What Was The Russian Angle In Former Indian PM Lal Bahadur Shastri’s ‘Mysterious’ Death In Tashkent

For many decades, since the death of former Indian PM Lal Bahadur Shastri, there have been many theories doing the rounds on the causes of his death. Immensely popular, a strong, determined, and down-to-earth person of simple tastes, late PM Shastri led India to an unexpected victory in the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war. 

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While the war ended in a stalemate, Pakistanis continued to see it as a victory for them. But following the Tashkent Treaty signed between Indian PM Shastri and Pakistani President General Ayub Khan on January 10, 1966, in the presence of the then Soviet PM Kosygin, the death of PM Shastri the same night did raise many questions that remain unanswered even after almost 55 years. 

Many views have come out in print, electronic, and social media on the issue. From political conspiracies within India to the alleged role of the US and even that of the Soviet Union in the sudden, unexpected death of Shastri abound, yet nothing concrete has come out of it. Anuj Dhar’s Your Prime Minister Is Dead to the movie Tashkent Files, a lot of painstaking research has been done on the issue.

Recently, the veteran journalist Prem Shankar Jha has come out with his memoir, Reporting India: My Seventy-Year Journey As A Journalist. In the book, he has dealt with a good number of events — political, diplomatic, and others — that he has witnessed or experienced from close quarters.

 The book delves into the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, the Tashkent Treaty, and the subsequent death of Shastri. Describing Shastri as a “hero of India-the man who had dared to attack Pakistan and emerged victorious”, Jha has come up with a startling revelation that contrary to popular belief, Nehru in fact had clearly suggested Shastri to be his successor. The book portrays various instances that indicate the former PM’s penchant for probity and simplicity.

From the very beginning of the talks, Jha, who then covered the historic event as a young journalist along with scores of others present from national and global media, could feel the immense pressure being exerted on Shastri to vacate the Pakistani territories that the Indian Army had occupied. There was a stalemate because the Indian Army was unwilling to vacate territories including Haji Pir Pass it had won, Shastri was firm too while Pakistan seemed desperate to regain those areas. 

 However, much to the surprise of Jha and other journalists covering the Tashkent meeting, Soviet diplomats were seen playing the role of more than mere mediators. Since the Soviet Union had been very friendly with India since the 1950s, it was expected to side with New Delhi. However, during discussions, it was evident that Soviet diplomats were standing behind General Ayub Khan and pursuing India to let the Pakistani territories go that it had won.

 In all the documentation available on the subject of Shastri’s death, questions have been raised about how discussions between Indian and Pakistani delegations virtually ended in a stalemate, and till the late afternoon hours of 9 January 1966, it seemed that there would be no agreement between the two sides. Sensing that, many of the journalists went shopping. 

Suddenly, they were alerted that an agreement was imminent and would be signed between the two leaders at about 4.30 in the evening. In his book, Jha, like many others, has raised the issue. Shastri who so far stood like a rock, unwilling to give up, looked a bit shaken at the agreement-signing ceremony. 

So what actually happened in the few hours that compelled Shastri to change his stance. Was he under tremendous pressure to accede to Pakistani demands? Who created such pressures? And Shastri, who maintained his composure, his determination for so long when it had become almost certain that there would be no agreement, under whose pressure did he give in?

The role of KGB behind Shastri’s death, too, has been conjectured by many. One person who has been talked about by a few, including Anuj Dhar in his book Your Prime Minister is Dead and Jha, is then Indian Ambassador to the Soviet Union, TN Kaul.

Jha believes that Kaul was very close to the Soviets, his role behind the agreement and his silence even after Shastri’s death, is bound to raise some uncomfortable questions.

From the Soviet perspective, its Cold War rival, the US, was expanding its geopolitical influence in Asia. Pakistan had become an American ally, and some reports suggested that they had allowed a secret base at Peshawar to be used by the USAF’s U2 spy planes that were deployed for surveillance of Soviet nuclear facilities, space research, and other secret works mostly done in Central Asia.

The Soviet Union was desperate to please Pakistan by siding with it, forcing India to accede to its requests so that General Ayub could well return the favor to them at a later date. 

No one is sure what transpired during the secret discussions between the top two leaders, with Soviet PM Kosygin mediating. But Jha and others did witness the amount of persuasion, insistence, and implicit pressure that he was exerting on Indian foreign minister Swaran Singh and probably Shastri.

Though Shastri officially died of cardiac failure, it is quite possible that the amount of political and diplomatic pressure that was exerted upon him could well have been a major reason behind his death.

No formal investigation has been carried out on the issue. Yet the situation behind the death of Shastri and incidents afterward where his personal physician and assistant died in New Delhi under mysterious circumstances, the death of Shastri could well remain a mystery in the way the disappearance of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and the death of former US President JF Kennedy has remained unsolved for many decades.