George Fernandes (1930-2019): The Death of a Relentless Rebel

George Fernandes (1930-2019)
PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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Images of Fernandes in handcuffs and chains, his fist raised in defiance, struck a chord with those suffering excesses of the Emergency

DURING THE EMERGENCY, George Fernandes (1930-2019) used to refer to Indira Gandhi as “that woman”. It was in mid-1976 that her government finally caught up with the rebellious trade unionist, the poster boy of resistance to her authoritarianism. He was nabbed in Calcutta, rushed to Delhi, stripped naked, interrogated wrapped in a blanket, and then bundled off to Hissar jail. Both his brother Lawrence and Snehlata Reddy, a fellow socialist traveller and accused in the Baroda Dynamite Conspiracy (as it came to be known), had already been put to torture and questioning by the police in a bid to have them reveal Fernandes’ whereabouts. He had eluded their clutches in various guises—as a fisherman, a mendicant, and as a turbaned Sikh.

At Hissar jail, as Coomi Kapoor wrote in The Emergency: A Personal History, he saw Indira Gandhi’s photograph and told the jailer, “You are following the orders of this woman, but I tell you, tomorrow this woman will be in jail.” From there, he was moved to Tihar Jail in Delhi. It was a measure of his stature as an anti-Emergency activist that Socialist International took up his case. The ‘Free JP’ movement in London organised a protest to draw attention to the suspension of civil liberties in India, and world leaders such as Willy Brandt and Olof Palme called the Indian Prime Minister and warned that she would be held accountable if anything untoward happened to him.

By the time Fernandes and his fellow conspirators were produced in court, it was early October 1976. The chargesheet, reportedly 3,000 pages long, accused them of plotting to overthrow the Government. It referred to an alleged attempt to blow up the dais on which Gandhi was to speak in Varanasi. They were also charged with unlawful possession of dynamite sticks, subversive literature and inciting people against the state. The accused accepted trying to free the country of Indira Gandhi’s rule, but denied all other charges. Images of Fernandes in handcuffs and chains, his fist raised in defiance, struck a chord with those suffering excesses of the Emergency, and while he got bail, he was re-arrested rightaway under the Maintenance of Industrial Security Act. In February 1977, in a deposition before the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate of Delhi, Fernandes asserted, “Dictatorship does violence to the spirit of man. It is neither legal, constitutional or even moral. It leaves people with no legal and constitutional means to fight it. And even then, to fight it remains an inalienable right of all men, of all those who believe in the sacredness, dignity and freedom of man…. Gandhiji said, given a choice between cowardice and violence to resist evil, he would not hesitate to choose, and he recommended that the people choose violence. While my belief in non-violence is a conviction, inherited from one of the greatest thinkers and humanists, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, I also believe, as Gandhiji believed, and no doubt Lohia himself believed, that injustice and evil should be fought wherever it raises its head.” Maintaining that all ‘evidence’ against him had been “cooked up”, Fernandes said that the prosecution could not accuse him of having caused even a single death.

Fernandes was a leader who stood by his word. He wanted to boycott the 1977 General Election for fear that it might legitimise Indira Gandhi’s actions. It took much persuasion, even a gherao by citizens and Morarji Desai landing up at the trial court with nomination papers for Fernandes for him to agree to contest the polls from jail. He won the Muzaffarpur seat in Bihar with a margin of some 300,000 votes. Appointed Industries Minister in the Janata Party Government, he forced foreign companies out of India. After the Congress returned to power, he launched a tirade against corruption, the brunt of his attacks borne by the Rajiv Gandhi Government that succeeded Indira’s. Under the VP Singh regime that came next, he was Railway Minister, with the initiation of the Konkan rail project to his credit. Later, he became convenor of the NDA. As Defence Minister in the later Vajpayee Government, Fernandes made a record 18 visits to the Army’s Siachen outpost to boost the morale of troops there.

Today, Fernandes is remembered as perhaps Independent India’s only political activist who could bring the country’s financial capital to a halt in protest, as he once did in the 60s. Had history taken a different turn, this ‘giant killer’ would have been a Catholic priest in a seminary in his hometown of Mangalore. But he was put off by the chasm between the precepts and practices of the Church, as he put it, and preferred to look for work in Bombay, even if it meant sleeping on pavements and Chowpatty beach during his search. By the 1950s, he was heading the city’s taxi drivers’ union. Arun Jaitley narrates this story of the 1967 South Bombay poll, as told by Fernandes himself. ‘That election would be an education for any student of psychology or politics,’ writes Jaitley. ‘S.K. Patil was the unquestioned leader of Mumbai, then Bombay. He was a Union Minister and Congress party’s Treasurer. He had won his South-Bombay seat several times by large margins. Nobody believed that Patil could ever be defeated.’ Until, of course, a 36-year-old chief of the taxi union stood against Patil. All opposition parties supported him. His first task was to take down the aura of Patil’s invincibilty. Posters, banners and taxi stickers spread the message that ‘Patil can be defeated’. A cocky Patil told the media, “Only God can defeat me.” Fernandes’ retort: ‘God does not vote, you do. Only you can defeat Patil.’

By end-1973, Fernandes had become head of the All India Railway Federation, a union of the world’s largest group of workers, and as a Socialist, he joined the JP Movement against the Congress. The 1974 railway strike that he led made his sway among workers clear, and the threat that he posed the Indira regime was met with a fierce crackdown. ‘One of the main aspects of George Fernandes’ personality was his strong opposition to the Nehru-Gandhi family. He believed that the Nehru-Gandhi family had harmed the nation a lot and that is why he could shake hands with anyone against that family. He chose his way between two extremes. He couldn’t be a communist, he couldn’t be in Congress. BJP was the alternative he chose around 1996,’ writes Ram Bahadur Rai, a journalist who was among his close associates. When some leaders asked him to put the Emergency years in the past, Fernandes is said to have retorted that he could never forgive or forget what happened to JP’s kidneys and to his brother Lawrence, nor the death of his ally Snehlata Reddy. Asked if violence was a valid tool to save democracy, he reportedly replied, “Everything should be done to save democracy.”

While still in the Vajpayee Cabinet, Fernandes’ failing health was apparent. Jaitley writes, ‘Ministers were scared of facing the wrath of his attack when he was in the Opposition. But eventually his health took better of him. The slowing down of his mind and various faculties could be seen towards 2003-04. He still had full comprehension but that aggression was lacking.’ Fernandes had a bad fall in the bathroom of his residence while washing clothes, and he had a brain surgery later, but he could never fully recover. His withdrawal from politics went alongside a descent into Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease as he aged. He began treatment at Baba Ramdev’s ashram in 2010 even as a bitter fight broke out in his family over his property. The Samata Party, which Fernandes founded in 1994 with Nitish Kumar, was to merge with JD(U) in 2003.

Few of India’s youth recall the force he was once. ‘The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones,’ wrote Shakespeare. Not in the case of Fernandes.