Born a Christian, rebel against Church, fiery trade union leader, railway strike, fight against Emergency, alliance with BJP, Pokhran-II, Kargil, etc all explain the life and struggle of George Fernandes
George Fernandes was an iconic politician, rebel, who had all but been forgotten before his death on January 29. From a fiery trade union leader to a rebel during Emergency to Union Minister, he travelled a long way in life. He has been one of the most iconic political leaders in India. Catholic from Mangalore, who represented Muzaffarpur in Bihar four times, an anti-nuke activist who presided over Pokhran-II, a pacifist who went on to become one of the best Defence Ministers ever.
Born in Mangalore to an insurance executive, George was sent for training as a Roman Catholic priest when he was just 16. Frustrated with what he saw as double standards and hypocrisy in the Church, he left the seminary. “I was disillusioned; because there was a lot of difference between percept and practice where the Church was concerned,” he said. He was a rebel right from his teen years, and it was a trait that continued for a long time. At 19 itself he began to organise workers in the road transport, as well as hotels in Mangalore. Moving to Bombay in 1949, he led a hard life, sleeping on pavements, till he got a job with a newspaper as a proofreader. Inspired by Ram Manohar Lohia and veteran union leader Placid D’Mello, Fernandes joined the Socialist trade union movement. During the 50s and 60s, he made a name for himself in Mumbai’s trade unions, served prison terms fighting on behalf of workers.
Foray into Politics
Fernandes shot into limelight during the 1967 general elections when he contested against veteran Congressman SK Patil who was one of the major political leaders at that time, fighting on SSP ticket, he humbled him. His defeat of SK Patil from Bombay South in 1967 earned him the reputation of being a giant killer. In fact Patil never recovered from the shock defeat at the hands of Fernandes and his career went into oblivion. Another act that would make Fernandes more famous was the 1974 Railway strike against the pay and working conditions.
George Fernandes was frank and fearless, forthright & farsighted and represented the best of India’s political leadership. During his long public life, he never deviated from his political ideology. He resisted the Emergency tooth and nail. His simplicity and humility were noteworthy” – Narendra Modi, Prime MinisterA Rebel During Emergency
During the Emergency, Fernandes was one of those who went underground, had an arrest warrant in his name. The Baroda Dynamite case was hatched between Fernandes, Kirit Bhatt, President of Baroda Journalists Union and Vikram Rao, a Times of India staffer. The plan basically was to blow up the dais, at Varanasi where Indira Gandhi was to address a meeting. Fernandes was however arrested on June 10, 1976, at Kolkata and shifted to Tihar Jail, however, was not charge-sheeted. In 1977 elections, he won from Muzzafarpur by a huge margin of 3 lakh votes.
Fernandes was not from Bihar, nor had he been to Muzaffarpur earlier, but he still won by 3 lakh votes from there in 1977 LS elections. He worked as Industries Minister in Janata Party Government, more remembered for his clash with Coke and IBM over FERA violations. As Minister of Railways in VP Singh Government, Fernandes was one of the driving forces behind the Konkan Railway. Konkan Railway Corporation was set up in July 1990, when he was Railway Minister and Sreedharan as its first CMD.
Mr Fernandes was my mentor and guide. It was he who taught me to serve the public and while we all have to go one day; his death has been most painful to me. Not only the nation has lost a noble leader, I have lost my guardian” — Nitish Kumar, Bihar Chief Minister
When BJP was still an untouchable party, it was George Fernandes who took the lead in allying with it, through his Samata Party. He allied with the BJP in 1996 at a time when barring Akalis and Shiv Sena, no political party was willing to touch it. The irony is that in the Janata Government, Fernandes was the most vocal opponent of RSS, he later became one of BJP’s most trusted allies.
As Defence Minister
He served as Defence Minister in NDA Government from 1998-2004. His tenure saw both Pokhran-II and Kargil. As Defence Minister, he made 18 visits to Siachen, also ensured defence would have a higher allocation in the budget. For someone who earlier supported nuclear disarmament, he openly supported Pokhran-II, gave it all the backing needed. As a Defence Minister, he was the one who first called out China as India’s main enemy, was then ridiculed for it. But later events proved him true. He is one of the most popular Defence Ministers to date. Many in the Army still regard Fernandes highly, rate him as one of the best Defence Ministers. He was pretty much a hands-on Minister, travelling to units, talking to the jawans. His 18 trips to Siachen itself is a testimony of that. As Defence Minister, he had a running battle with the Babus. There was an incident, when Babus were delaying the purchase of ice scooters for Siachen. He sent 3 of them to Siachen, to understand the conditions first hand.
Fernandes had to also face fake hit jobs by Tehelka, and that put an end to his political career. Apart from his political activities, Fernandes was also an equally good writer, edited Konkani Yuvak, Dockman, Raithavani (Kannada). He was also a polyglot, fluent in 10 languages—Konkani, Tulu, Kannada, English, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Malayalam.
(The article is a compilation of tweets by the writer)