India grieves for seminarian who rose to defense minister

Modi says Fernandes 'represented the best of India's political leadership,' archbishop remembers him as 'simply inspiring'
India grieves for seminarian who rose to defense minister

Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh pays tribute to former defence minister George Fernandes, who died at the age of 88 after a prolonged illness in New Delhi on Jan. 29. (Photo by IANS)

India's prime minister and president were among a coterie of high-ranking officials who expressed their condolences this week at the death of George Fernandes, a former Catholic seminarian who rose to become India's defense minister.

Fernandes, India's best-known trade union leader, died on Jan. 29 at the age of 88 at his New Delhi residence. He had not been actively involved in politics since 2012, after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

"He epitomized simple living and high thinking. And he was a champion of democracy.… We will all miss him," Indian President Ram Nath Kovind said in a recorded message.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi described Fernandes as a "fiery trade union leader" and a "visionary railway minister."

He "represented the best of India's political leadership. Frank and fearless, forthright and farsighted, he made a valuable contribution to our country. He was among the most effective voices for the rights of the poor and marginalized," Modi added.

When people recall Fernandes, "we remember most notably the fiery trade union leader who fought for justice, the leader who could humble the mightiest of politicians at the hustings, a visionary railway minister and a great defense minister who made India safe and strong," Modi posted on his Twitter account.

The strong-willed socialist led a simple life. He made India's kurta pyjama, a top tunic and bottoms made from cotton, his trademark dress and would always wear it un-ironed.

This was seen as a sign of his humility, and his choice of such a casual wardrobe brought him closer to the rural villagers he sought to represent.

Even at the height of his political career, Fernandes insisted on washing his own clothes, recalls his longtime friend, the journalist Ram Bahadur Rai.

Fernandes enjoyed good health until one day in 1995 when he had a fall in his bathroom and injured his head.

He became ill shortly afterwards, underwent surgery, and was bed-ridden from 2012 after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

But in his heyday, he was a man to be reckoned with.

Fernandes rose to political prominence at the age of 37 after he defeated former Congress party stalwart S. K. Patil from Mumbai in the 1967 general election.

Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal said Fernades was regularly invited to attend seminars and discussions organized by church institutions and seminaries.

"I had the privilege of meeting him several times. And I attended his talks on numerous occasions. He was simply inspiring," said the prelate, who is based in the capital city of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh

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Both the archbishop and Fernades are natives of Mangalore, a Catholic stronghold in western India.

Fernandes was born on June 3, 1930, as the eldest of six children. He joined the seminary and looked set on carving out a promising future as a Catholic priest.

However, after he graduated with a degree in philosophy from St. Peter's Seminary in Bangalore, he opted to leave the seminary at 19.

"He then moved to Mumbai searching for work and went on to become a trade union leader. He also worked as a journalist and agriculturist," recalled Archbishop Cornelio.

With his election victory in Mumbai, he became a full-time politician, opposing the powerful Congress party and the communists.

That prompted him to join the Janata Party (People's Party), an amalgam of parties opposed to the emergency rule imposed by then-prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, which led to the suspension of civil rights.

During that heady period, Fernandes found himself arrested and jailed. He was taken to court handcuffed and chained up, accused of trying to blow up a government building and railway lines.

He fought and won the case, was elected in the general election of 1977, and rose to become industry minister under former prime minister Morarji Desai.

Shortly after being elected at the poll, he ordered Coca-Cola to stop its operations in India due to concern over the kind of formula it used in its concentrates.

The soft drink giant was forced shutter its operations in the country after 27 years of building up a market there. It was not to return until 1993 after India opened up its economy in 1991.

Fernandes would go on to join the Janata Dal Party under the stewardship of another former prime minister, V. P. Singh.

However, he later split from the party, accusing it of discriminative, caste-based policies, and formed the Samata (Equality) Party in 1994.

He was a member of both houses of parliament and "fought for the rights of the poor. His Catholic upbringing was a solid base for his philosophy on life and his worldview," Archbishop Cornelio said.

Fernandes played a crucial role in the creation of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 1998, a coalition led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He served as the NDA's convener.

The BJP effectively controlled a stable government from March 1998 to 2004, which came in stark contrast to its first attempt at ruling the country in May 1996, a reign that lasted for a princely 16 days.

Fernandes also served as defense minister during the administration of Atal Bihri Vajpayee.

"Whatever political views he held, and despite his stature, he was very humble. He made himself accessible to everyone, especially the poor and the weak," said Jesuit Father Philip Manthra, who is based in the state of Bihar.

Bihar was considered Fernandes' political base. He led several movements organizing farmers and workers there. The caste-divided eastern state was also the home of his Samata Party.

"One of his finest characteristics was that he was a friend of the poor and stood for their cause," recalled Father Manthra, who at 86 still campaigns as a social activist.

"He is still very popular here. He never backed out of any serious projects he had undertaken. His political group has almost been eliminated now," Manthra observed.

Fernandes leaves behind his wife, Leila Kabir, and their son, who was heading back to the India from the United States.

His body was cremated on Jan. 31. The ashes were due to be buried at New Delhi's York Cemetery on Feb. 1.

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