GEORGE Fernandes, who prides himself for being different, revels in taking up causes that are not wholly consistent with established views. His open support for the pro-democracy forces in Burma is well documented. The headquarters of the All Burma Students League (absl) is located in Fernandes' 3, Krishna Menon Marg residence in New Delhi. Says Hla Saw, general secretary of absl: Mr Fernandes is like a father figure to us. He has supported our cause whole-heartedly ever since we came to India. Saw and other absl activists call Fernandes 'uncle'.
When he was inducted into the Vajpayee government, military intelligence as well as the services chief found it difficult to come to terms with an activist defence minister who dispensed with the pomp and ceremony usually associated with the forces. Neither did he want elaborate security arrangements. A man who speaks his mind, no matter what his official position, Fernandes was all set to host a conference last year which would have been attended by the ltte.
To be fair to him, the absl headquarters have been operating out of Fernandes residence long before he took over as defence minister. But as Saw says, "defence minister or not, Mr Fernandes will keep supporting us". The absl general secretary, of course, admits that ever since Fernandes became defence minister, their standing has gone up. "His elevation has boosted our confidence," says Saw. The regime in Yangon is obviously not amused at dealing with a government in New Delhi whose defence minister espouses the cause of its opponents.
Burmese pro-democracy organisations are not the only rebels who have got Fernandes' support. Last year, during a visit to Assam, the defence minister broke protocol to meet a lawyer close to the banned National Democratic Front of Bodoland. Apparently, the lawyer wanted Fernandes to mediate in talks between the banned group and the government at a time when the Centre had clearly said no to a dialogue with any militant organisation until they agreed to give up arms.