It was a grand Burma Convention held in New Delhi six years back and the prime mover of the event was a dynamic Indian political leader with socialist background, George Fernandes. The convention received wide coverage in the media and made a significant impact on the Indian civil society groups and its outlook towards the pro-democracy movement of Burma under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi.
I met the great trade unionist-turned-politician George Fernandes for the first time in the convention. I remember the former Indian Defense minister signed each and every invitation card to the convention. And during the meeting, almost all speakers, including a number of parliamentarians from our neighbouring countries addressed him as ‘Uncle George.’
Seasoned politicians, representatives of civil society groups, eminent editor-journalists of India and a large number of Burmese exiles from around the word attended the convention. The former Indian President, R. Venkatraman, also addressed the gathering. Amazingly, every one paid their heartiest respect to Uncle George and expressed their solidarity to his relentless mission for restoring democracy in Burma.
But recently I got a shock when I had the opportunity to see George Fernandes. Stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, expressionless and much enfeebled, the eighty year old former politician is but a shadow of his well-known firebrand self. Once a powerful trade unionist and political leader, tremendously popular among the working class, even the soldiers, George Fernandes has been dragged into an unwanted controversy for his custody. His wife, who was otherwise not with him for a decade suddenly emerged as his sole caretaker and started preventing his brothers and long time politician friend Jaya Jaitely to meet the leader.
“George Fernandes was born on June 3, 1930 at Mangalore in Karnataka. After completing his early education in Mangalore, he came to a seminary near Bangalore. Of course, George did not prefer the preaching – and even rebelled against the authorities. Then he moved to Bombay (Mumbai) and finally emerged as a winning candidate (Samyukta Socialist party) in the 1967 election. Later he come out as the Union minister for Industries, Railways and Defence time to time,” a leaflet stated.
Another important feature of his personality was his commitment to democratic movement in our neighbouring Burma. A New Delhi-based Burmese exile declared, “George Fernandes was an absolute supporter of the pro-democracy movement of Burma and his official residence gave shelter to many Burmese democracy activists including underground exile leaders. A huge picture of 1991 Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi was put in the wall of his residence and nobody could miss a glimpse of it.”
I am in no way judgmental, especially about who should get the authority to look after the great leader during his last days, but I would like to appeal to all the relative and well wishers of George Fernandes, to pay the utmost respect to him in these his last days. I am also convinced that the pro-democracy Burmese communities should not forget the great personality of George Fernandez who toiled for all the initiatives we now have for restoration of democracy in the land of the military.
The author is a Guwahati, India based journalist and keeps an eye on Burma issues.