Former defence minister George Fernandes, a committed socialist and trade unionist who went underground against the 1975-77 emergency and fought the Congress all his life, died on Tuesday after prolonged illness. He was 88.
Fernandes, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s, has been out of the public eye and has been bed-ridden for more than eight years, family sources said.
He had a cold and cough and was attended to at his home by a healthcare team from Max Hospital who found him dead on Tuesday morning. “We are saddened to announce the passing away of George Fernandes. Fernandes was attended at his home by a Max healthcare team, which found him unresponsive and declared him dead at 6.42 am.,” a statement from Max Hospital said.
Fernandes leaves behind his wife Leila and a son, who lives in New York. The son is expected back in a day or two after which the funeral will take place, the sources said.
He served as Railways Minister in the V.P. Singh government from 1989 to 1990 and was instrumental in setting up the Konkan Railway project, connecting Mangalore and Bombay.
In 1994, Fernandes formed the Samata Party, which later allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party. He was appointed convenor of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and was the Defence Minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government for two terms, between 1998 and 2004.
His term was eventful as it witnessed the Kargil war and the Pokhran nuclear test. He was forced to resign on allegations of a scam in purchase of coffins during the Kargil war for bringing bodies of soldiers but returned to the Vajpayee cabinet after a clean chit from the Phukan Commission of Inquiry.
President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress President Rahul Gandhi led the nation in paying homage to Fernandes.
Kovind said Fernandes epitomised simple living and high thinking and was a champion of democracy during the Emergency period and beyond.
PM Modi said Fernandes resisted the Emergency tooth and nail. His simplicity and humility were noteworthy.
Rahul Gandhi, whose family Fernandes opposed throughout his political career, said he was sorry to hear about his death and offered his condolences to the family and friends.
Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik expressed grief over the demise of George Fernandes and recalled his long association with him. He prayed for eternal peace to the departed soul.
National Conference president Farooq Abdullah and vice president Omar Abdullah expressed grief over the death of George Fernandes.
In his condolence message Dr Farooq Abdullah said that “George Sahib always showed concern for the people of Kashmir and that his exemplary services to the nation will always be remembered. A symbol of résistance, one of the most powerful trade union leaders who rose to become a central union minister, George sahib will be remembered for his political acumen. May his soul rest in peace,” he said.
Omar Abdullah while condoling the demise of George Fernandez said, “India has lost a farsighted, fearless and people’s leader. My thoughts are with his family, friends and admirers. May his soul rest in peace,” he said.
Senior Congress leader and the former union minister Prof Saifuddin Soz in his condolence message said that “I knew George Fernandes very closely and went to him often in early 1990s when he lived at 2-Krishna Menon Marg, where the gate of his bungalow remained open for 24 hours. Then, Jaya Jaitly, a famous social activist, functioned as our bridge of understanding with ‘George saheb’.
“George sahib to his close associates, belonged to a different genre of Indian politicians, the onces who cared for people and never minced any words where it was the question of public interest.”
“During Jagmohan’s time in Kashmir in early 1990, when Kashmir suffered the situation of death and destruction, he constituted a situation of hope for Kashmir. He took up cudgels with his colleagues in the cabinet, including the ones who represented Kashmir in union cabinet, espousing the cause of Kashmir,” Soz said.
President of J&K Pradesh Congress Committee President GA Mir expressed profound grief over the passing away of George Fernandes and described his demise as a great loss to the nation.
He paid right tributes to Fernandes and praised him for his leadership qualities, he was man of integrity, Mir said.
He conveyed his deepest condolences to bereaved family and sympathized with them.