Sporting a turban and a beard, George Fernandes had assumed the guise of a Sikh man to evade arrest during Emergency days and recited the Gita to inmates while imprisoned in Tihar jail in that era, according to a colleague of the veteran socialist leader, who was arrested along with him.
“Police were on the lookout for us. But, we not only went into hiding, but continued to operate. To escape arrest, George had assumed the avatar of a Sikh man, with a turban and a beard, and had grown long hair. He used to call himself ‘Khushwant Singh’ after the noted author,” 76-year-old Vijay Narain says.
Narain and others along with Fernandes were arrested on June 10, 1976, in Kolkata and tried in the infamous Baroda Dynamite case, in which they were also charged with waging war against the state to overthrow the government.
Fernandes, 86, is currently suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and lives in Delhi along with his wife, Leila Kirbie. He rose to prominence after the 1973 railway strike, and had staunchly opposed the imposition of Emergency.
After remaining in disguise and operating out of hideouts, Fernandes, Narain and their other colleagues were arrested from St Paul’s Church in Kolkata.
“At the St Paul’s Church, George had a typewriter, a cyclostyle machine and he continued to write correspondences, which I would go and deliver at Railway Mail Service counters at various stations,” recalls Varanasi-born Narain on the 40th anniversary of their arrest.
“I had assumed the guise of a Benarasi Muslim weaver to escape police. You see we were in hiding but not inactive,” he says.
Narain adds: “While George was flown the same night (of June 10) to Delhi in an IAF cargo plane, I was kept in police custody and interrogated for about a fortnight in Kolkata by the police’s intelligence bureau. We all were later lodged in Delhi’s Tihar jail and the case was tried in Tees Hazari court.”
“George had a charismatic personality and during his prison days, he would recite Gita to inmates in the morning and we all read books from the library at Tihar,” Narain says.
Fernandes and his colleagues were transported in vans from Tihar jail to Tees Hazari court, and the 76-year-old veteran says, “200 policemen would escort us during this transit”.
Fernandes in handcuffs raising his hand in defiance became one of the most enduring images of the Emergency era. “Oh, that photograph was taken in the court premises while George was being produced there for the trial,” Narain recalls.
Emergency was in effect from June 25, 1975, until its withdrawal in March 1977.
Reminiscing the Emergency days, Narain says, “When George was flown to Delhi that fateful night, he was taken to Red Fort for interrogation.”
“They would focus bright spotlight on his face and question him. They would not let him sleep. It was something akin to what we see in Hindi films,” he claims.
On his attire during the Emergency days, he says, George would wear a Bihari dhoti and a keep a gamcha on his shoulder.
Calling him one of the “greatest and bravest” fighters for civil rights during the Emergency era, Narain and his other friends and supporters are now pitching for awarding Bharat Ratna to the veteran socialist leader.
“On his 86th birthday this June 3, celebrations were held across the country from Patna to Muzaffarpur, Mumbai and Delhi and resolutions were passed seeking Bharat Ratna for George,” Narain says.
Fernandes fought the 1977 Lok Sabha election from Bihar’s Muzaffarpur while in jail as an undertrial in the Baroda Dynamite Case. He swept the polls with his supporters campaigning with his photo. After coming to power, Janata Party withdrew the case in 1977 and all the accused were released.
“Not a single penny was spent on his election directly. People collected money and did widespread campaigning but only with his photographs, and he won it,” Narain recalls.
An MP from Bihar, Fernandes served as a railway minister in the VP Singh dispensation. He also became the defence minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.
“Despite his political accomplishments, he was a man of simplicity and still is. He was born a Christian but never spoke in English in Parliament and is fluent in Hindi, Marathi and Kannada,” Narain says.
“Such was his mass appeal that several ambassadors of foreign countries used to meet him in jail and even tried to seek his release. George was a hero for many,” he says. “British Labour party politician Michael Foot even ran a campaign in London seeking his release.”
Recalling one of his slogans — ‘Jab tak bhukha insan rahega; tab tak dharti par toofan rahega’ — Narain says, “He was a champion of civil rights, and struggled for the poor, the weak, the downtrodden and the farmers. And we think he deserves to be given the Bharat Ratna.”
“We are also trying to start a philanthropic foundation in his honour,” he says.