Intro: Dr Syama Prasad Mookerji, died under ‘mysterious’ conditions followed by his arrest when he entered Kashmir on 11th May 1953.
Dr Syama Prasad Mookerji belonged to an illustrious family of Bengal. His father Sir Ashutosh Mookerji, Vice-chancellor of Calcutta University whom Nani A Palkhivala called ‘the greatest educationist of India’, was a great pioneer in the field of education in Bengal and founded a number of scientific institutions.
Syama Prasad was also to hold the VC position in 1934, a decade after his father's death. But Mookerji took a different course and became Minister for Industry and Supply in 1947 in Nehru's Interim Central Government, but resigned from the cabinet in 1950 as he objected to the Delhi Pact of April, 1950 (Agreement between Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers, Nehru and Liaquat Ali regarding protection of minorities etc in the two countries). Sardar Patel was also not too happy with the Delhi Pact as it was felt that there were not sufficient measures against the continued influx of Hindu refugees from the then East Pakistan.
Following this, Dr Mookerji wanted to articulate his ideology and impassioned political convictions, and for this he decided to form a new political party -the ethos of which should be: one nation and one culture. This led to the formation of Bharatiya Jana Singh in October, 1951, and he was elected as its first President with the primary objective to build a strong parliamentary opposition to the ruling Congress party.
The Jan Sangh considered Indian National Congress's secularism as gratuitous appeasement of minorities.
The Issue of Kashmir Valley
Pak-sponsored tribal invasion of Kashmir valley in October, 1947, led to Jammu & Kashmir accession to India which the state's ruler Maharaja Hari Singh had delayed so far. Indian army was flown in immediately after accession, to meet the serious threat from invaders who had already occupied parts of north Kashmir. Although the Indian army cleared the Valley proper in three weeks, but the Indo-Pak conflict continued in the other two regions viz Jammu and Ladakh for more than a year till the UN-ordained cease fire in January, 1949. In the background of this conflict, initially Defence Ministry of Indian government had introduced Permit system for entering the state but it was continued by the state even after the cease-fire. Mookerji strongly objected to the continuance of the Permit System for entering into J&K.
|The Jan Sangh considered Indian National Congress's secularism as gratuitous appeasement of minorities.|
Meanwhile an agitation had started in Jammu against grant of special status and provision of Art.370 for the state; and a demand for abolition of Permit system was simultaneously led by the Praja Parishad, the major political outfit at that time, of Jammu region. It was at this moment; SP Mookerji decided to enter the state to highlight his protest against the Permit system for entry into the state.
Lakhanpur is the first check-toll post as one enters the territory of Jammu and Kashmir. (The writer knows this area well as Lakhanpur falls in Kathua District, the first district of J&K, of which he was Deputy Commissioner for two years 1968-1970.) Beyond Lakhanpur is Madhopur, the first small town of Indian Punjab. In between Lakhanpur and Madhopur is River Ravi. Juristically, the middle channel of River Ravi is the boundary between erstwhile British India and the princely state of J&K, which by constructive interpretation remains the legal position of the boundary between present states of Punjab and J&K. Hence Lakhanpur became the natural choice for establishing official presence of J&K government for entry into the state.
Dr Mookerji entered the state without a permit on May 11, 1953. As he had not violated any law in Punjab, he was not detained in Punjab. He was allowed to cross the bridge and enter the territory of the State where he was detained under the Ordinance hurriedly issued a day earlier, reportedly on Government of India's advice, prohibiting entry into the State without a valid permit. The prevalent practice of requirement of permit till then had no legal cover.
It aroused suspicion that Dr Mookerji was not detained before entry into the state boundary deliberately to keep him out of the jurisdiction of the Indian Supreme Court which would have in all likelihood released him on a reference being made to it. At that time full jurisdiction of Supreme Court did not extend to J&K State.
After his detention, Mookerji was taken to Srinagar and kept in jail; not in any regular jail but kept in custody in a bungalow closer to Nishat garden between Nishat and Shalimar gardens. He breathed his last on 23.6.1953 i.e. after about a month and a half in detention. He died at 2.25 a.m., although official communiqué gave the time of his death as 4 a.m.
Following Mookerji's death, there was a storm of anger in the whole country, particularly in Bengal. The Praja Parishad in Jammu, Arya Samaj in Punjab and the Jan Sangh all over the country blamed Sheikh Abdullah and demanded “Qatil ko Phansi Do” ('hang the murderer!', meaning thereby Sheikh Abdullah.). Allegations of foul play were repeatedly made and the outrage lasted till Abdullah's arrest in the following August. The rumour which gained vast currency was that Dr Mookerji was poisoned in custody or that he was allergic to penicillin and in spite of his having told the doctors; he was deliberately given penicillin shot with evil intent.
The factual position is that there was no foul play but there was serious neglect, almost amounting to foul play. Jayaprakash Narayan strongly condemned the Abdullah government for Mookerji’s death and very aptly categorised it as resulting from 'criminal negligence'.
Pandit Nehru was literally but only literally correct when he told Mookerji’s mother that there was no foul play. Mookerji was a patient of pleurisy and had some cardiac problem as well and the damp interior of the houses in localities near Nishat Bagh area was highly unsuitable for his health. He was occasionally visited by the late cardiologist Dr Ali Jan, one of the two most eminent doctors of Kashmir in those days; the other being Dr Hafizullah.
However, Sheikh Abdullah's account of Mookerji death in his autobiography is not entirely truthful. The Sheikh was, of course, Prime Minster (as the Chief Minister of J&K was then called), Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad was Dy Prime Minister as well as Minister of Home and Shyam Lal Saraf was Minister of Health. There was certainly absence of optimum care for Dr Mookerji as it was felt by the Ministers that being too solicitous of the welfare of the eminent detainee, might not be to the liking of various elements in the state. There was also the factor of obvious hostility in Sheikh's mind towards him.
To give another example, the Kashmir administration insisted that whenever advocate UM Trivedi, who had been engaged by the Bhartiya Jan Sangh, would come to take instructions from his client i.e. Dr Mookerji, Dy Commissioner Srinagar would be present. The patent illegality of this practice insisted by the Abdullah government needs no comments. Because of this insistence by State government, Dr Mookerji rightly refused to give any instructions to his lawyer in the presence of state officials.
During the period of his detention, Pandit Nehru and Maulana Azad happened to visit Srinagar but neither of them found it proper to visit Dr. Mookerji. Nehru had gone to inaugurate the famous park on the Dal Lake named after him and was in Srinagar from 23rd to 25th May. Only visitor from Delhi who went to visit him was Dr Hukum Singh, the then Speaker of the Lok Sabha.
In January-February 1953, there had been acrimonious correspondence between the Sheikh and Dr. Mookerji-Sheikh was accused of wanting to have a 'republic within a republic' and wanting to become 'king of kings' in Kashmir and the Sheikh accused Mookerji of you wanting a monarchy within a republic' meaning thereby a Hindu Kingdom of Kashmir within the Republic of India’. (Mookerji Abdullah correspondence 9.1.1953
to 23.2.1953. The Story of Kashmir Yesterday and To-Day Vol. 3 Pp
Mookerji’s dead body was brought to Calcutta on the evening of 23rd June, 1953. His mother, in her letter of 9th July wrote to Pandit Nehru;” … You are afraid to face the facts. I hold Kashmir government responsible for the death of my son. I accuse your government of complicity in the matter.”
The eminent Bengal politician BC Roy the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, and Mookerji’s family physician had sent a telegram to Sheikh Abdullah saying that if Dr Mookerji was not keeping well, he ought to have been informed by the Sheikh. According to Sheikh, he had replied Dr BC Roy explaining the whole situation (p560 of his autobiography). Dr BN Mullik, Director Intelligence Bureau then, in his book, ‘My years with Nehru’, Allied Publishers, pub. 1972), in the volume pertaining to Kashmir, however at page 38 had said,” The Sheikh did not have the courtesy to send a reply or even express regret”.
The public clamour for an enquiry into the whole episode was increasing by the day, and there was great tension within the Jammu region where ongoing Praja Parishad agitation was further intensified. To meet the crisis, a clever scheme was hit upon by the State government reportedly at the instance of DP Dhar, the well-known Kashmiri Machiavellian character who was at that time only a Dy Minister but was angling for full ministership. Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad was Home Minister and DP Dhar was his Deputy. They all made the suggestion that a Hindu medical doctor's name should be projected as the one who was treating Mookerji. Dr Ram Rattan Parihar, of J&K Government Health Service officer agreed to this and issued a false certificate that Dr Mookerji was under his care and treatment. Later he was promoted.
Dr SP Mookerji breathed his last on June 23, 1953. Though, he died at 2.25 am but, the official communique’ gave the time of his death as 4 am.
This stood further confirmed in 1967, when I was posted as Health Secretary of the State Government and was invariably surrounded in my office by J&K's medical community. In casual chats with senior medical officials, the above story of Dr. Parihar's false certificate was confirmed to the author.
Sheikh Abdullah, in his autobiography Aatish-e-Chinar (pp555-563), of course, does not mention this fact for obvious reasons. Abdullah's protestations on these pages that he was constantly solicitous and regularly monitoring about the health of Mookerji throughout the month and half long detention period, however, cannot be fully relied upon. Although Sheikh later claimed that he had high regard for Dr Mookerji, “Un ki khoobiyon ki wajah se, mere dil mein un ki badi izzat thi.” (Because of his manifold qualities, I held him in high esteem) and, “Main ne khud hawai adde par un ki miyyat par apne zaati ehtram ke taur par ek umda sfaid kashmiri shawl chadai” (I had personally gone to airport and laid a superior quality white Kashmiri shawl on his dead body (P-555 and P-581 Aatish-e-Chinar).” However, the photographs available in the archives of State Information Directorate tell a different story of the Sheikh's attitude towards Dr Mookerji.
MP Khosla(The writer is a retired IAS and Ex-Chief Secretary, J&K)