They say cometh the hour cometh the man. I’ve no doubt the hour has arrived but the man that comes to my mind is missing. Yet the more I think of two of the dominant crises confronting our country today the more I reflect on what he might have had to say. It will probably take you by surprise when I name him. I’m pretty sure none of you has thought of him for a long while. But his views remain very pertinent. The man was George Fernandes.
Let’s start with the latest of the two crises – the confrontation with China in Sikkim and Ladakh. George, if I can so refer to him, had no illusions about China. In a famous interview he gave me in 1998 for the Hindustan Times Television programme In Focus, he referred to the country as our “potential threat number one”. He had no doubt China was the greatest threat to India’s security because it saw India not just as an economic rival but, more importantly, as an alternate example of how a third world country can rise to the top. And that’s why he believed China is determined not to let India succeed.
At the time he was Defence Minister but that did not deter George Fernandes. It wasn’t the view of his government either but discretion was not part of his valour. He was outspoken and often called a spade a shovel. If necessary, in public.
In that interview, George spoke at length of the Chinese ‘String of Pearls’ surrounding India. From Gwadar on the West to Coco Islands on the East, via a series of strategic locations in the Indian Ocean, George believed this necklace could become a noose.
I’m not saying he was right but recent developments suggest he might not have been wrong either. What I want to stress is his scepticism, if not distrust, of Beijing’s intentions. He was wary of the Chinese. His sympathies lay with the country’s opponents. So he embraced Tibetan students, several of whom lived in his compound. That began before he became Defence Minister, persisted right through the six years he held office and continued long after.
Let’s now turn to the other crisis: the trauma we have inflicted on migrant workers and the seeming lack of concern from the government. It could never have happened had George been a minister today. Whatever the wrongs of his political thinking – and I won’t deny there were a few – he was a voice that was rarely silent in the face of injustice. He spoke for the Sikhs in the 1980s and for the Kashmiris in the ’90s. It would have been no different when tens of millions of migrant workers drudged wearily home. Had he been alive he would have been an old man – and age and illness had undeniably impaired his speech – yet he would have struggled to make his views known. Silence would not have been acceptable to him.
Actually, why should I limit myself to China and the tragic migrants? George would have spoken out against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the treatment of Muslims by the police during the Delhi riots and the deliberate silencing of student opinion in JNU. I admit by the time he joined the Vajpayee government he was no longer the rebel we knew in the 1960s and ’70s but he was not of the establishment either. He washed his own clothes, his house on Krishna Menon Marg had no gate nor any security, and when Ashraf Qazi, the Pakistan High Commissioner, was declared persona non grata in 2002 George invited him to dinner the night before his own government ordered him out of the country.
George made his mistakes – I would never deny that – but there was a lot he said and did that was right. He had the courage to be different and stand by his opinions. We could do with a man like that today.