Remembering George Fernandes, his great escapes, agitations and enduring legacy
George Fernandes was supposed to die in course of the Emergency in 1976. The orders were conveyed and the exception awaited. But an encrypted telegram had apparently landed on the wrong desk and therefore the plan had leaked out.
The leak was also deliberate. When George Fernandes's elimination plan was being readied, India Gandhi and her powerful son, Sanjay, were both in Russia. Their absence in the capital had made it easier for the concerned circles to inform the Left lights.
These were then conveyed to the BBC and subsequently, the Socialist International and other human rights agencies had gone into overdrive to condemn any attempt on George Fernandes' life. That deliberate leak possibly spared George his life which was planned to be snuffed out in the rise of a police encounter.
The events of 1976 and thereafter were re-lived in a commemorative gathering in the capital recently. George Fernandes died a year back on January 29, 2019, and many of the old associates and comrades had come from Bombay to recall the days of the fight.
The alternative story of Goerge Fernandes's arrest was told by his long time journalist K. Bikaram Rao. According to his version, George was hiding in St Paul's Cathedral in Calcutta, protected by Father Vijayan. Word got out about a guest in the church and on greater probe, a card was found in the guest's room for one president of All India Railwaymen's Union and the name on it was George Fernandes.
The word went out to Delhi and the same night, George was sent over to Delhi in a Border Security Force aircraft. The plan was a police encounter, with the body not being found.
The move was checkmated by Father Vijayan who had informed the German and British consulates in Calcutta about George's arrest and the possibility of a police encounter.
The British prime minister, James Callaghan and German chancellor, Willy Brandt, had personally spoken to Indira Gandhi that night and expressed their concerns about George's safety. It was followed up by calls from Bruno Kryski, chancellor of Austria, Olam Plame of Sweden and prime minister of Norway who was the leader of Socialist International.
All had expressed deep support and warned of serious consequences in case of any harm to George Fernandes. At any rate, George Fernandes could not be touched, even when he was in the custody and India was spared the worst ignominy in its post-Independence history.
In more ways than one, George Fernandes had outlived his times.
In the remembrances of his associates and friends, Fernandes' life was defined by the massive strikes and bandhs he had organised as a political tool. George Fernandes had organised the hotel workers in that city and had pulled them together so well that they could call for age negotiations.
He had also brought together the railway workers to launch their agitation for better terms and conditions for
work as well as higher pay. Within a
span of six months, George had organised the railway workers throughout the country so that the strike could be launched.
Not that the strike action had brought any benefits to the railwaymen. On the contrary, many had been punished and some had even lost jobs. The railway men's strike in a way was broken and that sealed the fortunes of the organised labour movement in the railways and the public sector units.
Such an industrial action would be out of sync with the present-day world. India's economy is more dependent on services and organised workers were not in a position to call the shots the way that workers of large manufacturing industries could.
Nor do the workers themselves see much merit in large-scale movements in seeking to improve their fates. They would rather depend on improving personal skills to gain advantages. When there is a surfeit of supplies, you could do little to negotiate on an organised threat.
Indian informal sector now provides over 90 per cent of all employment. The residual employment provided by the organised sector is minimal in its overall incidence. The organised labour does not enjoy any great support as they are an island of prosperity in a sea of uncertainty. The unorganised labour does not have any stake in supporting industrial actions of the organised labour.
Hence, a unified labour front is not conceivable. Nor does it work in that fashion any more. Fernandes's brand of socialism is dead and for good reasons.
One can romanticise about it but that could at best, be for a lost cause.
Views expressed are strictly personal