George Fernandes died Tuesday at 88-years of age. An ex-Army General remembers his time with him.
As a young Major deployed along the Line of Control (LoC) going to a meeting with George Fernandes in the late 1960s in Bombay (now Mumbai) was a known ‘high-risk mission’. But my brother Vinod assured me that I would nevertheless be enthralled by his revolutionary oratory. I did go and emerged unscathed.
His oft-used phrase “peace of the graveyard” stuck with me.
My first personal meeting with George Fernandes was in the early 1990s. I had gone to him with a request to set up a meeting with then defence minister Sharad Pawar. Fernandes obliged and we became friends. After reading my case, Fernandes took me as his unofficial adviser on military matters as I had retired by then.
In 1998, George Fernandes became the defence minister in the NDA government. Someone who was trained to be a priest, climaxing his volatile political career, became the defence minister of India. As the only non-BJP member of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), George immediately became both famous and notorious.
His Krishna Menon Marg residence had a broken gate and then no gate, as he refused to have one until compelled by the security agencies. In his unkempt backyard were rebels of all hues – Nagas, Tamils, Burmese, Tibetans, a true collection of the Socialist Internationale.
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In 1998, George had dared to call China India’s “enemy no. 1” but he had acquired enough diplomatic sophistication by then to say that he was misquoted.
After I had explained how Indian Army soldiers killed in action were clumsily cremated on location, he insisted on a dignified return of the deceased to the next of kin in an aluminium coffin, which the opposition alleged was overpriced.
George held the distinction of sacking the only service chief, the Navy’s Vishnu Bhagwat.
External affairs minister Jaswant Singh was his good friend and the beneficiary of imported beverages given to George Fernandes because Fernandes was a teetotaller. He even washed his own clothes, so frugal were his habits. His cook Durga Bahadur and his siblings always served him a meaty but unfastidious feast.
George was truly a soldiers’ minister. He visited Siachen 18 times and would take Christmas cake there every year. Erring bureaucrats sitting over files were dispatched to Siachen to feel the pain of soldiers caused by their neglect. He was a great listener but could out-argue you until he realised that he had a bad case. During Operation Parakram, Army chief Gen. S. Padmanabhan would plead with him about letting the Army cross the border to avenge the attack on Parliament and end a decade of cross LoC violence and indignities in Kashmir. But George was not swayed. “It was my friend Jaswant (Singh), who did not want to take the country to war,” he told me. I don’t think he did, either.
With travels abroad, George’s wardrobe and sartorial taste also changed dramatically. The frayed and crumpled kurta was replaced by the elegant Nehru jacket. He was a fitness fiend, jogging in his backyard. He would do stationary jogs even while brushing his teeth or in office. On a visit to Vietnam, he crawled through the legendary Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon used by the Viet Cong. No one else from his delegation followed suit. That’s why George Sahib was so special.I have lost a good friend.
The author is founder-member, Defence Planning Staff, ministry of defence and columnist on security issues.
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