By George, He's Still An Activist
(by Ajit Pillai | Outlook | June 12, 1999)

George Fernandes, Indian parliament

It is early morning at George Fernandes' 3, Krishna Menon Marg residence. A Samata Party worker troops into the visitors' room clad in a lungi and a crumpled T-shirt. Yawning, he holds a toothbrush in his hand. He is followed by a Burmese student activist who goes to the adjoining room to spread his towel on the line. Overhead two pigeons flutter about. They have made their way through a broken ventilator and perch on a weatherbeaten sofa. The birds seem at home in the minimalist trade union office decor rickety wicker chairs, free Tibet posters and a threadbare coir durrie.

Jaya Jaitly, Samata general secretary, says they expect George Fernandes to go on working for the Burmese and Tibetan causes.

Beyond it in an inner room George Fernandes is busy giving the final touches to his speech on the trust vote in Parliament.

Welcome to the-more-visitors-the-merrier official residence of the new Raksha Mantri. As defence minister George has the security of the nation as his top priority. But equally important to him is the protection of the causes he loves to espouse. No wonder then that the incumbent defence minister's home is also the headquarters of the in-exile All-Burma Students' League. It is from George's residence that the 'Coke-Pepsi Quit India movement' continues to be waged. Those fighting for the Tibetan or Bhutanese cause or civil rights activists still have an address in Delhi. The defence minister's house doubles up as a free business centre of sorts for social activists and is also a shelter for those who come to Delhi to meet the Samata Party leader.

Every available inch of space in the bungalow has been set aside for people and causes. Thus, the annexe which normally houses the secretarial office in other ministerial homes has been set aside for the All-Burma Students' League.

They have been with George for years now and are glad that he has been given the prestigious defence portfolio. Points out yat Thu, president of the League: "Mr George Fernandes has been very supportive of our fight for democracy in Burma and we expect his continued support. We are very happy that he has become the defence minister. He has told us that he is with the cause in an individual capacity despite being a minister." Incidentally, after assuming office, George even attended a conference organised by the League.

But will the defence minister's involvement in the causes he supports ease because of work pressure from South Block? According to Samata Party leaders, their leader could well contribute to the Burmese and Tibetan cause in his new capacity. Says party general secretary Jaya Jaitly: "We naturally expect him to work for the Burmese and Tibetan causes. It is linked to our national security. Till now we have only been looking towards Pakistan. But there are other threats to our security it is well known that China is arming Burma and is setting up a naval base on the Coco islands. It is also learnt that the Americans are planning to send green berets to train the Sri Lankan army. We can certainly expect a proper assessment of our security vis-a-vis Lanka taking into account this aspect."

It is perhaps the Samata Party's stand on atrocities against Lankan Tamils and its support for the Eelam cause which has set the alarm bells ringing in Sri Lanka ever since George was entrusted the defence portfolio. It was only last year that a conference of human rights activists and Tamil support groups outside Lanka was held at his residence. The conference was seen in many quarters as being pro-LTTE with the then home minister Indrajit Gupta advising George to call it off.

But the conference was conducted despite this, inviting some controversy.

In the army, there is some apprehension about the new defence minister and his strong views on human rights violations. In the past, George has been particularly severe on IPKF operations. In the introduction of a report published by the Hind Mazdoor Kisan Panchayat on the massacre of Tamils at Valvettiturai, titled India's My Lai, he severely criticised the IPKF, calling its operations a "naked dance of a bunch of sadists and criminals in uniform". He also wondered if any one "discusses the rape and loot perpetrated by our men in uniform in the north-east." Human rights violations will be dealt with severely, that's for sure.

Despite the euphoria among his supporters, ministership weighs lightly on George. He has made it clear that those who seek help from him will get his support if their cause is justified. Also, he has not asked for the slowing down of any of his party's campaigns, including the controversial one against multinationals Coke and Pepsi.

Aneel Hegde, who also operates out of 3, Krishna Menon Marg, has been in the forefront of the Coke-Pepsi Quit India agitation. March 27 was the 1,487th day of the protest and there seems to be no letup. Hegde was also involved with the agitation against the setting up of a salt export unit and an exclusive port to facilitate the shipment of the end-product by the multinational, Cargill, at Kandla in Gujarat. The company shelved its plans after four months of campaigning by George. But despite Hegde's efforts, Coke and Pepsi are still around.

A sore point for the activists who are going to great lengths to proclaim their anti-MNC front. Everyday, including Sundays, party workers gather outside Jantar Mantar and march towards the Parliament Street police station where they are arrested and released. For the last four years, arresting the anti-Coke-Pepsi activists has become virtually a routine for the police.

But has the agitation made any headway? Says Hegde: "You may laugh at us but we have made a small difference. When we go out in a morcha we do not allow any Coke or Pepsi trucks to pass by. We block the road. Now the trucks move away when they see us." He boasts of another achievement: the message they preach has apparently gone down so well with some stall-owners on the stretch of Race Course Road which faces the prime minister's house that they have begun stocking home-brewed Campa Cola. "I don't say that Coke and Pepsi is not available in the main Race Course area but we have stopped its sale in that part where we have influence."

Hegde does not see any end to the agitation. He hopes that other parties and groups which endorse the swadeshi agenda will come together to pressure multinational companies to leave the country. "In the case of Cargill, but for Congress, all the parties were with us which is why we succeeded in four months. As far as our present struggle is concerned we are making slow progress but we will pursue it."

How far has defence ministership changed George? Well, he has become busier but his spartan lifestyle has not changed. His house continues to have no gate or sentry the gate was removed under his orders to make it easier for visitors. One doesn't come across busy-looking Defence Ministry officials, and the minister has refused security cover of any kind. An official Ambassador picks him up and George sits alongside the driver, no escort car, no gun-toting commando. That's George the Simple for you – a very complex man.


Friends of Tibet (INDIA)
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