Mumbai has seen many trade union leaders but George Fernandes was different. He was known for simplicity and he was always down to earth. He was one of the most articulate leaders of workers. He used to come out of every negotiation with a victory smile on his face. For him and his colleagues, working class struggles were the most important. He was the undisputed leader of Mumbai. He gave a lot to the employees of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and others. At the same time, he got true love from the workers of BMC, taxi drivers, hotel workers etc. Workers’ welfare was always in his mind.
Gradually, he lost his hold over Mumbai since he moved to Delhi. Nobody can forget the 20 days nation-wide strike of rail workers under his leadership in 1974. He was arrested. He was versatile. He was also vocal on other issues affecting the country and the world. In May 1974, then PM Indira Gandhi, risking international sanctions, carried out a nuclear explosion in Pokhran, Rajasthan and signalled India’s entry into the nuclear world. George was restless. He was in Tihar jail. As a socialist, he was obviously for peace and non-violence. He was for the nuclear disarmament. He immediately wrote a booklet criticising the nuclear test.
Later in his life, he changed his position on the nuclear issue. In 1998, George was a Defence Minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government when India conducted five nuclear explosions in Pokhran on May 11 and 13. Now, George was in the forefront defending nuclear tests. Once pacifist, George became a supporter of nuclear weapons. I remember in the next couple of days, George was about to address a public meeting at KC College, Mumbai for a huge achievement. Couple of Gandhians protested against George for nuclear explosions. They reminded George of his earlier stand. Pakistan conducted six nuclear tests on May 28 and 30 in 1998 in Charai area of Balochistan province. The tests by two countries made South Asia a dangerous region.
Then US President Bill Clinton wanted India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). George opposed it saying five nuclear states want to hold nuclear rights to themselves and India will not succumb to the US pressure. As a Defence Minister, he also visited Siachen, worlds highest battlefield at over 20,000 feet, 18 times.
His approach was once explained to me by George’s most trusted trade unionist Uttam Gade. He said, “SB Chavan, then home minister, used to live in the bungalow opposite George’s official bungalow. George was tired of huge security of Chavan as they used to even close George’s main gate when minister used to leave or come. Tired of such harassment, George asked Uttam and others to remove the main gate and they did so. It was the only bungalow on the high-security area without the main gate. His bungalow was also an official-unofficial place from where Burmese democrats used to operate. These Burmese democrats were fighting the military junta in Burma. George was supporting them and his house had always free access to the activists”.
He was concerned with the deteriorating situation in Kashmir. Then PM VP Singh had given him the responsibility of Jammu & Kashmir. One day, he flew to Srinagar and suddenly vanished. Everybody was concerned.
Rajiv Gandhi was also worried. But, George went to meet and resume dialogue with the militants. For him, resolving conflict was more important than his personal security.
In 1977, Janata Party came to power with Morarji Desai as PM. George was made Industries Minister. He threw out Coca Cola. In 1979, Charan Singh broke away from the Janata Party with the support of Congress. On the first day, George defended the government but very next day blasted former Jan Sangh leaders for their RSS links. He opined dual membership is not acceptable. Subsequently, the Janata Party lost power. For him, socialist ideology was important than any other things. Veteran socialist ideologue Madhu Limaye was his political guru. In his later days, the same George was part of NDA and for some years, also its convenor of it. Many of his friends, colleagues of the socialist party and Baroda Dynamite case were critical of George for aligning with right-wing forces.
George was always an angry young man. He was never tired of speaking to his trade union colleagues and workers. We have many leaders but surely, we will never get someone like George.