George Fernandes, India’s ‘champion of democracy’, R.I.P.


Leaders from across India’s party lines expressed condolences at the death of former defence minister and socialist stalwart George Fernandes, who passed away on Tuesday following a prolonged illness, according to reports:

President Ram Nath Kovind described Fernandes as a “champion of democracy” in a tweet. “Distressed to learn of the passing of George Fernandes, who served India in many capacities, including as Defence Minister. He epitomised simple living and high thinking. And was a champion of democracy, during the Emergency and beyond. We will all miss him.”

The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, said: “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.”

“George Sahab 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 marginalised. Saddened by his passing away,” he added. 

A militant trade unionist in his youth, he organized the 1974 railway strike as President of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation. Forced underground for challenging Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s state of emergency, he was arrested in 1976 and tried in the notorious Baroda dynamite case. He went on to leave an indelible mark on national politics.

Fernandes was a staunch anti-Congress leader and emerged as a key figure in efforts to restore India’s democracy, the Times of India adds.

Conspicuously modest, he insisted on travel in economy class even when he was a cabinet minister.

“Even when he became Defence Minister, [Fernandes] continued to maintain his simple, self-sufficient way of life. Some of our friends’ attitudes changed once they came to exercise power; not George Fernandes,” said His Holiness the Dalai Lama, addressing a conference held to honor the Indian democrat’s legacy, jointly organized by the World Movement for Democracy and NED grantees the Institute of Social Sciences and the Asia Democracy Network.

“Fernandes was sympathetic to Tibet and the Tibetan cause right from the start and never missed an opportunity to speak up for them. His face will remain in my heart until I die and I’ll remember him even into my next life,” he added.

“George Fernandes was a person of great moral and political strength,” said NED President Carl Gershman (right). “He fought and led many important battles, always on the side of freedom.  He epitomized what is best in Indian democracy and believed that India’s example is important for the future of democracy in the world.  I felt privileged to have known him.”

Gershman paid tribute to Fernandes’s contribution to the global struggle for democracy (see below).

What never changed, said Anil Hegde, who for decades was Fernandes’s Man Friday, was his “commitment to the cause of democracy”.

“His doors were always open. When students and activists fled from Myanmar and spoke to him about the atrocities being committed by the military junta, he gave them refuge,” said Hegde.

Fernandes offered high profile backing for Burmese democracy advocates, noted Asian analyst Joshua Kurlantzick, frequently inviting exiled Burmese leaders into his home.

Fernandes was a leading light behind a New Delhi conference in 1999 which launched the World Movement for Democracy, organized by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the Confederation of Indian Industry, and the Centre for Policy Research (India). The event convened over 400 democracy supporters from more than 80 states to discuss how to defend and promote democracy.

As Defense Minister, Fernandes sought to contain autocratic China and “upheld a vision of a newly assertive India, whose influence reached far beyond the traditional confines of the South Asian theater,” noted one observer.

But he also recognized that India and China faced similar challenges, the Economist adds:

When Fernandes, an Indian opposition politician who was defence minister in the previous government, visited China in 2003, he asked China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, to list his economic priorities. The answers—unemployment, regional disparities and the enduring poverty of farmers—applied just as much to India. Mr Fernandes, once known as a critic of China, concluded: “We are both sailing in the same boat.”



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