How George Fernandes, the wily, fiery, idealist leader defied Indira Gandhi during Emergency

The following excerpt from Coomi Kapoor's The Emergency: A Personal History has been republished here with due permission from Penguin Randomhouse

The forty-five-year-old Fernandes was in the remote fishing village of Gopalpur-by-the-Sea in Orissa, visiting his in-laws, when he heard the news of the Emergency on the radio. He had no intention of being a sitting duck for the police. He escaped immediately, dressed in a lungi, looking like a local fisherman. He left a letter for his wife, Leila, and their son. After that he was on the move constantly, changing his address and appearance often.

As a much-wanted underground leader Fernandes took precautions to keep the police off his trail. He did not permit foreign journalists who met him to take his photograph. He avoided speaking on the telephone. He changed disguises frequently. By August 1975, his hair had turned grey and his beard was long enough for him to transform himself into a Sikh. His turban was kept arranged for him in a special hatbox. He travelled from town to town, all over the country, often as a Sikh. In cities, he often disguised himself as a sadhu in a saffron kurta and lungi. So completely did he alter his appearance that he was unrecognizable. Once he was staying at a guest house in Bangalore when the sales tax department raided the place and turned it upside down. Fernandes did not move and continued to nonchalantly eat his toast at the table.

How George Fernandes, the wily, fiery, idealist leader defied Indira Gandhi during Emergency

The firebrand leader George Fernandes. Image via Facebook

Fernandes spent considerable time in Gujarat, considered a safe haven because the Opposition was in power there. He also moved around extensively in the south, including his home town of Mangalore. During his trips Fernandes was able to establish contacts with his socialist and trade union colleagues as well as family and friends.

On 15 August 1975 Fernandes issued an appeal. He pointed out: ‘Everyone must by now have realized that you cannot have committee meetings and mutual consultations in the prevailing situation . . . the president and general secretaries of all the parties are in prison, so are most of the members of the national executives, state executives, even district committees of these parties. Those who have evaded arrest are not easily available.’ He suggested that in the circumstances ‘there should either be quick mutual consultations, or people should simply assume leadership at various levels’. He felt that a debate on the nature of the movement against Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship was unnecessary, and often a cover for inaction or a rationalization of cowardice.

In a letter to Socialist leader N.G. Gore, for circulation among all political parties, he said that he was increasingly fearful that most people in the Opposition were not willing to face the realities of a totally fascist dictator having taken over the country. ‘If Parliament has been reduced to a joke, the so-called opposition parties’ members, who still refuse to resign their seats from that illegitimate Lok Sabha, are only playing the part of circus clowns. I believe it is a contradiction in terms to say that we shall provide a democratic alternative to a fascist dictatorship. Such a position only means that we are all mixed up in our priorities.’

Fernandes had many strategies for waging war against ‘that woman’, as he referred to Indira Gandhi. He 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. He also advocated sabotage of a kind that would not inconvenience people.

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Updated Date: Jan 29, 2019 12:45:01 IST

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