More than the physical torment, it is the mental anguish he remembers.

How the Fernandes brothers fought through Emergency an interview with Michael Fernandes
Features Emergency Thursday, June 25, 2015 - 05:30

Pictures can speak more than the proverbial thousand words. Journalists romanticise the sepia-tinted front page of morning newspapers from June 26, 1975, arguably the most iconic image for people would be the one of a handcuffed George Fernandes, brandishing his chains post his arrest in 1976 during the Emergency.

“George often quoted one line by Indira Gandhi,” says his brother, Michael Fernandes, “It was something on the lines of ‘Earlier they used to call me a dictator, now I am one’.”  The younger Fernandes, four years George’s junior, is 82 now. The man who conjured up romantic images of the anti-establishment is bed-ridden. “George wouldn’t even be aware that an anniversary of the Emergency is coming up,” says Michael, his voice sombre.

George Fernandes was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. He has since been away from public view. At the stroke of the midnight hour on June 26 forty years ago, India did not wake up to light and freedom, but an unprecedented cessation of civil liberties. A hurried Presidential declaration effectively letting Prime Minister Indira Gandhi rule as a dictator was made late into the night of June 25.

“It (the Emergency) was not totally ruled out, things were happening in an unfavourable way for Mrs. Gandhi,” he says, referring to the student agitations in Gujarat and Bihar before the Emergency. Michael remembers that George was first arrested prior to the Emergency on May 1, 1974 for organising the Railway strike.

“George was about to address the union members before he was picked up while climbing the steps to the dais,” says Michael smiling and adding that “the strike that was supposed to happen a week later, begun there and then.”

The younger Fernandes was himself arrested in December 1975 under the infamous Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), or so famous that former Bihar CM Lalu Yadav named one of his children after it.  

“I had written a ‘strongly-worded’ letter to the government on behalf of the unions after the dispensation had changed provisions in the Bonus Act which would not serve the labourers. I knew they would come for me,” he says.

They did. Around midnight on December 23, they came for Michael, and led him away, telling him that he was to meet the commissioner. When he saw the police vehicle turn in the direction opposite to the commissioner’s office, he asked the police where they were going. They told him that the commissioner would see him at Ulsoor Police station instead.

“They kept asking me about George’s whereabouts, but I really didn’t know,” says Michael as he laughs. He says that he met George fleetingly in the seven months since the Emergency had been imposed and there was a time when even he didn’t recognise him, “In August we met at Hotel Weston in Bangalore and George was dressed up like a Sikh. I was surprised to realize it was him.”

“I used to deliver home-cooked food to him when he was in Bangalore. He made it a point never to visit us at home though,” he adds. Michael also remembers a time when George and his associates parked the car across MG Road as they hid while having ice-cream from the iconic Lakeview Milk Bar.

The emergency was quite a tumultuous time for their other brother Lawrence though. He was picked up under MISA too, tortured and was once even beaten up using branches of the banyan tree at the CID office in Bangalore.

But more than the physical torment, it was the mental anguish he remembers. “He was taken to the railway tracks and they threatened to kill him and dump his body there,” says Micheal. “I think at the time of my arrest the police weren’t so desperate, but with Lawrence they weren’t so patient,” he explains.

On June 10, 1976 George was finally arrested in Kolkata and the government was immediately under pressure to not harm him. “PM of Sweden Olof Palme and Willy Brandt of Germany told her (Gandhi) themselves,” he says. The brothers were later freed, Michael and Lawrence later than the others, and Michael has a lasting memory from the time.

“My dog, who we called Blackie Fernandes, had sensed them coming for me when I left, he used to smell everything that returned from my mother’s visits to me in jail. When I returned, he literally climbed on to me and choked. He couldn’t say anything so he pissed on me.” And like that, the Emergency was behind us.  

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