Qurban Ali | Caravan Daily
GEORGE MATHEW FERNANDES was one of the firebrand Socialist leaders of his time. A priest for a short period, a trade unionist, agriculturist, political activist, human rights activist, parliamentarian and journalist all rolled into one. He led the famous railway strike involving 1.5 million workers in 1974, where the entire nation was brought to a halt.
As the former Chairman of the Socialist Party of India, former Minister of Communications, former Minister of Industry, Minister of Railways and Minister for Defense, George Fernandes was full of surprises and contradictions. I clearly remember when he was a union minister of the Morarji government, he defended the no-confidence motion against his government for two and a half hours and then resigned the same day. That was George!
A politician who long campaigned against the atom bomb was also one of the champions of India’s nuclear power. Fernandes set new standards as a Defense Minister by braving the inhospitable Himalayan heights to visit troops on the battlefront and became the darling of the jawans.
In 1949, Fernandes moved to Bombay in search of a job. His life was tough in the metropolis, and he had to sleep on the streets until he got a job as a proofreader for a newspaper. He relates to the beginning of his career by saying, “When I came to Bombay, I used to sleep on the benches of the Chowpatty Sands. In the middle of the night, policemen would come and wake me up and ask me to move”. Here he came in contact with the great Socialist leader,
Later, he joined the socialist trade union movement under the veteran trade union leader Placid D’ Mello and became his disciple. He rose to prominence as a trade unionist and fought for the rights of
The pivotal moment that thrust Fernandes into the limelight was his decision to contest the 1967 general elections. He was offered a party ticket for the Bombay South constituency by the Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP) against the politically more popular Sadashiv Kanoji Patil of the Indian National Congress in Bombay. Sadashiv Kanoji Patil, or S. K. Patil, as he was popularly known, was a seasoned politician, with many decades of experience behind him. SK Patil was also a powerful minister in the Indira Gandhi cabinet and an unrivaled fund-raiser for the undivided Congress party. Nevertheless, Fernandes won against Patil by garnering 48.5
In the early 70s, Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi was riding the crest of unprecedented popularity after the liberation of Bangladesh. But soon after, with notorious corruption cases against her, primarily because of the public awareness created by movements like Navnirman in Gujarat and Bihar, her popularity started waning. George
There are political analysts who believe till today that the much controversial step was taken by her out of sheer despair, and with the sole intention of breaking the railway strike. The idea was to divert the nation’s attention and drum up support for herself. (It is a historical irony that while Pokharan I was prompted by George’s strike, Pokharan II was executed with him as the
But George Fernandes will also be remembered as the one who justified the Gujarat riots in 2002 and murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his sons in Odisha. Once upon a time, he was a proponent of Mahatma Gandhi’s politics of non-violence but then turned to believe in politics of violence and
Fernandes has a stained and murky past and will also be remembered for making this country a “Friend of Israel” by using spies like Ram Swarup as an agent of Israel and against Palestine.
His was a life riddled with controversies and accomplishments alike. A towering figure in modern Indian politics, George was compelled to leave the public eye at the fag end of his political career when his name figured prominently in a corruption case. The scandal caused an uproar and Fernandes had to resign from this role as a Defence Minister in the Vajpayee government. Any chances of returning to political life were quashed with the onset of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. George passed away at 88 and lived with his once-estranged wife Leila Kabir. Rest in Peace George.
Qurban Ali is a senior tri-lingual (Hindi, Urdu, and English) journalist with more than 32 years of experience across all traditional media viz. TV, radio, print and the Internet. This includes over 14 years with the BBC World Service, and tenures with reputed media houses like Rajya Sabha TV, Doordarshan News, ETV News, UNI, Observer Group of Publications, Anand Bazar Patrika Group, etc.