Lal Bahadur Shastri : The first Indian Prime Minister to carry out a ‘Surgical strike’

On his Birth Anniversary : 2nd October

Lal Bahadur Shastri served as Prime Minister for just 18 months, and in this brief tenure, left a memorable imprint on the country as a politician, administrator and war leader. Many in the present generation do not know he authored the slogan ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’, which captured the idea that peasants (and their welfare) are as integral to the security of the country as soldiers.

After Independence, he held various ministerial and party positions. Apart from being General Secretary of the Congress, he held the railways, transport and commerce portfolios. In 1961, following the death of Govind Ballabh Pant, he became Union Home Minister.

Shastriji displayed his moral calibre when he resigned from office in the wake of the 1956 Ariyalur train accident, in which 142 people were killed. That act still reverberates in the country. Hard-working but with a weak disposition, he suffered heart attacks in 1958 and again in June 1964, shortly after taking office as Prime Minister.

After Nehru, who ?

On 7th January 1964, Nehru suffered a stroke. Nehru’s death on 27th May was a major blow. Four days later, Morarji Desai was persuaded to withdraw his hat from the ring, and Shastriji was chosen as Prime Minister by the Congress Working Committee. Congress power-brokers had hoped that the soft-spoken Shastriji would be their puppet. He turned out to be a decisive man of firm views.

The slightly built leader had to fill the political shoes of Nehru. He did so with quiet panache. He battled pressure from the powerful men who had pushed him into office, accommodated Nehru’s daughter, Indira, in his cabinet, and made key appointments such as that of C Subramaniam as the Food and Agriculture Minister. To assist him, he created the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, headed by a Secretary-level officer.

Swords and ploughshares

Among the long-term legacies of the Shastri era was India’s attainment of self-sufficiency in food. When he took office, agriculture was in crisis. India was, infamously, ‘living from ship to mouth’. Between 1960 and 1963, India had imported a staggering 15 million tonnes of US grains – and the amount of imports were rising each year. C Subramaniam, with the support of Shastriji, took policy decisions that eventually led to the Green Revolution.

Today, Shastriji is known for something he may not have been trained for – as a war leader. The Indian military was still licking its wounds from the 1962 fiasco when Pakistan, hoping to rattle a new Prime Minister, initiated a series of provocations, ostensibly aimed at ‘liberating’ Kashmir.

Pakistan also believed in its own myth – that the manly Pathan, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, would make short work of the small, dhoti-clad vegetarian Shastri. Hostilities began in 1965 with a manoeuvre in the Rann of Kutch, where Pakistan took advantage of the fact that the border had been delineated. There was some skirmishing, but Shastriji was not rattled.

India’s real surgical strike

Then began phase 2 of the Pakistani plan – Operation Gibraltar, or the invasion of Jammu & Kashmir by covert forces, with the view of sparking a domestic uprising. That did not happen, and ordinary Kashmiris helped the Indian Army round up the infiltrators. The devastating Indian response came in the capture of the Haji Pir Pass, a key point of ingress, on 30th August 1965. This, if anything, was India’s real ‘surgical strike’.

Pakistan upped the ante. Under Operation Grand Slam, it sent two armoured regiments in to cut the road from east Punjab to J&K. Indian forces fell back in the face of the assault and the situation looked grim. In an emergency committee of the cabinet, Shastriji took two key decisions. First, he ordered the Air Force to assist the Army. Then he gave the go-ahead for the Indian riposte – an attack across the international border towards Lahore, which caught Pakistan flat-footed.

The war carried on unti 23rd September. Despite command failures and setbacks, India came out ahead because Pakistan failed to make any gains in Kashmir, and suffered a decisive defeat in Khem Karan in Punjab.

Resting in peace

In the post-war Tashkent talks, brokered by the Soviet Union, he walked the talk of peace and did not rub Pakistan’s nose in its defeat. He was willing to return captured territory in Haji Pir and on the Lahore front – real estate that was more valuable than what Pakistan had in Chamb and Rajasthan. Shortly after the signing of the Tashkent Agreement, his heart gave out. Shastriji passed away in Tashkent in the early hours of 11th January 1966.

India’s second Prime Minister deserves to be not just remembered, which India does from time to time but emulated – which no one aspires to do. He was ethical, wise, far-sighted and a large-hearted and pragmatic team player. The adjectives could go on, and still be all true.

We pay deep respects to this great leader of our Nation.

Lal Bahadur Shastri was ethical, wise, far-sighted, a large-hearted and pragmatic team player !