Congressman Mahatab, the first CM of Orissa in independent India, served as a cabinet minister in the Nehru government.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s name is always the first one that comes to mind whenever the merger of princely states with the Indian Union is discussed. And while he indeed remains the chief architect of that integration process, it was another man who initiated it all.
Harekrushna Mahatab was the first chief minister of Odisha (then Orissa) in independent India. A prominent leader of Indian National Congress (INC), he was also one of the 299 members of India’s first constituent assembly.
Early life and entry into politics
Born on 21 November, 1899, in Agarpara village of Orissa’s Balasore district, Mahatab was given the surname of his maternal grandfather.
After enrolling at Cuttack’s Ravenshaw College for graduation, a young Mahatab left his studies midway and joined the INC. His presence as an observer at the 1920 Calcutta and Nagpur sessions of the INC left a deep imprint on his mind and was the determining factor behind joining the party.
In his early days at INC, Mahatab served as secretary of Balasore District Congress Committee and was instrumental in organising various boycotts of foreign clothes during the non-cooperation movement.
In 1930, he was elected president of Utkal Pradesh Congress Committee and was the driving force behind the success of salt satyagraha in Orissa. When the Orissa Congress leadership appeared tentative about the feasibility of the movement, he, along with another leader, Pranakrushna Padhiary, convinced everyone about it.
During the Quit India Movement, Mahatab was arrested along with top leaders of the Congress like Jawaharlal Nehru and Abul Kalam Azad. He remained imprisoned at Ahmednagar Fort Jail for two and a half years and was released in May 1945.
As a prolific writer, he wrote multiple works during his various prison stints like the novel Nutan Dharma, drama Swarajya Sadhana and historical account History of Orissa. He also set-up the Oriya daily Prajatantra, which remains in circulation even today. The daily became an important tool to rally up support for the nationalist cause. He also started a weekly journal Rachana, modeled on Gandhi’s weekly Harijan, with the aim of spreading Gandhian thinking.
Integration of Princely States
After elections were held for the provincial Legislative Assemblies in 1946, Mahatab was appointed chief minister of Orissa, a position he held till 1950. It was perhaps during this period that he made his most significant contribution to both Orissa and the Indian state.
Mahatab wanted the merger of 26 Oriya speaking princely states with the Orissa province. After taking over as chief minister on 23 April, 1946, he issued two circulars to all rulers of Orissa states and sought their cooperation for a merger.
In a meeting with the rulers on 16 October, 1946, he declared, “So far as Orissa is concerned, considering its geographical, linguistic and ethnological affinity with the states, it is desirable that there should be one administration for both the states and the province; otherwise both the province and the states can have no efficient planning in the absence of which each part will be weak in comparison with the other states of India.”
However, the rulers of Orissa states rejected the idea and formed the ‘Eastern State Federation’ under Maharaja of Patna’s leadership.
Mahatab continued to explore constitutional options for some time while agitations demanding accession to Orissa province started in Nilgiri. The Maharaja responded with force. Mahatab finally pressed the interim Indian Government for military action. Even though the government authorised the Orissa government to take over the administration of Nilgiri, Patel warned Mahatab that the responsibility of the operation’s failure would be on him. On 14 November, 1947, the takeover was completed without any bloodshed.
After this, Mahatab took up the cause of merger with even greater vigour. Civil servant V.P. Menon, a crucial figure in the history of integration, wanted a system of joint control which would have allowed the princes to retain some administrative control, but Mahatab was against any such proposal. He also persuaded Patel to come to Cuttack and meet the princes. Patel agreed, and in the meeting told the princes, “If you do not accept our proposal I don’t take responsibility for law and order in your state. You take care of that yourself.”
Since the leaders of various local groups were almost ready to overthrow these rulers, they acquiesced to the proposal. This started the process of integration of princely states in other parts of India as well.
At prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s invitation, Mahatab joined the central government as minister for industry and supply in May 1950. As minister, he was instrumental in the setup of various industries, including private ones such as Biju Patnaik’s Kalinga Tubes factory. His economic views, however, were greatly influenced by Gandhi’s. He believed that a country like India needed to be divided into self-sufficient economic units where production would happen as per required consumption.
After Patel’s death, differences — over foreign aid and abolition of the privy purses of the rulers — started to arise between Nehru and Mahatab and he was dropped from the next cabinet.
Mahatab was not an enthusiastic supporter of American aid and wanted its usage to remain restricted to capital projects like industries. He didn’t want any aid to be used for community projects as he believed that it would initiate a propaganda war between the Americans and the Soviets in India’s hinterland. Also, Mahatab wanted the privy purses of rulers scrapped while Nehru felt that the government could not so easily renege on its commitments.
Even after his departure from the cabinet, however, Mahatab remained active in politics and governance. He served as the Governor of Bombay in 1955-56, chief minister of Orissa from 1956 to 1960, and was also elected to the Lok Sabha in 1962. He finally retired from active politics in 1977 and died on 2 January, 1987.
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