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When an Indian Prime Minister spent a night in a village.. unannounced.. in 1964

There’s no better way to relate this story than to transcribe the relevant pages from Verghese Kurian’s I too had a dream.

In 1964 the Kaira Union’s new cattle-feed compounding factory sponsored by Oxfam was ready at Kanjari, approximately eight kilometers from Anand. This was a revolutionary step for the dairy industry of the country. We thought that such a plant should be inaugurated by the nation’s Prime Minister. We invited the Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, to come to Anand and officially commission the plant. The occasion was to be Sardar Patel’s birth anniversary, 31 October. Shastriji accepted our invitation.

Shastriji’s demand proved to be even more complex. He made an unusual request to modify the programme we had prepared for him, sending many of us into a bit of a tailspin. He sent word to the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Balwantrai Mehta, that he would like to come a day earlier and spend a night in a village as the guest of a farmer — preferably a small farmer in Kaira district.

As far as I knew, no Indian prime minister had ever asked to stay in a village, so naturally this unusual request caused some consternation. The Chief Minister asked me to help them arrange this stay. I told him that if India’s Prime Minister went to a village, at least three hundred policemen would be dispatched to that village even before he arrived. Most villages in Kaira district had an average population of around three hundred and with such a strong concentration of policemen the village would resemble a police camp. Why would the Prime Minister want to go to a village to see a police camp? However, if the Prime Minister really wanted to see a village in its normal and natural condition, the Chief Minister would have to entrust the Prime Minister’s security to me.

Balwantrai Mehta sent for F.H. Heredia, the Home Secretary, Gujarat, and informed him of my suggestion. Heredia was not at all convinced. “This will not do,” he said. “If something goes wrong, it’s my neck on the line and not Kurien’s. I’m sorry I cannot agree to this. The security of the Prime Minister is my business and I will not delegate it to anyone.” But he did understand the point I was trying to make and since we were friends he promised to arrange it in a way that would meet his needs as well as mine.

“How will you manage it when Kurien insists that there should be no policemen and you say there have to be policemen?” the Chief Minister asked him.

“It’s quite simple,” explained the Home Secretary. “No one — simply no one — should know that the Prime Minister is going to the village or which village he is visiting. The the Prime Minister would be safe.”

This seemed to make sense. Secrecy was to be the basis of our security arrangements.

“In that case, you and Kurien arrange everything,” Balwantrai Mehta agreed.

Heredia and I met. We picked Ajarpura, a village a few kilometers from Anand. Ajarpura had one of the oldest registered milk cooperatives in the district. I had also identified the farmer — Ramanbhai Punjabhai Patel — and explained to him that two foreigners were visiting us; since they wished to spend a night at the village, could he arrange for their stay? Ramanbhai was perplexed as to why these foreigners would want to do that. I convinced him that these foreigners were a bit quirky and asked him if it would matter if they stayed in his house for one night. I asked him not to do anything special except tidy up a bit and clean up the bathroom. He agreed.

On the day of the Prime Minister’s visit, at about five-thirty p.m. the guard of honour was kept ready and all the official arrangements were made to receive him at my house in Anand. The ministers, too, had arrived. At this stage, I called the Collector and handed him a sealed envelope.

“What’s this?” the Collector asked in surprise.

“It’s merely a letter signed by the Home Secretary which says that there’s a slight change in the Prime Minister’s programme and you will now take instructions from me,” I told him.

The Collector and I then drove to the village. Ramanbhai, after sprucing up his hut and sprinkling water to keep the dust down, was waiting for his two ‘foreign guests’ to arrive. I went to him and said, “Now you should know who your two guests really are. They are the Prime Minister of India and the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat.” “The Pradhan Mantri in my house? What have you done to me, Saheb?” exclaimed Ramanbhai in anguish.

“Nothing,” I said, trying to calm him. “Believe me, they’re good people. Just as good as you and I. You treat them as you would treat any guest of yours.”

“Saheb,” he said, “I have not cooked anything special. You told me not to.”

I assured him that they did not want anything special. I introduced him to the Collector, the head of his district, and then I said to the two of them, “I leave the Prime Minister to both of you. You look after him now and I’m going home.”

I explained to them that Shastriji had no fixed programme. He would come here and decide what he wanted to do while he was a guest of the village. I told them that I had to return home because my wife was there, coping alone with all the other guests who had no idea that the Prime Minister would not be arriving that day.

According to the plan, as the Prime Minister’s convoy drove from Ahmedabad to Anand, the Prime Minister’s car alone was diverted to Ajarpura village while the rest of the convoy proceeded to Anand.

… the story continues in Part 2 – Why Lal Bahadur Shastri wanted to spend a night in a Kaira district village.