“I am just an ordinary man and not a very bright man.”
On October 2nd, 1904 at Mughalsarai, seven miles from Kashi a little baby boy was born to Sharada Prasad and Ramdulari Devi. They named him Lal Bahadur Shastri.
Lal Bahadur’s parents were agriculturists. Initially his father was a poor teacher who did not earn much by way of income. Then he became a clerk in the Revenue Office at Allahabad. Here, too, he earned very little. But, even though he was poor, he never accepted bribes. He always lived a life of honesty and integrity.
When Lal Bahadur was only three months his Mother went to bathe in the Ganga carrying him along. In the milling crowd at the bathing ghat she lost the child. He had slipped from his mother’s arms into a cowherd’s basket. The cowherd had no children, and he took baby Lal Bahadur to be a gift from God and celebrated the event with great joy.
But his mother Ramdulari Devi was lost in grief. A complaint was lodged with the police and they traced the child. The foster parents wept bitterly when they had to give back the child.
Later in life, there was always a hilarious account of this incident where he was teased “Lal Bahadur, who was destined to govern the country, narrowly missed the ‘good fortune’ of becoming a cowherd”.
But things were not happy for long. Tragedy struck the family when baby Lal was just a year old. His father Sharada Prasad died. Ramdulari Devi was so divested that she felt as though the skies had come down on her.
But luckily her father, Hazari Lal agreed to give her shelter. At that time she had two more little girls apart from Lal Bahadur.
Lal Bahadur’s grandfather Hazari Lal’s family was very large. His brothers, their wives and children, besides his own children and grand children, lived under the same roof. It was a small world in itself and Hazari lal was the fountain of love and affection to all of them. But he was especially fond of little Lal Bahadur. He always affectionately called him ‘Nanhe’ which meant ‘tiny’.
Once when he was six years old, he went to an orchard with his friends. He was standing below while his friends were climbing the trees. Lal Bahadur plucked a flower from a bush in the garden.
The gardener came in the meantime and saw Lal Bahadur with the flower. The boys on the trees climbed down and quickly ran away. But Lal Bahadur was stunned and stood still. The gardener caught Lal Bahadur and beat him severely.
Lal Bahadur wept and said, “I am an orphan. Please do not beat me.”
The gardener smiled with pity and said, “Because you are an orphan, you must learn better behavior, my boy.”
The words of the gardener had a great effect on him. He swore to himself, “I shall behave better in future. Because I am an orphan I must learn good behavior.”
Lal Bahadur stayed at his grandfather’s house till he was ten. By that time he had passed the sixth standard examination. There was no high school in that place and since little Lal loved to study, his grandfather sent him to Kashi for further education.
Courage and self-respect were two virtues, which took deep root in him from his childhood. While in Kashi, he went with his friends to see a fair on the other bank of the Ganga. On the way back he had no money for the boat fare. His self-respect did not allow him to ask his friends for money. He slipped from their company without their knowledge. His friends forgot him in their talk and boarded the boat. When the boat had moved away, LaL Bahadur jumped into river and as his friends watched breathlessly, he swam to the other bank safely.
Even as a boy Lal, loved to read books. He read whatever books he came across, whether he understood them or not. He was fond of Guru Nanak’s verses.
He used to repeat the following lines often:
“0 Nanak! Be tiny like grass; for other plants will whither away, but grass will remain ever green.”
Though he was short for his age he was not timid. All boys were friendly with him. Like the grass he always looked fresh and smiling. Not only during his school days but also in his later life he never did hate anyone.
He also loved acting in school plays. He played the role of Kripacharya in the play ‘Mahabharatha’ and thoroughly enjoyed himself.
When Lal Bahadur was a student of Harischandra High School at Varanasi, the freedom struggle was on full swing. Everywhere there was the cry of ‘Freedom’!
“Swaraj is our birth right” – Bal Gangadhar Tilak had declared. This had become the nation’s battle cry. Little Lal Bahadur revered Tilak.
But the greatest influence on Lal Bahadur was that of Mahatma Gandhi. Lal Bahadur was electrified when he heard a speech of Gandhi at Varanasi. Then and there he decided to dedicate his life to the service of the country.
Mahatma Gandhi launched the non-cooperation movement against the British Government and declared that the country would not cooperate with the Government in its unjust rule. Lal Bahadur was only seventeen years old when Mahatma Gandhi gave a call to the youth to come out of Government schools and colleges, offices and courts and to sacrifice everything for the sake of freedom. Lal Bahadur was deeply moved and he left school to join the freedom movement.
His mother and other relatives pleaded, “Nanhe, please don’t give up your studies.”
But Lal Bahadur was firm in his decision. He did not go back to his school. He became a student of Kashi Vidya Peeth. During his four years’ stay there, he made excellent progress. When he turned 22, he got the degree of ‘Shastri’ and left the Kashi Vidya Peeth.
When Lal Bahadur was 23 years old he married Lalitha Devi, who hailed from Mirzalyur. The wedding was celebrated in the simplest of ways. All that the bridegroom took as a gift from his father-in-law was a charaka and a few yards of Khadi!
Three years later, Mahatma Gandhi started the” Salt Satyagraha’. Lal Bahadur took a leading role in it i grid called on people not to pay land revenue and taxes the government. On this account he was sent to prison for two and a half years.
From that time onwards, prison became his second home. He was sent to prison seven times and was forced to spend nine long years in various prisons different occasions.
He considered going to prison as a blessing if disguise. He had time to read a number of good book% He became familiar with the works of western philosophers, revolutionaries and social reformers. He translated the autobiography of Madam Curie (a French scientist who discovered radium) into Hindi.
Lal Bahadur’s virtues shone even in the prison. He was an ideal prisoner. He was a model to others in discipline and restraint. Many political prisoners used to quarrel among themselves and they used to cringe for small favors before the officials of the prison. But Lal Bahadur used to give up his comforts for others.
Once when he was in prison, one of his daughters fell seriously ill. The officers agreed to let him visit his daughter saying, “We will let you out for a short time but on the condition that you should give in writing that you will not take part in the freedom movement during this period.”
Lal Bahadur did not wish to participate in the freedom movement during his temporary release from prison; but he replied, “I will not give it in writing. But I shall not take part and I will return”.
The officers knew that he was truthful and therefore they did not insist on a written agreement. Lal Bahadur was released for fifteen days.
But sadly his daughter died before he reached home. After performing the final rites he returned to prison even before the expiry of the period.
He passed a year in the prison when news came to him that his son was laid up with influenza. Lal Bahadur was permitted unconditionally to go home for a week. But the fever did not come down in a week’s time. Lal Bahadur got ready to go back to prison. The boy pleaded dumbly with his tearful eyes.
In a weak voice he urged, “Father, please stay…” For a moment Lal Bahadur’s mind was shaken. Tears rolled down from his eyes. But the next moment his decision was made. He bade good-bye to all and left his home for prison. Luckily his son survived.
Thus, he brushed aside all thoughts of personal happiness and plunged into the freedom struggle. His daughter’s death, his son’s illness, and poverty – none of these made him swerve from his selected path.
Finally India got her freedom in 1947 when Lal Bahadur was 43. When Govind Vallabh Pant became the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Lal Bahadur was appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to Pant.
Pant praised him and said, “I have never seen a more likable, hard-working, devoted, trustworthy and a non-controversial man.”
Later, in 1947, Lal Bahadur became the Minister °f Police and Transport in Pant’s Ministry. He took many steps to bring discipline into the administration. As a transport minister he subjected government buses to discipline. He was the first to appoint women conductors.
Also, Lal Bahadur never allowed the police to resort to lathi charge and firing. He ordered them to use jets of water instead of lathis to disperse unruly crowds. Though there were many strikes in Uttar Pradesh when he was in office, there was not a single occasion when people shouted slogans against him.
Lal Bahadur was also a lover of cricket. Once, when he was watching a match at Kanpur, trouble broke out between the spectators and the Police. The young men came to blows. Since Lal Bahadur was on the spot, the situation did not go out of control.
The young men demanded,” The red turbans (the police) should not be found on the cricket ground tomorrow.”
Lal Bahadur agreed to their wishes, but the police were there the next day. The young men became angry with Shastri and protested.
Lal Bahadur laughed and said, “I fulfilled my promise to you faithfully. You did not want red turbans to be here. You see the police are now wearing khaki turbans.” The spectators laughed and dropped the matter.
After India became a Republic, he was appointed as the Railways and Transport Minister in the Central Cabinet.
The railways in the country had be§n badly disrupted after the division of the country. Lal Bahadur strove hard to set right and regulate the railways. There were four classes- first, second, intermediate and third in the railways then. First class compartments offered extreme luxury and were considered heavenly. But the discomfort of passengers in the third class compartments was beyond description. They did not have even minimum comforts.
Lal Bahadur made efforts to reduce the vast disparity between the first and the last classes. The first class that offered royal comfort was abolished. The old second came to be known as the first class and the intermediate class as the second class. His idea was to have only two classes of compartments in course of time – the first and the second. It was he who provided more facilities to travellers in third class compartments that exists till date.
Lal Bahadur identified himself with the Railways so much that he felt he was responsible if anything went wrong in his department. When he was the Railway Minister, 144 passengers died in an accident that took place near Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu. Just three months before this, an accident had occurred at Mehboob Nagar in which 112 people died.
Lal Bahadur though was in no way responsible for these accidents, was very much pained. He felt he could not escape the moral responsibility for them. When the Mehboob Nagar accident took place, he submitted his resignation letter to Pandit Nehru, who was the prime minister then. But Nehru did not accept it.
But when the Ariyalur accident took place Shastri said, ‘”I must do penance for this. Let me go.” So strong was his sense of responsibility that he did not care if he was losing a prestigious post.
He went on to become the Home Minister in 1961.
People used to call him the “homeless” Home Minister because he did not have a house of his own. He had rented a small house in Allahabad where he used to stay whenever he went to the city. But the owner of the house soon let it out to another family. When Shastri resigned as minister he vacated the government quarters and for some time he did not have a place to live in!
Then out of the blue, Nehru, the country’s prime minister died on May 27, 1964. And the very next day the only question that echoed from Kashmir to Kanyakumari was After Nehru, who?’
Finally all the leaders came to the decision that Lal Bahadur Shastri was the only person responsible enough to pilot the nation. Thus he was elected the Prime Minister of India, when he was 60 years of age.
The first problem that he had to face after he became the Prime Minister was one caused by Pakistan. Pakistan started to create trouble along the Indian border in order to capture Kashmir for itself.
Though he was physically weak, Shastri faced the 90 Great Lives – Leaders of People problems confronting the nation boldly and wisely. He first tried to earn the goodwill and support of other nations for India. He visited Russia, Egypt, Canada and Britain and explalned to the leaders of those nations, India’s stand against Pakistan. He even tried to reason with President Ayub Khan of Pakistan to settle down in peace. His efforts did pay off when both countries agreed to stop fighting.
When Lal Bahadur was praised for his worthy efforts he just replied, “I am just an ordinary man and not a very bright man.”
But Pakistan did not remain quiet for long. The Pakistani soldiers entered Kashmir in disguise and were engaged in forcibly occupying areas, which belonged to India. An enraged Lal Bahadur gave full freedom to the Commander of the Army to go forth in war, “Go forward and strike. Force will be met with force. It does not matter if we are destroyed. We will fight to the last to maintain the high honour of the Indian nation and its flag.”
The army and the air force functioned like the two arms of a single body under Shastri’s guidance and fought the war heroically. The invaders were beaten. The U.N called on Lal Bahadur and Ayub Khan to sign a treaty of friendship.
During the period of the Pakistan war and the following days, Shastri’s body was thoroughly battered by the heavy strain both mentally and physically. He signed the joint Declaration on 10th January 1966.
Sadly, on the very same night he suffered a severe heart attack and died instantly.
After his death the President of India conferred on him, on behalf of the nation, the award of ‘Bharat Ratna’.
And so was gone the tiny, tidy figure. A soul that had lived in perfect purity of thought, word and deed. He never sought power. He never worked for it. And yet power and authority came in search of him. Fame set a crown on his head. The short man grew into a colossus and a leader who filled the Four Corners of the world with the fame of India.