In The Emergency: A Personal History, a valuable piece of record and reportage on the darkest phase in India’s democracy, veteran journalist and author Coomi Kapoor reproduces a stirring declaration by George Fernandes, when he was being tried in a Vadodara court as an accused in the Baroda Dynamite Conspiracy. “Sir, I am proud, very proud indeed, that when Mrs Gandhi became the dictator, I and my comrades behaved like MEN," Fernandes told the judge.
The iconic picture of George Fernandes that lives on among us—hands chained yet held high in a rugged act of defiance—is from that moment of self-realization against megalomania.
Fernandes, 88, the last of his generation who stood up bravely against Indira Gandhi and the Emergency, died on Tuesday. Indeed, so potent was the rebellion of Fernandes and his comrades, that on 22 March 1977, when the results of that epic election started coming in and Fernandes was leading by a huge margin from the Muzaffarpur Lok Sabha constituency, the courtroom was swarmed by people, writes Kapoor, and the magistrate released all the accused on bail though the cross-examination was not over.
The Emergency marked a glorious episode in Fernandes’ six-decade long public life, but he had arrived much earlier. Bombay was the first long stop in his life and the first stage in this socialist rebel’s public appearance that later took on many avatars.
Mahabal Shetty, the general secretary of Municipal Mazdoor Union, which was founded by Fernandes in 1956, was 21 when he first saw Fernandes. “He came to Mumbai from Mangalore and made the city his own as he owned up the problems of the unorganized labourers and workers. George was the leader of the leaders, trade unionist of the trade unionists," Shetty said, as he reminisced his six-decade long association with Fernandes.
Among trade unionists, Communists and even some old Congress workers of Mumbai, George remains only the second man after Communist Party of India founder Shripad Amrut Dange, who died in 1991, who could bring Bombay to a halt for the workers’ cause much before a certain Bal Keshav Thackeray arrived on the scene with Shiv Sena.
In 1967 he trounced Congress veteran S.K. Patil from the Mumbai South Lok Sabha constituency. “That was when he entered the national scene," said Shetty.
In the 70s, Fernandes’ political avatar formally started with the Samyukta Socialist Party. He later joined the Janata Party and founded the Samata Party after the Janata Party split into several factions. But a truly meatier assignment came in the form of the defence minister in the Vajpayee government and the convener of the BJP-led NDA in the late 90s.
Fernandes was the most wanted man, for different reasons obviously, during the Emergency, too. Kapoor describes him as the “romantic symbol of resistance" to Indira Gandhi. On Tuesday, as he bade goodbye, it was ironical to hear flowery tributes being mouthed to the man by Congress leaders led by Indira Gandhi’s grandson Rahul Gandhi.