George Fernandes Gave Voice to the Angst of Bombay’s Working Class

Bombay, the late George Fernandes used to say, made him feel at home. And why not? Long before he had begun to straddle the corridors of power in Delhi, and rub shoulders with an array of prime ministers, he had slept on Bombay’s pavements, picketed on its streets, worked in its shanties, led agitations at the imposing gates of its docks and municipal corporation – seen its underbelly.

He had lived in its old-style tiny tenements and ‘chawls’, absorbed the relentless rhythm of its suburban railways, and intimately knew one of its two greatest resources – the labour class.

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George Fernandes: A Trade Unionist Par Excellence

In a city often defined by capital and capitalists, Fernandes was on the other side. His voice and slogans reflected the angst and demands of Bombay’s workers across industries. When he arrived in the city in 1949 as a callow youngster, fleeing the repressiveness of a seminary in Bengaluru, he must have had no idea of how his life would unfold.

When he moved from Bombay to Delhi, defeating the “uncrowned king” of the city, ie, SK Patil in the 1967 Lok Sabha elections, George Fernandes was a name widely recognised and feared as a trade unionist par excellence, an anti-Emergency icon made popular by that black-and-white photograph of his fist in chains, unflinching socialist groomed by stalwarts, and a mass leader whose writ ran far.

Archival image of George Fernandes in shackles.

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George’s Primary Constituency Was Bombay’s Working Class

Bombay’s working classes were his primary constituency even after he had migrated to Delhi and turned into a full-time politician, often with an important portfolio in the Union Cabinet.

One day in the early 1990s, when he used to visit Bombay frequently, George was driven down to the modest suburban home of Mrinal Gore, the late socialist leader and Fernandes’s compatriot in battles, for luncheon meetings. Gathered in Mrinal tai’s Goregaon home were a motley collection of old socialists, union leaders and Janata Dal members.

When Fernandes reached, he wrapped Mrinal tai in a warm hug that spoke volumes. She would not let him start the meetings till they had had the lunch. It was a Maharashtrian meal of fish curry, fried fish, rice, vegetables, bhakri (rotis made of jowar), and buttermilk.

Mrinal tai personally served Fernandes and as many could be seated on the floor of her drawing room, and made sure that others were eating on the verandah outside.

Fernandes loved the meal, licked the fish curry off his fingers and remarked, “You’ve put something else today, this is not my usual Mangalorean curry. But it’s nice, I rarely get it these days”. Mrinal tai gamely began explaining the different spices used in Mangalore and Maharashtra for similar curries, but Fernandes had mentally moved on. He had ears only for Sharad Rao who was briefing him about the municipal workers’ union in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

Whom George Learnt From, And Whom He Influenced

Sharad Rao was his protégé and had carried on George’s union work among the lakhs of BMC employees. Rao too was a headache for the administration, and his clout was such that he could bring the city to a standstill by pulling the plug on Asia’s richest civic body.

The industrialists and the middle-classes of Mumbai did not have affection for Rao, just as they must not have had for Fernandes, but workers held on to his every word. As they do today to the words of his son, Shashank Rao, who recently led a relatively successful strike of nearly 35,000 employees of the city’s public bus service, BEST. Rao Jr remembers Fernandes, “I was a young boy when he had come home to speak to my grandmother and convince her to allow Papa (Sharad Rao) to become a trade unionist,” he said.

Fernandes had cut his teeth on labour issues and trade unionism under the best of teachers – the legendary Placid D’mello who was leading the port and dock workers, and Shanti Patel who was a freedom fighter, staunch Gandhian, and a remarkable unionist.

D’Mello, also from Mangalore, had organised dock workers around Bombay’s Ballard Pier and had launched a series of strikes in the 1940s and 50s to secure better wages and working conditions for them. Eventually, he went on to set up the Bombay Municipal Corporation Mazdoor (BMCM) Union, BEST workers union, Transport and Dock Workers Union and the All India Port and Dock Workers Federation.

Fernandes, who was working at a newspaper, had met D’Mello by chance and decided to follow his footsteps.

Mumbai’s legend has it that it was not the ship owners or cargo companies which controlled the city’s docks; it was D’Mello who had figured out a way to negotiate between the waters of capitalists and the underworld. He died a sudden death in 1958. Shanti Patel’s leadership of the unions was of a different character, not overtly flamboyant or aggressive as that of D’Mello, but just as firm, strategic and focused.

George Fernandes could not have asked for worthier gurus. Eventually, he came to lead those unions in different capacities.

The Unions that Emerged Under George

Through the 1950s and 60s, his union activities merged with his political leanings. He was arguing, along with Mrinal Gore, in the august house of the BMC, that it cannot conduct its official affairs only in English; they moved a resolution for the use of Marathi so that the civic body’s affairs would reach large masses of the city’s population. This was well before Bal Thackeray would lead the charge of Marathi and Maharashtrians. Unionists SA Dange and GD Ambekar were Fernandes’s fellow travellers.

Taxi drivers of the then ubiquitous ‘kaali-peeli’, the black-and-yellow taxis of Bombay, were at the receiving end from both the transport department and the traffic police. Fernandes was aware of the issues and moved to set up the Bombay Taxi Men’s Union, when one of the owner-drivers was murdered as the fallout of a dispute, old time socialists recall.

AL Quadros who has led the union for decades, now the Mumbai Taxi Men’s Union, goes back to 1963, when Fernandes led a fight of taxi drivers for a measly hike of 10 paise in the base fare, and spent months in jail for it.

In post-independence Bombay, Udupi hotels had carved out a niche with affordable and fresh food for working classes. But the hotels themselves employed under-age boys and made workers toil ‘round the clock, the majority of them migrants from coastal Karnataka.

Fernandes organised hotel workers, agitated and secured rights to free time and better pay, including – a veteran socialist says – annual leave with bus fare to visit their homes. Knowing Kannada and Tulu must have helped Fernandes in this battle.

George’s Focus: Unorganised Sector & Its Workers

His focus, as was that of his mentors, was on the unorganised sector and its workers, who were often not protected by law or charter. It remains his most sterling contribution to the working class life of Bombay/Mumbai, says socialist and musician Amarendra Dhaneshwar. George Fernandes’s stature and influence came from his approach – agitation-driven, skillful negotiations, and a fine sense of when to use the weapon of strike. His key lieutenants included Bal Dandavate, Narayan Phenani, Mohammed Hussain Baji. The Hind Mazdoor Panchayat which he led had branches across the country.

Fernandes also attempted to unionise textile mill workers, then the single largest labour constituency in the city. Ashok Mehta, union leader, had already led successful strikes. And then came the friction and division between socialists and communists. Fernandes’s ambition of leading mill workers did not quite see the light of the day.

But he teamed up, strangely, with Bal Thackeray and Sharad Pawar years later to voice the mill workers’ plight, and challenge the existing unions in the sector.

The George They Knew, And The George He Became

Fernandes’s improbable victory over SK Patil in the 1967 general election from Bombay (South) saw him leap to a life of active politics, but he straddled both worlds well into the 80s. His railway strike of 1974 remains a milestone in the annals of India’s union activities. That George nearly crippled the lifeline of the city, shows the extent of his influence. He was eventually arrested for plotting to blow up rail tracks – the Baroda dynamite case. When the Emergency was declared, Fernandes had the credentials to turn into its most fierce opponent – rakish devil-may-care attitude, impressive stamina (to travel and address rallies), imagination to hide and use camouflage, finely-honed anti-Congressism, courage to face brutal authorities – qualities chiseled during his Bombay days.

Fellow unionists and some socialists criticised Fernandes for contesting the 1967 election, but he paid no heed. Eventually, of course, he shifted his political base to Bihar and made Muzaffarpur his chosen constituency. As he moved more to the right of centre through the 1990s, sharing power with the BJP and justifying the atrocities of the Sangh Parivar outfits (especially during the Gujarat riots of 2002), Fernandes seemed a different man to his old colleagues and dismayed friends in Mumbai.

The crumpled khadi kurta and non-acquisitiveness were the same they knew, but George’s new politics had overshadowed his left leanings. In post-liberalisation Mumbai, the equation between capital and labour had been settled in favour of the former.

(Smruti Koppikar, Mumbai-based journalist and editor, writes on politics, urban issues, gender and media. She tweets at @smrutibombay. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

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