I knew George Fernandes, who died after a prolonged illness on Tuesday, for more than 45 years. He was a father figure to me and a good friend and guide too. He was a leader of the masses. When I was a student leader in Jabalpur University, I observed that he would be the first choice of the students to participate in students’ agitations anywhere in the country. In Jabalpur, not only students but also others used to say that whenever news of a Bombay bandh comes in, it means it is a bandh of George Fernandes.
He was an aggressive leader. In my student days, I participated in the agitation in Uttar Pradesh in 1973 when the UP-PAC revolted and the army was called in. He met me when I was in jails at Bilaspur and Indore in Madhya Pradesh where I was imprisoned under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act along with Nagbhushan Patnaik, CPI (M-L) leader, in connection with my participation in the PAC agitation and also on account of pamphlets released in my name in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
He came for campaigning in 1974 when I contested against the indomitable Congress leader at Jabalpur, late Govind Dass, who had also been a member of the Constituent Assembly. It was a time when the JP movement was in full swing. Along with Madhu Limaye, Raghu Thakur and, of course, Jan Nayak Jaya Prakash Narayan and Dharmadhikari, he contributed to getting me nominated as the people’s candidate for contesting the by-election in Jabalpur against the Congress.
George saheb used to stay at the residence of senior leaders of the BJP, Badri Nath Gupta and Babu Ram Paranje. Atal Bihari Vajpayee also came for campaigning and he was persuaded to stay for one more day by George saheb, for whom Atalji had great regard. Consequent upon my election as MP, I came to Delhi, and George saheb took me to various places to introduce me to senior socialist leaders.
After my election, there was a major strike by the workers of the Indian Railways when George saheb was president of the Railwaymen’s Federation and I was closely associated with him. Then the time of Emergency came when I and Madhu Limaye were imprisoned in Narsinghgarh jail of Madhya Pradesh, but George saheb escaped and went underground. After the Emergency was over, he agreed to become a minister with great difficulty after being requested by almost all parties.
He was a frequent traveler across the country not only on the invitation of students but also on the invitation of leaders of various parties for protests and agitations against the working of governments. He used to get himself a seat in the last rows in the plane and whenever I or other leaders accompanied him in his travels, we were embarrassed because we would be sitting somewhere in the front row while he sat at the back, busy reading and writing. He became famous throughout the country because of his courage and fearlessness.
In 1978, when Chaudhary Charan Singh separated from the Janata Party and we were also with him, there was a no-trust motion against the Morarji Desai government in Parliament. It was an historical speech made by George Fernandes which was called the longest speech on the floor of the House delivered by a leader in Lok Sabha. On May 12, 1978, George saheb spoke against the motion on the floor of the House, but on the next day Limaye and other leaders took him to join Charan Singh’s group though Chaudhary saheb was not in his favour.
When the JP movement was on the verge of completion, Charan Singh became the prime minister of India. In the 1980 general election, I was made a candidate and asked to contest against Rajiv Gandhi in the Amethi constituency on the ticket of the Lok Dal. George saheb stayed in Amethi and campaigned for me for many days.
George saheb was a friend of friends. He wanted Ram Jethmalani to be nominated to Rajya Sabha by our party though there was no consensus on this. However, he clearly and honestly said to me that Jethmalani is my personal friend. The friendship in Mumbai of three men — George Fernandes, Bal Thackeray and Ram Jethmalani — was well known. Last but not least, although I regarded George saheb as my respected leader, I had to contest against him twice due to political compulsions.
He will be remembered as a good friend, and as a courageous and fearless leader. His thoughtful and forceful speeches will echo inside and outside Parliament. Our real homage to him will be to remember him and follow him as a man of integrity who worked tirelessly for workers, and the downtrodden and underprivileged classes of society.
This article first appeared in the January 30, 2019, print edition under the title ‘He lit the fire’