A KNIGHT IN SHINING ARMOUR
A profile of union defence minister George Fernandes
By Richie Lasrado
*Read Interview with George Fernandes - By Richie Lasrado - CLICK HERE
*Read Why I am a Christian - Article written by George Fernandes - CLICK HERE
All kinds of epithets have been flung at him by his detractors. A drop-out. A rebel. A maverick. A stormy petrel. A survivor. And nothing seems to have deterred him from his philosophy and agenda. Or from what he thinks is right. Say what anyone may, he is certainly one of the very few public figures in the post-Independence India, yet to be sullied by allegations of corruption, nepotism and or any such misdoing.
No one need be disappointed that DK has not been represented in the Vajpayee cabinet. We do have a Dakshina Kannadiga, after all. George Fernandes, the union defence minister, who will turn 74 this June, is a born fighter. He is always regarded as one who perennially keeps swimming against the current.
Maybe George's fighting spirit has stood him in good stead in his role as the defender of the nation, feels a childhood acquaintance of his from Bijai, Mangalore. He was born of John Joseph and Alice Martha Fernandes (nee Pinto), in a middle-class home, overlooking the Bijai New Road, on June 3, 1930. His mother was reportedly a great admirer of King George V who too was born on June 3, and hence she named her first son George. The compound of the maternal grandparental house on Bijai New Road where he was born is even today known as "George Fernandes Compound".
Fernandes Sr., who was known for his integrity and hard work, was employed by the Peerless Finance group, and he headed their organizing office for south India for many years until his death in 1983. George, still fondly called "Gerry" in close family circles, is the eldest of the family of six boys. Lawrence, Michael, Paul, Aloysius and Richard are his younger brothers.
The family is indeed a spectrum and could well be a text book for national integration. George is married to Laila, daughter of the late Humayun Kabir, a veteran Congressman of olden days and erstwhile union cabinet minister. While Lawrence remained a bachelor, Michael is married to Donna Mayne. Paul, married to Kokila Trivedi, has settled in Canada and is actively involved with the Liberal Party of Canada.
Aloysius is married to Lovina Sequeira and lives in Mumbai. The youngest of them, Richard, has a brilliant academic record with a PhD from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore with post-Doctoral studies. He is married to Yasmin Jayatirtha, another PhD from the same institute. Their mother Alice passed away in 1993.
Later to be labelled a fiery activist and orator, "Gerry" was a soft-spoken student and teenager, recall many of his past associates in Bijai. His childhood was spent in the maternal ancestral house on Dr Casimir Mathias Road (Bijai-Kavoor Road). He studied up to SSLC at St Aloysius College. He was also very devout and religious. Although he did not take much interest in sports and music, the religious upbringing saw him take an active part in the church sodality, says a close acquaintance of the yesteryear.
Perhaps this background paved the way George's joining St Peter's Seminary, Bangalore for priesthood. Those were the days when it was thought mandatory for every Catholic family in Mangalore to send at least one boy to priesthood and a girl to nunnery.
Photo: George in chains after arrest in 1976 – the photo published in international magazines that stirred the world conscience ( Courtesy: TIME magazine)
The rebel that he was, George, just over two years through the studies, had a clear inkling that he was not cut out for the holy vocation. He quit the Seminary of his own accord, which decision was not taken very kindly by the family. Quite understandably, the society was very conservative those days and such a step would naturally stamp a seal of stigma, not only on the drop-out but the family as a whole.
But George had his courage of conviction. Rather than take holy orders and then be suffocated for fear of being branded a renegade, he chose to give up the cassock and face the world head-on, come what may. Back in Mangalore, he underwent a period of turbulence and turmoil. He felt alone, aloof and alienated and would spend days and nights near the radio pavilion on the then Central maidan - now Nehru Maidan - or Felix Pai Bazar.
It was during this period that he came into contact with the great socialist leader and freedom fighter, Ammembal Balappa, who willingly accepted him as his disciple and moulded the young Fernandes as a crusader of socialism. Again it was Balappa who introduced him to the late Dr K Nagappa Alva - father of Dr Jeevaraj Alva, another politician of a later era - who was a Congress leader with socialist leanings who later became a state minister
Dr Nagappa Alva offered George every kind of hospitality including breakfast, lunch and dinner and treated him like a member of the family. But, while taking care not to offend the generous benefactor, the self-respecting George thought it fit to visit the Alvas only once a day.
After Balappa and Alva, it was the turn of another legendary Dakshina Kannadiga, Placid D'Mello, in shaping George's future. D'Mello was a well-known labour leader in Mumbai. (It is a credit to all of us in the undivided DK district that, in recognition of his contribution to the labour movement in that city, a part of Frere Road, was renamed P D'Mello Marg decades ago.)
Placid and George together organized the first-ever strike in Mangalore - beginning with the Canara Public Conveyance, better known by its legendary initials, CPC, Company. It didn't much fire the imagination of the Mangalorean public, as trade unionism and strikes were fairly new concepts those days and were generally believed to be the handiwork of a handful of distgruntled workers or partymen.
Moving to the national level, and hundreds of strikes and rail rokos later, George rose to be the most formidable railway labour union leader in India. He came to be actively associated with the late Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, the great Socialist who had given the then ruling class and dynasty countless sleepless nights with his campaigns and crusades. George was termed a giant-killer in the late 1960's when he defeated Sadobaji Kanhoji Patil, a powerful minister in the Indira Gandhi cabinet and an unrivalled fund-raiser for the undivided Congress party, in a keenly-fought parliamentary election from Mumbai.
In the early 1970's, the late prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was riding the crest of unprecedented popularity after the liberation of Bangladesh. But soon after, with notorious corruption cases like the Pondicherry licence and Jimmy Nagarwala scandals, and because of the public awareness created by movements like Navnirman in Gujarat and Bihar, her popularity started waning.
The Fernandes family: (sitting) Alice Fernandes- mother, John Joseph - father (standing) George, Lawrence, Michael, Paul, Aloysius and Richard – brothers (courtesy: family collection)
In 1974, the great railway strike organized by George Fernandes really gave the ruling party the creeps. That was the time when Indira ordered the well-known Pokharan nuclear explosion in the deserts of Rajasthan. There are political analysts who believe even 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 national attention and drum up support for herself, argue the analysts. (It is a historical irony that while Pokharan I was prompted by George's strike, Pokharan II was executed with him as the defence minister in the Vajpayee government.)
A momentous phase in the life of George Fernandes was to follow the soon after. It was the notorious Emergency era. By 1975, he was being accused by the government's propaganda machinery of being in touch with the Chinese leader, Mao Tse Tung, with motives of sedition. The late Loknayak Jaiprakash Narayan, who was then leading the Navnirman movement, was also being painted anti-national.
With the Allahabad High Court ruling Indira Gandhi's election to the Lok Sabha void in early June 1975, the anti-corruption and anti-government wave in the country reached its peak, with vociferous demands for her resignation booming across the whole of India. Emergency was declared on June 25, fundamental rights were suspended and draconian laws like press and media censorship imposed. Thousands of opposition leaders were jailed indefinitely without trial. Many leaders like George went underground.
George Fernnades was implicated in the much-publicized "Baroda Dynamite Case" along with several others, including two journalists, Kirit Bhatt and Vikram Rao. He could not be traced by the intelligence bureau or the police. Hence his family was harassed. In an attempt to get clues of his whereabouts, his brothers Lawrence and Michael were arrested, tortured and holed up in cells in distant places. His whole family, including his aging mother, were harassed.
George was believed to have widely travelled all over India, galvanizing the underground resistance movement and also visited his home-district in disguise, without being spotte,. Rumours were around that he visited a famous pilgrimage centre in Dakshina Kannada and also took shelter in the farm-house of a family friend in the district. In spite of a virtual dictatorship in force and a captive security and intelligence system in operation, he could not be traced for almost a year. This speaks volumes of the man's temerity and mercurial personality.
When George was finally nabbed on June 10, 1976 in Kolkata and brought to trial with his hands in chains, he thundered slogans in the court against the misrule. Photographs of his with raised, but bound hands were splashed by the world print media, mainly TIME and NEWSWEEK, which stirred the international public opinion and the conscience of human right activists against the Emergency rule in India. Three world leaders from Germany, Norway and Austria were believed to have cabled prime minister Indira Gandhi and cautioned her against harming Fernandes.
Although fresh elections were announced by Indira Gandhi in early 1977, many prominent opposition leaders were still under detention. Besides the Fernandeses, the family of Kannada film-maker Pattabhi Reddy too suffered because of their proximity to George. Reddy's actress-wife Snehalata was arrested and detained in the company of female anti-social elements. She succumbed to the trauma and passed away soon after her release in early 1977.
George was sceptical of the nature of elections that Indira was planning to hold after the Emergency. He termed it a sham and even gave a call for a boycott. "It will be suicidal for the opposition parties to oblige Mrs Gandhi, by participating in the kind of election she is planning," he wrote from his prison cell. Yet, in keeping with the national mood for an instant change, George fought the election from behind the bars, contesting from Muzaffarpur in Bihar and won with flying colours.
With the installation of the Janata government under Morarji Desai, George Fernandes won a berth in the cabinet. But within two years, the government became a sacrificial lamb at the altar of political brinkmanship. Petty men with vaulting ambitions ruled the day and Morarji had to face a no-confidence motion. George presented a spirited defence of the government, but resigned the soon after.
It has remained an enigma for many political observers even now as to what made George to do that. As a former Janata associate of his observes, "He is so complex that he defies analysis. He resigned on the question of the famous dual membership along with the late socialist leader Madhu Limaye in 1979 and today he is siding with the same people he criticized those days."
Another political leader, who has known him for several years, not only agrees but adds, "History was repeated in 1989-90 also. When V P Singh faced a crisis, key leaders like George deserted him instead of rallying round him."
Well, it could be a matter of opinion. But during his brief stint as the union railway minister, he gave India's western coast a gift of the century - the Konkan Railway. Indeed, success has many fathers, but failure always remains an orphan, nay, a destitute. Today there are unmpteen number of politicians taking credit for this dream come true. But it is only the grit and determination of George Fernandes that laid the firm foundation for this project.
When George parted ways with the Janata Dal some eight years ago, many had written him off. Until early 1998, no one would have wagered on his prospects of becoming a minister again. But, since 1998, he has been holding a key portfolio, except for a break of a few months as aftermath of Tehelka expose. Our neighbours across the borders might have found his statements hawkish. But everyone knows he is a no-nonsense man. He is someone everyone'd better beware of, including the top hierarchy of the present government.
Old pals and fellow-activists Ammembal Balappa and Dr Sanjivanath Aikal eagerly waiting on St Aloysius ground to meet George ( Pic. By Richie Lasrado)
Similarly, under watch are George's views on Swadeshi ethos. (George and Laila's only issue Sushanto studied abroad throughout and has a couple of years ago married a foreigner.) His views on MNC's may be paradoxical to the government's policy of extending a red carpet to foreign investment. His sympathy for Tibetan, Burmese and Sri Lankan movements are well known. The real challenge lay in how he could strike a delicate balance between his personal ideology and the collective decision-making wisdom of the government.
George's critics also point out that he keeps harping on his having given up priestly studies, because he observed a yawning gap between precept and practice. Whether his experience was any better in the field of politics, given the all-pervading doublespeak and chicanery, they ask. In his otherwise blemishless track record, his re-joining the cabinet before the completion of the Tehelka inquiry, which has virtually derailed the probe, is being considered by many as a black spot.
Quite expectedly, many of George's relatives refuse to comment on his political stands. But they are all unanimous on his attachment to the family. A senior female relative fondly recalls, with a gleam in her eyes, how keen he was on looking up each close relative whenever he visited Mangalore with his wife Laila and son Sushanto.
Would you call it a combination of a tough exterior and a soft heart?
BY GEORGE, you said it !
(This well-researched and informative article by Richie Lasrado had originally appeared in April 1998 issue of Mangalore Today English Monthly while he was its Associate Editor. It has been reproduced here with a few minor changes in chronological details, for the benefit of our readers. - Editor)