It was the evening of November 23, 1956, when a storm lashed Ariyalur district of Tamil Nadu and led to the derailment of the Madras-Tuticorin Express while it was crossing the Maradaiyar river bridge, leaving 154 people dead.
The fault obviously was of signalmen and technicians but the then railway minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, resigned owning moral responsibility. Repeated requests by then prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, then president Dr Rajendra Prasad, then vice-president S Radhakrishnan and his ministerial colleagues Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Govind Vallabh Pant failed to dissuade Shastri.
"If anybody, directly or indirectly, working under me or, directly or indirectly, related to me or, directly or indirectly, interacting with me is involved in the slightest of lapse or misuse, then it is my responsibility to own it up and resign from the cabinet and face the legal consequences, if any," Shastri said.
While on a visit to Etawah district in Uttar Pradesh in 1957 after he rejoined the cabinet in 1957 as minister for transport and communications, Shastri reached the circuit house and asked who had come to receive him besides the local Congressmen. He was informed that a sub inspector along with the personal assistant (PA) to the deputy commissioner had come.
Shastri had ordered the communications department not to send any officer to receive him during his visit. After a rest, the minister had a cup of tea and left. He appreciated the gesture of then Etawah deputy commissioner Rajeshwar Prasad, who had deputed the local sub inspector and his PA to receive and see him off instead of coming himself. During the visit, Shastri ensured that all other district officials and employees did their duty during office hours. Later on Shastri's request, Prasad joined him as his secretary and continued on the post till the prime minister's death in harness.
Once when Shastri was prime minister, his son Sunil wanted to buy railway tickets. When Shastri learnt that the divisional railway manager of Delhi had sent the tickets home, he reprimanded the DRM. He got Sunil to return the tickets and stand in queue to buy them like the other citizens. Sunil went to the station on his Lambretta, stood in queue for two hours and got the tickets.
Once a Pakistani minister, Chaudhry Khaliq uz Zaman, visited his residence when Shastri was prime minister. The minister knew Shastri from the pre-Partition days in UP. While having lunch at the prime minister's house, the Pakistan minister was dumbstruck to find Mrs Lalita Shastri cooking the meal and their son serving it. He thanked Mrs Shastri and touched Shastri's feet saying, "In my country, even a deputy commissoner's wife will not cook food like this. Here, the prime minister's wife is busy with kitchen chores."
Recently, when I saw railway minister Pawan Kumar Bansal's nephew caught for corruption in his name and the minister adamant on serving 'Bharat Mata' on preposterous plausibility, I was reminded of Shastriji and his moral values. What a fall it is, my countrymen.
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(The writer is a school student in Chandigarh)