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Biju Patnaik, the two-time Odisha chief minister who was RAF pilot in World War 2

On his 104 birth anniversary, ThePrint remembers the achievements of the daring and swashbuckling politician who served the Odisha assembly for 7 terms.

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Two-time chief minister of Orissa (now Odisha), an ace pilot and a harbinger of industrial development in the state, Biju Patnaik accomplished it all.

Encyclopedia Britannica rightly describes him as, “Indian politician who parlayed his fame as a World War II aviator, anti-British freedom fighter, and commercial airline entrepreneur into a political career…”

On his 103 birth anniversary, ThePrint recalls the achievements of the daring and swashbuckling politician.

Early years

Bijoynanda Patnaik was born in Cuttack, Orissa, on 5 March 1916 to an aristocratic family.

In 1927, Patnaik first saw Mahatma Gandhi during the latter’s ‘Khadi Tour’ and was inspired to join the freedom struggle. Patnaik was beaten up by a British police officer as he tried to get a glimpse of the Mahatma on that occasion.

Patnaik went on to complete his education in Cuttack from Mission Primary School, Mission (Christ Collegiate) school and Ravenshaw Collegiate School.

Interestingly, Ravenshaw has another famous graduate: Freedom fighter Netaji Shubash Chandra Bose.

Ace pilot

Patnaik was interested in aviation from his childhood days. In order to become a pilot, Patnaik began training at the Delhi Flying Club in the early 1930s. In 1936, he joined the Royal Indian Air Force as a pilot.

During World War II, Patnaik served as the Air Transport Command of the Royal Indian Air Force and helped the British forces fight the Japanese in present-day Myanmar.

Covertly, Patnaik also used his flying skills to help the Indian freedom movement by airdropping “Quit India” leaflets to Indian soldiers fighting under British command in Myanmar. He also secretly ferried prominent freedom fighters such as Jayaprakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia and Aruna Asaf Ali who were on the run.

Unfortunately, his undercover operations helping the Indian freedom struggle did not last long. In January 1943, Patnaik was caught by the British authorities and sent to prison for a period of four years.

In an article titled ‘Mo Bapa’ (My Father) published in Utkal Prasanga, Patnaik’s daughter Gita Mehta recalled, “While in jail, my father was thinking of ways to oust the British from India. Then he decided to become owner of a textile mill, because these units required the same colour and chemicals as are used to make currency notes. My father was determined that within six months of his release from jail, he will print fake notes and circulate them in the sub-continent to ensure the fall of British Rule.”

After independence in 1947, Patnaik used his aviation skills to ferry Indian soldiers to Kashmir to fight the Pakistani forces as the conflict intensified between the two freshly-carved out neighbours.

Patnaik even founded his own airlines — Kalinga Airlines — which started operating Dakota aircraft in the early independence years. Later on, Kalinga Airlines merged with the Indian flagship carrier — Indian Airlines in 1953.

Also read: Rajendra Prasad, India’s first President, who was a ‘man amongst men’

Indonesian freedom movement

In July 1947, Patnaik was given the responsibility to bring Indonesian revolutionary leaders Sutan Sjahrir and Mohammad Hatta to Delhi by his friend and India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

The Indonesian leaders wanted to come to India to broadcast the horrific conditions of their country under Dutch colonial rule to the rest of the world.

Despite receiving warning of being shot down by the Dutch forces if he entered the Indonesian Airspace, Patnaik flew to Indonesia via Singapore in his Dakota aircraft on 21 July 1947.

Patnaik’s reply to the direct Dutch threat was, “Resurgent India does not recognise Dutch colonial sovereignty over the Indonesian people. If my aircraft is shot down, every Dutch plane flying across the Indian skies will be shot down in retaliation.”

As a reward for his bravery, Patnaik was given honorary citizenship in Indonesia. He was also given the highest award of the country, Bintang Jasa Utama, when Indonesia celebrated its 50th Independence Day in 1995.

Contribution to industrial sector

In post-Independence years, Patnaik started to build an industrial empire in the economically backward state of Odisha.

At the inauguration of the Orissa Planning Board on 15 June, 1962, Patnaik said, “People cannot grow unless the industries were developed and established here.”

He helped in establishing textile mills, iron ore as well as manganese mines.

Patnaik also used his political clout to build one of the premier marine gateways, Paradip port, and played a key role in the construction of India’s first integrated steel plant in the public sector, Rourkela Steel Plant.

Also read: Narendra Modi goes easy on Naveen Patnaik, but BJP’s Odisha unit isn’t too upbeat about it

Second innings

Patnaik remained active in Odisha politics for more than four decades.

However, The New York Times in its obituary of Patnaik wrote, “…his reputation in India rested less on his performance as state government leader, or on his brief tenure as a Cabinet minister in the late 1970’s in the Government in New Delhi, than on his daring exploits as a pilot in the years before and soon after India’s independence in 1947.”

Between 1952 and 1990, Patnaik was elected to the Odisha assembly seven times.
Patnaik also served as member of both Houses of the Indian Parliament. He was elected to Rajya Sabha in 1971 and to Lok Sabha four times — 1977, 1980, 1984 and 1996.

Following the 1961 mid-term elections, he became Odisha’s CM for the first time. However, in support of the Kamaraj Plan, he resigned from his post in 1963. The plan had proposed that all senior politicians should resign from their posts to revitalise the Congress.

In 1969, Patnaik had an unceremonious exit from Congress following differences with his close friend Nehru’s daughter and then prime minister Indira Gandhi. When Gandhi declared ‘Emergency’ six years later, Patnaik was sent to jail.

After his parting with Congress, Patnaik formed his own regional outfit, Utkal Congress — it later merged with the Janata Party. During Morarji Desai’s government, Patnaik served as the Union steel minister (March 1977 to January 1980).

In 1990, he became the chief minister of Odisha after a gap of 27 years.

Seven years later, on 17 April 1997, Biju Patnaik died at the age of 81 due to pneumonia and other respiratory problems.

In 2000, his son Naveen Patnaik took over as the state’s chief minister and has been serving Odisha for close to two decades now. His daughter Gita Mehta is a well known author of books like Karma Cola and A River Sutra.

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  1. A daredevil: Biju Patnaik, a dynamic young hero of the fight for independence, was enlisted with the Royal Air Force and was known to be an exceptionally skilled pilot with gumption and talent in equal measures. He was under the army trial for airdropping political leaflets to Indian soldiers fighting for England in Burma and for flying clandestine missions of the freedom struggle.
    Biju was also known for his distaste for inequality and he kowtowed to no one. There is a lovely story about this. During a lavish party thrown by a local Maharaja, in honour of a British governor, Biju was introduced to Governor Lewis by the servile Indian king. The governor smiled pleasantly and greeted, “Hello Biju. Pleased to meet you” to which Biju responded, “Likewise Lewis. It is a pleasure to meet you too”. This stunned and even offended the Indian servants to the British but Biju remained unfazed. It is sad that the king’s subservience is a colonial hangover most Indians carry with them even today.
    Biju’s flying skills became a popular story through an incident that occurred in Kashmir. Two British officials from London had to survey the lands of Kashmir by air. This would involve low level flying for over an hour in steep valleys, at a mere fifty feet height above the ground. No pilot was willing to take the risk but Biju stepped up for the task and aced it.
    For nearly two hours, Biju flew the plane, “Aeronca” at a height of thirty feet—very high precision flying, and brought back the two officials safe and sound. To celebrate his feat, a grand dinner was organized that evening at the military guest house. Ironically, Biju was the only Indian guest at the party. After a couple of drinks, one of the intoxicated British officers launched into a racist tirade. He began to point at Biju and shout, “I abhor these Indian dogs. They were our slaves and now we invite them to our parties! He should be eating with the servants in the kitchen and not in our midst!” Furious and redfaced, Biju stormed out of the room.
    However, being a man of honour, Biju turned up at the airport the next morning for the return flight with the same two officers from London. As the plane taxied on the runway, Biju turned off the engine, dragged the insulting officer out and gave him a solid thrashing. Before any of the ground staff could take notice, Biju had left the beaten man and flown off for Delhi. At the airport, he was arrested for assault whilst the officer was admitted to a hospital.
    Since this was a serious matter of assault of a ruling class white man at the hands of a brown man, the trial was to be completed in three days. The jailor at the prison, softening towards Biju, informed him that the trial would not turn out in his favour but our hero was unrepentant and proud.
    At the courtroom, the prosecutor demanded life imprisonment but the sole witness of the entire episode—the other officer from London turned the tables. He said, “What Biju did was what any man would do. He is a remarkable pilot and person and he was wrongfully humiliated. For his courage and support to the British Army, he must be rewarded, not punished” Since this was clinching evidence, Biju was let off with one day’s imprisonment and a fine of one rupee. The court also sanctioned that Biju would continue to fly, with the validity of his license intact.
    At the prison, Biju met Bharat Singh and both made a profound impact on each other’s mind. The air was scented with the aroma of freedom and many young men and women were standing up against the colonial rule of the British Raj.

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