A Death In Kashmir: The Mystery Surrounding Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s Death

A Death In Kashmir: The Mystery Surrounding Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s Death

by Tathagata Roy - Saturday, June 23, 2018 10:41 AM IST
A Death In Kashmir: The Mystery Surrounding Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s DeathDr Syama Prasad Mookerjee  
  • Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee died 65 years ago today. How did he die? Was there a conspiracy? A definitive biography raises some important questions.

    An extract.

Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, unbeknown to himself, set out on his last and fateful journey from Delhi railway station at 6.30 am on 8 May 1953 as the passenger train, carrying him and his entourage to Punjab on his way to Jammu, steamed out of the station. The compartment in which he sat had been bedecked with flowers and Jana Sangh flags. Guru Datt Vaid, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Tek Chand, Balraj Madhok and a few pressmen were there with him. Shortly before his departure, he issued a statement explaining his purpose of going to Jammu, namely to find out for himself the extent and depth of the Praja Parishad agitation and the repression let loose on the citizens of Jammu by Sheikh Abdullah.

Explaining why he had not applied for an entry permit, the statement said: “Mr Nehru has repeatedly declared that the accession of the State of Jammu and Kashmir to India has been hundred per cent complete. Yet it is strange to find that one cannot enter the state without a previous permit from the Government of India. This permit is granted even to Communists who are playing their usual role in Jammu and Kashmir. But entry is barred to those who think or act in terms of Indian unity and nationhood.”

Regarding his aim in going to Jammu, the statement said: “My object in going to Jammu is solely to acquaint myself with what exactly had happened there and the present state of affairs. I would also come into contact with available local leaders representing various interests, outside the Praja Parishad. It will be my endeavour to ascertain what the intention of the people of Jammu is, and to find out if at all there is any possibility of the movement being brought to a peaceful and honourable end, which will be fair and just not only to the people of the State but also to the whole of India.”

He was thus, contrary to what Nehru and Abdullah had sought to project, not out to provoke the agitators and take them on the path of further confrontation with Abdullah’s government. Ever the constitutional politician, he wished to bring the agitation to an end whereby both the warring parties would be able to save their faces. Only, in entering the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, he had refused to take the permit to be issued by the Government of India.

The place in which Dr Mookerjee was incarcerated was a small cottage which was converted into a sub-jail almost in the middle of nowhere, near Nishat Bagh, far away from Srinagar city. It was situated on the slope of the mountain range flanking the Dal Lake. It could be reached only by mounting a steep flight of stairs which must have been a hard task for Dr Mookerjee with his bad leg, and proved to be much harder later. It had one main room about 10 feet by 11, in which Dr Mookerjee was lodged and two small side rooms which accommodated his co-detenues Guru Datt Vaid and Tek Chand. There was no room in this “sub-jail” for a fourth bedstead.

When Pandit Premnath Dogra was brought there on 19 June, a tent had to be pitched in the compound outside to accommodate him. The whole compound was covered with fruit trees and vegetable beds, leaving only a small lawn, smaller than a tennis court, for the detenues to move about. It was at a distance of about eight miles from the city. There was also no arrangement for adequate medical aid. A doctor could come from the city only when requisitioned. About 100 yards away from the cottage was a canal and a sub-section of the waterworks department, which had a telephone. That telephone served this improvised jail in the wilderness as well, but was available for use only during office hours. Only one newspaper –– Hindustan Times –– was supplied to him, though later he was permitted to receive the Hindustan Standard of Calcutta. They seldom reached him in time and were usually late by two or three days, as was his mail. These were brought to him by the superintendent of the jail personally. The authorities were most callous in respect of his mail.

On an average it took about a week for a letter, particularly if written in Bengali, after it had reached Srinagar, to be delivered to him. Some letters that were posted from Calcutta on 10 June and which bore the Srinagar postmark of 12 and 13 June, were returned undelivered after his death. On his protest at this inordinate delay in delivering his mail to him, he was told that the person who censored his mail written in Bengali was not always available. Thereupon, he suggested that, to avoid delay, he could supply the authorities with the English rendering of the letters written in Bengali, which came only from his family members and contained no politics, for the purpose of censorship. But no heed was paid to this suggestion. So he had to take to writing even personal letters in English, for the benefit of Sheikh Abdullah’s censor.

What a way to treat one of the most important, possibly the most important, member of the Opposition in the Indian Parliament!

Madhok states that many letters to and from him were completely suppressed. It was later discovered that Abdullah had ordered that Dr Mookerjee be given no additional facilities without his express orders. None of his friends or relatives was allowed to meet him while he was in jail. His eldest son, Anutosh, applied for a permit to visit Srinagar to see him. By that time there was a change in the rules of issue of the permit, and it had to be done by the government of Jammu and Kashmir. It was refused. Some of his relatives were in Srinagar at that time. They too sought an interview with him but were also refused. The only persons from outside who were taken to him for the purpose of interview were Sardar Hukam Singh, whose visit was purely political and U M Trivedi, barrister, who met him as his counsel. Madhok also reports that a half-mad sadhu was inflicted upon him, whose nonsense he was forced to hear. It was probably done to tell the world after his death that interviews were allowed to him.

It was his long-cherished desire to write a biography of his father, and he began work on it. He also used to write his diary regularly. He took it with him to the hospital as well when he was removed there on 22 June. It would have been the most authentic source of information about his life and work, thoughts and ideals and above all his own feelings, and about the events that culminated in his tragic death. But it was kept back by the Kashmir government after his death and has still not been returned in spite of repeated requests.

On 24 May, Nehru and Dr Katju visited Srinagar for “rest”. They never thought to visit their prisoner and see how he was being treated there. Later, after his death, Nehru said he had inquired about him and was told that he was in great comfort, in a “picturesque villa” on the Dal Lake. “Being told” was enough for Nehru.

The pain in his leg, thought to be due to varicose veins, got more severe by 3 June. In a letter dated 6 June addressed to Tara Devi, he wrote:

“I was on the whole keeping well, but the pain in the right leg has again worsened during the last two days. Moreover for some days I have been running [a] temperature in the evening. There is a burning sensation in the eyes and face. I am taking medicine. I get to eat only boiled vegetables. Fish [almost a staple food for Bengalis] is not available. The doctor has instructed me not to stand on my legs in order to give them some rest. As a result I get absolutely no exercise, and therefore lost all appetite. I wake up very early and around 5.30 am, I get up, go to the garden and recite the Chandi stotra...the whole day hangs heavy on me...all that I get to do is to read, recite the Bhagavad Gita, some writing.”

He was feeling despondent and depressed because of the confinement and having nothing to do — it can well be imagined what a punishment it must be for such an active person to be doing nothing from morning till night.

On the receipt of this letter in Calcutta on or about 12 June, Dr Mookerjee’s brother Justice Rama Prasad saw Dr B C Roy, apprised him of his health and requested him to contact Kashmir. Dr Mookerjee always had a problem with the pain in his leg but it had never earlier been accompanied by fever. Because of loss of appetite, he was getting weaker every day. Barrister Trivedi had gone to Srinagar on 12 June to argue his habeas corpus before the Jammu and Kashmir High Court. The government insisted that he would have to take instructions from him in the presence of the district magistrate. The Indian Evidence Act lays down that communication between a client and his lawyer is totally privileged and no one can be compelled to disclose it, even in court. Trivedi refused to take instructions in the presence of the district magistrate, and had to move the high court again to permit him to take instructions in private. After the high court struck down the government’s orders, Trivedi interviewed him for three hours on 18 June. He found Dr Mookerjee, who had braved so many adversities in his life, weak and cheerless.

Pandit Premnath Dogra who was taken from Jammu to Srinagar on 19 June to meet him was also struck by his poor state of health and low appetite. He asked him the reason and was informed that it might be due to lack of exercise. This was his main complaint from the very beginning, something to which Abdullah’s government just turned a deaf ear. He was fond of taking walks — it was his principal form of exercise. The hut where he was incarcerated had a very small compound, most of it covered with fruit trees and vegetable beds, and two or three minutes of walking would bring him to the end of his path. As a result of lack of exercise he had lost all appetite and possibly also developed the pain in his leg. The government would have lost nothing by permitting him to walk outside the compound. They did not do so — out of cussedness, or worse?

The same night he developed a pain in his chest and back and a high temperature. On the morning of 20 June, the authorities were informed about it. Thereupon, doctors Ali Mohammed and Amar Nath Raina reached the sub-jail at 11.30 am. The former diagnosed the trouble as dry pleurisy and prescribed streptomycin injections. Dr Mookerjee protested that his family physician had advised him not to take streptomycin as it did not suit his system. But Dr Mohammed said that that was a long time back; lately a lot of new facts had come to light regarding this drug, and he need not worry. At about 3.30 pm, the medicine was received and the jail doctor administered one full gram of the medicine into Dr Mookerjee. In addition, he was also administered some powder, possibly some painkiller (no prescription was made available to anyone), which, Dr Mohammed said, was to be taken twice a day, but could be taken up to six times if the pain persisted or became severe. According to Guru Datt Vaid, Dr Mookerjee requested the superintendent of the jail on that day to send the news of his illness to his relatives. But no such intimation was sent nor any bulletin issued by the government till after his death.

The next day, on 21 June, excepting the jail doctor who was only an assistant surgeon, no other doctor, not even Dr Mohammed, visited him. The jail doctor administered another one gram of streptomycin. His temperature rose and the pain increased during the day.

At about 4.45 am on 22 June, an attendant woke up Vaid and told him that Dr Mookerjee wanted to see him immediately. Vaid rushed to his room and found that his temperature had gone down to 97° F and he had perspired profusely. He felt his pulse and found it very feeble. He administered him some hot cardamom tea and clove water which gave him some relief. Dr Mookerjee told him that he had slept fairly well till about 4 am, when he woke up and felt a severe pain in his chest and had broken into a sweat. He was also feeling so giddy that he thought he would lose consciousness. He thought he should not disturb anyone at that ungodly hour, but was progressively feeling so weak that he was forced to wake up Vaid. Apparently he had had a severe heart attack, a myocardial infarction as it is medically known — possibly the second or third one after the ones he had in 1945 at Barrackpore.

At 5.15 am, the jail superintendent was informed about his deteriorating health and was requested to come with a doctor immediately. Dr Ali Mohammed reached there at 7.30 am. He suggested to the superintendent that Dr Mookerjee should be immediately removed to the nursing home. The superintendent asked him to get orders from the district magistrate. Thereupon both Guru Datt and Tek Chand requested him to get permission for them also to be moved to the hospital. But Dr Mohammed refused to do so and is said to have remarked: “I understand your anxiety, but you don’t worry. He will be in better hands there.” Meanwhile Trivedi came to see him at about 10 am. At that time Dr Mookerjee was propped up in bed, and Trivedi found him in a good mood. They had discussions about his case for about an hour.

At about 11.30 am, the jail superintendent reached there with a taxi (not an ambulance), and they walked down the steep steps from his room to the taxi. Dr Mookerjee was removed, not to any nursing home but to the gynaecological ward in the state hospital about 10 miles away. He was kept in a room on the first floor (probably he was made to walk up the stairs). One Dr Jagannath Zutshi, a house surgeon, was detailed to look after him, though not exclusively.

What took place in the hospital is still shrouded in mystery. Barrister Trivedi came to see him at 5.30 pm after completing his arguments in the court. Justice Killam was hearing the matter. Trivedi was confident that Dr Mookerjee would be set at liberty the next day when the judgment was to be delivered. Trivedi said later that he did not find him the way he found him in the morning, but Dr Mookerjee said he was feeling better than in the morning. The district magistrate dropped in and gave him some letters, about fifteen in number. He read the letters, signed some papers and a couple of cheques. He was doing all these propped up in bed, and the medical superintendent, Dr Girdhari Lal, told Trivedi that he should not be sitting in that position. After signing the letters, he placed his hand on his heart, and grimaced, as if in pain. Trivedi stayed with him till about 7.15 pm and asked the attending doctor what his true medical state was. The doctor reassured him by saying that there was no immediate cause for concern. As he was about to leave, Dr Mookerjee asked him to get him some reading material of his choice. Trivedi shook hands with him trying to feel his temperature, which he found to be normal. There was a nurse on duty in the room and some policemen on duty outside. Trivedi asked for permission to visit him at 9 am on 23 June, but the doctor told him that his X-ray was scheduled at 9 am, so he should come and see him at 8 am. That was the last time Trivedi saw Dr Mookerjee alive.

When he left at about 7.30 pm, Dr Mookerjee was weak but cheerful. Doctors in attendance told Trivedi that the worst had passed and that he would be X-rayed next morning and would be all right in two or three days.

But on 23 June at about 3.45 am, Trivedi was told by the police superintendent that Dr Mookerjee was in a bad state and the district magistrate had asked him to be at his bedside immediately. He was picked up from his hotel to go to the hospital. Pandit Premnath Dogra and the two co-detenues of Dr Mookerjee in the sub-jail, Guru Datt and Tek Chand, were also asked about the same time to get ready to go to the hospital. They reached there about 4 am and were informed that Dr Mookerjee had breathed his last at 3.40 am.

Apparently, when Dr Mookerjee had made known his intention to visit Jammu, Sucheta Kripalani paid him a visit. Sucheta, it would be remembered, was Bengali, and had married Acharya J B Kripalani, and had assisted Gandhi during his visit to pogrom-affected Noakhali in 1946. This is what Madhok said (on tape):

“Sucheta Kripalani had told him, so many others had told him, that you won’t go, Nehru will not allow you to return safe from there. Dr Mookerjee told Sucheta, ‘I have no personal enmity against Nehru, I am working for a cause, why should he have any vendetta for me?’ Then Sucheta told Dr Mookerjee, ‘You don’t know Nehru, I know Nehru, he looks upon you as his main rival and he will try to remove you from the field if he can and he is capable of anything.”

Madhok was not explicit as to whether he had heard this conversation with his own ears. Quite possibly Sucheta spoke in Bengali, which Madhok does not follow.

And then again, on tape:

“So, when Trivedi was staying in Nedou’s Hotel, one day a Pandit came to him. He said, ‘I am a jyotishi [astrologer], Dr Mookerjee is not going to return safe, please get him released as early as possible’… In the same evening, a police officer came, he said, ‘I am so and so, but please don’t disclose my identity, Sheikh Abdullah has a plan, Dr Mookerjee may not be allowed…[inaudible]. His habeas corpus is being discussed today. Please see that you get the judgment tonight itself.’ He insisted that [the] judgment is going to be given today, and you see, that he is probably going to be released, that is, judgment is given today itself and he is released.”

This biographer had also interviewed Sabita Banerjee, Dr Mookerjee’s eldest daughter, at her flat in Koregaon Park, Pune, on 24 April 2010, and she had a somewhat different tale to tell. She was a widow at that time, about 84, but perfectly fit, absolutely lucid and used to live all by herself with only a help. Her daughter Manju lived in another flat in the same block of buildings. Her interview was transcribed and got checked by her. She died about a year later. This is what she had to tell about the last days of her father.

After Dr Mookerjee’s death, his eldest son Anutosh asked for a permit to visit Kashmir. In the application one has to always mention one’s father’s name, and presumably for that reason his request for a permit was refused. Then Sabita and her husband, Nishith Banerjee, decided to visit Kashmir in his place, but quietly, posing as tourists, with their two children. They did not apprehend any trouble [and they did not have any] because then, in married women’s applications, the husband’s name and not the father’s name was mentioned.

They had a nerve-racking experience there. They had decided, for fear of trouble and possible arrest, that they would not reveal their identity. They took up residence in a big houseboat on the Jhelum. A friend of Dr Mookerjee from his days in London, one Jatindra Nath Majumdar, happened to be visiting Kashmir at the time, also as a tourist. He came to visit the Banerjees in their houseboat, and they were chatting in Bengali when a bearer of the houseboat came to serve tea. Majumdar mentioned Dr Mookerjee in front of the bearer and asked her if she had seen the house where he had lived. Sabita winked at him so as to suggest that he should shut up, but she was still secure in the belief that the bearer would not understand anything as he did not know Bengali. As soon as Majumdar left, the bearer asked them if they knew Dr Mookerjee. She said they didn’t and that they were talking about him only because he was Bengali. The bearer said that he could show them the house where Dr Mookerjee spent his last days. And he did.

They took a taxi to a hillock by the side of the Dal Lake, and climbed up the stairs to the sub-jail at the top of the hillock, she all the while feeling how her dear Bapi [father] must have felt with his bad leg when he was forced to climb those steps. It was a small isolated bungalow at the top of the hill, windswept and forlorn. In the sub-jail they found three cots in one room, side by side. Sabita asked the bearer about the whereabouts of the doctor who treated him in his last days. The bearer refused to divulge anything, but said that he could take them to a person who had been there when he died. Possibly Miss Rajdulari Tikkoo, his regular nurse at the gynaecological ward at the state hospital. Dr Mookerjee always insisted on a Hindu nurse.

They went to her house in Srinagar. Two women were living there, the nurse and her mother. As soon as Sabita revealed her identity, the nurse said she would not say anything and asked them to leave. By now the Banerjees were extremely emotionally charged. Sabita burst into tears, and begged the nurse to tell her, saying that she would never reveal her name. Then the nurse gave it all out.

Dr Mookerjee had fallen ill and was taken to the “maternity home” as she described it. There, on his last day, she was on duty. He was sleeping. The doctor left, leaving instructions that whenever he woke up he was to be administered an injection, for which he left an ampoule with the nurse. After some time he did wake up, and [she said to Sabita, “I don’t know why I did it”] she pushed that injection. As soon as she did it, Dr Mookerjee started tossing about, shouting at the top of his voice, “Jal jata hai, humko jal raha hai (I’m burning up, I’m burning).” “I rushed to the telephone to tell the doctor and ask for instructions.” He said, “Theek hai, sab theek ho jaiga (It is all right, he will be all right).” Meanwhile Dr Mookerjee had fallen into a stupor. And that was the end of him.

Then she said, “I have committed a great sin, and I had to tell it to you. But I will leave this house immediately, because you will get back to Calcutta, and talk about this, and all what I told you is bound to get out. Then I’ll be murdered.” In fact that is what she did. The next day when Sabita and Nishith went to look her up, both the mother and the daughter were gone. The nurse had refused to give her name.

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