The negotiations had concluded very late the previous evening, leaving him drained.
The banquet that followed, to celebrate the success of the talks, had dragged on, giving him just three hours to sleep, which had been fitful. Even though his personal physician had given him a mild sedative, it hadn’t worked, leaving him drawn and fatigued. All of a sudden, it had reminded him of the day, twenty four years prior, during the Quit India Movement, when he had been granted parole to visit his dying daughter. He ultimately could not save her in the end, as the drugs required were too expensive.
But if there is one example of a book that should not be judged by it’s cover, it definitely was him. Inside that tiny five foot frame, lay an iron will and a keen mind that understood political strategy and that evening at Tashkent, it had prevailed. He was relieved at finally bringing the curtains down on a very nasty one and half month conflict that had begun with 33000 Pakistani troops charging across the Line of Control in Kashmir unprovoked, dressed as Kashmiri locals, and had ended with India occupying over 1800 sq. kms of Pakistani territory.
Those 48 days of conflict had seen the Chinese trying to stir up trouble in the north-eastern borders of India, bringing up imagined border disputes, so that Indian military resources would be diverted away from the west. The little man had told them that they could go fornicate with themselves. And they probably did follow his advice, because they withdrew tamely and nothing further was heard from them.
The conflict had been a display of a glaringly unequal match in terms of weapons technology. While India fought with outdated British-made Folland Gnat jet fighters and aging World War-2 M4 Sherman tanks, Pakistan was flush with state of the art F86 Sabre jets, F104 Starfighters and spanking new M48 Patton tanks that the US had so generously given away, like toys for a little boy to play with.
The conflict ultimately claimed 8000 lives, destroyed infrastructure and consumed armaments worth over $100 million, funds that neither nation could ill afford at that point in time.
The Pakistani dictator, Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan, didn’t have to worry though. For letting America set up bases in their territory and run blatantly illegal covert, high-altitude U2 reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union, Pakistan’s military had received tons of cash. $100 million was loose change.
After that, thanks to a captured American U2 pilot named Francis Gary Powers, who was too chicken to swallow his cyanide capsule, the Russians now hated the Pakistanis for colluding with the US in the violation of sovereign Soviet airspace. The Soviet KGB had an Arabesque mindset. Retribution would come. It was a matter of time.
At the negotiating table, in the grand conference hall of the majestic Senate House of Uzbekistan, the Pakistani Field Marshal had tried to bring out even the pettiest gripe on to the table until the very last minute and the diminutive Indian had adroitly swatted them aside with his firm but gentle tone that even the Soviet Premier, Alexei Kosygin had come to respect.
He had made the Pathan seem like a boorish imbecile. It had been a spectacular bit of statesmanship that left the Pakistani side with only a fraction of their original demands met. Years later, years after the cold war had officially ended, Yuri Gorshkov – then a 27-year old aide to the Soviet Premier, would recall in an interview with Time Magazine, the awe with which he had witnessed a barely five foot high fragile pipsqueak of a man take down a six foot three inch ex-Sandhurst Pathan Field Marshal.
Later, back in Pakistan, Tashkent would be seen as a defeat, by hardliners in the civilian government as well as the military establishment in Rawalpindi. The climb-down would be acknowledged by historians as the beginning of the end of the Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan’s dictatorship.
Just before the toast, at the banquet, there had been a bit of a bungle by the Soviet organizers. He was supposed to have sat on the Soviet Premier’s right, while the Pakistani strongman’s place was to be on Kosygin’s left. This was significant because he was a vegetarian and required a different combination of cutlery.
It took only a few minutes for a scrambling, red-faced Russian Intourist head steward to set things right, amid some self-deprecating humor from the Russian head of state. By the time the toast was being proposed, the head steward had been replaced by another Intourist employee.
After the banquet, he had been driven to his dacha around 10 pm. For dinner that night, spinach and potato curry had been sent over from Ambassador Kaul’s house, prepared by his chef Jan Mohammad, but he had hardly touched it. He had asked Ram Nath, his personal valet, to bring him a glass of milk, something that he did before retiring every night.
Sometime around midnight, Ram Nath reported finding him struggling to get up from bed and reach for the bedside lamp. Seeing the valet at door, he had requested a glass of water and told him to go get some sleep because he had to get up early to leave for Kabul. Ram Nath offered to sleep on the floor next to his bed but he told him it wasn’t necessary and that he could go to his own room upstairs.
The assistants were packing the luggage a little after one in the morning when they suddenly saw him at the door. With great difficulty he said, “Where is doctor sahib?” He meant his personal physician, Dr R N Chugh. As he spoke, a racking cough convulsed him and they helped him back to bed. Jagan Nath gave him water and remarked: “Babuji, now you will be all right.”
As he lay back with a sigh, he no longer had the taut tension all over him. Instead, he appeared unnaturally calm, his face having acquired a strange bluish tinge. Struck by the serenity on his face, Ram Nath and Jagan Nath gazed down at him, as he folded his arms over his chest, exhaled and gradually grew still.
The second Prime Minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri, was no more.
(to be continued…)