'Anything is justified to save democracy': Firebrand trade unionist George Fernandes, who locked horns with Indira Gandhi, dead

Known best for his role as the anti-Emergency crusader and a firebrand socialist leader of independent India, former defence minister George Fernandes passed away in his Delhi residence at 7 am on Tuesday. Reports have said that the former Union minister was suffering from swine flu.

In a political career spanning over three decades, Fernandes served several times as a Union Cabinet Minister, holding portfolios such as communications, industry, and railways, besides defence. He was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 1967. He served as the defence minister in 1998-99 and then between 1999 and 2001.

Described as a "livewire", Fernandes' role in the post-Independence era is indisputable. Fernandes was also the figure of hope for the rising middle class. An article in DailyO notes that Fernandes was a boy from Mangaluru when he "worked as a hotel worker in Bombay, slept on the streets until P D'mello took him under his wings, and rose to become the most powerful union leader in the financial capital of India. He had more than 1.5 lakh municipal workers, BEST employees and taxi drivers under his control. He could shut Mumbai down with a single call. From the chief minister to the municipal commissioner, Fernandes had the might to take on everyone."

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his tweet called Fernandes 'frank and fearless, forthright and farsighted". Arrested during the Emergency, Fernandes was the industries minister in the first non-Congress government that came to power after the Janata Party defeated Indira Gandhi — whom Fernandes once called a "congenital liar".

#GeorgeFernandes was trending on Twitter and Twitterati shared the famed image of Fernandes where the former Union minister is handcuffed and has his fist in the air. Fernandes did not believe that non-violent resistance worked in every situation or was not the "only weapon to be used in a battle for justice." Reportedly, when asked whether violent means were justified, he said, "Anything is justified to save democracy."

Anything is justified to save democracy: Firebrand trade unionist George Fernandes, who locked horns with Indira Gandhi, dead

Iconic image of former union minister George Fernandes.

Even after the Emergency was lifted, Fernandes languished in prison for some time and was not released even during the 1977 Lok Sabha elections. Fernandes fought the elections from jail and won the Muzaffarpur constituency with historical margins. A rebel all his life, Fernandes grew up in erstwhile Mangalore and was trained to be a Catholic priest.

In The Emergency: A Personal History, Coomi Kapoor writes, "Disillusioned by what he considered the hypocrisy of the church, he left the seminary at eighteen and drifted to Bombay in search of employment. He slept at night on the benches at Chowpatty beach and became actively involved with the trade union movement and the Socialist Party. Ram Manohar Lohia, the unconventional and outspoken socialist leader, was his inspiration."

Fernandes mastered Hindi, Marathi and other languages and was known for the ability to forge (or break) alliances. The Wire notes, "...the sheer magnetism that could command lasting loyalty, marked him with a heroism that would endure. It would endure because behind the dazzle and the sparkle lay a core of genuine moral courage."

Fernandes came to Lok Sabha in 1967 after defeating SK Patil from Bombay South indicating to the country that he was not just a trade union leader. Then came the 1974 railway strike.

The strike was a result of railway workers pent up emotions that spilled over in what can be termed as a major uprising. In spite of the benefits given by the Third Pay Commission, the condition of workers did not improve and as a result under the leadership of Fernandes, who was then president of All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF), railwaymen went on strike.

In its report from then (published on 8 May, 1974), The New York Times wrote: "The restless mood in New Delhi was underscored in a message from prison by George Fernandes, a 44-year-old Socialist party leader and organizer of the strike. Mr. Fernandes, who is one of the more than 1,000 union leaders and railway workers recently arrested, said: “The time for action has come. For railwaymen it is now do or die."

Thousands of railway workers in the metro cities of Bombay, New Delhi, Calcutta and Madras walked off their jobs and there was a huge crisis in the country as disruptions in Indian Railways could cripple the nation of 570 million.

His unfaltering dislike for Indira Gandhi, whom he referred to as "that woman", was not hidden. According to Kapoor, "He (Fernandes) felt the primary objective was to remove fear from the minds of the people. To this end he believed that the underground should undertake acts of defiance, which might even be violent but which should not result in any casualties."

Fernandes as the industry minister was solely responsible for banning Coke in India which in turn enabled the birth of Thumbs Up. In VP Singh's cabinet in 1989, he marked his legacy as railways minister by introducing the historic Konkan Railway, along with the then finance minister Madhu Dandavate.

Fernandes' downfall began after he backed the Morarji Desai government. Unlike Lalu Prasad Yadav, Fernandes could only bank on his popularity and despite being a Christian rarely played the minority card. According to observers, Fernandes drifted towards the BJP to sustain his relevance in national politics and even as the former union minister shared an excellent rapport with two BJP stalwarts, joining BJP was the "last nail in the coffin of his credibility."

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Updated Date: Jan 29, 2019 14:41:22 IST

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