Named after King George V, George Fernandes studied to become Roman Catholic priest

New Delhi, News Nation Bureau | Updated : 29 January 2019, 09:57 AM
Fernandes quit as defence minister in 2004 after the ‘coffin gate’ scandal broke out. He was subsequently exonerated by two commissions of inquiry constituted to probe the alleged scam. (File photo)
Fernandes quit as defence minister in 2004 after the ‘coffin gate’ scandal broke out. He was subsequently exonerated by two commissions of inquiry constituted to probe the alleged scam. (File photo)

After battling prolonged illness, former defence minister George Fernandes died in New Delhi on Tuesday at the age of 88. The defence minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, Fernandes was under scanner for the ‘coffin scam’. There were allegations that poor quality aluminium caskets were bought from the US at ‘exorbitant rates’ to transport bodies of Kargil war heroes. In 2003, Fernandes famously flew Sukhoi fighter plane in Pune. A month later, in June, he again undertook a MiG-21 sortie at a time when the fighter planes were dubbed as ‘flying coffins.’ After the sortie, Fernandes had said that there were "attempts to degrade these fighters and I want to dispel apprehensions about its safety."

Here is the life and times of the former defence minister:

  • George Fernandes was born on June 3, 1930, to John Joseph Fernandes and Alice Martha Fernandes in Mangaluru then Mangalore to a Mangalorean Catholic family.
  • He was the eldest of six children. His mother was a great admirer of King George V (who was also born on 3 June), hence she named him George.
  • His father was employed by the Peerless Finance group as an insurance executive and headed their office of South India for several years.
  • He studied from fifth grade at the school attached to St. Aloysius College, Mangalore where he completed his Secondary School Leaving Certificate.
  • He went to St Peter's Seminary in Bengaluru at 16, to be trained as a Roman Catholic priest, studying philosophy for two and a half years from 1946 to 1948.
  • At 19, he left the seminary due to sheer frustration because he was appalled that the rectors ate better food and sat at higher tables than the seminarians.
  • Fernandes moved to Bombay in 1949 in search of a job.
  • He came into contact with veteran union leader Placid D'Mello, and the socialist Rammanohar Lohia.
  • He rose to prominence as a trade unionist and fought for the rights of labourers in small scale service industries such as hotels and restaurants.
  • Emerging as a key figure in the Bombay labour movement in the early 1950s, Fernandes was a central figure in the unionisation of sections of Bombay labour in the 1950s.
  • He served as a member of the Bombay Municipal Corporation from 1961 to 1968.
  • He won in the civic election in 1961 and, until 1968, continuously raised the problems of the exploited workers in the representative body of the metropolis.
  • In 1967, George Fernandes decided to contest the general elections. The Samyukta Socialist Party offered him a ticket against seasoned politician Congress’ SK Patil for the Bombay South constituency.
  • Fernandes won against Patil by garnering 48.5 per cent of the votes, thus earning his nickname, "George the Giantkiller". The shocking defeat ended Patil's political career.
  • The most notable strike organised by Fernandes, when he was President of the All India Railwaymen's Federation, was the All India Railway strike of 1974, where the entire nation was brought to a halt.
  • He rose to prominence as a crusader against the Indira Gandhi-imposed Emergency and also served as a Union minister during the Janata Party government headed by Morarji Desai between 1977 and 1980.
  • Fernandes won the Muzaffarpur seat in Bihar. He was appointed the Union Minister for Industries.
  • During his first tenure as MP, George Fernandes set up a Doordarshan Kendra (1978), Kanti Thermal Power Station (1978) and the Lijjat papad factory to generate employment in Muzaffarpur. Fernandes also insisted on women’s empowerment. In November 2014, Kanti Thermal Power Station was renamed as George Fernandes Thermal Power Station.
  • He joined the Janata Dal in August 1988. His second tenure as Minister of Railways in the VP Singh's government from 1989 to 1990, though short-lived, was quite eventful. He was one of the driving forces behind the Konkan Railway project, connecting Mangalore with Bombay. The project happened to be the first major development in the history of rail transport in India since independence.
  • Fernandes broke away from the erstwhile Janata Dal and formed the Samata Party in 1994, which became a key ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
  • Fernandes served as the Defence Minister of India in both the second and third National Democratic Alliance governments (1998–2004). During his tenure as the defence minister, the Kargil war over Kashmir broke out between India and Pakistan in 1999. 
  • Fernandes quit as defence minister in 2004 after the ‘coffin gate’ scandal broke out. He was subsequently exonerated by two commissions of inquiry constituted to probe the alleged scam.
  • The former defence minister battled a prolonged illness and suffered from Alzheimer's disease. He died on January 29, 2019 at 88.
First Published: Tuesday, January 29, 2019 09:57 AM
For all the latest India News Download the News Nation App available on Android and iOS.