What happened on the day Shastri passed away

Lal Bahadur Shastri, the then Prime Minister of India, travelled to Tashkent to formally end the 1965 India-Pakistan War on 10 January 1966. One day later, he allegedly died from a heart attack. Why was no post-mortem conducted on him?

1.20 am. 11 January 1966. Tashkent, USSR. Knock. Knock. Knock. ‘Who can be at the
door so late at night?’ Ramnath asked Sahay sahib while packing his bags for an early morning flight to Kabul. Like everyone else, Ramnath also had had too many shots of pure Russian vodka. And why not! It was an occasion to get a little merry as after six tension-filled days, the Tashkent Agreement had finally been signed and they were going to leave the freezing cold city.

‘Maybe the plan has changed. Maybe, we have to spend more days in this dead frozen city,’ Ramnath thought. There wasn’t any- thing wrong in this line of think- ing as Ramnath and the other members of India’s second prime minister’s entourage had spent a long week of unprecedented uncertainties in the snow-clad city of Tashkent. Initially, the plan was to stay only for a few days but then every day brought in new issues, new challenges, new disagreements, and new solutions. After six days of roller-coaster drama, they were all set to return to India with a brief stay in Kabul. As an ode to these unforgettable days of tension, conflict, stress and suspense, Ramnath and his colleagues had had a bit too many vodkas. And as they were enjoying these moments of relief from the looming tension, someone intruded again, like every other day.

Ramnath stretched and went to open the door. He could hear someone coughing badly. Despite being drunk, Ramnath’s intuition never failed him. He knew it was more than a normal knock. Ramnath opened the door to find independent India’s second prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, standing there, coughing breathlessly, his face was turning pale as if he was getting choked from inside.

‘Doctor sahib kahan hain?’ Shastri asked while coughing.

In that split second, Ramnath realised that his tiny master for the last 30 years had shrunk a bit more.
‘Arre utho… Utho… Babu Ji ki tabiyat kharab ho gayi hai… Doc sahib ko bulao jaldi se…’ Sahay rushed to Dr Chugh’s room up- stairs while Ramnath literally lifted Shastri and took him back to his bedroom, crossing the corridor and the living room.

His personal assistant, M.M.N. Sharma put Shastri’s head on his lap. Shastri pointed at the thermos which was empty.

‘Babu Ji, wo khali hai… Paani lao!’ Sahay yelled.

When Shastri kept pointing at the thermos for a little longer than necessary, Sahay got a bit suspicious as if he was trying to say something.

‘Babu Ji, kya kehna chaha rahe hain…’ ‘Babu Ji was so jovial and happy when he spoke to his family back in Delhi just 20 minutes ago. Then, he had his milk from the thermos and Isabgol…’ Ramnath’s mind was trying to zero in on the cause of Shastri’s sickness. ‘I am to be blamed… I should have given him the milk … why did I not protest when that Russian butler and his team of cooks were asked to cook food for Babu Ji.’

Ramnath was pretty sure that it was a case of food poisoning and everything will be fine after the milk that Babu Ji drank before sleeping is flushed out. Despite being high on vodka, he was thinking logically. In the gala last night, hosted by the Russian Premier Kosygin for the success of the Tashkent Treaty between India and Pakistan, who had just fought an intense war where India had defeated Pakistan badly, Shastri had eaten only a few nuts and some fruits as he preferred to eat the food cooked only by Ramnath, his personal cook. Only that night Ramnath did not cook for him.

Dr Chugh checked Shastri’s pulse. Dead. He checked his heart- beat. Again. Dead. Finally, with trembling hands, he checked his breath. Dead. He administered an intramuscular injection. Shastri
was still dead.

‘Babu Ji, aapne mujhe ek mauka bhi nahin diya…’ Dr Chugh burst into tears.

At 1.32 am, Shastri’s press secretary, Kuldip Nayar, made a trunk call to Delhi Press Bureau and de- clared ‘Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri dies of a heart attack’.

In India, it was just after 2 am on 11 January 1966.

3 am. 11 January 1966. Ninth Chief Directorate, KGB. Tashkent, USSR.

On the same night, at 3 am, the police of the most powerful Ninth Chief Directorate of KGB woke up the chief butler, Ahmed Sattarov, his three assistants and Jan Mohammad, the cook of the Indian ambassador, T.N. Kaul. They arrested them and took them to an undisclosed location.
The official reason for their arrest was the suspicion of them poisoning Shastri.

11 am. 11 January 1966. Palam Airport, New Delhi. Shastri’s body arrived at Delhi’s Palam In-
ternational Airport in an Air India flight. Despite the biting cold, there was an unprecedented tide of people waiting for Shastri’s last darshan. It was but natural since Shastri had emerged as people’s leader after he defeated Pakistan and had healed a nation that was wounded by India’s humiliating defeat in the Sino-Indian War.

Amidst the roars of ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’ (a slogan given by Shastri) and ‘Bharat ka Lal amar rahe’, Shastri’s body was disembarked from the plane. By the time his body was put in an army truck, to be taken to his official residence, the chanting started to fade and a whisper started spreading amongst his fans and the press, and soon it enveloped the entire Palam airport, ‘Why is his body swollen? Why is his body blue? Why is blood seeping out from the cuts?’

Noon. 11 January 1966. 10 Jan- path Road, New Delhi. Shastri’s wife, Lalita had always accompanied him on his foreign trips. This was the only time that Shastri didn’t allow her to join him. While waiting for the body to arrive, Lalita was cursing herself for not joining him.

It was only a few hours back that Shastri had called his family, at around 1 am, when his daughter Kusum had told him that people were very upset with his decision that India should return the occupied territory of Pakistan. This is when Shastri had asked her to give the phone to Lalita and told her that he was coming back with the news that will make Indians very happy. He had asked her to
keep it a secret.

Shastri’s body reached his residence and was taken inside the house. When Lalita, Shastri’s mother and other relatives started to perform Hindu rituals of bath- ing the body and dressing it up with new clothes, they noticed that there were several cuts on his stomach and neck from where blood was still oozing out. They immediately alerted the family and his lifelong friend T.N. Singh.

‘If it was a heart attack, why does his body have cuts… Why is blood dripping out… Why is his body swollen… Why has it turned blue- black in colour… Why does his face have dark spots… Was a post- mortem done in Russia… What are they hiding?’ Lalita Shastri had a long list of questions to ask Shastri’s press secretary, Kuldip Nayar. ‘I am told that when bodies are embalmed, they turn blue,’ Kuldip Nayar had replied.

‘Why are there cuts on the body then?’ She asked. ‘I don’t know.’ ‘I am sure a secret post-mortem was conducted in Tashkent,’ Lalita said with conviction. Kuldip Nayar was startled. ‘It is indeed unusual,’ he replied softly.

‘Lalita Ji and others in the family suspect foul play,’ Nayar noted. Shastri’s childhood friend T.N. Singh and his close follower Jag- dish Kodesia couldn’t make sense of the situation either; they, along with Shastri’s eldest son Anil and son-in-law Hari, met the caretaker prime minister, Gulzarilal Nanda, and requested him to conduct the post-mortem at the earliest. They also officially requested the cabinet secretary and the home secretary to conduct the post-mortem.

4 PM. 12 January 1966. Vijay Ghat, New Delhi. On a foggy, winter evening of Delhi, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s body was cremated ac- cording to the Hindu rituals. The last agni was given by his eldest son, 17-year-old Anil Shastri. No post-mortem was conducted on him.

Excerpts from the book ‘Who Killed Shastri? The Tashkent Files’ (Published by Bloomsbury India).