When George Fernandes became ‘Khushwant’, recited Gita during Emergency

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New Delhi | Published: January 29, 2019 10:44:31 PM

Eighty eight-year-old George Fernandes, an anti-Emergency crusader, who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, died Tuesday at his residence here.

George Fernandes, Khushwant Singh, Tihar Jail, news on george fernandes, Railway Mail Service counters, Emergency daysTributes have been pouring in from all quarters, including those who had worked with him. (Express Archives)

Sporting a turban and a beard, George Fernandes had assumed the guise of a Sikh man to evade arrest during Emergency and recited the Gita to inmates while being imprisoned in Tihar Jail in that era, according to a colleague of the veteran socialist leader who was arrested along with him. Eighty eight-year-old Fernandes, an anti-Emergency crusader, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, died Tuesday at his residence here.

Tributes have been pouring in from all quarters, including those who had worked with him. “Police were on the lookout for us. We not only went into hiding, but continued to operate. To escape arrest, George had assumed the avatar of a Sikh man, with a turban and a beard, and had grown long hair. He used to call himself Khushwant Singh after the noted author,” Vijay Narain, in late 70s, told PTI.

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Narain and others along with Fernandes were arrested on June 10, 1976 in Kolkata and tried in the infamous Baroda Dynamite case, in which they were also charged with waging war against the state to overthrow the government. Mourning his death, Jaya Jaitly, a long-time associate of Fernandes, also recalled the “Sikh avatar” that he had assumed during the Emergency era. Very few politicians like him are now in today’s time, she said.

Fernandes, a firebrand union leader, who rose to prominence after the 1973 railway strike, had staunchly opposed the imposition of Emergency. After remaining in disguise and operating out of hideouts, Fernandes, Narain and their other colleagues were arrested from St Paul’s Church in Kolkata.

“At the St Paul’s Church, George had a typewriter, a cyclostyle machine and he continued to write correspondences which I would go and deliver at Railway Mail Service counters at various stations,” Varanasi-born Narain had earlier said. “I had assumed the guise of a Benarasi Muslim weaver to escape police. You see we were in hiding but not inactive,” he said.

Recalling further, Narain said, “While George was flown the same night (of June 10) to Delhi in an IAF cargo plane, I was kept in police custody and interrogated for about a fortnight in Kolkata by the police’s intelligence bureau. We all were later lodged in Delhi’s Tihar Jail and the case was tried in Tees Hazari court.”

“George had a charismatic personality and during his prison days, he would recite Gita to inmates in the morning and we all read books from the library at Tihar,” he said. Fernandes and his colleagues were transported in vans from Tihar Jail to Tees Hazari court, and Narain said, “200 policemen would escort us during this transit.”

Fernandes in handcuffs raising his hand in defiance became one of the most enduring images of the Emergency era. “Oh, that photograph was taken in the court premises while George was being produced there for the trial.” Emergency was in effect from June 25, 1975 until its withdrawal in March 1977.

Reminiscing the Emergency days, Narain said, “When George was flown to Delhi that fateful night he was taken to Red Fort for interrogation.” “They would focus bright spotlight on his face and question him. They would not let him sleep. It was something akin to what we see in Hindi films,” he claimed. On his attire during the Emergency days, he says, George would wear a Bihari dhoti and a keep a gamcha on his shoulder.

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