2nd October is the birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and as a biographer of the Mahatma, I might be expected to write about him and his legacy. Most years that is what I do, but this 2nd October, I wish instead to remember another remarkable Indian who was born on this day. This was Lal Bahadur Shastri. The reason for the departure is as follows: whereas Gandhi’s legacy is timeless and universal, Shastri’s legacy is particularly relevant to India in 2020. Although he was Prime Minister for merely a year and a half, in that brief period he did some remarkable things, worth emulating by the man who is Prime Minister of India today.
Born on 2nd October 1902, Lal Bahadur Shastri threw himself into the freedom struggle as a young man, and spent many years in jail. He acquired a reputation for a quiet courage as well a steely rectitude. The latter characteristic was strikingly manifested when, as Railway Minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet, he resigned after a train accident, an ethical act rare then and completely inconceivable now. Later, he was reinducted into the cabinet, and Nehru came increasingly to rely upon him, and to see Shastri as his eventual successor.
Shortly after he was sworn in as Prime Minister in June 1964, Shastri was interviewed by the New Delhi correspondent of the Manchester Guardian. The journalist wrote up the conversation in an article entitled ‘A Sparrow’s Strength’. He found Shastri “rock-sure of himself”, a “very strong man indeed'”, who spoke in short and sharp sentences – “no words wasted”.
Others were less impressed. In October 1964, Shastri made a brief stop in Karachi while on his way home from a meeting in Cairo. There he was met by the Pakistani President, Field Marshal Ayub Khan. The burly dictator was underwhelmed by the democrat’s puny size and understated manner. Shastri seemed an altogether unworthy successor to his famous and charismatic predecessor. After his meeting with our Prime Minister, Ayub told an aide: “So this is the man who has succeeded Nehru!”
When Nehru died, Pakistan and India were on the verge of settling the Kashmir dispute, peacefully. However, after he saw and met Shastri, Ayub Khan abandoned the path of negotiation and dialogue and sought to seize Kashmir by force. In August 1965, Pakistan sent infiltrators into the Valley. In early September, the Pakistan Army launched an attack in the Chhamb sector. But it turned out that the Field Marshal had seriously underestimated the resolve and fighting spirit of the little Gandhian in a dhoti. For Shastri now immediately sanctioned the opening of a new front in the Punjab. Indian troops crossed the border and made for Pakistan’s premier city, Lahore. Three weeks of fierce fighting followed, before a cease-fire brokered by the United Nations came into effect on 22nd September.
On the Pakistani side, the war was fought with a deeply religious idiom. Their troops saw themselves as waging an Islamic holy war against Hindu infidels. The idiom on the Indian side was altogether different. A Param Vir Chakra was won by a soldier from Uttar Pradesh named Abdul Hamid. At least two Pakistani tanks were taken out by a soldier from Rajasthan, ironically (or tellingly) named Ayub Khan.
That Pakistan defined itself as Muslim while India did not define itself as Hindu was something that Lal Bahadur Shastri himself both understood and affirmed. Days after the ceasefire came into effect, the Prime Minister addressed a large public meeting at the Ramlila Maidan. He spoke in Hindi; in what follows, I use an English translation. In this speech, Shastri said that while he was a Hindu, “Mir Mushtaq who is presiding over this meeting is a Muslim. Mr Frank Anthony who has addressed you is a Christian. There are also Sikhs and Parsis here. The unique thing about our country is that we have Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis and people of all other religions. We have temples and mosques, gurdwaras and churches. But we do not bring this all into politics…This is the difference between India and Pakistan. Whereas Pakistan proclaims herself to be an Islamic State and uses religion as a political factor, we Indians have the freedom to follow whatever religion we may choose [and] worship in any way we please. So far as politics is concerned, each of us is as much an Indian as the other.”
It is hard, if not impossible, to see Narendra Modi make, in peace or in war, a speech remotely like this. Especially in his second term as Prime Minister, Modi has cast both his policies and his politics in starkly majoritarian terms, to the cost of his reputation, and to the cost of the nation itself.
A second way in which Lal Bahadur Shastri differed from Narendra Modi was in his ability (and desire) to empower cabinet ministers. Shastri’s slogan “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” remains well known; what is mostly forgotten is that he assigned those two crucial sectors, Defence and Agriculture, to his two most capable ministers. Thus YB Chavan oversaw the long overdue modernization of our armed forces while working as Defence Minister under Shastri; and C Subramaniam laid the foundations of the Green Revolution while serving as Agriculture Minister under Shastri. Nor were these two individuals exceptions; other fine ministers in Shastri’s cabinet included MC Chagla (Education), SK Dey (Community Development), and Sushila Nayar (Health), who likewise enjoyed an autonomy and independence inconceivable in Modi’s cabinet today.
A third way in which Lal Bahadur Shastri differed from Narendra Modi was in his willingness to acknowledge mistakes and to correct for them. On 26th January 1965, disregarding the warnings of Southern states as well as leading Congressmen from South India, Shastri had English removed from governmental use, leaving Hindi as the country’s sole ‘official’ language. Massive protests broke out in Tamil Nadu that were so fierce and intense that the Prime Minister was forced to acknowledge that the imposition of Hindi had been an error. He did so in the most graceful manner possible, through a speech on All India Radio on 11th February 1965. Notably, he spoke in English.
The Prime Minister began by conveying his “deep sense of distress and shock” at the “tragic events”. To remove any “misapprehension” and “misunderstanding”, he said he would fully honour Jawaharlal Nehru’s assurance that English would be used as long as the people of South India wanted. Then he made four assurances of his own:
“First, every State will have complete and unfettered freedom to continue to transact its own business in the language of its own choice, which may be the regional language or English.
Secondly, communications from one State to another will either be in English or will be accompanied by an authentic English translation.
Thirdly, the non-Hindi States will be free to correspond with the Central Government in English and no change will be made in this arrangement without the consent of the non-Hindi States.
Fourthly, in the transaction of business at the Central level English will continue to be used.”
Narendra Modi has made worse mistakes than Shastri ever did. Demonetization and the ill-planned lockdown are merely two of these. But despite the enormous suffering his mistakes have caused, the damage they have done to our economy and our social fabric, he has never remotely expressed any contrition or regret.
Our Prime Minister has three-and-a-half years of his current term to run. There is still time to learn from the example of his great predecessor, to put into practice Lal Bahadur Shastri’s absolute lack of sectarianism, his desire to work with and empower cabinet colleagues, his readiness to acknowledge and amend for his mistakes.
Whether Narendra Modi is capable of such learning is another matter.
(Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bengaluru. His books include ‘Environmentalism: A Global History’ and ‘Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World’.)
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