Sadr-e-Riyasat Karan Singh wrote to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru regarding the death of Syama Prasad Mookerjee on June 26, 1953: "... It came as a great shock, particularly as we were completely unaware that he had not been keeping good health for some time. I was not informed of his illness or his removal to hospital, and, most amazing of all, I only learnt of his demise several hours after the body had been flown from Srinagar, and that too from unofficial sources. There is a widespread feeling and indeed there are strong reasons to indicate that in the whole unfortunate matter, the state government, to say the least, acted in a most questionable and incompetent manner.”
Nehru chose to ignore this strong indictment of the state government headed by Wazir-e-Azam Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, a friend whom the Indian Prime Minister backed to the hilt.
Of course, the sheikh was called Wazir-e-Azam of Jammu and Kashmir, just as Nehru was Wazir-e-Azam of India. This was an era when the head of the J&K government was also known as Wazir-e-Azam (Prime Minister). There were, thus, two PMs in the country -- the PM of India and the PM of J&K.
This was something which Mookerjee's party, Jana Sangh, was protesting against as he said that the country could not have “two PMs”. This was an issue on which Mookerjee had parted company with Nehru in whose Cabinet he was a minister once.
In J&K, more specifically vast swathes of the Jammu region, the Praja Parishad led by Pandit Prem Nath Dogra was organising protests against this dual arrangement of governance. Praja Parishad protests were branded as actions orchestrated by "communal elements" by Sheikh and this line was endorsed by Nehru.
What were the demands of the Praja Parishad at that time? In June 1952, a year before Mookerjee's mysterious death, the Praja Parishad had made it clear that its aspirations were "full application of the Indian Constitution to Jammu, extension of the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, acceptance for Jammu of the fundamental rights of the Indian Constitution and of the national flag of India".
These demands were communicated to President Rajendra Prasad in a memorandum submitted by Parishad leaders. The Praja Parishad was then the dominant political party in the Jammu region. The National Conference, led by Sheikh, hardly had any presence in the region.
Incidentally, it is worthwhile to mention that by then it had been more than four years that Sheikh had ruled the state, without any direct mandate from the people and without any state constitution as the earlier one of Maharaja Hari Singh had been declared defunct. This was abhorred by the Dogra people of Jammu as the dynasty, which the Maharaja represented, had ruled from March 1846 to October 1947 accession.
These were very peculiar political circumstances that prevailed in J&K in June 1953 also when Mookerjee died suddenly of an alleged illness. As already pointed out at the beginning here, the Sadr-e-Riyasat of the day, Karan Singh, had not been told that Mookerjee was not keeping well for some time. Mookerjee had been arrested in Lakhanpur on May 11, 1953, when he challenged the dual system in prevalence in the state then.
Full accession and full integration of J&K into India was a demand championed by the Praja Parishad and supported by Mookerjee. Nehru's perspective on the issue of the Parishad agitation is clear from some of his letters written to Karan Singh.
In one such letter, in September 1952, Nehru said the Praja Parishad was "deplorable and excessively stupid" and accused it of doing "more harm to the Kashmir issue, from our point of view than anything else that has happened in the recent years".
This clearly defines the attitude of Nehru towards the Praja Parishad and its supporters like Mookerjee. It also shows how he backed Sheikh and his politics in J&K, without accommodation of any point to the contrary.
Years earlier, Nehru was detained at Kohala (in Pakistan Occupied Jammu Kashmir now) when he tried to enter the state, put up in a guest house, provided a vehicle and sent back to mainland India. Nehru was then trying to enter the state to appear as a lawyer for his friend Sheikh Abdullah who had been detained by Maharaja Hari Singh.
The circumstances Nehru faced at Kohala and those Mookerjee faced at Lakhanpur years later were very similar. However, the treatment meted out to the two leaders was entirely different and resulted in Mookerjee’s death. While a maharaja treated Nehru with respect and sensitivity, self-professed democrat Sheikh chose to detain his opponent Mookerjee at Lakhanpur and transport him 400 km away to Srinagar.
"Ek desh, ek vidhan, ek pradhan" is something that was an agitation started by the Praja Parishad, backed by Mookerjee’s Jana Sangh, and is supported today by the ruling BJP. It is interesting to note that Narendra Modi had addressed his first big political rally in Punjab’s Madhopur on June 23, 2013.
Modi starting his political journey on the national level from a spot where a tall statue of Syama Prasad Mookerjee has been set up shows the significance the BJP attached to Mookerjee’s philosophy.
It is worth mentioning that Madhopur and Ladkhanpur are barely 2 km apart, located on the east and west banks of the Ravi river that forms a natural boundary between Punjab and J&K in these parts. Mookerjee had travelled from Delhi to Madhopur, and was arrested and jailed from May 11, 1953, to June 23, 1953, till his sudden death.
Mookerjee’s death created a furore nationwide, and the Jammu region erupted in huge protests against Sheikh Abdullah. The politics of the Jammu region and the Kashmir Valley is marked even today by antipathy, just as it was in Nehru's time, the two regions often backing different political parties and ideologies.
In one of his letters sent to Karan Singh in October 1952, Nehru wrote: "Praja Parishad is functioning completely on the lines of RSS... (and) ... we do not deal with communal organisations as such ... I know the kind of persons the Praja Parishad people meet in Delhi and elsewhere ... I am not prepared to meet them."
This clearly shows the antipathy Nehru harboured for the Jana Sangh, the Praja Parishad and the RSS.
After Nehru failed to order any inquiry into the death of Mookerjee, as demanded in some quarters, Mookerjee’s mother, Jogmaya Devi, wrote a long letter to the PM. She wrote: "Dear Mr Nehru, Your letter dated 30th of June was forwarded to me on the 2nd of July by Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy. I thank you for your message of condolence and sympathy. The nation mourns the passing away of my beloved son. He has died a martyr's death. To me, his mother, the sorrow is too deep and sacred to be expressed. I am not writing to you to seek my consolation. But what I do demand is justice. My son died in detention, a detention without trial. In your letter, you have tried to Impress that Kashmir government has done all that should have been done. You base your impression on the assurances and information that you have received. What is the value, I ask, if such information, when it comes from the persons who themselves should stand a trial? You say, you had visited Kashmir during my son's detention. But what prevented you, from meeting him personally and satisfying yourself about his health and arrangements?"
"His death is shrouded in mystery. ... There is definite information that my son had not been keeping well practically from the beginning of his detention. He had been positively ill a number of times and for successive periods. Why did not, I ask, the Government of Kashmir, or your government, send any information whatsoever to me and my family?"
She further wrote: "The responsibility of the government and their own doctors cannot be any way evaded or lightened by some stray quotations from Shyama Prasad Mukherjee's letters, chosen at random, that he was not keeping well. What is the value of such quotations? ... The responsibility of the government was immense and serious."
Accusing the Kashmir government of being responsible for Mookerjee’s death, she wrote: "I charge them that they had utterly neglected and failed to discharge their bounden duty."
It is intriguing why Nehru chose to see Mookerjee’s death only as a natural death caused by illness, and not as a death of someone held in detention without trial. Mookerjee was hale and hearty when he was detained at Ladkhanpur on May 11, 1953.
As excerpts from Mookerjee’s mother's letter indicate, the Kashmir government did not provide him adequate medical facilities when he fell ill later, till the time he died suddenly. From May 11 to his sudden and mysterious death, the letter makes it clear that the Kashmir government never ever communicated the news regarding his illness to his family. Why?
Nehru dismissed Sheikh from his post on August 9, 1953, less than two months after Mookerjee’s death, which he virtually ignored. At least there is nothing on record to show that Nehru tried to inquire thoroughly into the suspicious circumstances under which the death had occurred. Or did anything beyond empty assurances he extended to Jogmaya Debi who had lost her son.
(The author's views are personal.)