A senior journalist of India, George Mathew Fernandes who was an Indian trade unionist, later on, joined politics to serve the nation. Fernandes 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. Fernandes has penned several books on politics such as What Ails the Socialists (1972), Socialist Communist Interaction in India, In the year of the disabled: India’s disabled government (1981), 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 served as the chairman on the editorial board of the Hindi monthly ‘Pratipaksh’ as well. 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. Fernandes used to speak 10 languages—Konkani, English, Hindi, Tulu, Kannada, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Malayalam, and Latin. Konkani was 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.
He was a key member of the Janata Dal and is the founder of the Samata Party who had held several ministerial portfolios which include communications, industry, railways, and defence. He was a rare politician who lived with no greed or gatherings. During his first tenure as MP, George Fernandes set up a Doordarshan Kendra, Kanti Thermal Power Station and the Lijjat papad factory to generate employment in Muzaffarpur. Fernandes also insisted on women’s empowerment. In November 2014, Kanti Thermal Power Station was renamed as George Fernandes Thermal Power Station (GFTPS).
In 1977, after the Emergency had been lifted, Fernandes won the Muzaffarpur seat in Bihar in absentia and was appointed as the Union Minister for Industries. During his tenure as Union minister, he ordered American multinationals IBM and Coca Cola to leave the country, due to their 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 NDA Government, when the Kargil War broke out between India and Pakistan, and India conducted its nuclear tests at Pokhran. Fernandes had been dogged by various controversies, including the Barak Missile scandal and the Tehelka affair. In spite of controversies, George Fernandes won nine Lok Sabha elections from 1967 to 2004. Fernandes’ name figured prominently in Operation West End, a sting operation by Tehelka, 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 an uproar all over India and Fernandes was forced to resign from his post as the Defence Minister. The one-man commission headed by retired Justice Phukan subsequently cleared him. The Committee investigated the case in detail, but Justice Venkataswami resigned before submitting the report in the case. His career, personal and political life saw many twists and turns but he kept on going with whatever came in his way.
A native of Mangalore, Fernandes was sent to Bangalore in 1946 to be trained as a priest. However, in 1949, he moved to Bombay, where he joined the socialist trade union movement. Becoming a trade union leader, Fernandes organised many strikes and bandhs in Bombay in the 1950s and 1960s while working with the Indian Railways. He defeated S K Patil of Indian National Congress in the 1967 parliamentary elections from the South Mumbai constituency. 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. His social life had all ups and down and the personal front was also a struggle story.
Fernandes met Leila Kabir, the daughter of former Union minister Humayun Kabir, on a flight back to Delhi from Calcutta. Fernandes, the then general secretary of the Samyukta Socialist Party, was returning from Bangladesh while Leila 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 got married on July 22, 1971. They have a son, Sean Fernandes, who is an investment banker based in New York. The married life was not for a long time, Fernandes and Kabir separated in the mid-1980s. Jaya Jaitly has been Fernandes’ companion since 1984. They were in a live-in relation but Leila Kabir’s return to his life soured the relations between Jaya and Fernandes. He remained alone struggling on health fronts. Fernandes was suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and in January 2010 he 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. In August 2012, the Supreme Court of India granted permission to Jaya Jaitly, a former aide, to visit him, a move that was opposed by his wife on the ground of her locus stand. His personal life hit headlines for many years; finally, he and his personal life faded from the memory of people. He became forgotten and unwanted. Fernandes lived for 88 long years; he had recently contracted swine flu and died at his residence in Delhi. May his soul rest in peace!
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