Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A slice of hidden Indian history:George Fernandes’ triumph, Morarji Desai’s first sin

by Gulamhusein A Abba

This old photo from the past  is of the famous, ambitious, shrewd George Fernandes who started as a petty trade unionist and jockeyed himself into becoming a Union minister, holding the post of Defence Minister and later holding several other ministerial portfolios, including communications, industry and railways.

I remember three incidents that propelled him to fame. I was there at the time!

The first came in 1967. In the general elections held that year. the Samyukta Socialist Party offered him a party ticket for the Bombay South constituency. Standing against him was the formidable S.K.Patil, a seasoned politician. To everyone’s surprise, George won! This win earned him the title of “George the Giantkiller”

His second notable triumph came just seven years later. As President of the All India Railwaymen's Federation, he organized the All India Railway strike of 1974,
Till now George had organized several Bombay Bandhs (Bombay Shutdowns) to press his union demands and succeeded in shutting down parts of Bombay.
But this was big. Railways are the arteries of the nation. Shutting them down would shut down the whole nation. And that is what it did.

George Fernandes lay down on the tracks of the railways to prevent key trains from moving forward. He was arrested and the picture here is of him being led away from a railway station after his arrest.
That made him a man to be reckoned with.

A year later Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, declared a state of emergency. The constitution was suspended and along with it all fundamental rights. Indira ruled through edicts.
The nation was outraged. Indira, who was adored till then, fell out ot favor. Political dissidents, trade unionists, newspaper reporters, opposition leaders vehemently opposed the emergency.

.One of the things Indira did was to order the arrest of all trade union leaders Most of them, along with other protestors,  were arrested and jailed. An arrest warrant was issued against George Feranandes also but he went underground to avoid arrest

George chose to oppose the emergency in his own way. While hiding in Baroda, he, along with others, acquired dynamite to launch a violent opposition to the emergency. The plans included blowing up a dais four hours before Indira Gandhi was to address a meeting in Varanasi, robbing a train used to carry weapons from Pimpri (near Poona) to Bombay (the weapons were to be used to blast government offices) and take the help of other countries by using ham radio.

Ultimately he was arrested in 1975 in Calcutta on charges of smuggling dynamite to blow up government establishments in protest against the imposition of emergency. This came to be known as the Baroda Dynamite Case.

By now George was no longer just a Bombay leader. He had become a well known figure not only nationwide but also internationally.

After his arrest, Amnesty International members cabled to the Government of India to give him access to a lawyer and ensure that he was physically protected. According to various reports, three world leaders from Germany, Norway, and Austria cabled Indira Gandhi and cautioned her against harming Fernandes.

The emergency was lifted in 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, and Morarji Desai became the first non-Congress Prime Minister of India, breaking the Nehru dynasty’s hold on power.
Fernandes was still in jail when the Janata Party under Morarji Desai came to power. However, he had contested from the jail and won the Muzaffarpur seat in Bihar by an overwhelming majority and became an elected member of Parliament.


After he won the Muzaffarpur seat the defence counsel moved, for the ninth time, a bail application on behalf of Gerorge Fernandes. Though this court, and higher courts, had repeatedly rejected the plea for bail made by George Fernandes and his 24 co-accused, this time it was accepted.


No satisfactory explanation was given for the withdrawal of the case..Those who believed in the rule of law (I among them) were shocked.

As Chairman of the Rule of Law Committee I raised my voice against the withdrawal. I had an opportunity to ask Morarji Desai personally about this. He explained, in confidence (and I am revealing this in public for the firt time) that the coalition party, on the support of which the government relied to hold power, threatened to withdraw its support if the case was not withdrawn. Morarrji pointed out that if this had happened, the government would have fallen and another election held and, in all probability, Indira would come to power again. That would have been disastrous for the country

In other words, the government was blackmailed into withdrawing the case. 
I went on claiming that a criminal case having been filed, it was for the courts to decide whether the accused were innocent or guilty and the executive department had no right to intervene and withdraw the case.

There is more to this story but I have already revealed too much and will leave it at that.