Syama Prasad Mookerjee passed away on June 23, 1953. A minister in undivided Bengal and in Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet, Mookerjee was a prominent Opposition leader and founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. He was detained without trial by Sheikh Abdullah’s government after his arrest in Kathua on May 11, 1953.
On June 30, 1953, Nehru wrote to Jogmaya Devi, Mookerjee’s mother, conveying his condolences. On July 4, Devi responded: “My son died in detention, detention without trial. You say, you had visited Kashmir during my son’s detention. You speak of the affection you had for him. But what prevented you, I wonder, from meeting him there personally and satisfying yourself about his health and arrangements?… Ever since his detention there, the first information that I, his mother, received from the Government of Jammu and Kashmir was that my son was no more… and in what cruel cryptic way the message was conveyed.” Further communication between Devi and Nehru makes for a sad reading.
Much later, on November 27, 1953, a resolution was moved in the West Bengal legislative assembly to hold an inquiry into the circumstances of his death while in detention in Kashmir. It argued for holding an inquiry through a commission headed by a Supreme Court judge. Surprisingly, an assembly member from the Congress party, Shankar Prasad Mitra, moved an amendment to this resolution asking for the words “for holding an inquiry”, to be substituted with “for requesting the Government of Jammu and Kashmir to hold an inquiry”. He also sought that the sentence “by appointing a Commission with the Judge of the Supreme Court of India to serve as Chairman of the Commission,” be omitted. Many who actively opposed the amendment wondered why Bidhan Chandra Roy, the Congress chief minister of West Bengal, who thought an inquiry to be necessary, had later declined it. Mookerjee, after all, had been a great friend of the chief minister’s. What had been asked for was an inquiry by a SC judge who could take cognisance of evidence from anywhere, including Kashmir. In this case, the Kashmir government was the accused party. How could it then sit in judgement over this inquiry? But members of the Congress, including Roy, argued in favour of the amendment. The Congress, in effect, sought acceptance of the amendment, and succeeded.
The West Bengal government forwarded the resolution passed in the assembly to the Ministry of States (Kashmir section), Government of India. This letter was received on February 23, 1954. After six months, the matter was eventually processed in the Ministry of States. The following is the observation from the relevant file in the Ministry: “It is for consideration whether we may inform the Government of West Bengal that as the matter primarily concerns the Government of J&K, the Government of India did not consider it proper to pursue the matter. When the request for an inquiry into the circumstances of Shri Syama Prasad Mukherjee’s death was raised in Parliament, the attitude which we adopted was that this was a matter which concerned the Government of J&K alone. The resolution passed by the West Bengal Legislative Assembly is consistent with this stand since it only asks the Government of India to pass on the request to the Jammu & Kashmir Government. We have now two courses open to us: We may either send the copy of the resolution and proceedings to J&K Government for such action as they may consider necessary; or we may return the proceedings to the West Bengal Government and ask them to address the J&K Government themselves. While the latter course might be strictly correct one, it would have the effect of rebuff to the Government of West Bengal where Dr Mukherjee’s death has agitated the public mind very much. There may therefore, be no harm if we adopt the first alternative. I do not think this is likely to give rise to any misunderstanding with the J&K Government.” K N V Nambisan from the Ministry of States signed this note on September 7, 1954. The first course was agreed upon by both the secretary and the minister. On September 22, 1954, the Ministry of States forward the resolution to the Chief Secretary of Jammu and Kashmir, for such action as considered necessary. Nothing came out of this routine letter sent by the Ministry of States to the Government of J&K.
A notice for a starred question was given in Parliament on August 19, 1954 — the Minister of Home Affairs was asked to clarify whether the Bengal CM had visited Kashmir in June 1954 and made an enquiry about Mookerjee’s death. On July 20, 1954, the Ministry of States had asked the Jammu and Kashmir chief secretary about the reported visit of Roy. On July 19, 1954, the Ministry of States had written to the Lok Sabha secretariat stating that they had no information except what appeared in the newspaper about the stay of Roy in Jammu and Kashmir. The letter further stated that the circumstances relating to the death of Mookerjee, while in detention, was a matter which concerned the Jammu and Kashmir government, not the GoI. On August 5, 1954, Ghulam Ahmad, chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir wrote to V Narayanan, joint secretary to the GoI (Ministry of States): “Dr B C Roy did come to Kashmir for a holiday and spent about a month here. During his stay he visited various beauty spots in the Valley. He did see the bungalow where the late Dr Mukherjee was putting up during his stay in Kashmir as well as the room in the hospital to which he had been removed prior to his death. Col. Sir Ram Nath Chopra, our Director Health Services, took him to the hospital one day and Dr B C Roy might have made some verbal enquiries on the spot. You will, therefore, see that no official inquiry was held by the Doctor and as such no report could have been submitted by him. The question in the Lok Sabha may, therefore, be replied suitably on the basis of this information.”
The critical matter of enquiry into the death of Mookerjee rested thereafter.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 20, 2019 under the title ‘A missing inquiry’. The writer is secretary, ministry of textiles, Government of India