Lal Bahadur Shastri – Some Highlights
2nd Oct. 2023 – Lal Bahadur Shastri’s 119th birth anniversary

S Balakrishnan *

Lal Bahadur Srivastava is the original name of Lal Bahadur Shastri. His father’s name was Sharada Prasad Srivastava. The original surname ‘Srivastava’ changed to ‘Shastri’ when he was 21 years old, in 1925. It was then that he completed his degree in philosophy & ethics with a first class from Kashi Vidya Peeth in Varanasi (Benaras / Kasi).

He was one among the first batch of students of the new nationalistic institution set up in defiance of British system. Shastri ("scholar") was the title of the bachelor's degree awarded by the institution but it stuck as his surname; rather, he was more popularly known only as Shastri! Well, what is in a name!

Well, for that matter, what is in size? Shastri was just 5 ft. 2 inches tall. But he proved his might in the 2nd Indo-Pak war that raged for 48 days from 5th August to 23rd September 1965. The slogan “Jai Jawan! Jai Kisan!” he gave on 19 October 1965 at Urwa (Allahabad) reverberates to this day as our national slogan. A peace treaty was signed by both the nations in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, USSR, on 10th January 1966. True to his name, he proved brave (Bahadur) and bold.

Lal Bahadur Shastri was a very simple man, always wearing a dhoti. When he died what he owned was only an old car that he had bought in installments from the government and for which he still owed money! Just think of the present day politicians!

Srivatsava Jr. (Shastri) was born on October 2, 1904 at Mughalsarai, seven miles from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, to Ramdulari Devi. His father, a school teacher, died when Shastri was just 1 ½ years old.

Thereafter, it was his maternal grandfather’s family that took care of his mother and his two siblings. He was fondly called as ‘Nanhe’, the Little One. At this juncture I remember an English essay about Shastri from my school days in 1967-68 (7th standard) which narrated his tough childhood days – of walking long distance with bare foot and crossing the river to go to school in Varanasi; stealing mangoes from a grove and repenting, etc.

After Nehru’s demise on 27th May 1964, Shastri was chosen on 2nd June, and he became the 2nd Prime Minister of Independent India from 9th June 1964 to 11th January 1966. But Shastri was perhaps overshadowed by the long-ruling predecessor (Nehru) and the more authoritative successor (Indira Gandhi). Interestingly, Indira Gandhi was the Minister for Information & Broadcasting under Shastri.

Even his birth anniversary is overshadowed by that of Gandhiji! It was K. Kamaraj, AICC President, who was instrumental in electing Shastri (a Nehruvian socialist) as the next P.M., to avert the selection of a conservative right winger Morarji Desai.

When Gandhiji called upon the countrymen to join the Non-Cooperation Movement, Shastri was only 16. He gave up his schooling at once to join the freedom movement despite poor condition at home front. There was no looking back after that. He steadily rose in the power ladder to become a popular PM in the end.

He served as the president of Servants of the People Society (Lok Sevak Mandal), founded by Lala Lajpat Rai, and held prominent positions in the Indian National Congress. As the General Secretary of AICC, he played a key role in the landslide success of the Congress party in consecutive three general elections of 1952, 1957 and 1962.

Shastri was elected to the legislature of the United Provinces (U.P.) in 1937 and 1946. When the first democratically elected Union Government took over on 15th April 1952, Shastriji joined as Minister of Railways on 13th May. In the successive Nehru cabinets, he held the portfolios of Commerce & Industry, Transport & Communication, Home Affairs and, during Nehru’s final illness days, as Minister without Portfolio.

Shastri was the first Central Minister to resign on moral grounds. In September 1956 he wanted to take political and moral responsibility for the 1956 Mahbubnagar train accident and offered his resignation as Railway Minister but PM Nehru refused. Again, on the night of 23rd Nov. 1956, more than 150 passengers died when a railway bridge, damaged due to heavy rains, collapsed at Ariyalur (Tamil Nadu). When Shastri tendered his resignation this time, Nehru had to accept it.

It was during Shastri’s premiership that White Revolution (to augment milk production & supply) and Green Revolution were initiated. When his regime saw food shortage, Shastri urged people to sacrifice “a meal a week” to help affected people. He himself set an example by implementing this at his home. The nation overwhelmingly responded to ‘Shastri Vrat (fasting)’.

To overcome rice shortage, wheat was forced upon South India. As a small boy I remember buying wheat along with limited sugar (which was difficult to get) in the monthly ration. We started eating chapathi once in a while with the wheat supplied in ration. Rice was imported even from Egypt. Despite his efforts, Shastri was blamed for not effectively handling India’s economic problems.

In his first address as prime minister broadcast on 11 June 1964, Shastri said: “There comes a time in the life of every nation when it stands at the cross-roads of history and must choose which way to go. But for us there need be no difficulty or hesitation, no looking to right or left. Our way is straight and clear—the building up of a socialist democracy at home with freedom and prosperity for all, and the maintenance of world peace and friendship with all nations.”

The credit for first appointing women as bus conductors goes to Shastriji as the Central Transport Minister. As Home Minister, he advised the police to use water jet instead of lathi to disperse unruly crowds. His tenure as Home Minister in U.P. saw successful curbing of 1947 communal riots, mass migration and resettlement of refugees.

Shastri’s death on 11th January 1966 at Tashkent, Uzbekistan, the morning after signing the “no war” pact with the Pakistan President Ayub Khan, remains a mystery to this day, similar to Netaji’s. Though it is claimed that he died of heart attack, poisoning is suspected as the cause but no postmortem was done! Fearing international ramifications his death is not being probed by any ruling party at the centre.

He was cremated at Vijay Ghat in Delhi. He was 61 years and 3 months when he died. The charismatic leader was posthumously conferred with Bharat Ratna in 1966. A stamp was issued in 1966 itself to honour him. On his birth anniversary in 2004, 5 rupee and 100 rupee coins were issued.

Shastri married Lalita Devi in 1927. A spinning wheel and a few yards of handspun cloth was all the dowry the bridegroom would accept. She died in 1993, 27 years after Shastri’s mysterious death, aged 83 years.

I, as a school boy, also remember Shastri for the violent anti-Hindi agitations of 1965 in Madras State (Tamil Nadu). The agitation first broke out in Madurai where I was studying 4th standard and spread throughout Madras State.

Peace was restored with Shastri’s assurance that English would also continue as an official language and not Hindi alone. Yes, I do have a proud connection with Shastriji for 30 long years with my central government office functioning from Shastri Bhawan in Chennai!

* S Balakrishnan wrote this article for
The writer is from Chennai and can be reached at krishnanbala2004(AT)yahoo(DOT)co(DOT)in
This article was webcasted on October 02 2023.

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