Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

George Fernandes: Rebel without a pause

The socialist leader literally lit the fuse to become the unlikely poster boy of resistance against the Emergency

George Fernandes was the romantic symbol of resistance to the Emergency. Scathing about the increasingly vacillating attitude of most opposition leaders, he feared the Lok Sangharsh Samiti had lost its will to fight—the top leadership of the organization was in jail, while those who remained outside did not seem to do much except hold meetings.

Fernandes believed that there were circumstances in which satyagraha, or non-violent resistance, was not the only weapon to be used in a battle for justice; in the fight against an illegitimate government, using violent means was justified, as long as it did not lead to serious injuries and death.

Fernandes had a colourful history. A rebel all his life, he had frequently taken up cudgels against the establishment and crusaded for citizens’ rights. He grew up in Mangalore, and at the age of sixteen was sent to a seminary to be trained as a Catholic priest. Disillusioned by what he considered the hypocrisy of the church, he left the seminary at eighteen and drifted to Bombay in search of employment. He slept at night on the benches at Chowpatty beach and became actively involved with the trade union movement and the Socialist Party. Ram Manohar Lohia, the unconventional and outspoken socialist leader, was his inspiration.

In the 1950s Fernandes became the uncrowned king of the taxi drivers’ union. With his unruly shock of hair framing his lean, bespectacled face, and dressed in his trademark crumpled khadi kurta-pyjama and scuffed chappals, Fernandes looked every bit the fiery activist he was—a “rebel without a pause" as some dubbed him. He was jailed frequently for taking part in agitations. Many in the middle class, including my own family in Bombay, perceived Fernandes as a disruptive influence, a demagogue who kept bringing life in the city to a halt with his calls for “Bombay bandh". But to hundreds and thousands of Bombay’s downtrodden he was a hero and saviour. In 1967, Fernandes stood against the veteran Congress leader S.K. Patil and stunned the ruling party by defeating the Congress strongman in his Bombay South parliamentary constituency. After his victory he earned the nickname “George the giant killer".

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Fernandes took over as chairman of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation in November 1973. The Indian Railways employed some fourteen lakh people then, nearly 7 per cent of the labour force of the entire organized sector. Railway workers felt they had a legitimate grievance when they compared their incomes with the employees of some other public sector undertakings. Fernandes called a nationwide railway strike on 8 May 1974 to redress grievances of the railway staff, which had been pending for more than two decades. The government had ignored the rising cost of living and not adjusted their salaries accordingly. This was in the heyday of union activity, and soon electricity workers, transport workers and taxi drivers also joined the strike in solidarity with the railway workers.

For some days the railways came to a standstill. There was no movement of goods or people. Demonstrations were held all over the country. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi responded to the strike with tough measures. Some 30,0000 people, including Fernandes, were imprisoned. Thousands lost their jobs and were evicted from their quarters. The army was called out in several places. The government’s ruthlessness paid off. The strike was broken within three weeks. But the bitterness between the government and the union activists festered for long afterwards. Gandhi complained that on the one hand, the opposition parties were attacking the government for its inability to check rising prices but at the same time they were pressing for the demands of the railway employees to be met even though it would mean sky-rocketing inflation. Gandhi looked upon the railway strike as a manifestation of the growing climate of violence and indiscipline in the country. Indeed, she often mentioned the strike when justifying the imposition of the Emergency.

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Fernandes, then 45, was in the remote fishing village of Gopalpur-by-the-Sea in Orissa, visiting his in-laws, when he heard the news of the Emergency on the radio. He had no intention of being a sitting duck for the police. He escaped immediately, dressed in a lungi, looking like a local fisherman. He left a letter for his wife, Leila, and their son. After that he was on the move constantly, changing his address and appearance often.

As a much-wanted underground leader Fernandes took precautions to keep the police off his trail. He did not permit foreign journalists who met him to take his photograph. He avoided speaking on the telephone. He changed disguises frequently. By August 1975, his hair had turned grey and his beard was long enough for him to transform himself into a Sikh. His turban was kept arranged for him in a special hatbox. He travelled from town to town, all over the country, often as a Sikh. In cities, he often disguised himself as a sadhu in a saffron kurta and lungi. So completely did he alter his appearance that he was unrecognizable. Once he was staying at a guest house in Bangalore when the sales tax department raided the place and turned it upside down. Fernandes did not move and continued to nonchalantly eat his toast at the table.

Fernandes spent considerable time in Gujarat, considered a safe haven because the Opposition was in power there. He also moved around extensively in the south, including his home town of Mangalore. During his trips Fernandes was able to establish contacts with his socialist and trade union colleagues as well as family and friends.

On 15 August 1975 Fernandes issued an appeal. He pointed out: “Everyone must by now have realized that you cannot have committee meetings and mutual consultations in the prevailing situation... the president and general secretaries of all the parties are in prison, so are most of the members of the national executives, state executives, even district committees of these parties. Those who have evaded arrest are not easily available." He suggested that in the circumstances “there should either be quick mutual consultations, or people should simply assume leadership at various levels". He felt that a debate on the nature of the movement against Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship was unnecessary, and often a cover for inaction or a rationalization of cowardice.

In a letter to Socialist leader N.G. Gore, for circulation among all political parties, he said that he was increasingly fearful that most people in the Opposition were not willing to face the realities of a totally fascist dictator having taken over the country. “If Parliament has been reduced to a joke, the so-called opposition parties’ members, who still refuse to resign their seats from that illegitimate Lok Sabha, are only playing the part of circus clowns. I believe it is a contradiction in terms to say that we shall provide a democratic alternative to a fascist dictatorship. Such a position only means that we are all mixed up in our priorities."

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Fernandes had many strategies for waging war against “that woman", as he referred to Indira Gandhi. He felt the primary objective was to remove fear from the minds of the people. To this end he believed that the underground should undertake acts of defiance, which might even be violent but which should not result in any casualties. He also advocated sabotage of a kind that would not inconvenience people. Soon after the Emergency was declared, Fernandes felt the most effective way to demonstrate his defiance of the state was to use dynamite. Originally, the dynamite was procured from Gujarat but later stocks were acquired from other places as well. Training sessions and demonstrations were arranged in Baroda. The targets were bridges, railway lines and culverts in wayside areas and not in crowded places.

Fernandes’ core group included actress Snehlata Reddy and her family in Bangalore, M.S. Appa Rao and his daughter Amuktha in Madras, C.G.K. Reddy, a former freedom fighter who was a business consultant to The Hindu, Viren J. Shah, chairman of Mukund Iron and Steel Works, journalists Vikram Rao and Kirit Bhatt, and sympathizers like Captain Huilgol, his daughter Girija, Govindbhai Solanki, a mill worker Motilal Kanojia and lawyer Prabhudas Patwari.

C.G.K. Reddy in his book Baroda Dynamite Conspiracy points out that the socialist underground movement was not only about dynamite as is often made out. The aim was to generate publicity, letting people both in India and abroad know of the widespread opposition to the Emergency. The dynamite explosions were only one of the several methods towards that end.

“There was a division in the Opposition about the methods to be adopted to fight the Emergency," recalls K.C. Tyagi who was a follower of Charan Singh. “But George was a romantic hero for all of us. I remember I also took some dynamite but hesitated to use it because of the fear of Chaudhary Charan Singh’s disapproval."

Rahul Ramagundam, who is researching a biography of Fernandes, believes: “In reality, the dynamite conspiracy did not result in any major destructive act. The seven to eight months were utilized largely by the conspirators in organization, training and dispatching consignments. People were drawn by George’s personality and believed in resistance. But in actual terms they did very little." Reddy, in contrast, in his book cites the complete destruction of the Arrah telephone exchange and the severe damage to the railway system in Bihar as the result of the dynamite conspiracy.

To make people aware of the underground, appeals and letters in Fernandes’ name were sent out. In July 1975, one of the letters appeared on the front page of The Times, London. Fernandes had many influential contacts outside India, thanks to his trade union and socialist activities. To counter Gandhi’s propaganda through Indian embassies and delegations sent abroad by her regime, he felt someone from the Opposition should be sent overseas as well, to build up world opinion against the atrocities being perpetuated in India. Civil liberties had been snatched away, yet Gandhi proclaimed that the country was a democracy and that just a few people, mostly smugglers and bad characters, had been put in jail. For this mission, Fernandes chose his friend C.G.K. Reddy, who travelled abroad frequently for legitimate business purposes and had contacts overseas.

Reddy did a sterling job. He met friends who were prominent members of the Free JP Campaign Committee in London. He travelled to Brussels at the end of November 1975, where a meeting of the Bureau Socialiste Internationale (International Socialist Bureau) was held. As a representative of Fernandes, who was chairman of the Indian Socialist Party, Reddy was welcomed with open arms. The secretary general of Socialiste Internationale, Hans Janitschek, asked him to address the bureau. Reddy read out a pamphlet titled Indira’s India: Anatomy of a Dictatorship. Copies of the pamphlet were printed after the bureau meeting; it was translated into German, French, Italian and Japanese, and several thousand copies distributed all over the world. It contributed significantly in neutralizing Mrs Gandhi’s propaganda campaign outside India. The Socialiste Internationale, on the basis of Reddy’s address, adopted a strong resolution, noting with concern the situation in India and the deteriorating health of Jayaprakash Narayan who had recently been released from detention. It deplored the violation of civil liberties and fundamental rights of Indian citizens. As a consequence, several articles and news items appeared in major newspapers in Europe during and after Reddy’s visit. Although the WikiLeaks tapes of the diplomatic exchanges of that period suggest that Fernandes had even applied to the CIA for funding his cause, Reddy in his book is emphatic that he was very selective about whom he accepted donations from. Some of the biggest contributors were foreign trade unions.

The backing of the Socialiste Internationale, Amnesty International and foreign trade union organizations did much to influence public opinion abroad against Indira Gandhi’s regime. On at least two occasions, former chancellor of West Germany Willy Brandt, Chancellor Bruno Kreisky of Austria and Prime Minister Olof Palme of Sweden came out publicly against Gandhi. The Free JP Campaign Committee in London organized demonstrations on India’s Independence Day and Republic Day. In the US, a group titled Indians for Democracy was active and official Indian representatives in the US, including ministers, could not attend major meetings without embarrassing questions being raised about the suppression of civil liberties back home. Leila also campaigned abroad on her husband’s behalf.

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In their frantic hunt for Fernandes and his accomplices, the police acted with incredible ruthlessness and cruelty. Two of the victims in this brutal operation were Snehlata Reddy and Fernandes’s brother Lawrence. Snehlata was a reputed actress in theatre and films, and interested in poetry and the arts. Her husband, Pattabhi, was a Telugu poet and a famous film producer. His film Samskara, in which Snehlata had acted, achieved international acclaim. The Reddys were never active in politics but were close to Ram Manohar Lohia and later came to know Fernandes well. After the detention of the former joint secretary of the Socialist Party, Venkatram, Snehlata took over the southern wing of the operation. She participated in all the secret meetings.

Snehlata was on a trip to Madras when the police picked up her teenaged son Konarak. They also raided her house in Bangalore in the middle of the night and interrogated her 84-year-old father. A panicky Snehlata and Pattabhi rushed back to Bangalore. Worried sick by the disappearance of her son, Snehlata broke down under interrogation and promised she would disclose everything if the police would leave her family alone. Snehlata was taken into police custody on 2 May 1976. Despite police pressure she refused to betray the names of the people she had interacted with.

Snehlata was then detained under MISA on 22 May and kept in the Bangalore jail. A chronic asthmatic, Snehlata’s distress and despair is reflected in her diary, where she wrote about the ill treatment she was subjected to by the jail authorities and the lack of proper medical care. Since no doctor attended to her she even had to administer the injections she needed herself. On 26 July she wrote in her diary, “Can’t I be released or paroled on health grounds? I almost died because of the conditions here. My asthma has never been so continuous and severe... I am going to have a nervous breakdown soon. I am on my way to it." She pleaded with the jail authorities to permit her family to see her, but a sadistic jail superintendent cancelled all interviews with relatives. Another entry in the diary reads, “No business to shut me up with the C class prisoners without air or even a window to look into the jail compound." She was kept apart from other MISA prisoners. “Here no company either male or female, no walks, no fresh air and no communication," was another cry for help in her diary. On 1 August she wrote, “Deliberate negligence—I will die here slowly, like a forgotten song of the past. Why are these people forcing me to die in public?" Four doctors who eventually examined her said she should be immediately hospitalized because the claustrophobic atmosphere and conditions in the jail aggravated her allergies. But the prison authorities paid no heed.

Snehlata’s health steadily deteriorated. Her asthmatic attacks intensified and she was treated with heavy doses of cortisone. She was finally released on parole on 13 December 1976, and died shortly afterwards on 20 January 1977 of a massive heart attack. When she was sent to jail “Snehlata was a slim, youthful-looking woman, and she came out broken in spirit and health, looking bloated and elderly."

The treatment meted out to Fernandes’ younger brother Lawrence was equally cruel. Lawrence was taken from his house in Bangalore at 8.45 p.m. on 1 May 1976, but his arrest was not entered in the police records. He was placed in the custody of the Karnataka Police’s Corps of Detectives in Bangalore, and they interrogated him relentlessly to find out the whereabouts of his brother. When he gave no answers he was brutally assaulted with lathis by eight to 10 policemen. The beating continued till 3 a.m. and during this period he was not given anything to eat or drink. When he begged for water an officer asked a constable to urinate in his mouth. The constable mercifully desisted.

His father, J.J. Fernandes, lodged a report with the police control room that his son had been picked up, but the police refused to disclose that they had him in their custody. He was listed as a missing person.

By 3 May, after two days of ceaseless torture, Lawrence’s condition rapidly deteriorated. Apprehensive that Lawrence might die on their hands, the police summoned a doctor named Rajgopal to examine him. The doctor was ordered not to ask the patient any questions. Dr Rajgopal could make out the injuries were due to external violence. His body was swollen all over and his left foot seemed fractured. He urged that the patient be transferred to a hospital immediately. It was only on 7 May, when Lawrence complained of trouble in breathing at 2 a.m., that he was taken in a taxi from Malleswaram police station to the K.C. General Hospital. The doctor on duty recalls that the patient, who was wearing only a vest, was speaking in a faint voice and complaining about pain around his chest. The doctor instructed the nurse to give the patient some painkillers and went out of the room for a few seconds to wash his hands. When he returned, the police and the patient had vanished.

On 9 May Lawrence was taken to Davangere Extension police station and lodged in an ill-ventilated lock-up full of cockroaches and mosquitoes. The next day he was brought before a magistrate in the presence of the DSP. The magistrate asked him whether he had anything to say. After a brief silence and with tears in his eyes Lawrence just muttered, “What can I say?" He was taken out and made to walk barefoot to the police station in the burning sand. According to the official police records, Lawrence was arrested in Davangere on 10 May at a bus stand.

Later, in the Bangalore prison, in a dark, stinking cell, Lawrence one day heard a voice calling his name again and again. At first he thought he was hallucinating but then he recognized the voice of the Socialist MP Madhu Dandavate. He replied feebly, “Yes." Dandavate and other MISA prisoners started a hunger strike, demanding that Lawrence be transferred from the condemned cell and provided better accommodation. Lawrence also went on a hunger strike. By this time he had lost some 20 kgs and looked like a skeleton.

Lawrence was eventually released only towards the end of the Emergency. He was admitted to AIIMS in Delhi where doctors found that he had a painful limp in the left leg, limited movement in both hips, and damage to the ankle and foot joints. AIIMS records noted that Lawrence had suffered severe assaults and he needed both mental and physical rehabilitation.

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George Fernandes was eventually arrested on 10 June 1976 in Calcutta. His arrest and that of his companions, and the subsequent crackdown by the authorities on their underground activities, was not due to the investigative powers of the police and intelligence agencies. Fernandes was caught because a businessman named Sharad Patel, who had been taken into confidence about the dynamite conspiracy, turned approver. Sharad Patel had come under the scrutiny of CBI in an unrelated case. He was the nephew of Bharat Patel, a businessman contacted by Fernandes to procure dynamite. When Sharad got into trouble with the authorities on an unrelated matter he revealed his knowledge of the underground as a trade-off to get the police off his back. His uncle also turned approver.

Getting wind of the crackdown on his companions Fernandes, disguised as a Sikh, left Delhi and caught the first flight to Calcutta on 10 March 1976. Fernandes was supposed to lie low, but it was not in his nature to remain confined indoors and idle. The police were able to find out that Fernandes had moved to Calcutta from Delhi. Fernandes was given shelter in a small cell of a church in Calcutta by a priest, Father Rudolph. The police were able to locate Fernandes after three months thanks to a tip-off. The informer was never identified.

From Calcutta Fernandes was brought in a plane to Delhi and taken blindfolded and handcuffed in a van to an interrogation cell. Stripped naked and wrapped in a rough blanket, he was cross-questioned by the police, but refused to say anything other than that he was fighting an illegitimate dictatorship. He was first taken to Hissar jail where he had a run-in with the jailer. Fernandes saw a photograph of Indira Gandhi on the wall and saw red. He taunted his captors, “You are following the orders of this woman, but I tell you, tomorrow this woman will be in jail." He was then transferred to Tihar jail in Delhi. The Socialiste Internationale publicized his case, and leaders like Willy Brandt and Olof Palme conveyed to Mrs Gandhi that she would be answerable if anything happened to Fernandes.

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On 4 October 1976 the accused were first produced before the chief metropolitan magistrate. The charge sheet ran into 3000 pages. It stated that Fernandes and his co-conspirators had attempted to overthrow a lawfully established government by criminal force and conspiracy. Supplementary charges included illegal possession of explosives, distributing of underground literature, inciting various groups in revolt and organizing meetings for sabotage. The prosecution filed about 500 documents and listed 575 witnesses. The prosecution did not, however, cite examples of serious cases of sabotage. Reddy believes that this was because it wanted to depict the conspiracy as being of no great threat to the state and the conspirators as incompetent, bumbling amateurs.

The charge sheet mentioned an unsuccessful plot to blow up the dais in Varanasi a few hours before Gandhi was to speak there. The case against Fernandes was referred to as the Baroda Dynamite Conspiracy. The prosecution did not add the names of the two women conspirators, Snehlata Reddy and Dr Girija Huilgol, probably because they felt it would attract sympathy for the movement.

Fernandes and his co-conspirators pleaded guilty to the charge of attempting to overthrow Gandhi, but did not accept the specific charges put forward by the government. The defence team was headed by the defence lawyer for Virendra, V.M. Tarkunde. Acharya Kripalani was chairperson of the defence committee. Fernandes and his fellow accused came handcuffed and in chains, accompanied by a dozen policemen armed with Sten guns. Although granted bail after the trial, all the accused were rearrested and detained under MISA.

Photo: India Today

The trial became a cause célèbre. Foreign correspondents from all over the world flew down to cover it. The Indian media was, however, prohibited from reporting the details except for dispatches from the news agency Samachar.

While in jail Fernandes prepared his own arguments. At one point he read out a moving six-page petition in court, explaining why he had been forced to organize an underground resistance against Gandhi’s “fascist regime". He demanded the restoration of fundamental rights and civil liberties. He recounted the torture of Snehlata and Lawrence and the manner in which all the accused were being treated in jail. Noting that the elections had been announced, he exhorted the people to remain ever-vigilant about their rights and liberties—only then could the country remain free and prevent its takeover as the private fiefdom of an individual and her family.

In a dramatic gesture, Fernandes held up his chained hands and declared: “The chains that we bear are symbols of the entire nation which has been chained and fettered." He ended his plea to the judge with the words, “Sir, I am proud, very proud indeed, that when Mrs Gandhi became the dictator, I and my comrades behaved like MEN."

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Although elections were announced halfway through the trial, Fernandes had no faith that the elections would end Indira Gandhi’s reign of terror. His letters, smuggled out to opposition party leaders by his lawyers Sushma and Swaraj Kaushal, urged them not to fall into the trap of fighting the poll. He was convinced that the elections would not be free and fair—they were just a ruse to give legitimacy to Gandhi’s rule. But Jayaprakash Narayan insisted that Fernandes should be fielded in absentia from the Muzaffarpur constituency in Bihar, and Fernandes finally agreed. The government refused to grant him parole to campaign. However, during the trial Fernandes managed to be in contact with the outside world and played a part in the selection of candidates. He also managed to send out taped speeches and give interviews to the foreign press.

On 22 March 1977, when news of the election results began filtering into the courtroom, including news of Fernandes’ own lead by a huge margin from Muzaffarpur, jubilant crowds swarmed all over the courtroom. Fernandes’ cross-examination was not over, but seeing the public mood the magistrate released all the accused on bail. The Baroda dynamite case was withdrawn on 26 March.

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After the Emergency ended, Morarji Desai talked about the need to forgive and forget. Fernandes was unwilling. “How can I ever forget or forgive JP’s kidneys, the torture to my brother Lawrence, the death of Snehlata?" he protested.

As the results of the elections in March 1977 would demonstrate, millions of Indians, like George Fernandes, were not willing to forgive Indira Gandhi and (her son) Sanjay, or forget the excesses committed during the Emergency.

Excerpted from The Emergency: A Personal History (Viking, 389 pages, Rs599) by Coomi Kapoor, with permission from Penguin Random House.

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