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George Fernandes, former defence minister, dies at 88

Last updated on: January 29, 2019 19:32 IST

Fernandes, who was born to a Christian family in Mangalore, Karnataka, burst into national limelight when as a firebrand trade unionist in Mumbai he organised a railways strike in 1974 that brought the country to a standstill. 

George Fernandes, a lifelong socialist despite his political adventurism that included Cabinet posts in two ideological opposite governments where he ousted Coca-Cola in 1977 and oversaw the Kargil war in 1999, died Tuesday.

He was 88.

Fernandes, who had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for several years, died peacefully at his home and his body was taken to All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi for embalming, his wife, Leila Kabir Fernandes, said in a statement.

She said the last rites will be conducted soon "after our son, Sean Fernandes, arrives in India (from the United States). As soon as Sean arrives we will finalise the timing of the last rites and will inform all."

Jaya Jaitly, a long-time associate of Fernandes, said Fernandes had recently contracted swine flu.

"I used to meet him regularly and I was to meet him tomorrow as well. But, such is life," she said.

 

A call was received at a private hospital from his home and an ambulance was dispatched although doctors had declared him dead at his home already, hospital sources said.

"Fernandes was attended to at his home by a Max Healthcare team, which found him unresponsive and declared him dead at 06:42 AM today," the hospital said in a statement.

Fernandes, who was born to a Christian family in Mangalore, Karnataka, burst into national limelight when as a firebrand trade unionist in Mumbai he organised a railways strike in 1974 that brought the country to a standstill.

Ironically, he became the railways minister in 1989 under V P Singh's National Front coalition government, comprising mostly Left leaning parties.

Despite being a staunch critic of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Fernandes joined the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government under prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998 and 1999, in which he was appointed the defense minister.

Under his stewardship India fought the Kargil war in 1999.

It was also during his tenure that India conducted nuclear test at Pokhran in 1998.

He was also the industries minister under the Janata Party government which had defeated former prime minster Indira Gandhi in 1977.

Soon he was at loggerheads with industrialists and demanded that Coca-Cola and IBM comply with foreign ownership regulations, which forced them to shut down their operations and quit India.

He faded away from public consciousness after unsuccessfully fighting the 2009 Parliamentary elections, ending a political career that had begun with him defeating veteran Congress MP S K Patil from Bombay South in the 1967 Lok Sabha elections.

He subsequently represented Muzzafarpur and Nalanda constituencies in Bihar, and was also a Rajya Sabha member in 2009-2010.

Tributes poured in for the veteran leader, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying he was frank and fearless, and never deviated from his ideology.

"A visionary railway minister and a great defence minister who made India safe and strong. During his long years in public life, George Sahab never deviated from his political ideology. He resisted the Emergency tooth and nail. His simplicity and humility were noteworthy," the PM said.

A wave of sorrow swept across Bihar, which Fernandes had virtually adopted as his second home and political 'karmabhoomi', representing its various constituencies in Parliament for a period spanning over four decades.
He also was a Rajya Sabha member from Bihar from 2009 to 2010.

Condolences poured in from all quarters, and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar declared a two-day state mourning.

"Fernandes was a fearless leader and always full of energy. He had that restlessness to do something for people. And, he did politics for the people," Jaya Jaitly said.

"His old colleagues from Muzzafarpur are coming to attend his funeral in Delhi. People in Bihar really loved him and they are mourning his death," she said.

Fernandes had played a critical role in the anti-Emergency movement of the opposition parties that ousted Indira Gandhi in 1977.

During the 1975-77 Emergency, when civil liberties were severely curatiled and opposition throttled, Fernandes was arrested in the so-called Baroda Dynamite case.

Congress chief Rahul Gandhi expressed his condolences to Fernandes' family and friends.

"I'm sorry to hear about the passing away of former Parliamentarian & Union Minister, George Fernandes Ji," he said in a Facebook post.

Jaitly said Fernandes had earlier wished to be cremated but had said "during his last days" that he wanted to be buried.

To fulfil both wishes, his body will be cremated at Lodhi crematorium after the return of his son, and the ashes will be buried, she said.

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