George Fernandez, one of India’s former defence ministers and socialist leader, died on Tuesday. It brought back memories from 1998, when I flew with the Defenceless Defence Minister of India. This article, written re that chance encounter in August 1998, is reproduced as a tribute to the fallen socialist leader.
I was traveling on Indian airlines, flight IC 539 from Madras to New Delhi. My seat number was 20 E. Half an hour before the plane took off, a tall, lean man a familiar figure, dressed in a light green Kurta and a white pyjama, with only a shoulder bag accompanied by a lone, Indian airlines ground assistant, boarded the flight. The man gently walked passed me and sat on seat 25 A, economy class. I couldn’t believe it. This was the man who recently challenged China and created a stir. This was the man who was leading India’s nuclear front and in charge of the Indian Defence Forces. The socialist firebrand, India’s controversial Defence Minister, George Fernandez. He sat and started to read a book. Cover of the book was revolutionary red.
I overheard an Indian woman whispering to her British daughter-in-law “That is our defence minister”. I became restless. India’s powerful Defence Minister, armed only with a book and a sling bag in the economy class!
I couldn’t wait any longer. I used my lung power and sent him a note through the kind air hostess. I wrote “Sir, I am a journalist from Sri Lanka. I am surprised and happy to see the Indian Defence Minister flying like any other citizen of India. May I have the honour and privilege of meeting with you?” Fernandez replied immediately. “Thanks. Please give me your contact number in New Delhi. I will call you over.” I wrote a note, thanking him with my contact details in New Delhi, walked up to him and handed over the note personally. He accepted it with a smile.
However, I wasn’t still convinced and hoped to see the elite back cats swarming all over the tarmac, rest of the passengers ordered to sit back when we landed in New Delhi. India’s Socialist Defence Minister proved me wrong. Fernandez got into the Air India bus with other passengers. I couldn’t wait anymore. At the entry point to the airport, I walked up to him again and said “Sir, Pardon me. I am shocked. How can you travel like this?” He asked me “Why? What’s wrong? Why shouldn’t I? I told him how surprised I was. “Most people take their positions to their heads; this is nothing,” responded the Indian Defence Minister. Thereafter, he asked me about my stay in New Delhi and promised to call me and give me a time to meet with him.
Later, I contacted his long time companion and Samata Party President, Jaya Jaitly to get an appointment with George Fernandez. Once, she asked me to come and see him. I waited for a long time and returned empty handed since Fernandez was held up at a governmental meeting. Last year, when Jaitly came on my News 1st, Sirasa TV, Pathikada programme, I told her this story and we shared a hearty laugh. I jokingly told her that she could have kept George’s promise to me.
May your soul rest in peace, Sir. Hope you didn’t forget to take that sling bag to heaven.