After 52 years, the mysterious death of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri has once again come to the limelight with questions being raised as to why his body was not forensically examined.

While researcher Anuj Dhar’s recently released book Your Prime Minister is Dead points towards the strong possibility of poisoning, the Chief Information Commissioner directed the CPIOs on the plea of an RTI applicant that all classified documents pertaining to Shastri’s death should be placed before the Prime Minister and the Home Minister to take a call on their declassification.

Shastri died on 11 January 1966 in Tashkent in Soviet Russia. The petitioner wanted to know whether an autopsy was done on Shastri. On the other hand, film-maker Vivek Agnihotri has made a film The Tashkent Files on the same issue, which is expected to be released in January. Agnihotri is also writing a book with the same title on Shastri’s death.

Since no post-mortem was conducted, neither in India nor in Soviet Russia, the chance to resolve this mystery was lost. Today, all that is there are pictures of Shastri’s body taken in Tashkent and then in Delhi, details of the embalming process performed by senior Soviet doctors and accounts of those who observed the body in Delhi.

Dhar’s book, which tries to unravel the mystery, supplies this information to some forensic pathologists and other experts, inquiring whether the condition of Shastri’s body as seen in the pictures and described by the family members, was consistent with the official description of his death and the subsequent embalming process.

The family members and others had alleged that the death was not natural and that it was caused by some sort of poison and that embalming was done to fudge the tell-tale signs of poisoning. Prof Soumya Chakraborty (MS Anatomy, FAIMER, US), who is HoD-Anatomy at ESI PGIMSR, Joka (Kolkata), made several observations like “Dark bluish discoloration of face and upper part of body: Bluish discoloration means reduced haemoglobin which further indicates either poisoning or asphyxia death leading to cyanosis and histotoxic anaemia”.

Prof Chakraborty concluded that “poisoning cannot be ruled out. There is a probability of potential poisoning, but it cannot be established with the information provided.” Her findings find mention in the book. Dr Sayan Biswas, MD in Forensic Medicine Toxicology and a faculty member in NR Sircar Medical College in Kolkata, also did not rule out poisoning. Citing legal provisions, he underlined that in cases of a sudden death, it is mandatory to perform an autopsy and even a second autopsy, if required. He also indicated that the quantity of embalming fluid used to preserve Shastri’s body was inadequate. Another expert to apply his mind on the details furnished by Dhar was Dr Ajay Kumar Gupta, who served as HoD of Forensic Medicine at Calcutta Medical College and Calcutta National Medical College. He too felt that it looked like a case of poisoning on the face of it, and wondered why this possibility was not excluded through a proper post-mortem examination.

“It may be a case of death due to some vegetable poison acting on the heart… it is not clear why the wife and sons of Shastriji did not personally go to the officer-in-charge of the local police station, and lodge a written request for holding a post-mortem examination,” he says. Dr Nirmalya Roychowdhury, a member of American Board of Internal Medicine, gave the example of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died suddenly in November 2004, following a mysterious illness. “No post-mortem was done… In 2012, with the permission of his widow Suha, Arafat’s body was exhumed by the Palestinian authorities. A thorough forensic investigation was done. Study results almost proved beyond reasonable doubt that he was poisoned with Polonium 210,” he has been quoted in the book.

As Shastri’s wife Lalita had noted, his body had a dark blue hue though the late Prime Minister had been dead for barely for a few hours. There were also some white patches on the face. An official explanation came after four long years, saying that the cut in the stomach was made for introducing the embalming fluid in the body.