Sharing one’s birthday with great people might be a matter of pride for lesser mortals like you or me, since we can boast that we were born on the same day as so-and-so. But when the person sharing his birthday with Mahatma Gandhi is a giant in his own right, it is sad that he is forgotten.
Lal Bahadur Shastri, who was born on October 2, the same day as Mahatma Gandhi is slowly being relegated to the inside pages of Indian history. Barring the cursory laying of wreaths by political leaders on his Samadhi at Vijay Ghat, there is not much mention of him anywhere, not in print media, not in visual media. I wonder if schools celebrate his birth anniversary. A whole generation is growing up without any knowledge of this gentle giant of a statesman.
A simple man who had great integrity and vision, Lal Bahadur Shastri participated in the freedom struggle after being inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. He believed in social reform as a way of progress for the country. He worked ceaselessly for the upliftment of Harijans. Not one to just preach the doctrine, he donated all his land to the Bhoodan Movement of Vinoba Bhave and was perhaps the only leader past or present, who left nothing – no land, house or property for his family when he died.
Today, the political dramatists offer to resign their posts at the drop of a hat, knowing fully well that they would not be allowed to; but this man had done it with full remorse when he had been the Railway Minister in Nehru’s cabinet, taking full moral responsibility for the accident in Ariyalur Tamil Nadu that had killed nearly 150 people.
In his short tenure as the Prime Minister after he took over the country’s reins when Nehru died in 1964, he set exemplary standards in public administration. When Pakistan attacked India in 1965 in the Chhamb sector of Jammu and Kashmir, he took on the challenge. India won the ensuing war but he offered peace to the then military ruler Ayub Khan of Pakistan. Tragically he died under mysterious circumcstances in Tashkent, in the then USSR, where he had gone to sign the peace treaty on January 11,1966.
His convocation address to the students of Aligarh Muslim University in 1964 is uncannily what the nation needs today.
Some excerpts from his speech:
Whatever your station in future life, each one of you should first of all think of yourselves as citizens of the country. This confers on you certain rights, which are guaranteed by the Constitution, but it also subjects you to certain responsibilities, which also have to be clearly understood.
Ours is a democracy, which enjoins freedom to the individual, but this freedom has to be subjected to a number of voluntary restraints in the interests of organized society. And these voluntary restraints have to be exercised and demonstrated in every-day life.
Never forget that loyalty to the country comes ahead of all other loyalties. And this is an absolute loyalty, since one cannot weigh it in terms of what one receives. It is essential to remember that the entire country is one and that any one who fosters or promotes separatism or fissiparous tendencies is not our true friend.
The country can progress only if it does away completely with fissiparous tendencies and emerges as an integrated whole. And it is in the field of education that the seed of secularism has to be sown at the earliest stages, so that the plant can be carefully nurtured as it grows.
It must be remembered that the vast majority of Indians are extremely poor and it is only a small minority that live in relative comfort and have the benefit of university education and other worthwhile things. It is when we look at the Indian scene in such a perspective that Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsees and others, instead of feeling that they are different, will together begin to put forth a tremendous effort to fight poverty, to eradicate disease and banish illiteracy.
So let us pledge ourselves to this great man’s vision on his 106th birth anniversary year and stand shoulder to shoulder with our fellow citizens to build a strong India. As he exhorted, we are all Indians first!
Jai Jawan! Jai Kisan!
(Adapted from the original version published in The Children’s World)