Fernandes ‘sought CIA funding’ during Emergency

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:39 pm IST

Published - April 08, 2013 06:34 am IST - CHENNAI

George Fernandes, then Union Minister for Industry, addresses railway employees in New Delhi in May, 1979.

George Fernandes, then Union Minister for Industry, addresses railway employees in New Delhi in May, 1979.

At the height of Emergency, fiery Socialist labour leader George Fernandes sought to get funding from the American Central Intelligence Agency and the French government while he was underground organising sabotage activities.

Mr. Fernandes, who liked to project himself as a sworn enemy of American imperialism and foreign capital, said in November 1975 that “he was even now prepared to accept money from the CIA,” according to a new set of U.S. diplomatic cables from the Henry Kissinger era obtained by WikiLeaks and accessed by The Hindu .

Mr. Fernandes, who was at the time plotting to dynamite government installations as part of protests against the Emergency, made this request for funding during a meeting with the French Labour Attaché Manfred Turlach on or around November 1, 1975 ( >Cable: 1975NEWDE15543_b ) .

Fernandes initially asked Turlach for help from the French government. When this was refused, he asked Turlach if he could suggest CIA contacts. Turlach told him he knew none.

The cable, sent on November 28 from the New Delhi Embassy to the State Department in Washington, notes that on November 8 a certain “Miss Gita” (quotes from the original text) had approached the U.S. Labour Counsellor seeking to arrange a meeting between Fernandes and the U.S. Ambassador. “She was told that there was absolutely no possibility for a meeting.”

During the meeting with Turlach, Fernandes, with more than a touch of bravado, claimed there were about 300 people with him engaged in sabotage activities and that they had “already blown up two railway bridges in the south and a bridge between Bombay and Poona”. He also claimed his group set fire to the docks in Bombay (Mumbai) and that the Naxalites, with whom his group was working, had set fire to the LIC building in Madras (Chennai) in July, 1975. That the Americans were sceptical about these claims is evident from a later cable which says “George Fernandes has previously bragged to a western diplomat that he and his group….were responsible for explosions on the rail lines” ( >1976NEWDE05180_b ) .

Fernandes, who as president of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation led the Railway strike of 1974 which nearly brought the country to a halt, went into hiding soon after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency on June 26, 1975. Turlach told the Americans that “Fernandes is moving about with a great deal of secrecy”. The meeting with Turlach was at Fernandes’s request, set up by an intermediary who “would not normally be identified with opposition activities or associated with Fernandes, as he is a former management official”.

Though he was apparently willing to take CIA money and sought out American help while in the opposition, in a few years time as Industries Minister responsible for foreign investment in the Janata Party government he was to deliver a near-fatal blow to U.S. business interests in India. In 1977, he invoked the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) to oust Coca Cola from the country, and IBM in 1978. He later claimed that he “kicked out” Coca Cola because it paid Rs. 20 lakh to Indira Gandhi.

Some of Fernandes’s assertions while in government turn ironic in the light of the Turlach cable. After Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was U.S. Ambassador to India from 1973 to 1975, claimed in his book A Dangerous Place that in the 1950s the U.S. gave money to the Congress, and specifically to Indira Gandhi, to fight the Communists in elections, Fernandes was adamant that it was the government’s duty to find out from the Americans how much money she received and whether she was still receiving it.

While none of the cables available seem to indicate that the Americans followed up on Fernandes’s request for funding as conveyed by Turlach, there are many that indicate great interest in Washington as to the fate of the Socialist leader after his arrest on June 10, 1976. The State Department sent a confidential cable to the Embassy in Delhi on August 6 that year saying “Department would appreciate whatever current information embassy can discreetly obtain on opposition leader George Fernandes and status of investigation being conducted against him. Department continues to receive inquiries about Fernandes” ( >Cable: 1976STATE195162_b ) . In a November 10 cable Secretary of State Henry Kissinger himself sent a similar request, “in view of continuing interest in Fernandes case” (Cable: 1976STATE276882_b) .

The Embassy followed up this request with a series of cables detailing the “Baroda dynamite case”, and Indira Gandhi’s attempt to put Fernandes and his associates behind bars.

There even seems to have been a point where Kissinger sought opinion on making an official or private appeal for Fernandes’s release due to pressure in Washington. Deputy Chief of Mission David T. Schneider strongly cautions against such a move as “it would do no good and some harm” and as the Indian government “will insure that even when (or if) the emergency is lifted Fernadez [sic] will not be let free” (Cable: 1976NEWDE11654_b) . The pressure on the State Department seems primarily to have been from the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith who was Ambassador to India under John F. Kennedy since Schneider tells Kissinger that “you may inform the Galbraiths or others of our frank assessment.”

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