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Lal Bahadur Shastri (1904 - 1966): A selfless leader


When he was the Railway Minister, he owned moral responsibility for a train accident in south India and resigned, in 1956. He did not have a house of his own, even when he was the Home Minister and people used to tease him the "homeless Home Minister".

That was Lal Bahadur Shastri, who shares his date of birth with Mahatma Gandhi and was a staunch follower of the latter's path of truth and non-violence. In the first general elections of the Indian Republic, the Congress was returned to power with a huge majority.

Shastri, who was the general secretary of the party at that time, had complete control over the selection of partry candidates. But he did not contest the elections.

The Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, however, did not wish to leave such an able and honest man outside the government. He persuaded him to seek election to the Rajya Sabha. He won the election and was appointed the Railway Minister.

At that time there were four classes in the railways: first, second, inter and third. The first class compartments offered extreme luxury while the travails of passengers in the third class was beyond description. Shastri made relentless efforts to remove the wide disparity between the first and third class compartments. The first class, which offered royal comfort, was abolished. The old second class was converted into first class and the inter class was turned into second class. His idea was to have only two classes in course of time.

He provided greater facilities to passengers in third class compartments. It was during his time that fans were provided in third class compartments. He resigned as Railway Minister owning moral responsibility, when an accident occurred in Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu in 1956 in which 144 persons were killed. In fact, he had put in his papers when an accident had occurred in Mahboobnagar three months earlier, killing 112. But Nehru had not accepted it. He refused to continue in the post after the Ariyalur accident.

He became Home Minister after the death of Govind Ballabh Pant in 1961. He had rented a small house in Allahabad. Whenever he went to Allahabad, he used to stay in that house. After some time, the house owner had let it out to another family. When Shastri resigned as minister, he vacated the Government quarter and he did not have a place to live in.

Born at Mughalsarai in Uttar Pradesh on October 2, 1904, Lal Bahadur Shastri had spent his early childhood at his maternal uncle, Raghunath Prasad's house. His father, Sharada Prasad, died when Shastri was hardly one-and-a-half years old, leaving his mother, Ramdulari Devi, to take care of their three children. After the death of her husband, Ramdulari Devi shifted to her father's house in Mirzapur. She played a vital role in shaping Shastri's life by imbibing the right values in him.

After completing his primary education at Mirzapur, Shastri went to Benaras for further studies. He joined the Harish Chandra Vidyalaya, where he was deeply influenced by his mathematics teacher, Nishkameswar Prasad Misra, who inspired his students by telling them stories of great leaders like Guru Gobind Singh, Rana Pratap and Chhatrapati Shivaji.

He graduated from the nationalist university, Kashi Vidyapeeth, in 1925 and was given the title, `Shastri', meaning one who is learned in the scriptures. The next year, he joined the `Servants of the People Society' started by Lala Lajpat Rai and plunged into the freedom movement. Shastri married Lalita Devi, the youngest daughter of Ganesh Prasad, in 1928. He did not believe in the dowry system and refused to take dowry. However, on the insistence of his father-in-law he took five yards of khadi cloth as dowry.

Inspired by his political guru, Bapu Purushottamdas Tandon, Shastri joined the Congress Party. He became the City Congress secretary and the president of the Allahabad Congress Committee in 1930. He participated in all national movements between 1921 and 1942 and went to jail seven times. He was elected to the UP Legislative Assembly in 1937.

Once when Shastri was in jail, he received the news that his daughter fell ill. He requested the jailor to release him on parole to attend to his daughter. The jailor granted him 15 days parole.

On reaching home, he learnt that his daughter had died. He performed the last rites of his daughter and told his family members that he was going back to the jail. When they reminded him that he was granted 15 days parole, he said, "That was to attend to my sick daughter. But when she is no more, there is no reason for me to take leave."

He became the Prime Minister after the death of Jawaharlal Nehru. He tackled several problems like food shortage, unemployment and poverty. To overcome the acute food shortage, he initially imported food grains and distributed them throughout the country. Later, he drew long-term plans to make the country self-sufficient in food production.

He showed his mettle during the Indo-Pak war, which broke out in 1965. He made it clear to Pakistan and the world that India would not take it lying down, if Pakistan continued to encourage cross-border terrorism. He gave full freedom to the Armed Forces to retaliate and the military bases in Lahore and Sialkot were attacked.

The war had established the supremacy of India and brought Ayub Khan on to his feet. The United Nations passed a resolution demanding a ceasefire. The Russian Prime Minister, Kosygin, offered to mediate and Shastri and Ayub Khan started negotiations at Tashkent. A `no-war' agreement was signed between the two countries on January 10, 1966, and peace was restored. Shastri suffered a fatal heart attack the same night.

He was awarded the highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, posthumously in 1966.

A statue of this great little man has been installed in a corner at the park opposite the Municipal Corporation office.

B.M.G.

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