Mumbai transformed George 

From sleeping on the pavements to defeating Congress stalwart S K Patil, trade unionist, socialist leader and former defence minister George Fernandes, who passed away aged 88, had a special connection with the city of Mumbai.

It's in India's commercial capital that George picked up half a dozen languages including Marathi.

He was barely 19 years old when he arrived in Mumbai in 1949, just a couple of years after India became Independent, and had no job.

He joined the socialist trade union movement and organised many strikes and bandhs in Mumbai (then Bombay) in the 1950s and 1960s.

He was often referred to as the "Pitamaha of Bandhs" or "Bandh-Samrat".

He even worked as a proof-reader in a newspaper and used to sleep on pavements in Fort area of Mumbai and the Girgaum Chowpatty.

From such humble beginnings, he started unionism with the influence of people like trade unionist Placid D’Mello and later Ram Manohar Lohiya, battling for the workers’ rights, taxi-men, government employees, often with opposing forces like the upcoming Shiv Sena.

However, despite that, he enjoyed excellent relations with Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray.

During his early days in unionism, he spent several spells in jails, got beaten up by police  and was elected a corporator twice to the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC), which gave him confidence to take on S K Patil in the general elections.

It was in the 1967 general elections that from the prestigious Mumbai South constituency George, then with Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP), defeated the late legendary leader Sadashiv Kanhoji Patil, popularly known as S K Patil, who was close to former prime minister Indira Gandhi.

After defeating Patil, a former Mumbai mayor and three-time MP, often described as "Uncrowned King of Bombay", George earned the sobriquet of "George, the Giant Killer".

"He took up the issue of water in Mumbai and got huge support of the people," recalls Uttar Pradesh Governor Ram Naik, during an interaction with a TV channel.

Naik and George were ministerial colleagues in the BJP-led NDA government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

"In the 1967 elections, we worked for five people, whom we called Panch Pandavas — S A Dange, Acharya Atre, V K Krishna Memon, H R Gokhale and George Fernandes... We had no cars, there were no mobiles then," recalls veteran journalist and Congress Rajya Sabha member Kumar Ketkar.

"George was a down to earth man, well-behaved," he said.

"George said S K Patil can be defeated and decided to contest against him. He got the backing of the labour movement," said CPI leader Prakash Reddy.

The Praja Socialist Party was headed by Madhu Dandawate and Samyukta  Socialist Party of George Fernandes merged to formed the Socialist Party and supported the Shiv Sena in the 1968 civic polls in Mumbai.

He organised the 1974 Railway strike, when he was president of the All India Railwaymen's Federation.

George went underground during the Emergency and challenged Indira Gandhi, but in 1976 he was arrested and tried in the infamous Baroda dynamite case.

Thereafter, he shifted base to New Delhi.

When the three previous NDA governments were in power, George was convenor for a quite some time and couple of times had to airdash to Mumbai to hold dialogue with Thackeray.

He was also among the very few to refer the Sena supremo as Bal, his first name, senior journalists recall.

"He was  a fiery trade unionst, a socialist... However, he changed over the years," recalls veteran journalist, writer and peace activist Jatin Desai.

"In 1974, when Indira Gandhi conducted nuclear tests in Pokhran, he opposed, but in 1998, he was the defence minister when Vajpayee government conducted nuclear tests," he pointed out.

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Mumbai transformed George 


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