The felling of the little giant

Shastri

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 While India fought with outdated British-made Folland Gnat jet fighters and aging World War-2 M4 Sherman tanks, Pakistan was flush with state of the art F86 Sabre jets, F104 Starfighters and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.

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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.

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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.

Shastri had little in common with his predecessor, Jawaharlal Nehru. Although he had been a cabinet minister for many years before he became Prime Minister, he died a poor man. All that he owned at the end was an old car, which he had purchased in installments from the government and for which he still owed money. He was a founder member of Servants of India society (which included Gandhi, Lala Lajpat Rai, Gopal Krishna Gokhale), which asked all its members to shun accumulation of private property and remain in public life as servants of people.

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The renowned Indian journalist, Kuldip Nayyar, who was at that time the Indian PM’s media adviser, has recorded what happened in the immediate aftermath….

…..That night I had a premonition that Shastri was dying. I dreamt about him dying. I got up abruptly to a knock on my door. A Russian woman was standing there. 

“Your prime minister is dying,” she said.  I hurriedly dressed and drove with an Indian official to Shastri’s dacha which was some distance away. 

I saw the Soviet Premier, Alexei Kosygin, standing in the verandah. He raised his hands to indicate that Shastri was no more. Behind the verandah was the dining room where a team of doctors was sitting at an oblong table, cross-examining Dr R.N. Chugh who had accompanied Shastri. 

Next to it was Shastri’s room. It was extraordinarily large. On the huge bed, his body looked like a dot on a drawing board. His slippers were neatly placed on the carpeted floor. He had not used them. In a corner of the room, however, on a dressing table, there was an overturned thermos flask. It appeared that maybe Shastri had struggled to open it. There was no buzzer in his room, the point on which the government lied when attacked in Parliament on its failure to save Shastri’s life….. 

Ayub Khan was genuinely grieved by Shastri’s death. He came to Shastri’s dacha at 4 am and said, looking towards me: “Here is a man of peace who gave his life for amity between India and Pakistan.” 

Later, he told the Pakistani journalists who had assembled for a briefing that Shastri was one person with whom he had hit it off well. “Pakistan and India might have solved their differences had he lived,” Ayub Khan said. 

Aziz Ahmad, Pakistan’s foreign secretary, rang up Bhutto to inform him about Shastri’s death. Bhutto was half asleep and had apparently heard only the word “died”, because he asked, “Which of the two bastards?”

——-———————

Situated at the edge of Lubyanka Square, at the junction of the red Sokolnicheskaya Line and the purple Tagansko-Krasnopresnenskaya Line, in the heart of Moscow, the Lubyanka Metro Station is an imposing underground structure that teems with commuters, until train services stop at 11:30pm and restart around 4am. All along the walls, at regular intervals, is emblazoned in bright red, the word  Лубянка, meaning Lubyanka, for commuters to be able to discern the name of the station clearly from a moving train. (It hasn’t changed much since the 60s).

At 4.15am on the morning of Wednesday the 12th January 1966, the station had already begun to fill up as commuters, bundled up in heavy coats and astrakhans began streaming down the stairs and onto the platforms below. As in any totalitarian system, faces were grim, staring straight ahead, trying not to make eye contact.

After the first screams were heard, it took a while for the Moscow Metro Militia to arrive and during that period, the curious among the crowds strained over each other’s shoulders to catch a glimpse of the blood-spattered body on the tracks.

Homicide would not have been suspected had it not been for the fact that the man had no winter clothing on, not even a sweater that would have been necessary even in the relative warmth of the metro station. The corpse was in a uniform – an Intourist head steward’s white livery, bristling with ornate buttons and epaulets. There was another thing that made an accidental slip and fall onto the tracks an impossibility – the head steward’s head was missing.

In so far as the Soviet system permitted persistence, a persistent Militia investigator might have found the head – in a cell, a few stories above the metro, inside the heart of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate, which was also home to a sprawling complex that was instantly recognizable the world over as the deadliest prison on the planet – the Lubyanka.

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In 1966, if the CIA listening post at Badaber, outside Peshawar in northern Pakistan, had the technology to listen in to telephone conversations and if Lt. Chuck Shriver, the man who was monitoring the Soviet radio traffic that night had been listening in, he would have heard an odd cryptic conversation which lasted just ten seconds. It was an exchange that travelled to and from the Kremlin to the heavily guarded Massandra Palace outside Yalta, in Crimea, the winter retreat of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

“My poluchili ne togo cheloveka (we got the wrong guy),” the voice at the Kremlin said.

“Ne meshay mne, 1 utra v otpuske (Shit happens. Don’t bother me, I am on vacation,” the gruff voice at the other end replied and hung up as his bushy eyebrows arched up in a grimace.

———————————————-

As for Ayub Khan, he relinquished power to an army crony and whiled away his days lolling around on a deck chair by the pool, receiving well wishers, at the posh Islamabad Club by the Rawal Lake, that was run exclusively for the army brass, high-level civilian dignitaries and well-heeled businessmen.

Then one day, during the UN General Assembly in the spring of 1967, the charge d’affaires of the Soviet Embassy in Washington sought out the Pakistani Ambassador to the UN and handed him a folded note addressed to the Field Marshal himself. It was promptly carried in the diplomatic pouch to Islamabad and handed over unopened, to the old Field Marshal by a Major in the ISI, just as the waiter was setting down his third scotch on the rocks.

The note quoted an excerpt of Chapter-4 of the Holy Quran and as he read it, Ayub Khan stiffened. It read…..

“Wheresoever ye shall be, doom shall overtake you,

Even though you be perched,

in lofty towers”

It took exactly 8 years for those prophetic words to come true. On a clear day in April 1974, a waiter at the Islamabad Club reported having seen a white man with heavy Slavic features sit down at the Field Marshal’s table and speak with him briefly, a few hours before he collapsed of a fatal heart attack.

——————————————–

The killing of the Indian Prime Minister was unfortunate and unintended, but the new poison that had been allotted an interim code name ‘C-2’, envisaged to be virtually untraceable to forensic science, was  deemed an unmitigated success.

Col. Yuri Ivanovich Modin, head of the Aktivnyye Meropriyatiya (the ‘Active Measures’ section of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate, which had been responsible for the development of C-2), was immediately promoted to Major-General. In everything, there is always a winner.

——————————————–

Epilogue:

The Soviets, in remorse for killing the wrong guy, must have coerced his successor, Indira Gandhi, into letting it go. In exchange for her silence, they initiated a process of massive free deals in heavy engineering projects and military cooperation that finally led to the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation.

India benefited hugely from the treaty, in terms of industrial and military aid. The cash and technological aid came with no repayment schedule. Some say that this helped India prevail in the 1971 war with Pakistan.

There was a silver lining to Shastriji’s death after all.

4 thoughts on “The felling of the little giant”

  1. Gary Robinson said:

    What a fascinating article, Achyut. Another fascinating article I should say. In addition to not knowing that Indira Gandhi was really Nerhu’s daughter I have to add the fact that I have never heard of Lal Bahadur Shastri before. But let me ask, is this a factual account of his death? Or is it some fiction of yours? As fiction it is gripping, let me be honest. But did this actually happen. Did the Soviets assassinate the wrong guy, intending to murder Ayub Khan? And if this is true, could you direct me to any book that deals with it? Great article!!!

    Like

    • This is historical fiction, a kind of ‘what-if’. I have no proof that there had been any hanky panky, though, if you google this you’ll find a lot of very convincing conspiracy theories.

      Be that as it may, there is little doubt that had Shastri been alive, he would have been the greatest leader than Indian had ever seen.

      Like

  2. Gary Robinson said:

    You’ve mingled fact with fiction in a great way, Achyut. I will do some research on Shastri now, thanks to you! 🙂

    Like

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