IT WAS in Mumbai, then Bombay, that George Fernandes first shot to national prominence, defeating Congress stalwart S K Patil from the Mumbai South Lok Sabha constituency in 1967. It was also in Bombay where his work as a unionist was first noticed nationally, more prominently so when he brought the financial capital to a standstill in May 1974 with a complete shutdown of the suburban local trains following his call for a nationwide strike to agitate for railway workers’ grievances.
Subhash Malgi, General Secretary of the Hind Majdoor Kisan Panchayat, was associated with Fernandes for nearly five decades and his father Venkatesh Malgi was crucial in roping him into the railway workers’ struggle.
Before that strike, railway workers had protested in 1960 and 1968 too, but to little avail. “In October 1973, George Fernandes was brought into the railwaymen’s union,” Malgi told The Indian Express.
In February 1974, Fernandes convened a meeting of railway unions affiliated to all ideologies that culminated in the formation of the National Coordination Committee for Railwaymen’s Struggle. “George Fernandes was made convener of the committee. After travelling across the country and energising people, he gave the call for a bandh that went on for 20 days from May 8, 1974, to May 27, 1974. Not a single local train was allowed to run in Mumbai,” recalled Malgi.
He said Fernandes even coined the now commonly used word ‘bandh’ saying, “George Fernandes became famous as the ‘bandh samrat’ after the railway strike.” A nine-time MP, Fernandes fought his first Lok Sabha poll from Mumbai South and later went on to represent Muzaffarpur and Nalanda.
From fighting for the rights of street hawkers through his strong union, which was represented in the country’s richest civic body (the BMC), to opening a new battlefront with multi-nationals like Coca Cola, Fernandes, though feared by those in power, had earned the goodwill of the common man — taxiwalla to government employee alike. And across party lines.
Suryakant Mahadik, Shiv Sena leader and president of the Bharatiya Kamgar Sena, said that though the two had ideological differences, he always had great respect for Fernandes since the beginning. “He was once known as the Badshah of Mumbai, the leader who had the capability to shut down Mumbai,” he said.
Uttam Gade, another Mumbai unionist who was closely associated with Fernandes from 1977 when the Janata Party government came to power, said Fernandes made an impression by always leading from the front.
Recalling an agitation when the Shiv Sena had decided to introduce a mechanical sweeping machine in Mumbai nearly 30 years ago, Gade said, “The move would have rendered many safai workers jobless. George then asked them to organise a protest where he announced that he would burn the mechanical sweeper the day it arrived on the streets. His firm stand forced the Sena to go on the back-foot on the issue.”
According to Gade, Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray and Fernandes were contemporaries, and the latter was perhaps the only leader who addressed the Sena patriarch as ‘Bal’.
Recalling another agitation, Gade, who campaigned with Fernandes in elections, said the Sena had decided to launch a ‘Swachh Mumbai, Sundar Mumbai’ scheme. “It was an attempt to throw out labourers from the city. It was a political battle. George came to Mumbai, stayed in the slums for four days and organised a protest at Azad Maidan with a slogan ‘Aamchi Mumbai, Kamgaranchi Mumbai’ (Our Mumbai, Workers’ Mumbai) to counter the Sena, which again went on the back-foot,” he said.