George Fernandes in 2002
|Minister of Defence|
21 October 2001 – 22 May 2004
|Prime Minister||Atal Bihari Vajpayee|
|Preceded by||Jaswant Singh|
|Succeeded by||Pranab Mukherjee|
19 March 1998 – 16 March 2001
|Prime Minister||Atal Bihari Vajpayee|
|Preceded by||Mulayam Singh Yadav|
|Succeeded by||Jaswant Singh|
|Minister of Railways|
2 December 1989 – 10 November 1990
|Prime Minister||V. P. Singh|
|Preceded by||Madhav Rao Scindia|
|Succeeded by||Janeshwar Mishra|
|Member of the Indian Parliament
for Bihar (Rajya Sabha)
4 August 2009 – 7 July 2010
|Member of the Indian Parliament
|Preceded by||Jainarain Prasad Nishad|
|Succeeded by||Jainarain Prasad Nishad|
|Preceded by||Laliteshwar Prasad Shahi|
|Succeeded by||Jainarain Prasad Nishad|
|Preceded by||Nawal Kishore Sinha|
|Succeeded by||Laliteshwar Prasad Shahi|
|Member of the Indian Parliament
|Preceded by||Vijoy Kumar Yadav|
|Succeeded by||Nitish Kumar|
3 June 1930 |
Mangalore, South Canara, Madras Presidency of British India
(now in Karnataka, India)
|Political party||Samata Manch|
|Residence||Bangalore, Karnataka, India|
George Mathew Fernandes (born 3 June 1930) is a former Indian trade unionist, politician, journalist, agriculturist, and member of Rajya Sabha from Bihar. He was a key member of the Janata Dal, and is the founder of the Samata Party. He has held several ministerial portfolios including communications, industry, railways, and defence, and was the only Christian minister in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's cabinet.
A native of Mangalore, Fernandes was sent to Bangalore in 1946 to be trained as a priest. In 1949 he moved to Bombay, where he joined the socialist trade union movement. Becoming a fiery trade union leader, Fernandes organised many strikes and bandhs in Bombay in the 1950s and 1960s. The most notable agitation he organised was the 1974 Railway strike, when he was President of the All India Railwaymen's Federation. Fernandes went underground during the Emergency era of 1975, while challenging Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for imposing a state of emergency, but in 1976 he was arrested and tried in the infamous Baroda dynamite case.
In 1977, after the Emergency had been lifted, Fernandez won the Muzaffarpur seat in Bihar and was appointed as Union Minister for Industries. During his tenure as union minister, he ordered American multinationals IBM and Coca Cola to leave the country, due to investment violations. He was the driving force behind the Konkan Railway project during his tenure as railway minister from 1989 to 1990. He was a defence minister in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government (1998–2004), when the Kargil War broke out between India and Pakistan, and India conducted its nuclear tests at Pokhran. A veteran socialist, Fernandes has been dogged by various controversies, including the Barak Missile scandal and the Tehelka affair.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Life in Bombay
- 3 1974 railway strike
- 4 Emergency era and union ministry
- 5 Party memberships and railway ministry
- 6 Defence ministry
- 7 After the defence ministership
- 8 Controversies
- 9 Writings, journalism, and other work
- 10 Family and personal life
- 11 References
- 12 External links
George Fernandes was born on 3 June 1930 to John Joseph Fernandes and Alice Martha Fernandes (née Pinto), in Mangalore to a Mangalorean Catholic family. The eldest of six children, his siblings are Lawrence, Michael, Paul, Aloysius, and Richard. His mother was a great admirer of King George V (who was also born on 3 June), hence she named her first son George. His father was employed by the Peerless Finance group as an insurance executive, and headed their office of South India for several years. George was fondly called "Gerry" in close family circles. He completed his Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) at St. Aloysius College, Mangalore.
In the orthodox tradition of the family, George being the eldest son, was sent for religious education to St Peter's Seminary in Bangalore at the age of 16, to be trained as a Roman Catholic priest from 1946 to 1948. At the age of 19, he left the seminary due to sheer frustration because he was appalled that the rectors ate better food and sat at higher tables than the seminarians. He later confessed that, "I was disillusioned, because there was a lot of difference between precept and practice where the Church was concerned." He began work at the age of 19, organising exploited workers in the road transport industry and in the hotels and restaurants in Mangalore.
Life in Bombay
After leaving the seminary, Fernandes moved to Bombay in 1949 in search of a job. His life was tough in Bombay, and he had to sleep on the streets, until he got a job as a proofreader for a newspaper. He relates to the beginning of his career by saying, "When I came to Bombay, I used to sleep on the benches of Chowpatty Sands. In the middle of the night policemen used to come and wake me up and ask me to move on." He came into contact with veteran union leader Placid D'Mello, and the socialist Rammanohar Lohia, who were the greatest influences on his life. Later, he joined the socialist trade union movement. He rose to prominence as a trade unionist and fought for the rights of labourers in small scale service industries such as hotels and restaurants. Emerging as a key figure in the Bombay labour movement in the early 1950s, Fernandes was a central figure in the unionisation of sections of Bombay labour in the 1950s. As a labour organiser, he served many prison terms when his workforce engaged in fights with company goons. He served as a member of the Bombay Municipal Corporation from 1961 to 1968. He won in the civic election in 1961 and, until 1968, continuously raised the problems of the exploited workers in the representative body of the metropolis.
The pivotal moment that thrust Fernandes into the limelight was his decision to contest the 1967 general elections. He was offered a party ticket for the Bombay South constituency by the Samyukta Socialist Party against the politically more popular Sadashiv Kanoji Patil of the Indian National Congress in Bombay. Sadashiv Kanoji Patil, or S.K. Patil, as he was popularly known, was a seasoned politician, with two decades of experience behind him. Nevertheless, Fernandes won against Patil by garnering 48.5 per cent of the votes, thus earning his nickname, "George the Giantkiller". The shocking defeat ended Patil's political career.
Fernandes emerged as a key leader in the upsurge of strike actions in Bombay during the second half of the 1960s but, by the beginnings of the 1970s, the impetus of his leadership had largely disappeared. In 1969, he was chosen General Secretary of the Samyukta Socialist Party, and in 1973 became the Chairman of the Socialist Party. After the 1970s, Fernandes failed to make major inroads in Bombay's growing private-sector industries.
1974 railway strike
The most notable strike organised by Fernandes, when he was President of the All India Railwaymen's Federation, was the All India Railway strike of 1974, where the entire nation was brought to a halt. The strike was the result of grievances by railway workers that had been built up over two decades before the strike. Though there were three Pay commissions between 1947 to 1974, none of them increased the cost of living of the workers. In February 1974, the National Coordinating Committee for Railwaymen's Struggle (NCRRS) was formed to bring all the railway unions, the central trade unions and political parties in the Opposition together to prepare for the strike to start on 8 May 1974. In Bombay, electricity and transport workers, as well as taxi drivers joined the protests. In Gaya, Bihar, striking workers and their families squatted on the tracks. More than 10,000 workers of the Integral Coach Factory in Madras marched to the Southern Railway headquarters to express their solidarity with the striking workers. Similar protests erupted across the country.
The strike, which started on 8 May 1974, at the time of economic crisis, provoked strong government reactions and massive arrests. According to Amnesty International, 30,000 trade unionists were detained, most held under preventive detention laws. Those arrested included not only members of the strike action committee and trade unionists, but also railwaymen who participated in the strike. The strike was called off unilaterally on 27 May 1974 by the Action Committee. As explained later by Fernandes, "the strike was called off because those conducting the strike had started speaking in different voices." Although large number of prisoners were released, among them Fernandes, thousands remained in detention, charged with specific offences. The strike led to a sense of insecurity and threat that led to Indira Gandhi's imposition of the Emergency era in 1975. Previous strikes were aimed at companies or industries, but this strike was aimed at the government, and from its ramifications proved to be the most successful of disastrous industrial actions in Indian history.
Emergency era and union ministry
The reigning Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, declared a state of emergency on 25 June 1975 due to internal political disturbances. Accordingly, all fundamental rights enjoyed in the Indian Constitution were suspended. Political dissidents, newspaper reporters, opposition leaders who opposed the emergency were jailed. George Fernandes, along with like-minded leaders, opposed what he saw as a blatant misuse of power. A warrant was issued in Fernandes' name and subsequently he went underground to escape arrest and prosecution. When the police failed to capture him, they arrested and tortured his brother, Lawrence Fernandes, to reveal his brother's whereabouts. Snehalata Reddy, a chronic asthmatic was arrested for being in touch with George Fernandes and, as she was not given adequate care in the prison, died soon after her release.
In July 1975, Fernandes arrived in Baroda. There, he met Kirit Bhatt, who was president of Baroda Union of Journalists, and Vikram Rao, a staff correspondent of The Times of India at Baroda, both who opposed the Emergency. They used to meet and discuss on what could be done to topple the autocratic Indira Gandhi Government. An industrialist friend, Viren J. Shah, managing director of Mukand Ltd., helped them find contacts for procuring dynamite, used extensively in quarries around Halol (near Baroda). They aimed at blowing up toilets in government offices and cause explosions near the venue of public meetings to be addressed by Indira Gandhi. The idea was not to injure anybody, but only create a scare. The explosions were to be carried out either late in the night or hours before the public meeting was to begin to avoid injury. A plan was hatched to blow up a dais four hours before Indira Gandhi was to address a meeting in Varanasi. The conspiracy later came to be known as the infamous Baroda dynamite case.
According to Bhatt, there were two more plans that never worked out. Fernandes also wanted to rob a train used to carry weapons from Pimpri (near Poona) to Bombay. The weapons were to be used to blast government offices. Yet another plan was to take the help of other countries by using ham radio.
On 10 June 1976, he was finally arrested in Calcutta on charges of smuggling dynamite to blow up government establishments in protest against the imposition of emergency, in what came to be known as the Baroda dynamite case. After his arrest, Amnesty International members cabled the Government requesting that he be given immediate access to a lawyer and that his physical protection be guaranteed. Three world leaders from Germany, Norway, and Austria were believed to have cabled Indira Gandhi and cautioned her against harming Fernandes. From Baroda, the accused were shifted to Tihar Jail. The accused were never chargesheeted.
After the emergency was lifted on 21 March 1977, fresh general elections were held in India. The Congress Party, led by Indira Gandhi, suffered a defeat at the hands of the Janata Party, a coalition created in 1977 out of several small parties that opposed Gandhi's Emergency era.
The Janata Party and its allies came to power, headed by Morarji Desai, who became the first non-Congress Prime Minister of India. Fernandes won the Muzaffarpur seat in Bihar by an over 300,000 vote margin in 1977 from jail where he was lodged in the Baroda dynamite case, despite he not even visiting the constituency. He was also appointed the Union Minister for Industries. During his union ministership, he clashed with American multinationals like IBM and Coca Cola insisting them to implement FERA, the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, which had been passed under Indira Gandhi's government. Under the FERA, foreign investors could not own more than 40 per cent of the share capital in Indian enterprises. The two multinationals decided to shut down their Indian operations, when Fernandes pressed ahead with rigid enforcement of FERA.
Party memberships and railway ministry
During his tenure as a minister in the Janata Party, he continued to be uncomfortable with certain elements of the broad-based Janata coalition, especially with the leaders of the erstwhile Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Jan Sangh in the Union Cabinet. In a debate preceding a vote of confidence two years into the government's tenure in 1979, he vehemently spoke out against the practice of permitting members to retain connections to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) while being in the ministry in the Janata Party. The leaders of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, among them Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, refused to give up their allegiance with the RSS, leading to a split within the Janata Party. The issue of "dual membership" caused Morarji Desai to lose the vote of confidence, and his government was reduced to a minority in the Lok Sabha. After the Janata Party started disintegrating in 1979, Charan Singh left it to form the Janata (Secular) Party and with support from the Congress Party, replaced Desai as Prime Minister.
In the seventh general elections held in 1980, the Janata (Secular) ministry failed to maintain a majority in the Lok Sabha, and Congress once again became the ruling party. Fernandes retained his Parliamentary seat from Muzaffarpur in 1980, and sat in the opposition. He contested for the Lok Sabha in 1984 from Bangalore North constituency against future Railway minister and Congress candidate C. K. Jaffer Sheriff, but lost the election by a margin of 40,000 votes. He then decided to shift his base to Bihar in 1989, when an anti-Congress wave was sweeping the country in the wake of the Bofors scandal, and won Muzaffarpur in the 1989 and 1991 general elections, He later joined the Janata Dal, a party which was formed from the Janata Party at Bangalore in August 1988. His second tenure as Minister of Railways in the V.P. Singh's government from 1989 to 1990, though short-lived, was quite eventful. He was the driving force behind the Konkan Railway project, connecting Mangalore with Bombay. The project happened to be the first major development in the history of Indian Railways since independence.
Fernandes broke away from the erstwhile Janata Dal and formed the Samata Party in 1994, which became a key ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a party which is the current form of the erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh. BJP formed a short-lived government in the 1996 general elections along with the Samata Party and other allies. The government survived only for 13 days, since the BJP could not gather enough support from other parties to form a majority. Fernandes later served in the opposition along with BJP during the two United Front governments (1996–1998) led by Janata Dal ministers H. D. Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujral. After the collapse of the United Front ministry led by Gujral, BJP and its allies won a slender majority in the 1998 general elections. The government lasted only for 13 few months, due to the non-co-operation of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader Jayalalitha.
After the collapse of the second BJP-led coalition government, BJP and its allies formed a 24 party alliance called National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which became the first non-Congress coalition government in post-independence India to survive a full five-year term (1999–2004). Later, Fernandes became the convenor of NDA. On 27 July 1999, the Janata Dal again split into two factions, the Janata Dal (United) and the Janata Dal (Secular). In 2003, Fernandes reunited with the Janata Dal (United), and also merged his Samata Party with it.
Fernandes served as the Defence Minister of India in both the second and third National Democratic Alliance governments (1998–2004). During his tenure as the defence minister, the Kargil war over Kashmir broke out between India and Pakistan in 1999. The war began when heavily armed Pakistan-backed intruders dug themselves in at heights of 16,000 feet (4,900 m) – 18,000 feet (5,500 m) on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LOC) along an 80 kilometres (50 mi) stretch north of Kargil. They began attacking the strategic highway linking Srinagar and Leh. As a result, the Indian army undertook the Operation Vijay to push back the Pakistani intruders and regain the occupied territories. The inability of the Indian intelligence and military agencies to detect the infiltration early received criticism, both by the opposition as well as the media. However, Fernandes has refused to acknowledge the failure of intelligence agencies in detecting infiltration along Kargil sector.
In May 1998, India conducted five nuclear tests at the Pokharan range in Rajasthan. Earlier a staunch supporter of nuclear disarmament, Fernandes openly endorsed the NDA government's decision to test the nuclear bombs. He was also involved in skirmishes with the then Chief of Naval Staff of the Indian Navy, Vishnu Bhagwat, over promotion of Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh as Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff. Bhagwat was subsequently sacked over the issue. After the Tehelka defence scandal broke out in March 2001, Fernandes quit as defence minister, but was reappointed to the post later. Fernandes has been the only defence minister of a nuclear power who has had a picture of Hiroshima bombing in his office. He has made 18 visits to the icy heights of the 6,600 metres (4.1 mi) Siachen glacier in Kashmir, which holds the record of being "the world's highest battlefield". He was known for overseeing a huge increase in India's defence budget as compared to the allocations made by previous governments.
After the defence ministership
The NDA Government lost power to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the 2004 general elections. Later, political observers alleged that Fernandes was locked in a bitter party rivalry with his one-time friend, Samata Party co-founder, Nitish Kumar. In the 2009 general elections, he contested from Muzaffarpur as an independent candidate after being denied a ticket by the Janata Dal (United) on health grounds, but lost the election. On 30 July 2009, Fernandes filed his nomination as an independent candidate for the mid-term poll being held for the Rajya Sabha seat vacated by Janata Dal (United) president Sharad Yadav. The Janata Dal (United) did not field any candidate against him, which led to his being elected unopposed. He was sworn in on 4 August 2009.
Support to secessionist groups
Fernandes has supported and endorsed many secessionist movements and groups. He has been a long time supporter of The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an organisation which sought to create an independent state in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Before joining the Vajpayee government in 1997, he organised a controversial public convention of pro-LTTE elements in New Delhi. In July 1998, he reportedly stopped the Indian Navy from intercepting ships suspected of carrying illegal arms to Tamil guerrilla groups. Fernandes was also a patron of the LTTE-backed Fund Raising Committee, set up to help the 26 accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. The Sri Lankan government apparently stated that, "the LTTE's biggest supporter in India is Defence Minister George Fernandes." He has also expressed support for Tibetan refugees fighting for freedom against China, and Burmese rebel groups fighting against the military government in Myanmar.
Mr. Fernandes is a very active supporter of many Burmese anti-government movements. Quoted regularly on exiled Burmese radio stations, he often criticises the junta and its members on a wide array of topics. He opposes the current government's drive to root out anti-Burmese insurgents along the Burmese-Indian border. During his tenures in office, gun runners were allowed to do business using Indian territories, often as stop overs en route from Thailand to Bangladesh.
He also revealed the infamous "Operation Leech" incident, which resulted in the capture of Arakan Army insurgents on one of India's islands in the Andaman Sea. He also fought for the welfare and release of anti-Burmese rebels held by the Indian Government. Once, when the National United Party of Arakan complained to Mr. Fernandes of its members being captured in Indian waters, while carrying arms, he issued orders restricting Indian military movements, and all counter-terror / counter-insurgency operations conducted in the region to be asked for approval from the Central Government.
He also claims that the several islands in the Andaman Sea, including the Coco Islands, which belong to Myanmar, were ceded by the former Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru to the Burmese, rather than part of the original territory gained at Independence.
During the Emergency, as chairman of the Socialist Party of India, he faced prosecution for conspiracy against the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He sought to obtain funding from the US Central Intelligence Agency and the French government to organise underground sabotage activities. After an initial request to seek funding from the French government was turned down, US diplomatic cables showed that he was "prepared to accept money from the CIA".
Fernandes' name figured prominently in Operation West End, a sting operation in which journalist Mathew Samuel, armed with hidden cameras, from an investigative journal, Tehelka, posing as representatives of a fictitious arms company, appeared to bribe the Bharatiya Janata Party President, Bangaru Laxman, a senior officer in the Indian Army and Jaya Jaitly, the General Secretary of the Samata Party and Fernandes' companion.
The scandal caused uproar all over India and Fernandes was forced to resign from his post as a Defence Minister. He was subsequently cleared by the one man commission headed by retired Justice Phukan. The Phukan Committee Report was rejected by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government headed by the Congress Party and a new committee headed by Justice K Venkataswami was appointed. The Committee, after lengthy investigation, also absolved Fernandes in the case.
Barak Missile scandal
On 10 October 2006, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) registered a First information report (FIR) against Fernandes, his associate Jaya Jaitly, and former navy chief Admiral Sushil Kumar for alleged irregularities in purchasing the ₹7 billion (US$110 million) Barak 1 system from Israel in 2000. Fernandes, however, claimed that the scientific adviser to the Defence Minister in National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government (1998–2004), who later became the President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam, had cleared the missile deal.
As defence minister
Following the Pokhran nuclear tests in 1998, he openly branded China as "India's enemy number one". He later regretted for his statements, saying it was wrongly interpreted by the media. He has also criticised China for providing sophisticated weapons to Pakistan to build its missiles, and has rapped the Chinese for strengthening their military across the Himalayas in Tibet.
Fernandes has claimed that he was strip searched twice at Dulles Airport in the US Capital area, when he was defence minister—once on an official visit to Washington in early 2002 and another time while en route to Brazil in mid-2003. The details of the strip-search were mentioned in American foreign policy analyst Strobe Talbott's book Engaging India – Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb. However, the US embassy in Delhi issued a formal denial that Fernandes had been strip-searched, and said that, "Fernandes was not strip-searched but a security wand was waved over him when a key in his pocket set off the metal detector." Subsequently, the then United States Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, personally apologised to Fernandes over the incident. He was accused into the 2002 coffin scam, following allegations that 500 poor quality aluminium caskets were bought from the United States at rates 13 times more than the actual price, to transport the bodies of slain soldiers, after the Kargil War. However, the CBI gave a clean chit to Fernandes in the scam in its 2009 charge sheet.
Writings, journalism, and other work
Fernandes liked writing and journalism even during his student days. He was the editor of a Konkani language monthly Konkani Yuvak (Konkani Youth) in 1949. The same year, he was the editor of the Raithavani weekly in Kannada. The Dockman weekly in English, which had ceased publication, reappeared under the editorship of Fernandes in 1952–53. Though not a prolific writer, Fernandes has penned several books on politics such as What Ails the Socialists (1972), The Kashmir Problem, Railway Strike of 1974, Dignity for All: Essays in Socialism and Democracy (1991), and his autobiography titled George Fernandes Speaks (1991). He was also the editor of an English monthly, The Other Side, and the chairman on the editorial board of the Hindi monthly Pratipaksh. A human rights activist, Fernandes has been a member of the Amnesty International, People's Union for Civil Liberties, and the Press Council of India.
Family and personal life
Fernandes met Leila Kabir, the daughter of educationist and former Union minister Humayun Kabir on a flight back to Delhi from Calcutta. Fernandes, then the general secretary of the Samyukta Socialist Party, was returning from Bangladesh while Kabir was on her way back from the battlefront where she had gone as an assistant director of the Red Cross. They began dating and were married on 21 July 1971. They have a son, Sean Fernandes, who is an investment banker based in New York. Fernandes and Kabir separated in the mid-1980s. Jaya Jaitly has been Fernandes' companion since 1984.
Fernandes speaks ten languages—Konkani, English, Hindi, Tulu, Kannada, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Malayalam, and Latin. Konkani is his mother tongue. He learnt Marathi and Urdu in jail, and Latin while he was in the seminary in his early youth. He is extremely fluent in Hindi and English.
Fernandes is suffering from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, and in January 2010 was undergoing treatment at Baba Ramdev's ashram at Haridwar for the diseases at the request of Leila Kabir, who had recently returned to his life. In February 2010, Fernandes' brothers were reported to have been considering a court order for medical treatment and visitation; Kabir and Sean Fernandes are alleged to have forcibly removed Fernandes to an undisclosed location. In July 2010, the Delhi High Court ruled that Fernandes would stay with Kabir and that Fernandes' brothers would be able to visit.
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