How George Fernandes survived the Emergency

Fernandes’ former political secretary and long time associate on what actually transpired after the well known trade unionist was arrested during the Emergency

George Fernandes escaped arrest in Gopalur on the Sea in Odisha when Emergency was proclaimed, but was later traced to Calcutta

The writer’s attention was drawn recently to an opinion piece that appeared in these columns on 4 June 2019. It was titled, ‘How my father saved George Fernandes from being killed’. It is written by one Mr Ravi Visvesvaraya Sharada Prasad.

The contents of the story are incorrect.

The writer was a colleague and political secretary of Mr George Fernandes from October 1973 to May 1985. The writer was secretary of Baroda Dynamite Case Defence Committee after his own release from imprisonment during the Emergency and was also his political secretary when Mr Fernandes was a minister in the Morarji Desai government from 1977 to 1979.

Firstly, as Mr Prasad wrongly avers, the railway strike was not violent. The strike was to have started on 8 May 1974. Railway union leaders, including Mr Fernandes, were pre-emptively arrested on the night of 1 May 1974. India saw its first propaganda blitzkrieg and avalanche of false news on the strike. Readers of DH may want to read the only comprehensive scholarly account of the railway strike in The Indian Railways Strike of 1974: A Study of Power and Organised Labour, by Stephen Sherlock.

As Mrs Indira Gandhi’s senior press and media advisor during that period, it would be stretching one’s incredulity too far to believe that Mr Prasad had little to do with how All India Radio and Doordarshan were used to manufacture lies. Mrs Indira Gandhi was a paranoid conspiracy theorist. No trade unionist or Fernandes associate was even distantly connected with the unfortunate murder of Mr LN Misra on 2 January 1975. The Justice KK Mathew Commission said nothing on this.

The case in the courts did not indict any striking worker or union leadership.

India Today reported  that investigation began to stall in the case “because the disclosures made by the two [arrested individuals in 1975] allegedly indicated the involvement of political bigwigs, including Congress leader Yashpal Kapoor, since deceased.”

It was only in December 2014, 40 years after Mr Lalit Narayan Mishra was killed in a blast in Bihar’s Samastipur station, a Delhi court convicted three Ananda Margis and an advocate for conspiring and murdering him and two others.

READ ALSO: How my father saved George Fernandes from being killed

Mr Fernandes escaped arrest in Gopalpur on the Sea in Odisha thanks to a brave Odiya lady trade unionist who tipped off Mr Fernandes about the proclamation of the Emergency and the arrests of other politicians on the night of 25 June 1975. No Delhi based telephone operator was involved as Mr Prasad states in his piece. While not germane to this rebuttal, Mr BP Koirala was asked to leave India by Mrs Gandhi due to his proximity with Jayaprakash Narayan and other Indian socialists.

Mr Fernandes was arrested in a small ramshackle room at the back of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Calcutta that served as the office of the Calcutta Samaritans run by a wonderful couple, Vijayan Pavamani and his wife, who looked after those who had suicidal tendencies and those who were prone to drug abuse.

The actual arrest was thanks to the investigative work of the case officer then of the Central Bureau of Investigation, one Mr Ashok Patel from Madhya Pradesh. The information about Mr Fernandes’s whereabouts was obtained under duress.

It was then that he personally went to Calcutta and supervised the arrest. Mr Fernandes was flown that night to New Delhi by a BSF aircraft.

Fortunately, for Mr Fernandes, Mrs Indira Gandhi was in Moscow and an immediate decision as to Mr Fernandes’s fate was postponed for a crucial 24 hours.

In the meanwhile, one of Mr Fernandes links who had broken under duress had their moment of epiphany and tipped off a few members of the international media based in New Delhi. Notably, the New York Times and the BBC. One particular Western diplomat based in New Delhi then who was a democratic Socialist by persuasion alerted the Socialist parties in Europe. The Socialist International, acting with great alacrity had a joint missive signed by Mr Willy Brandt, former Chancellor of Germany, Mr Joop den Uyl, then Prime Minister of the Netherlands and Mr. Olaf Palme, then Prime Minister of Sweden and Mr. Bruno Kriesky, then Chancellor of Austria and sent to Mrs Gandhi both in Moscow and New Delhi.

Within a few hours of that, the second wave of international protests landed at Mrs Gandhi’s door from both ruling parties and chanceries in Western Europe and Scandinavia. The Norwegian Prime Minister was not one of the initial signatories of the Willy Brandt missive as Mr Prasad holds, though the Norwegians joined the protests subsequently. This was followed by the third wave of protests from trade unions and social democratic parties from across the world.

Mr Michael Foot of the British Labour party was in no way involved in the campaign as Mr Prasad states in his piece. He had the dubious distinction of having supported the Emergency. His was the lone voice in the British Labour party who did so.

Mrs Indira Gandhi far from snubbing Mr Brandt and others reached out to them and was at pains to allay their fears on Mr Fernandes’ account. In fact, her Congress Party had applied for membership to the Socialist International earlier.

Mr Prasad’s statement on a young Sushma Swaraj being the only lawyer to defend Mr Fernandes borders on the ludicrous. The principal lawyers were the two pre-eminent criminal lawyers in Delhi then, Mr KK Luthra and Mr KL Sharma. Justice VM Tarkunde was the chairman of the Defence Committee. In addition, on specific issues, Mr Sagar Singh from Benares, one of Uttar Pradesh’s best criminal lawyers and Mr Dharamadhikari from Jabalpur were brought in. Mr Malviya, a very capable Delhi lawyer assigned tasks to all the junior lawyers involved. Ms Sushma Swaraj, without doubt, was the most hardworking amongst them.

The writer was present when the senior journalist Mr GK Reddy came to Parliament House office of Mr Fernandes to meet with him after Mr Fernandes took over as Industries Minister. The writer through his notes of that period can confirm that Mr Fernandes was wary of Mr Reddy. It was New Delhi’s worst kept secret that he was believed to be close to Mrs Indira Gandhi.

As for Mr Sharada Prasad, though Mr Fernandes and the writer shared a common friend in a senior Indian Information Service officer, Mr KG Ramakrishnan, this writer or Mr Fernandes never heard from Mr Ramakrishnan during and after the Emergency about Mr Sharada Prasad’s alleged role on behalf of Mr Fernandes. Mr Ramakrishnan was a resolute opponent of the Emergency.

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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