Thrown out of house by his parents at the age of 19, George Fernandes rose to be the ‘Giant Killer’ of Bombay

Thrown out of house by his parents at the age of 19, George Fernandes rose to be the ‘Giant Killer’ of Bombay

FPJ BureauUpdated: Wednesday, May 29, 2019, 02:58 AM IST
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George Fernandes, one of India’s tallest socialist leaders, who once slept under the open sky on the footpaths of Bombay and on the benches of Chowpatty beach, rose to be a Giant Killer of India’s financial capital in 1967 when he defeated veteran Congressman and the then Mayor of Bombay, S.K. Patil. Fernandes determination and popularity contributed in good measure to his representation in Lok Sabha nine times and once in the Rajya Sabha and his holding several ministerial portfolios- the key being Defence, Railways with additional charge of Kashmir Affairs, Industry besides Communication.

While Fernandes will be remembered by generations for upholding human rights, standing for the rights of the workers, his rebellious streak, tenacity and his ability to fight, he will also be remembered for calling China as enemy number one. The 1957 Bombay Bandh called by him at the age of 27 to get rights for FIAT car workers, the 1974 Railways strike, the setting up of a New India Cooperative bank for loan deprived taxi drivers of Bombay in 1967, his support to young activists from Myanmar and introduction of the Konkan Railways are things that immediately come to mind while remembering Fernandes. To hundreds and thousands of Bombay’s downtrodden including hotel workers, dock workers and taxi drivers, George Fernandes was a saviour Not to forget of course his resistance to the Emergency imposed by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975.

He will surely never be forgotten for his fight against Coca Cola in pre-liberalised India and emerging victorious in the fight against the multi-national corporation. He also boosted the morale of the soldiers by making several visits to Siachen, the world’s highest battlefield.

It is therefore not surprising that he fought Alzheimers’ for almost 12 years of course supported by the love and dedication of his wife Laila Kabeer and nursing attendants round the clock.  This correspondent remembers that

Aneel Hedge, who knew Mr Fernandes for nearly 35 years says, “ I  saw him six months back and was satisfied that he was very well nursed in his wife’s home in Panchsheel Park. “ When I saw him, he was being fed by tubes and was unable to swallow food but he had nursing attendants round the clock who made sure that he had no bed sore. The man who fought for the workers himself braved many hardships. He was thrown out of his house by his parents at the age of 19 for writing against his community in his own weekly newspaper ‘Konkan Yuvak’ and sought shelter in the office of the socialist party in a district in South Kanara in Mangalore. He would sleep on the table. It was then he was helped with Rs 100 by hotel workers of Mangalore to pursue a degree in law there and then come back and fight for their rights. That was the time that Fernandes did not have a roof over his head.

He would later recall to his associates his struggle in Bombay in the prime of his youth when he would have to negotiate with beggars for a space on the footpath. ‘’

Hedge who worked as National General Secretary of Samata Party and Janata Dal (United) says that  that  Fernandes would advise party cadres “ not to be identified with their party posts and visiting cards” but be known by their work. He recalls with pride that when Mr Fernandes went underground during the Emergency, three socialist heads of government sent a cable to Indira Gandhi warning that if anything happened to George Fernandes, they would not take it lying down. “ The pressure from these influential leaders saved his life.”

Hedge says that his fearless leader resisted security and chose not to have a gate in his 3, Krishna Menon residence. “ In 1990, he went to Jama Masjid in Doda without any security. I recall having joined him to Doda in 1994 at the the peak of insurgency in Kashmir. When a man approached him saying he had been sent by the the Governor, Fernandes asked him to go and in order to convince the security officers, he took out a notepad and wrote that I don’t want security men either in plainclothes or in uniform. Around the same time, there was a blast around the venue of his 40 minute speech but he remained unfazed and kept speaking,’’

Some lesser known facts about Fernandes’ daily life are that he washed his own clothes and liked making black tea. Hedge says that half of his bed had books. He would frequent the Strand Book Stall in Bombay. He also went to Khan market to buy rusk for his three dogs, a Labrador, a Golden Retriever and an Alsatian.

Dr Pratyush Nandan who considers himself privileged to have worked with Mr Fernandes, recalls,

“ He was my Hero from school days. I was only 15 when I first met him in 1986 outside the senate hall of Patna University and was lucky to get a chance to work with him in JD(U) when he appointed me as All India President of Janata Dal Students Union. I have vivid memories of my maiden meeting with him. When I asked him how can one become JP (Jai Prakash Naryan), he replied that “ Uske liye aapko hamesha jaan ko hatheli par rakh kar chalna padega” (You have to be prepared to risk his life.”

The middle-aged leader says that Mr Fernandes treated workers equally and never let his tall stature be a barrier in communication.

Dr Nandan recalls that he once went to Mr Fernandes house when the latter was JD(U) President to seek funds to organise an event on the anniversary of the Emergency in Dhanbad. “ I did not get the money and came back empty handed but I came back richer as Mr Fernandes spent almost 40 minutes telling me how I should shed inhibitions about raising funds and go shop to shop to seek funds as we were working in the interest of society. “ Another time, I happened to have accompanied him in 2006 on a train journey from Delhi to Gorakhpur to Kanpur and back to Delhi, I found that he was completely engrossed reading a journal which he finished by the end of the journey and later enlightened me on the gist of what he was reading about China’s consumption of steel. I fell asleep reading but when I woke up at 5.30 a.m, I found that Mr Fernandes was reading still.”

Pratyush last saw his leader on his birthday on June 3 this year but he could not recognise anybody.

For his party cadres, Fernandes clearly remains an evergreen beacon of hope and a man who always raised his voice against injustice and corruption.

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