Triumph and tragedy at Tashkent

Guest article by Inder Malhotra


With the signing of a peace agreement between India and Pakistan came the news of Lal Bahadur Shastri's passing
ON THE morning of January 10, there was a sea change in the atmosphere of Tashkent. The bickering, the blame game and intensely motivated accusations about the "impending collapse of the talks" had suddenly vanished. Instead, everyone seemed cheerful. For, word had spread fast that in the wee hours of the morning, the tireless Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin had brought about an agreement between Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri of India and President Ayub Khan of Pakistan. It was to be called the "Tashkent Declaration", and signed in the afternoon by Shastri and Ayub, with Kosygin witnessing it. The text of the declaration was released only after it was signed, but there was striking unanimity among Indians, Pakistanis and Soviets that it was a "triumph of statesmanship".
At precisely 4 pm, the accord was signed, and a long, lavish and exuberant reception by the Soviet hosts followed. Shastri left early. Those who shook hands with him and saw him off testified later that his hold was firm, and he seemed calm and carefree. My colleagues and I had left much earlier to report and analyse the welcome accord. On careful reading, however, it seemed an arrangement only for the disengagement of troops that were too close for comfort and for the return of occupied territories. Major issues had been slurred over. This became even clearer when reactions started coming in from Delhi and Rawalpindi. The public in both countries was unhappy.
In India, the harshest criticism not only by the political class, but also by members of the PM's family, was focused on his decision to "give away" Haji Pir, which he had vowed never to do. Little did his critics know that Kosygin had explained to him the dire consequences of defying the UN Security Council's resolution insisting that the armed personnel of both countries "return to the positions they had occupied before August 5", when Pakistan's infiltrations into Kashmir were first detected.
For his part, Ayub had wanted to hold on to the Chhamb area in Kashmir his troops had captured. Kosygin explained the facts of life to him, too. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, anxious to sabotage an agreement somehow, suddenly demanded that the entire paragraph committing the two countries to "discourage hostile propaganda against each other" be deleted. Kosygin turned on him and asked: "How do two countries that agree to make peace and maintain good-neighbourly relations also proclaim that they would carry on hostile propaganda against each other?"
Ayub's difficulty with his countrymen was not Chhamb, however, but the glaring fact that their "core issue", Kashmir, had been "dismissed" in the declaration with the bland statement that "Jammu and Kashmir was discussed and each of the two sides set forth its respective position".
It was amidst this troubling situation that Shastri's five top advisors — his secretary, L.K. Jha; the foreign secretary, C.S. Jha; the home secretary, L.P. Singh; the ambassador to Moscow, T.N. Kaul; and the PM's most trusted official, C.P. Srivastava — suddenly arrived at our hotel. They sought out four of us — K. Rangaswamy (The Hindu), G.K. Reddy (The Times of India), Krishan Bhatia (Hindustan Times) and yours truly (The Statesman). Over generous libations of Scotch, they tried to convince us that India had achieved both its main objectives: a no-war agreement with Pakistan, and its commitment to honour the "sanctity" of the ceasefire line in J&K.
We refused to buy this. How could a mere reaffirmation by both countries of their "obligation under the UN Charter not to have recourse to force and settle their disputes through peaceful means" add up to a no-war pact? As for the "sanctity" of the ceasefire line, it was something of a joke, because all that the Tashkent Declaration said was: "both sides shall observe the ceasefire terms on the ceasefire line".
Disappointed and dejected, the top officials left. After some more chit-chat, we also decided to retire for the night. Each one us was in bed when came the stunning and sorrowful news of Lal Bahadur Shastri's death so far away from home. Another phone call from the delegation's spokesman told us to hold the news for a while because "Russian doctors are trying to revive him". As we found on reaching the villa, the PM's passing was manifest. The Shastri era had turned out to be sadly short-lived.
Normally, this should have been the end of this tragic narrative. But it cannot, because of what follows about the subsequent happenings in both Indian and Pakistani camps. At Shastri's villa, where all the Indians in Tashkent that night had assembled, grief was overwhelming. Yet top officials also had to do their duty.
Under the Constitution, when the PM dies, his cabinet also ceases to exist. A new PM has to be sworn in immediately. For that to happen, then President S. Radhakrishnan had to be informed. Despite the foolproof telephone connections the hosts had organised, this did not prove easy. An obviously sleeping phone operator at Rashtrapati Bhavan, when awakened, brusquely said that the president could not be disturbed at that late hour and banged down the phone. Whereupon General P.P. Kumaramanglam rang up the army's operations room and got through instantly to the duty officer, Major Tandon. Barely had the general said, "Tandon, I am Kumaramanglam..." when the major cut him short with the words: "If you are General Kumaramangalam, then I am the Queen of Sheba". Luckily, by this time, L.P. Singh had spoken to the cabinet secretary, Dharma Vira, who promptly drove to Raisina Hill. G.L. Nanda was sworn in as the stop-gap PM for the second time in 18 months.
At the guesthouse where the Pakistani delegation was staying, sad to say, the news was greeted with uproarious joy, even though the next morning Ayub was to be one of Shastri's pallbearers. Disturbed by the noise, Bhutto opened his door, saw senior members of the delegation in a boisterous mood, and demanded of his foreign secretary: "What is this Aziz?" Aziz Ahmed replied: "Sir, the bastard is dead". Bhutto: "Which one?"
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator.

After the declaration of ceasefire (the Indo-Pak war ended on 23 September 1965 with a United Nations-mandated ceasefire), Shastri and Pakistani President Muhammad Ayub Khan attended a summit in Tashkent, organized by Mr. Kosygin. On 10 January 1966, Shastri and Khan signed the Tashkent Declaration. 

The next day Shastri, who had suffered two heart attacks earlier, died supposedly of a heart attack at 1:32 am. However, Shastri’s wife and family suspected that Shastri was poisoned by the cook of Indian ambassador in Moscow, who was responsible for preparing his meal in Tashkent. He was the only Indian Prime Minister, and indeed probably one of the few heads of government, to have died in office overseas. 

The monument of Shastri and the street named after this significant personality are placed in the very centre of Tashkent. This is the place of visit of Indian travelers and businessman visiting the capital of Uzbekistan.



This street is dedicated to India's 2nd Prime Minister Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri who died unexpectedly presumably of cardiac arrest in Tashkent after signing the famous Tashkent agreement.

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