crucial role during the Gandhi’s ‘Salt Satyagraha’. He led a door-to-door campaign, urging people not to pay land revenue and taxes to the British. Shastri was among the prominent Congress leaders who were imprisoned by the British Government in 1942. During the long span in confinement, Lal Bahadur utilized the time in reading the social reformers and western philosophers. In 1937, he was elected to the UP Legislative Assembly.
Lal Bahadur Shastri had served in various positions before being elected the Prime Minister of India. After Independence, he became the Minister of police in the Ministry of Govind Vallabh Panth in Uttar Pradesh. His recommendations included the directions for using “water-jets” instead of lathis to disperse the unruly mob. Impressed with his efforts in reforming the state police department, Jawaharlal Nehru, invited Shastri to join the Union cabinet as Minister for Railways. He was widely known for his ethics and morality. In 1956, Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned from his post, following a train accident that killed around 150 passengers near Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu. Nehru, had once said, “No one could wish for a better comrade than Lal Bahadur, a man of the highest integrity and devoted to ideas”.
Lal Bahadur Shastri returned to the Cabinet in 1957, first as the Minister for Transport and Communications, and then as the Minister of Commerce and Industry. In 1961, he became the Minister for Home and formed the “Committee on Prevention of Corruption” headed by of K. Santhanam.
As Prime Minister of India
Jawaharlal Nehru was succeeded by a mild-mannered and soft-spoken Lal Bahadur Shastri on 9 June, 1964. Shastri emerged as the consensus candidate after the sudden demise of Nehru, even though there were more influential leaders within the ranks of Congress. Shastri was a follower of Nehruvian socialism and displayed exceptional cool under dire situations.
Shastri tackled many elementary problems like food shortage, unemployment and poverty. To overcome the acute food shortage, Shastri asked the experts to devise a long-term strategy. This was the beginning of famous “Green Revolution”. Apart from the Green Revolution, he was also instrumental in promoting the White Revolution. The National Dairy Development Board was formed in 1965 during Shastri’s stint as Prime Minister.
After the Chinese aggression of 1962, India faced another aggression from Pakistan in 1965 during Shastri’s tenure. Shastri showing his mettle, made it very clear that India would not sit and watch. While granting liberty to the Security Forces to retaliate, he said, “Force will be met with force”.
The Indo-Pak war ended on 23 September 1965 after the United Nations passed a resolution demanding a ceasefire. The Russian Prime Minister, Kosygin, offered to mediate and on 10 January 1966, Lal Bahadur Shastri and his Pakistan counterpart Ayub Khan signed the Tashkent Declaration.
Lal Bahadur Shastri, who had earlier suffered two heart attacks, died of a third cardiac arrest on 11 January, 1966. He is the only incumbent Indian Prime Minister to have died overseas. Lal Bahadur Shastri was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award posthumously in 1966.
Mystery Surrounding Shastri’s death
Shastri’s sudden death immediately after signing the Tashkent Pact with Pakistan raised many suspicions. His wife, Lalita Devi, alleged that Shastri was poisoned and the Russian butler serving the Prime Minister was arrested. But he was released later as doctors certified that Shastri died of cardiac arrest. The media circulated a possible conspiracy theory hinting at the involvement of CIA in the death of Shastri. The RTI query posted by author Anuj Dhar was declined by the Prime Minister Office citing a possible souring of diplomatic relations with the US.
Born: 2 October 1904
Place of Birth: Mughalsarai, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Parents: Sharada Prasad Shrivastava (Father) and Ramdulari Devi (Mother)
Wife: Lalita Devi
Children: Kusum, Hari Krishna, Suman, Anil, Sunil and Ashok
Education: Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth, Varanasi
Political Association: Indian National Congress
Movement: Indian Independence Movement
Political Ideology: Nationalist; Liberal; Right-wing
Religious views: Hinduism
Passed Away: 11 January 1966
Memorial: Vijay Ghat, New Delhi