Can anyone capture and silence Giant killer George Fernandes?
By Dr. Sunilam
August 7, 2010: I went to wish George Fernandes on his 80th birthday on June 3, 2010. We sang songs at the closed gate, carrying sweets, flowers, placards and banners with loving greetings. Many Tibetans and Burmese refugees, family friends and political colleagues along with the media were assembled there. The security guards had been reluctant to let us in. We refused to take ‘no’ for an answer and kept on singing. Finally, the gate was opened. George was half his size and looked shocked and disturbed. He also looked sad and angry, almost asking us why we had abandoned him. After some time he relaxed and began smiling and responding in a happy way. We gave him what he needed and something he had been deprived of for five long months - human contact and social interaction. He responded to the representatives of his political causes. There had been no arrangements to celebrate a birthday and no one had been invited by his wife to greet him. His son was in the USA. His wife was surprised to see us. There were no bouquets from erstwhile party or NDA colleagues anywhere. There were many of us who are deeply saddened by the situation he is in. We were not invited into the air-conditioned sitting room but made to crowd with George in a small hot lobby. However, we filled the house with affection, and music from the guitar of the Burmese students. Stories of this event were covered by the electronic and print media with compassion for George.
What is the lasting image that comes to people’s minds when they hear the name George Fernandes? The same George who closed down Mumbai and prevented the trains form running during the railway strike of 1974: George the giant killer who defeated the strongest political supremo of Mumbai SK Patil, George Fernandes, the only person who challenged Bal Thackeray on the streets, the GF who challenged Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and was incarcerated in the Baroda Dynamite case; the man for whom the greatest socialist leaders like Willy Brandt, Oalf Palme, and socialist parties all over the world intervened, the man who became such a challenge for the Indian state that the plan to hang him for treason was on the anvil, a man whom the people of Muzaffarpur elected from jail merely by seeing the poster of George in chains, with the second highest margin ever recorded in parliamentary history. He is a leader who has always inspired a revolutionary fervour in the people who thronged to get a glance of him; he is a leader who was a close associate of Dr Ram Manohar Lohia; he is the man who Lohia used to cite as an ideal revolutionary leader for the socialist movement; a man who went almost directly from jail to become a cabinet minister in the Janata Party government. He formulated a revolutionary industrial policy which gave a boost to the rural economy and infrastructure. Who can forget the George who boldly told IBM and Coca Cola to quit India? He also got rid of much of the license/ quota system that prevailed in government, mocking the need for ministers to release the two-wheeler Bajaj vehicle under his signature. He opened up the cement industry, giving a fillip to the building industry, removing corruption and shortages in one go.
Who can forget the eloquent George who defended the Janata Party government in parliament or forget the echoes of his great speeches? In the same breath, he thought nothing of accepting the advice of his closest socialist colleagues like Madhu Limaye to quit the government the next day.
Despite being out of parliament and supposedly marginalized, no one could keep George from taking extraordinary steps to pursue the Bofors case all the way to Sweden and expose Mr Clean. He mobilized people around VP Singh on corruption and was greatly instrumental in forming the Janata Dal and the National Front Govt, putting Mr Clean in the opposition benches. Everyone remembers his stint as Railway Minister for the extraordinary contribution of setting up the Konkan Railway which had been a demand for over 100 years.
The first challenge to globalization was mounted by George when he mobilized activists across the country from Naxalites to Gandhians, saying the country did not have more than 6 months to save it from a second colonization. It was the same person who formed the Samata Party in 1994, believing it to be closer to the socialist ideals that a party should follow. George was the person who extended Dr Lohia’s policy of non-Congressism to form the NDA in 1998. The khadi -kurta wearing George Fernandes became close to the heart of every defence personnel involved in protecting the security of this country.
In brief, George is always recognized as a person who raises his voice inside and outside parliament against exploitation, injustice and corruption. His dynamism and fearlessness are his hallmark. Slowly, situations happened that affected his health and a visible change began to take place. It all started in 1995 ; he was washing his clothes before a bath. He was weak after a viral infection and had a dizzy spell, falling on the hard bathroom floor of his residence at 3, Krishna Menon Marg, causing internal injuries in his brain. The sub-dural haematoma required an emergency operation which was conducted by Dr Mehta, head of neurosurgery at AIIMS, with a second operation at Jaslok Hospital a few months later. As a result of this, it was found that in 2005 he was suffering from water collecting in the cavities of the brain. A shunt was inserted which till today drains out the excess water. This needed further adjustments at Paras Hospital under Dr Mehta again. At AIIMS he continued to be under the care of senior professors Dr Kameshwar Prasad and Dr V Padma to whom he became personally attached. His immediate family was not seen at any of these occasions.
Just after voting against the Indo- US nuclear deal in July 2008, he was hospitalized for a thorough check up for over a week. Apart from this he underwent a gallstone removal and as recently as a month before his last Lok Sabha election campaign he had the cataract from both eyes removed.
Alzheimer’s Disease was slowly taking hold of his brain. His memory and articulation began failing and his personality began to change. Despite this he often insisted on attending programmes related to worker’s rights, the Tibetan cause and demands of the Sikh victims of 1984. He rejected heavy opposition to his fighting the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and declared that he never shied away from a battle even if he lost a fight. He shrugged off his defeat in a typically casual manner.
I went to meet him regarding my plans to undertake the Saptkranti Vichar Yatra for Dr Lohia Centenary celebrations. He was happy about it and agreed to come to Mumbai. He kept his word and took part in the entire programme with his long-time colleagues Jaya Jaitley and Freddy 0’ Sa as late as 9th August 2009. His old colleagues met him regularly. He enjoyed meeting familiar faces in the socialist movement and his personal friends. Even though he talked very little he clearly expressed his thoughts and opinions.
All of a sudden, on the night of January 2, 2010, the ever open gates and doors of 3 Krishna Menon Marg were locked by his long absent wife and son. Meanwhile, the wife energetically gave press interviews to all sections of the media, raising issues of his assets and financial legacy. He was first taken to Max hospital on 8th January and after one week to an ashram at Hardwar without informing any family members. Her communication with the media continued.
The media had no access directly to George Fernandes. All media may only talk to his wife. She announced that when he is settled and comfortable his near and dear ones can meet him. However, for all of us who know him and visited him regularly he was already settled and comfortable. After he lost the Muzaffarpur elections I asked him where he would live when he left the official residence. He clearly told me that he had written to the Prime Minister to allow him to stay for six more months. He said he was planning to stay in the house of Aditi, daughter of Jaya Jaitley, when its construction was completed since it would have a convenient ground floor which they had offered him. He had been close to them for many years. I met Jaipal Reddy immediately after this. He told me that he had already received George’s letter forwarded from the PMO.
George’s brothers held a press conference in Bangalore on January 23, 2010 in which they clarified that there was no claim by the brothers for his assets but that he had expressed very clearly to them that they should be distributed amongst various institutions doing good work for the needy. The wife’s response through the media was that they could distribute their own assets if they wished. The brothers responded with another statement saying that George’s estranged wife and son had created a serious disturbance in his life by forcibly obtaining his thumb impression on some papers on December 18,2009. This was done behind closed doors with no notary or doctor present. Subsequently, it was found that they had frozen his assets using these papers. After thus paralyzing the running of his household and making him dependent on the generosity of his friends and well wishers, they abruptly took over his life around the midnight of January 2, 2010.
They added that if, as alleged by his wife, George’s health was indeed neglected till then and was of primary concern to her, they should have immediately initiated appropriate medical treatment. Instead, they arranged a party and a photo session on the afternoon of the 3rd, with George, themselves and some friends, with the express purpose of legitimizing their ’medieval midnight coup’, Her son also spent a day in Mumbai making inquiries into George’s assets with his colleagues there.
The brothers said that all responsible, educated and experienced opinion on the care of a patient suffering from Alzheimer’s emphasizes the need for continuity, stability and affection in the environment. Sudden changes in these have been found to be traumatic to the patient and are discouraged. Changes if any, should therefore be gradual, and to the extent possible, should be effected after winning the confidence of the patient. It is also important to keep out of the patient’s sight, people and objects he is known to be hostile to, regardless of their inclination, attitude and disposition towards the patient. The disease progresses differently in different people. George has been under treatment by doctors at AIIMS, New Delhi, for the last five years. The doctors are world experts in the field of neurology and geriatric medicine. To side step these doctors and ignore their observations is to lose valuable data on his care and condition.
The brothers very clearly mentioned in both statements that a rhythmic and stabilizing factor in George’s life over the last so many years have been Jaya Jaitley’s care and visits to him everyday. These have been rudely taken away by the immediate family without George’s request or permission. They were concerned about George’s mental disposition when he does not see the person he has trusted the most over all these years. They felt that he must also be feeling abandoned by his brothers and his many friends who used to visit him frequently in his house at 3 Krishna Menon Marg. They are now fighting for their right to care for him. He pleads with them to take him with them to his home. Today, thanks to a court case, they are prevented by his wife from doing so.
Jaya Jaitley has been a part of George’s political and personal life by his own choice and volition for over twenty five years. His brothers have said that objecting to this relationship in the present state of his health and carrying out actions which are hostile to it when George is unable to defend his actions, is cowardly, disgraceful and mischievous.
In the light of these facts, they asserted that his estranged wife and son and all those who had abetted with them had acted with utter irresponsibility and shown callous disregard for his physical and emotional health and well being.
George Fernandes has influenced and inspired me and thousands like myself to join the socialist movement through struggles. For everyone like me, the same thought that comes to mind is that when a person like him who has done so much for the country is in a situation like the one he is in now, should we stand by and say nothing? Should he be seen as a possession or a piece of property of his wife? Can this be set aside as just a matter of his personal life? When we think of it we find that George never had a personal life. He belongs to the country and to battles for the poor. We all feel he belongs to us. He is a father figure of our political movement.
Those like me who saw his immediate family with him last at Tughlak Crescent in 1985 are fully aware of the fact that the wife was never a part of his struggles, successes or illnesses. Not a single person would recall a time when the family visited him and saw them at his side at the hospital in the past 20 years. I even recall the conversation I had at the Lohia Mela at Akbarpur in the mid ’90s when I asked him to set aside the controversy regarding his personal life. He angrily and categorically told me that he had never encroached into anyone’s private life and nobody should try to encroach upon his privacy. In his words, he told me to mind my own business while he minded his.
It is unfortunate that today those who were not part of his life are encroaching totally into his without asking him what he wants. These very same people are making an issue of his assets when he was a man who never accumulated property for personal gain. Everybody knows that the property being discussed is the property purchased by his mother and meant for public use. After the death of his mother, the brothers made their shares over to George. Its value increased over time. In fact, all his life George has fought the establishment but his honesty and integrity could not be crushed even after false charges of defence deals were thrown at him. Today there seems to be a conspiracy to finish this great man’s reputation and silence his legacy while he is alive. Who is going to ask those who have committed this indignity upon him?
I feel throughout his life George gave words to those who could not speak for themselves. Now it is time George needs the voices of those who will come out to speak for him and articulate his wishes. Socialists cannot remain silent spectators at the slow killing of the George the giant killer. At least Shri Mulayam Singhji came forward and expressed his concern to Baba Ramdev at the Hardwar ashram about his health.
George is now forced to live in a house he does not recognize as his home, behind locked gates and armed guards. He tells his brothers he wants to get away. He has not been allowed to return to his own house where he has lived for 20 years. Some renowned and eminent personalities who admire and respect George Fernandes have spoken out. I hope that more friends, comrades and colleagues who know and respect George also come out openly to extract him from his predicament. Once again the people can remove the chains binding him. In 1977 he was freed from the chains of a dictatorship. Now the chains are different.
Courtesy: The OtherSide