Gandhi's influence on Shastri's Tashkent decision

Representative image. (Photo/PTI)

Born on the same day but 35 years apart, country's second Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri first saw and heard Mahatma Gandhi in 1915 in Varanasi when he was just 11 years and it left a lasting impression on him.

Shastri jumped into the freedom struggle later, on the call of Mahatma in 1921, when he was 17 years after probably his second meeting and remained a 'quintessential Gandhian' who "never lost an opportunity to quote the Mahatma" till his mysterious death in the Soviet Union's Tashkent in 1965.

The influence of Mahatma Gandhi in his life and politics was too huge that hours before the signing of the historic Tashkent Agreement to end the 1965 India-Pakistan war and his death, Shastri told his aides that signing the accord was "the one greatest tribute he could pay to the Mahatma".

Shastri "went on to add that it would be a negation of the values that the Mahatma stood for if he did not work towards creating an environment to foster peace, harmony and non-violence", says a new book 'Lal Bahadur Shastri: Politics and Beyond' by political scientist Sandeep Shastri.

Shastri, who was born in 1904, died in Tashkent soon after the signing of the agreement.

Though tough in his handling of Pakistan, he wanted the war to end and was ready to walk the extra mile without compromising India's interest. He agreed to India withdrawing from the Haji Pir Pass, a strategic location captured by India, as he felt it was "vital to the larger negotiations and the signing of the peace agreement".

On the morning of the signing of the agreement, he told bureaucrat L P Singh, who watched Shastri from close quarters, during a breakfast meeting that he had chosen to seek peaceful and friendly relations with Pakistan in order "to keep faith with the most precious legacy that the country had had from Mahatma Gandhi".

"If relations between India and Pakistan remained strained, holding the potential of another armed conflict, India would take the path of military glory, and our unique heritage, the ideals of non-violence, truth and human brotherhood bequeathed to us by Gandhiji would be lost," Singh quoted Shastri in his 'Portrait of Lal Bahadur Shastri: A Quintessential Gandhian'.

"Peace and good relations with Pakistan, he (Shastri) said, were essential if India was to preserve her soul, and that, he said, was the main reason why he had made the Tashkent Agreement…Shastri had returned to his innermost Gandhian self with all his heart," Singh wrote.

Shastri might be diminutive in appearance but Singh felt that the run up to the 1965 war showed that he was a man of peace and goodwill but could also "prove to be a man of steel". Singh quoted Shastri, "when freedom is threatened and territorial integrity is endangered there is only one duty — the duty to meet the challenge with all our might" and these were "not the sort of words that came naturally to a quintessential Gandhian, which Shastri was".

While Shastri's first tryst with Mahatma Gandhi came in 1915, his entry into freedom struggle came with the Mahatma's speech in Varanasi in January 1921 when he was in Class X. Soon after the call for Non-Cooperation movement, Mahatma Gandhi came to Varanasi and appealed to the youth above sixteen to withdraw from government-aided or controlled educational institutions, and join the freedom movement.

As Madan Mohan Malaviya urged students first to take their parents' permission before quitting schools and colleges, he took his mother's advice and discontinued his school education to joined the Congress as a volunteer to immerse himself in the freedom struggle. 

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