Sunday, Nov 27, 2022

'I Went Through Deep Anguish'

George Fernandes, Defence Minister, says that the explosions were mainly a deterrent and that there will not be any more tests and that India would adhere to a no first-use policy .

Original Interview: August 1998
Please click here for exclusive excerpts  from Countdown. For more writings by and on Amitav Ghosh, please visit his website,, where this first appeared

AG: I was interested and rather intrigued when I saw that you had been appointed defence minister. What was the background to that? On the face of it, and going by your previous political interests, it seemed an unlikely appointment..

GF: Well , I was asked to take over the Defence Ministry and I accepted it.

AG: Have you had a long term interest in defence?

GF: Well I have not only in defence but in external affairs...In fact in my very first term in Parliament in 1967 I was, among other things, a spokesperson for external affairs in the party, and external affairs has been my subject. ..In all my global campaigns, whether Tibet, and Tibet has been my campaign since 1949 when I joined the Party...

AG: What got you interested in Tibet?

GF: Well essentially the human rights question in terms of the people losing their nation and later on also the security concern came into the picture, because in the Socialist movement our position was Tibet was always a buffer between India and China --  a buffer with China, [and with China] occupying it, that buffer is gone -- to that extent our northern frontiers have become totally vulnerable . This was the Socialist Party’s position right from 1949 onwards, and when Sardar Patel wrote that famous letter -- Patel’s letter was written in ‘50 or ‘51 -- it became an important document meaning that idea became very significant to us -- that India was giving up its security concerns when it was ceasing to show any concern for Tibet vis-à-vis China.

AG: How do you account for that?

GF: I think that Mr. Nehru went by China’s declarations of friendship, but even before that he was so fascinated by the Chinese Revolution that he might have believed that they could do no wrong to India -- it was only at the fag end of his life did he say that we may have made some mistake.

AG: What was Dr. Lohia’s position on this?

GF: Lohia, in 1949, that is when the Chinese first touched Tibet, was in London and in London he issued a press statement where he said that a baby murder has been committed, the baby has been murdered, India must immediately act -- Pandit Nehru reacted very angrily to this -- Krishna Menon sent him a message on this statement of Lohia where he described how the Left in Britain had violently reacted .. in fact, Lohia was heckled in that press conference. Pandit Nehru then disowned in the sense.... because we were at that time the Socialist Party, no more the Congress Socialist Party.

Pandit Nehru repudiated that statement made by Lohia and said that we have nothing to do with Lohia’s views and so on..Then as the situation started getting more and more complex Lohia got the Socialist Party to take a decision on this and his writing on India, China and the North-east ... he saw all that was happening today in the north-east and he spoke on it, he wrote a lot on it . 

In fact Lohia was very much concerned with the north-east . And in his talks with us, party people, he would always say that, and it is also written that, and he would also speak --- for ultimately Lohia’s total writings are not more than 3-4 hundred pages which he wrote during the underground movement of 1942 .

After that mostly his speeches were published -- but he said in this case that it was India’s - the real danger to India will come from the north-east , it was not Kashmir but it is the north-east . And to us he used to say, look after the interests of the people of the north-east , look after their interests, see that that they are not alienated . He kept concerning the GOI all his life for the way it was treating the NE and the problems of the people of that region.

The part of the NE which is now Arunachal Pradesh was known as the NEFA, the North East Frontier Agency and Lohia castigated the government in the strongest words for treating a part of India as an agency which was okay for the colonial rulers to say but for free India to consider that a part of it is an agency is wrong in every sense of the term -- and so he coined the term Uttar Purva Seema Anchal and then instead of calling it the UPSA he started calling it URVASIAN- uttar kaa U , purva kaa R, seema ka SI aur anchal kaa AN.. And Urvasi too came from Assam ... So we started calling it URVASI and it came to be known as such in our Socialist literature.

AG: So is that how your interest in Burma developed?

GF: My interst in Burma was with U Nu. You know that in Burma the head quarters of the Asian Socialist Congress was housed at Rangoon and U Ba Swe was the Deputy PM under U Nu. U Ba Swe was head of the Socialist Party, he was also the president of the Asian Socialist Congress we had a whole lot of people from India and I myself was one of the secretaries of the Congress which was based in Rangoon. 

Our concern with Burma began with U Ba swe , head of the Socialist Party. U Nu was not a Socilalist , in fact U Nu was a conservative. But when U Nu was exiled after Ne Winh took over he came close to the Socilaists beause of U Ba Swe. I knew U Nu ...we used to interact very often when he was in exile in India... and our interset in Burma therefore had been in an anti-militarist, anti-fascist movement ...

I of course feel a genuine sense of shame in the sense that we did not pursue our opposition to the fascist rule in Burma for many many years.. We ignored the whole thing.... one reason for that being [that] there was no domestic movement in Burma, but that is no excuse.. we should have been more active on that front, if for no other reason for our own security concerns ... we should have been more active ... 

But when Aung San Suu Kyi came to Burma and this whole struggle began there...and elections were held and she got arrested ..I was there at that time ...we were not in govt. in 1988-89, in ‘90 we were and then we took up a very strong position ...I am talking about the Socialists , though party-wise we may have belonged to this party, that-party -- our names got submerged under some party or the other -- the Janta party, the Lok Dal etc... but we maintained our Socialist identity and through our platform the Hind Mazdoor Kisan Panchayat, which I called the scaffolding on which we would build the  Sociliast party again ... 

We would take positions and carry on campaign ...and so the Burma campaign really began in 1989 when this phase of the military junta movement was started...and since then we have been associated very closely with this. We had an international conference in Delhi on that and from then on we have made that one of our principal concerns.

And I can identify myself with this... in fact today’s Statesman has an edit on them where the edit has named me and said that now as I am defence minister, I shall also get my government to take a strong position on the Burmese military it's a part of our concern with human rights.

I’d like, for instance, to take the Tamil Question in Sri Lanka and see it as a question of human rights and there are many aspects -- but the two most important aspects being that a language is sought to be suppressed , a people are sought to be suppressed and a religion is sought to be suppressed and the constitution and the government is working in that direction. 

We had taken a position and for many years have been addressing meetings .That the Eelam is their business ... whether they want a country, it's their business, but where human rights are concerned, I have always taken a position.

AG: Do you think that the Chinese threat in Tibet and Burma is more pressing than what it was before?

GF: Well, in terms of the ground situation, I don’t think there has been any change... after all threat perceptions do not change very fast -- even when there are cataclysmic changes between nations or within nations, these things remain what they have been. 

China continues to help Pakistan, both in regard to nuclear wherewithal and also on missiles and missile technology... And where Tibet is concerned .. though the Dalai Lama has been pressing for talks, Chinese positions have continued to change from [one]stage to another.. earlier the position was that the Dalai Lama is not prepared to come to talks and then when the Dalai Lama made his famous speech at the European Parliament, now more than a decade ago, and said that I will accept regional autonomy and would like to talk on these [terms] then there was total silence... 

And when there was greater pressure coming from him in terms of his global visits and meetings with various people,  particularly when the US got interested, then the line taken was that he must accept that Tibet is a part of China. So, then after awhile, he conceded the point . 

Now the issue is that he must not only concede that Tibet but also [that] Taiwan is a part of China . So this is the way China has been dealing with that issue. And as I have said we had taken a view of the Tibet in the Socialist movement and on our security concerns. Here I must digress slightly.

In 1966, I was in Geneva with the ILO on a specific assignment and I had the privilege of spending a whole evening with Edgar Snow in his little chalet up in the Jura mountains. And the person who took me to him told him about my concerns and then the conversation naturally moved on to India and China , the ‘62 war and our own concerns and so on.

And Edgar Snow said that I was very angry in my presentation , in my responses and I said Tibet has been our buffer and this is now where we are, and our threat perceptions and so on... Snow then went on to say that yes "I understand your anger , your feelings , but India and China should never go to war. You are two nations which will decide the destinies of the world in the coming years and you have to live and work together. I said, yes, but what about our territory? What about our security ?

He said this is a matter which can be resolved. How? We are not willing to give up Tibet. He said, well, this is something which can be negotiated. Then I made a point - and I said that , you know Edgar, Dr. Lohia used to make a statement which became the Socilaist Party’s position in the national executive, in our conferences, we have adopted resolutions on this position, that is, either there will be an independent Tibet which will be a buffer between India and China or the Purva Vahini Brahmaputra or the east flowing Brahmaputra will be a divide between India and China -- Tibet was considered a part of China ...

He sat up, and this was well past midnight, and said, "Say that again". He asked me, "Are you still holding to that position?" So I said this was the position of the Socialists, and he replied "Yes, that’s a position you can have." And so then, it was my turn to be surprised.

So with my work over I flew back straight to Delhi from Bombay. Lohia was then in Parliament and I told him about this experience with Edgar Snow and suggested that we take this up. He asked me to write a note on this which I wrote and gave Lohia and which he in turn passed to Rajinder Puri . Rajinder Puri at that time was bringing out an English eveninger from Delhi and carried it in his paper -- in fact, he made it the banner headline of that edition. And if my memory serves me right I had also a article written for the BLITZ.

Then what Lohia did was to raise this this in Parliament. Towards the end of 1966, Shastri was no more, it was Mrs Gandhi who was P.M., and her aunt Vijaylakshmi Pandit went to Palrliament after contesting from Nehru’s seat. Mrs Gandhi fileded her in parliament to demolish what Lohia presented as a possibility which could be explored. And the whole idea was dismissed as wishful thinking or mere kite-flying. And soon after in October the following year, Lohia died.

AG: So you feel that China has left India behind. India is now being reduced to second or third fiddle?

GF: Well I can’t blame China for that and I don’t think many Indians care- By Indians I mean those in the highest places . If they cared they wouldn’t have been looting the treasuries as they are and wouldn’t be allowing the crooks of the world to treat this country as grazing ground . 

I don’t believe that many people in India care about this. Someday we will sink and this is not anything to do with China or with Pakistan . It is because this country is cursed to put up with a leadership that has chosen to sell this country for their own personal aggrandizement.

AG: What do you think has gone wrong?

GF: Well essentially what I think has gone wrong is that at one level the political leadership has refused to break out of its colonial mould -- having been educated at institutions run by the British or after-Independence, in insititutions in Britain and somewhere, the colonial mind stayed on -- that colonial mind allowed the structures of colonial rule to remain. 

To this day the Collector in this country is the most important person in the district. I am today the minster of defence, when I cease to be a minister, the collector in my constituency will not even ask [me]to sit down. I am not talking about myself in particular -- this is the administrative structure that the British left behind -- a structure that was designed to oppress, exploit and suppress people. 

So the colonial mould, both at level of leadership and structure at various political levels and of management of the economy --  you have a recipe for the kind of affairs that we are having now. 

Even when Mahatma Gandhi was alive , when the first elected government was established in this country in the 1930s , the Congress captured almost all the states -- one of the first things that happened after our people got into government was they started taking bribes openly and people went and complained to the Mahatma and said that "Bapu, yeh kya hona hai, abhi tak to azaadi nahin huin aur yeh bina paise se kuchh bhi nahi nahin karte"

Gandhi in his prayer meetings would start speaking out against it and very often wept., saying that "freedom is still far away and this is what our people are doing! What is going to happen to India ?" 

Nothing happened --  it remained as it was and then came independence. Nehru in his own way perhaps tried to uphold certain values. In fact we have the famous Mudgal case where a man was educated in Britain, decided to be a lobbyist for the Bomaby bullion merchants. When he got to be elected in parliament in 1951, Nehru got to know of this -- that the demand for the annual contract he sought was Rs 10,000. 

Today it looks like a small sum but in 1951, it was a fairly large sum . Pandit Nehru served a charge-sheet on the man , ordered an enquiry commission under TT. Krishnamachary to look in to the conduct of this man and moved a resolution against him in parliament. Later the man was expelled. 

That was in 1951. But after the second elections in 1952 , I think Nehru too started showing his side to corruption. From then on there has been one continuous downslide .

AG: You said in one of you speeches that India was a soft nation What do you mean by that?

GF: I have a belief that nobody cares even though every body knows what the challenges are in this country. I have been in Latin America, in Chile about 7or 8 years back, by then however the dictatorship had gone and there was a social democratic government . 

But I was in Phillipines when they were still struggling against Marcos . I went there on an invitation by a group which was fighting for the restoration of democracy and I saw parts of Manila where there were prison-houses , barbed wires, armed guards, private armies and everyone being harassed by them.

Everbody and anybody was in prisons and people were trying to protect themselves from their own people. This was not what freedom was all about! I knew that similar situations had prevailed in Brazil, in Argentina and started speaking about this and saying that there will come a time in India when we will have the same situation. Because the kind of India that we are trying to build cannot but take us into such a situation. 

So what I am saying is that everyone knows what the challenges are or has indications about what everyone is doing, but nobody is prepared to stand up and say that these are the challenges and we must face up to them. And this is where softness has come to play . Nobody is prepared to accept a disciplined life or be able to stand up and build an India which is strong. China went through all this and continues to travel this route right up to this day.

When our New economic Policy was proposed by Manmohan Singh , he constantly attacked the Left by saying look China has done this, China has done that. So one day I said in the House that the finance minister is saying that China is doing this etc, and I am willing to go along with him to his new regime. But I will request him not to bring in China into the picture unless he is prepared to accept the kind of discipline which China imposes on its people and the particular way in which China is fighting against corruption at every level. 

And let me tell him that if he is willing to accept this proposition of mine and every corrupt man is shot dead then everyone sitting there, I said, pointing to the treasury benches, should be shot dead -- and nobody uttered a word.

AG: From what you have said so far it seems that you admire the Chinese and want us to be like them?