In her book The Emergency, author Coomi Kapoor calls a young socialist leader, the then leader of the taxi drivers union in Bombay, the one who used to bring the city to a halt with his call for bandhs, ‘a rebel without a pause’.
The leader being discussed was a young Catholic boy from a middle class family in Mangalore who idolised Ram Manohar Lohia and went by the name of George Fernandes. Long after he was recognised as a force of nature during the Emergency, Fernandes for a year was also the Railway minister in the V P Singh government. Just 15 years earlier, as the chairman of the Indian Railways Federation, Fernandes with his socialist ideals had called for a nationwide strike and had been responsible for bringing the Indian Railways to a standstill for three full weeks. This had earned him the wrath of then prime minister Indira Gandhi and earned him one of his first jail incarcerations.
Through those 15 years which followed, he continued rebelling at every given opportunity till life came full circle and he became the minister of the very same Railways that he had strongly stood against. Such was the life of George Fernandes. Agree or disagree with him, he was unapologetic about his beliefs and convictions and bold about his choices and actions.
Fernandes who was in Odisha on the day the news of the Emergency broke, escaped the sea town of Gopalpur wearing a lungi, looking like a fisherman. For weeks and months, he kept escaping the police and travelling across India by disguising himself in an impeccable manner.
By the mid 1970s, when the intentions of the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government started getting clear, Fernandes was strictly of the opinion that the resistance to the Emergency would be nothing short of what happened during the freedom movement. He considered the government as illegitimate as the British government and there was no moral ambiguity in him about using the most effective means to gain freedom, even if it was violent in nature. His preferred method of resistance became the use of dynamite, which would be disruptive enough without resulting in casualties or any mass scale destruction.
Kapoor in her book writes that, Fernandes and his associates had targeted “bridges, railway lines and culverts in wayside areas and not in crowded places”. The idea was contentious and did not find many takers even within allies. To use dynamite to destroy public infrastructure in an independent country with no foreign government in power would not necessarily be termed as revolutionary. But for a romantic like Fernandes, it was the right path to take.
The motive was not just to destroy infrastructure and to corner it, but like the days of the freedom struggle, the aim was to take away the fear of the dictatorial regime from the people. The underground movement led by Fernandes wanted to reach out to the foreign press and tell them what the co-opted, censored and subservient Indian press would not report.
The Baroda dynamite conspiracy put a target on Fernandes’s back like never before and he and his aides were accused of waging a war against the Indian state. It became a matter of personal interest for Indira Gandhi to get to Fernandes and in the process many of his aides including his brother Lawrence Fernandes were subjected to custodial torture.
Fernandes was arrested in 1976 from Calcutta and sent to the Tihar jail. Then began the long drawn judicial process and it is here that the image of a chained and shackled George Fernandes raising his fist in the air, became the image defining the resistance to the Emergency. C G K Reddy in his book, The Baroda Dynamite Conspiracy quotes Fernandes as saying, “The chains that we bear are symbols of the entire nation which has been chained and fettered”. A young lawyer couple Swaraj Kaushal and Sushma Swaraj defended him in court.
In 1977, while still on trial, Fernandes was elected to the Lok Sabha from Muzaffarpur in Bihar with a huge majority. Soon the Baroda dynamite case was withdrawn and Fernandes became the Industries Minister in the Morarji Desai-led government. In 1989, he became the Railway minister and then in 1998, the defence minister in the Vajpayee government.
The rebel nature of Fernandes did not come without its fair share of criticism. Take for instance his role in the falling of the Morarji Desai government post the Emergency. Fernandes on one day stood in parliament defending the government and on the very next day stood at the same spot criticising it and then joining the anti-Desai faction. No one quite understood the reason behind his vacillation and this rebellion. His socialist disdain for businessmen and big business was not just evident from his stand against Coca-Cola and IBM but also by the fact that he equated businessmen with vermin at a FICCI meeting. He was extremely critical of the Narasimha Rao government and believed that his government had surrendered India’s economic independence.
As he breathed his last today, George Fernandes left behind a legacy of defiance and rebellion against the establishment and the powers that were. A self-made politician from a humble background, he could never reconcile with the idea of dynasty-led politics and till the end of his public life remained one of the strongest critics of the Congress leadership.
He was a man who went from being a socialist peacenik to the one who steered India towards becoming a nuclear superpower. The life and times of George Fernandes and especially his strength of conviction during the Emergency, should be a reminder for the nation about the value of democracy. And of all the contradictions that go into defining one’s patriotism.
Rest in Peace, George Fernandes.
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