Before he was crowned “giant-killer” at age 37 in Bombay, for defeating S.K. Patil….
Before he set up a highly profitable co-operative bank for taxi-drivers….
Before he moved on to Bihar and the Samata Party…
Before the firebrand landed in the arms of the BJP, and got embroiled in “Coffin Gate”, George Fernandes was the original Kannadiga rebel star, with a stellar role during Indira Gandhi‘s Emergency.
The daring plot included, among other things, blowing up the Vidhana Soudha—acts which in today’s supposedly New India would qualify him for the “tukde-tukde gang”, inviting charges of sedition, labels of “anti-national” and deshdrohi.
In 2013, George’s fellow-traveller, the Kannada writer and scholar U.R. Ananthamurthy described their motivations and the striking similarities between Indira’s India then and Narendra Modi‘s: “The government was convinced it could get away with anything, and people wouldn’t protest. If such subversive incidents took place every now and then, the frightened citizens would feel reassured something was afoot to dislodge the government. It was our duty to protect the people’s will to resist.“
By U.R. ANANTHAMURTHY
Before the Emergency was imposed, I had written a review of the novel Gati Sthiti (Progress and Reality) by Giri.
I received a huge envelope by post some days after the publication of my review. It contained another review of the book, and criticised some of my observations.
I couldn’t figure out who had written it. The letter was in Kannada and English.
“Come and meet me in Bangalore at once,” it said.
I guessed it was from George Fernandes.
He had tried to organise a massive railway strike before the Emergency, and failed. The police were looking for him, but he had slipped away. All the other big leaders of the time were already in jail.
Shivarama Karanth told me: “Only those who have participated in the 1942 movement might know what to do in these difficult times. George is a follower of Jayaprakash Narayan, isn’t he? He must be active in the underground movement.”
It occurred to me that I should contact my friend Pattabhirama Reddy and Snehalata in Bangalore. They were inspired by the socialist leader Rammanohar Lohia, and had turned my novel Samksara into a film.
When I met him, Pattabhi took the envelope from me, winked, and said, “I will take you to George secretly”.
The two of us got into a car one evening. “Good not to know where you are going. Blindfold yourself. Even if the police torture you, you shouldn’t be able to tell them where you met George,” he said.
We drove for 45 minutes, and reached a decrepit church.
We walked into a dark room.
George was sitting on a cot. He was unrecognisable. He had grown his hair and beard long. I went up to him and touched him. He embraced me. George’s younger brother Lawrence came in. He looked older than George. He had a lunch box in his hand.
As we sat talking about his family and mine, worms kept dropping on us from the roof of the church. George was pulling out the palmer worms and scratching himself all through our conversation. He gave me a mission with these points:
Snehalata had to go to a rarely used lavatory in Vidhana Soudha. Making sure no one was around, she had to explode a bomb at night. I had to provide some young men to help her. The explosion had to bring down a portion of the Vidhana Soudha, but not kill anyone.
Our objective was to hassle the government, and not to inflict violence on anyone.
The government was convinced it could get away with anything, and people wouldn’t protest. If such subversive incidents took place every now and then, the frightened citizens would feel reassured something was afoot to dislodge the government.
It was our duty to protect the people’s will to resist.
We had to find a bridge there, and a government building here, and bring them down with dynamite.
If none of this was possible, my friends and I had to undermine the government in the manner of those who had resisted Nazism in Hitler’s Germany. We had to drop burning cigarette stubs into post boxes. That would force the government, as it had in Germany, to post a constable at every post box.
We returned after this conversation. I blindfolded myself even on the way back.
A constable always stood guard at the toilet, making it impossible to place a bomb at the Vidhana Soudha.
I returned to Mysore, and with friends like Devanoor Mahadeva, tried to drop cigarette stubs into the post boxes. The stubs burnt themselves out without causing any damage.
George showed the same courage as Subhas Chandra Bose, and is a big hero of our times. We believed he was fit to become prime minister. But what happened to him later is unpalatable.
He never became corrupt for money, but he went to Gujarat after the violence, and came away as if nothing had happened. I could never understand this. Perhaps the desire to remain in power had corrupted his revolutionary mind.
The central minister who refused police escort has now lost his memory, and lies in bed.
Translated by S.R. Ramakrishna
Excerpted from Suragi, U.R. Ananthamurthy’s autobiography
He was not Kannadiga but Konkani. A world of difference.
If memory serves me right, Dr. URA was among the progressive, anti-emergency writers who were left entirely alone by the thuggish C.M. D. Arasu when Indira Gandhi was running roughshod all over India.
What kind of militant help could URA have offered to make Fernandes’ Quixotic and irresponsible plot to blow up the Vidhaana Soudha or just a section of it? Would any part of the edifice have ever been without humans conducting business in some corner of it, day or night? Snehalatha Reddy was indeed a sterling example of integrity. But she, unfortunately, was a victim of asthma that finally killed her later in jail as Arasu’s goons put her through inquisitional torture. Publishing a collection of her letters or visiting her once in a while in jail as URA did doesn’t even come close to taking a stand on Indira Gandhi’s terrorism.
Fortunately for us the harebrained plot failed. But URA and his revolutionary associates pulled off the remarkable seditionary act of dropping burning cigarettes in postboxes? (I am not entirely sure that at least one or two of those boxes did not contain a communication about help for an ailing or starving person.) This event also figures in a slightly different form in “Suragi.” In that version, Dr. Murthy, as a young teen, performed a similar feat in protest against imperialism ; in this case the police took him and his errant urchin friends to a wood some distance from his home, collected their footwear, forcing them all to walk home barefoot.
Sporting a supercilious attitude towards politicians and some fellow writers is a staple of Dr Murthy’s expansive, facile pronouncements on economics, politics, and culture; he was, nevertheless, always careful to cultivate them. As many persons have done, I too wonder why he shied away from ever being even mildly critical of patently grifty pols like J. H. Patel. And very few have forgotten his genuflection to the politico-royal clan of Kannadaland when he was seeking a niche in the Rajyasabha.
Autobiography can shade into fiction easily and vice versa.