George Fernades -the ICON of resistance against the Emergency of 1975-77
( From his biography-unfinished). VK Cherian
|On the way to court.|
|A protest meet at London for George|
|The Baroda dynamite accused a group photo|
|George out of Jail to Courts..|
Years later, despite his initial hesitations, George find out that he could effectively utilize the network of the Jan Sangh and Sangaparivar against Prime Minister Ms Indira Gandhi and her draconian emergency from the underground network, which the sangaparivar provided to him. George Fernandes had a great admiration for the network of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang(RSS) from those days, though politically no one thought he was comfortable with the parivar outfits.
When Ms Gandhi declared emergency, in June 1975, George Ferandes was high on her list of opposition leaders to be arrested. After defeating SK Patil from Bombay Central and being in parliament in 1967, George the trade unionist had become an opposition leader of stature. The tenure in Parliament put him with national and international politics. After the death of Dr. Lohia his mentor, that charismatic leadership mantle fell on George, who was elected as the President of Samyuktha Socialist Party(SSP).He become the darling of the Socialist International’s leaders like German Chancellor Willy Brant. George the iconic politician was being born, much to the delight of the trade unions and also the opposition benches in Lok Sabha.
His new profile helped George get elected as the All India Railway Employees Federation(AIREF) in 1973 November. Till then various railway unions used to threaten strikes, but never carry out, as, no one could effectively untie various unions. George, who used to often shut down Mumbai many times with his strikes, was also the President of Central Railway Union. The militant wings of the railway unions thought it fit to elect George as the President of the ARIEF so that they can go ahead with a proposed strike which was pending for many years to press for their demands. The historic May 1974 railway strike which completely halted railways was yet another feather in the cap of the Bombay trade unionist, George Fernandes. The railway strike unnerved Prime Minister Indira Gandhi politically and this was the first time Ms Gandhi was getting a taste of George’s organizational ability. Ms Gandhi was already facing the nav nirman agitation in Gujarat and Jayaprakash Narain led agitation was also gaining momentum. The two week railway strike of May 1974 helped the opposition movement gain momentum and SSP President George Fernandes emerge as the star among opposition leaders.
Ms. Indira Gandhi already had a special eye on George, as he made her elevation as Prime Minister in 1969 smooth by defeating SK Patil, who should have been a challenger to her post. SK Patil was seen as the money bag of Congress with support from Maharashtra politicians and the all powerful textile lobby of Mumbai. Railways strike added another dimension to the impression of George on Ms. Gandhi. By then George had emerged as the darling of Socialist International too. Successful railway strike saw Japanese railway unions sending a hefty contribution to their Indian counter parts and George. Ms. Gandhi noticed that and made an allegation that George was being funded by Japanese and Socialist International and CIA was behind it.
When emergency was declared in June 1975, George with his wife Leila Kabir and son Sushanto , Sean, was in Gopalpur, Orissa, where Leila’s family had a house. George was high on the list of opposition leaders to be picked up by police for detention. However, being a trade union leader helped him here also to escape the police. A local telephone employee overheard a conversation about police trying to trace George and warned him. George heard the news when he was in his lungis and he got into a car leaving his wife and son and sped away. From then till he was finally arrested in Kolkotta almost a year later, George was an underground activist who terrorized the administration.” He disappeared from the house in a lungi and I saw him only after emergency, though he used to call me sometimes”, Leila Kabir Fernandes , recollected.
His letter to Ms. Gandhi “ Madam Dictator” remains as part of the Indian history as the boldest attempt of free India from emergency and suspension of democracy. George Ferandes, wrote the the famous letter to remind the then Prime Minister and the world that resistance to the draconian emergency which curbed Indian constitution was on full swing. The letter, circulated in thousands from underground listed each of the claims of the government of India and contradicted it and called Ms Gandhi a “lier”.
“ I posted the letter in Goldakana post office in Delhi”, Freddie, George’s long time assistant told me with a smile. The underground activities of George is just a leaf out of a script of a political thriller. Freddie and others close to him knew the where about of George those days , as he moved from city to city and State to State. From Gopalpur on June 25th1975, George reached Cuttak. He had to leave Orissa to avoid arrest and hence moved up and reached Allahabad by road. There, the RSS network helped him to stay with a lawyer family and then moved him in a week to Ahmadabad, all by road. At Ahmadabad his camp office was with one Babubhai Patel, who was a social figure, but they shifted him to a popular doctor couple for fear of exposure. Dr Surthi’s were popular doctor couple, whose house was a safe haven for George from police. At this time he had grown beard and was dressed as a Sardar. “I called myself as Khushwant Singh, as that was the only name which came to my mind”, he told years later about those days.
In April 15 1976, he travelled in car to South India from Ahmadabad. In Chennai Karunanidhi, who shares birthday with him, arranged for his stay. He went around from State to State and city to city organizing and spreading the message that resistance to emergency was on. The cyclostyled pamphlets against emergency were distributed as George penned these to give the real picture of emergency days, since the press was censored by the government. Freddie remembers George carrying a Brother portable typewriter of those days for scripting his messages. In the summer of 1976, George was in Mumbai and organized a meeting to coordinate underground activities. All this was when police across the cities were looking for him and most of the political leaders were in jail.
George became the symbol of underground protest against emergency not just by the pamphlets and letters, but by the occasional blasts in public places which shocked not just the administration, but the people also. His aim was to remind the world and Ms Gandhi that resistance to emergency is in full swing. The dynamite, jelly stick blasts, were planned and executed by George when he was in Ahmadabad, between August 75 to March 76. George tied up with Patel brothers of Baroda, running Standard Radiators and supplying selling gelatin sticks for blasting rocks for his “dynamites”. The strategy was to create surprise and shock for administration and hence George instructed the blasts to be in public places when there was no harm to people. For instance, they blasted a goods train and derailed it, a post office in the night etc. This went on for about six months till IB traced the source of gelatin sticks to Patel brothers.
Police made Patel brothers speak in Baroda to expose the infamous Baroda dynamite case implicating George. He was finally traced by police in March 76 hiding in a Church in Kolkotta. Sanjay Gandhi and Om Mehta the emergency Minister of State for Home had told the police to finish off George whenever he was caught, Freddie says. However, the police those days were different and they decided to seek and opinion of Ms Gandhi who was on a visit to Moscow when George was arrested. The telegraph message which went to Moscow was leaked out by British and American intelligence and BBC broke the story of George’s arrest to the world.
George’s arrest made national and international news and people were excited and administration had to be careful then. George was put in a BSF plane and brought to Delhi and housed at Red Fort barracks and not at Tihar Jail. He was kept naked in a room alone with full lights and not allowing him to sleep for days. Many in Delhi say he was tortured, with electric shocks etc to make him speak, but Freddie says, he was not physically tortured.
But what surprised Ms Gandhi was the message from Socialist leaders like Willy Brant and Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky. They all pleaded for mercy for George. British shadow Prime Minister and Labour leader Michel Foot, came to India, met Ms. Gandhi and advised her to go slow on George. The fiery trade union leader from Mumbai thus becomes a global figure of resistance to draconian emergency. George, the national and international socialist was born and got a hero’s welcome when he was released from jail after his election to 1977 Lok Sabah from Musafir Pur constituency, in Bihar, which he nurtured till last elections. Jayaprakash Narain had nominated him from Musafir Pur as Janata party candidate. SSP had by then merged with Janata party which formed out of merger of all opposition parties.
I remember as college student being present at Putharikandom maidan in Thiruvanathapuram, when George the emergency hero, who was by then the Industries Minister in Janata Party government headed by Morarji Desai spoke at length about. The maidan was full of people, and I still remember the spirited speech of George there and for all of us he was the real hero of resistance against emergency. Asked whether he will re-enact a Baroda dynamite act again, once George, retorted, “yes, if democracy is in danger I will resist it with bombs too”. That was George the fighter for you.