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George Fernandes: From the teenaged boy who wanted to be a priest to one of India’s tallest leaders

Fernandes was one of the few leaders who resisted the Emergency and did not ally with the Gandhis and Congress after the Emergency was lifted, unlike Lalu Yadav and others.

Born on 3rd June 1930, George Fernandes, passed away earlier today leaving an irreplaceable void in the Indian political landscape. A lifelong socialist, Fernandes had stood up against the Gandhis, even after the Emergency was lifted.

Early life

Eldest amongst his five siblings, Fernandes had set out to become a priest but later in 1949 moved to Mumbai in search of a job. In Mumbai, he met Rammanohar Lohia, the socialist leader, who had a huge influence on Fernandes. He later joined the socialist trade union movement and fought for rights of labourers in small scale service industries. He was a member of the Bombay Municipal Corporation from 1961 to 1968.

In 1967, General Elections, Fernandes fought and won on the Samyukta Socialist Party ticket for the Bombay South constituency against seasoned Congress leader S. K. Patil.

1974 All India Railway strike

In 1974, as President of All India Railwaymen’s Federation, Fernandes led the strike bringing the country to a standstill. Unaddressed grievances for over two decades led to the protests where as many as 30,000 trade unionists were detained. While the strike was called off on 27th May 1974, it had sowed the seeds of insecurity in the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who later on went to impose nationwide Emergency in 1975.

Emergency and Baroda Dynamite Case

Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency on 25th June 1975, suspending all fundamental rights. Fernandes was amongst those who opposed the blatant misuse of power and a warrant was issued in his name. He later went underground to escape arrest and prosecution. His brother, Lawrence Fernandes was arrested and tortured by Police to find out George’s whereabouts.

In July 1975, George Fernandes arrived in Vadodara (then Baroda), where he met journalists who were opposing the Emergency. Viren Shah, an industrialist, helped them procure dynamite which was supposed to be used to blow up government toilets and cause explosions near the venue of public meetings held by Indira Gandhi, without killing or harming anyone. A plan was hatched to blow up a dias days before Indira Gandhi was to address a meeting in Varanasi. This got to be known as the Baroda Dynamite Case.

George Fernandes’ iconic image from Emergency days

The CBI charged Fernandes and others of smuggling dynamite and blowing up government establishments. They were also charged with waging a war against the state to overthrow the government. They were arrested in June 1976 and kept in Tihar jail, Delhi.

Fernandes was one of the few leaders who resisted the Emergency and did not ally with the Gandhis and Congress after the Emergency was lifted, unlike Lalu Yadav and others.

1977 elections

After the Emergency was lifted in 1977, elections were held on 21st March 1977 where the Janata Party defeated Indira Gandhi. Fernandes had fought and won from Muzaffarpur, Bihar, by over 3 lakh votes while he was lodged in jail under the trial in Baroda Dynamite Case. The case against him was eventually withdrawn by the Janata Party. He was also made the Union Minister for Industries.

Defence Minister

Fernandes was the Defence Minister during the 1998-2004 NDA government and it was during his tenure that the Kargil War broke out between India and Pakistan in 1999. He was also the Defence Minister when India conducted the nuclear tests at the Pokhran range in Rajasthan in 1998. While he earlier opposed nuclear disarmament, he endorsed the NDA government’s decision to test nuclear bombs.

2002 Gujarat riots

As a Defence Minister when the riots broke out in Gujarat after a train returning from Ayodhya was set on fire, Fernandes was in Ahmedabad on 1st March 2002 at 1 am, a day after the riots broke out, overseeing the arrangements. However, a lot of misinformation regarding the same has been spread. In his book ‘The Sarkari Musalman’, Lt. General (Retd.) Zameeruddin Shah, who is also actor Naseeruddin Shah‘s brother, had lied about army deployment in wake of 2002 riots.

Abusive troll and delusional journalist Swati Chaturvedi was also caught lying about an imaginary interview of Fernandes which never took place. Chaturvedi had claimed that an “angry and agitated” George Fernandes had told her (presumably in an interview) that he felt like sending tanks to Gujarat in 2002. The claim suggested that George Fernandes believed that Narendra Modi was not taking enough steps to control the riots and that he felt helpless as a cabinet minister – an indictment of both the state government led by Narendra Modi as well as the central government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

However, Samata Party’s Jaya Jaitly had later clarified that Fernandes was never angry or upset with Narendra Modi and thus the interview Chaturvedi talked about was probably made up and he never talked to her.

Coffin scandal

In 2002, Fernandes was accused of purchasing 500 poor quality aluminium caskets from the United States at 13 times the price to transport the bodies of slain Kargil soldiers. The Supreme Court eventually dismissed the investigation saying that there was no scam. The CBI found no evidence of any wrongdoing. The Comptroller and Auditor General, in a report, had alleged that ministers including Defence Minister Fernandes and others filled their pockets by making purchases at exorbitant rates in the name of slain soldiers. Congress milked the ‘scam’ which never was which came up with the ‘kafan chor’ call. A controversy which had stemmed from a clerical error eventually played a pivotal role in the BJP and NDA losing 2004 General Elections.

Today morning, George Fernandes breathed his last following a prolonged illness. Fernandes was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and had recently even contacted swine flu. With him, India has lost one of the loudest voices for the poor and marginalised.

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Staff reporter at OpIndia

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