By Nitya Chakraborty
At 1:44 pm on 27 May 1964, India’s first Prime Minister and one of the greatest chroniclers of the history of this great nation breathed his last at his Teen Murti Bhavan residence. Nehru, along with Indira Gandhi, returned to Delhi in the afternoon of May 26 after a three-day vacation in Dehradun. Nehru was not doing well since his last stroke during AICC’s Bhubaneswar session in January 1964. After a short rest, the 74-year-old prime minister resumed his normal schedule, despite requests from his panel of doctors to take it slow. . For Nehru, work was worship, and when he wasn’t doing official work, he was reading.
On the evening of May 26, Nehru was not feeling well. His vacation in Dehradun could not muster his energy. He went to bed unusually early. He woke up several times during the night and before dawn on May 27 he had chest pains again. Nehru’s servant Nathuram immediately informed Indira Gandhi and Dr. Bedi, Nehru’s personal physician who had stayed in nearby rooms since the last battle of Nehru in January at Teen Murti. When the Doctor and Indira stormed in, Nehru was still conscious, though disoriented. He asked in a weak voice, “What’s the matter?” dr. Bedi conducted all the investigations and found that Nehru’s arota was cracked. dr. Bedi immediately took blood from the standing Indira who had the same blood type as her father and gave it to CPR. But Nehru was incompletely comatose. dr. Bedi indicated to Indira that there were very few chances of survival.
Nehru lay in a coma for a few more hours and all other attempts failed. Indira was hinted that the end was near. Together with the people in the residence of the prime minister, she informed all relations and the high political leaders of the congress about the state of health. As soon as Nehru was officially pronounced dead in the afternoon, the issue of a proper burial with guaranteed safety was raised. While officials, including security forces, tried to make the arrangements foolproof, Indira Gandhi faced a major dilemma as to whether it should be performed according to Hindu rituals or according to the wishes of her father, who wanted a funeral without religious rituals.
The next few hours were a painful period for Nehru’s daughter. The Kauls of the Nehru dynasty, the Kasmiri pandits, despite their liberal education and farsighted approach, could not reconcile with Nehru’s desire to avoid the Hindu rituals at the funeral scheduled for the following day. There was great pressure on Indira from the senior members of the family to opt for the Hindu rituals that ignored Nehru’s will. They just weren’t relatives, Congress party seniors also advised Indira to go for a normal Hindu religious ritual in the interest of the Party. They said a secular funeral without religious rites would not suit the compatriots, 80 percent of whom are Hindus.
Indira was personally willing to comply with Nehru’s wishes, but the combined pressure from the seniors of the Nehru family and the veterans of the Congress Party eventually tipped her decision in favor of Hindu rituals. After all, she was a senior Congress Party leader and had the opportunity to act as the future Prime Minister, which she did in 1966 after the sudden death of Lal Bahadur Shastri. There was little time for her to delay the decision on rituals. She gave the green signal late in the afternoon. In the evening it was clear that India’s first prime minister would be cremated according to Hindu rituals. So the next day Nehru’s body was placed on a sandalwood pyre, the Vedic chants boomed and the whole funeral procession bore the marks of the death of a Hindu Jawaharlal Nehru, despite his strong instructions to follow religious rituals. Sanjay Gandhi, returning to Delhi from his vacation in Kashmir, lit the pyre.
On my personal level, May 27 was the most traumatic for me and some of my friends of various shades on the left, based in Dhakuria, south of what was then Calcutta. After efforts spanning over two months, our five-day Shakespeare Quarter Centenary Festival was slated to be inaugurated the same day at 6pm. All invitations were issued and a major exhibition was planned on the evolution of world drama and also the transition of the drama movement in Bengal. Today’s famous critic Shamik Bandyopadhayay did all the writing and Jogen Chowdhury, who just came out of the Government Art College with a gold medal, did all the drawing. I personally contacted all the top scientists of the time, including Dr. Amalendu Bose, Prof: Nirendranath Ray, Dr. Sitangshu Moitra, Dr. Sadhan Bhattacharya and many others to join the discussions. The famous actor Amar Ghosh would perform ‘Hamlet’ at the festival.
From the morning of May 27, I had an ominous feeling as if something had gone wrong in the preparations. I checked with my friends Shyamal Mukherjee, Sanku Adhinkary, Sukhamoy Mitra and Subimal Sen if there was anything left to be done. They said everything was fine. The exhibits were set up and it looked beautiful. In the afternoon the news came that Nehru was in a coma. We were all praying’ Nehru, please don’t die today and not in the next five days. We had little money – only passion and ideas. “It would be a disaster if it had to be postponed because of death.” But finally the news of Nehru’s death came. All cultural programmes, including those organized by us, would be postponed.
So from 3pm we started informing the important people. There was no mobile, the fixed lines in 1964 were not functioning properly. We contacted people via the landline and also met the mentioned participants. By 6 p.m. everyone was aware. We had no time to mourn Nehru, whom most of our friends liked for his leadership skills and as a brilliant writer. This postponed festival was moved from June 10 to June 14 and was a great success. But I always remember May 27, 1964 as the day my heart rate kept rising as news of Nehru’s condition arrived. After a long 58 years, I can still remember the developments of that day minute by minute. (IPA service)
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