On May 1, 1977, George Fernandes, then a senior leader of the Janata Party, arrived in Pune to inaugurate the Kamgar Bhavan in Shivajinagar area. Minutes after inaugurating the bhavan, he joined the porters for a luncheon. Dressed in his regular attire of pyjama and Nehru shirt, the leader sat with the porters on the floor.
“Such was his simplicity. He was always dressed in simple attire and his behaviour was equally simple, but he always thought of the poor,” said socialist leader Baba Adhav, paying tribute to Fernandes, who passed away at the age of 88 on Tuesday.
In 1986, a few activists from Pune, along with Fernandes, had gone to Sangli to campaign for the party’s candidate Sambhaji Pawar, who was contesting a bypoll. After campaigning throughout the entire day, while they were returning home, Fernandes said he had not eaten anything and needed to eat something before catching the flight to Delhi in the evening.
En route, he spotted a hand-cart vendor selling vada pav and bhajias. Fernandes asked the driver to halt the vehicle, got down from the car and ordered a plateful of bhajias. “He had the bhajias and a cup of tea… he didn’t complain about the taste, the oil or the unclean surroundings…,” recalled social worker Manav Kamble.
After boarding the car, Fernandes, however, warned the activists accompanying him. “He told us…’I have had the roadside stuff. It might add to my stomach problems…but that doesn’t matter, I have lived my life. You should avoid it. Carry a tiffin with chapatis and sabji whenever you are outdoors. Take care of your health first’…,” said Kamble. “He used to take care of us as if he was the head of the family.”
Adhav said Fernandes, who headed the All India Hind Mazdoor Panchayat, gave voice to poor labourers, who didn’t have anyone. “Fernandes was their unbreakable wall… he helped them launch their strikes and movements,” he said.
Recalling how Fernandes was an equally popular politician, Adhav said during the Lok Sabha election in 1970s, powerful Congress candidate S K Patil was saying “Patil means Progress and Prosperity”.” But Fernandes changed the slogan to “Patil padlach pahije” (Patil should be defeated), and the Congress leader was defeated, said Adhav. The alliterative play was Fernandes’ brainchild. “He was a master of languages. He knew more than 10 languages. He could speak Marathi fluently,” said Adhav.
Recalling his association with Fernandes, Gandhian Kumar Saptarshi said, “After Mahatma Gandhi, I think if anybody had strong organisational skills, it had to George Fernandes. Before launching a national movement or a strike, he used to tour the entire country, understand the problems of the workers and then start the mission.”
In 1975, it was Fernandes who had mobilised railway workers to launch what was then described as the “world’s biggest strike” by 20 lakh workers, said Saptarshi. “This railway strike was also cited as one of the reasons for Indira Gandhi to impose the Emergency,” he said.
Kamble said Fernandes was a regular at the Ram Manohar Lohiya Samajwadi Vidyapeeth, located in Talegaon. “He used to often visit the educational institute. George saheb, as we called him, used to share his experiences during Emergency and in Parliament”. “His favourite advise was: be ‘honest karyakartas’ and never sway from your ideology. Words like ‘Tumchya vicharanshi pramanik raha’ (be honest with your ideology)’ were an integral part of his address and interaction with activists,” said Kamble. “His attire, his simplicity appealed to the activists and they quickly identified themselves with him.”
Union leader Rajan Nair, who led Pune’s biggest-ever ‘Telco strike’ in 1989, said it was because of support from leaders like George Fernandes, Madhu Dandavate and Datta Samant that he and other activists could carry on with their strike and get their demands addressed. “It was the biggest strike Pune had witnessed… 15,000 Telco workers went on an indefinite fast, occupying Shaniwar Wada for 15 days. On the sixth day of the strike, Fernandes, Dandavate and Samant landed in Pune. They extended their support and urged us to carry out our struggle with all sincerity and purpose…we interacted with them. They told us that we were on the right path and there was nothing wrong in making just demands,” said Nair.
Ashwini Satav, a college professor, said Fernandes was a regular visitor at his residence in Pimpri. “My grandfather Sudam Satav was close to Fernandes, who often to used to drop in and spend hours interacting and encouraging activists,” she said.