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Remembering Janaki Ballabh Patnaik, a Congress pillar who had his share of controversies

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On his 91st birth anniversary, ThePrint takes a look at the Odisha veteran’s achievements and controversies.

For close to four decades, veteran leader Janaki Ballabh Patnaik was the face of the Orissa (now Odisha) Congress.

An erudite scholar known for his grasp over Odia and Sanskrit languages, Patnaik served as as chief minister of Orissa for 14 years and Assam for five years as a governor.

During his long political career, he also contributed to the field of journalism — as founder of the Odia magazine Paurush and editor of the popular Odia daily Prajatantra and The Eastern Timer.

On his 91st birth anniversary, ThePrint takes a look at the multifaceted personality’s life, achievements and controversies.

Early life

Patnaik was born on 3 January 1927 in Rameswar village of Khordha district in Orissa. He was a bright student, earning scholarships through his school years.

He was deeply inspired by Mahatma Gandhi at a very young age. In 1938, when he was a ninth grade student, he walked barefoot for 100 km from his district just to get a glimpse of Gandhi, he revealed in an interview once.

After school, he pursued Sanskrit at Utkal University in state capital Bhubaneswar. He later went on to do master’s in political science from the Banaras Hindu University.

Political career

While pursuing journalism, Patnaik’s inclination towards politics only grew. His wish was to serve Orissa and its people.

In 1967, Patnaik unsuccessfully contested as an independent candidate from the Dharamsala assembly seat.

Seeking a strong backing to move forward, he joined the Congress in the same year.

He was elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time in 1971. Nine years later, in 1980, former prime minister Indira Gandhi chose him as the chief minister of Orissa. From thereon, Patnaik gained a strong hold over the state Congress unit. He remained the chief minister until 1989, and formed the government again between 1995 and 1999.

For five years from 2009, he also served as the governor of Assam.


Also read: Bhupen Hazarika: The ‘Bard of Brahmaputra’ who took Assamese music to the world


Controversies

During his term between 1980 and 1985, he was accused by the opposition of refusing to take action against Congressmen allegedly involved in a gang-rape and murder case in Jagatsinghpur.

Patnaik’s image also took a hit in 1986 when The Illustrated Weekly of India published a cover story accusing him of sexually exploiting those who came to him looking for job opportunities. He sued The Weekly and banned it in the state. In 1997, after a long court battle, though, he did win an apology.

Months later, in January 1999, a woman alleged that she was gang-raped by three men in a car. She accused former advocate-general of Orissa Indrajit Ray and Patnaik of having played a role in the incident. The trial in the case, however, resulted in conviction of two men — Pradip Sahoo and Dhirendra Mohanty.

As the Mishra case happened soon after the infamous Graham Staines murder case, Patnaik was immediately asked to step down as Orissa’s chief minister.

Achievements

Among his many achievements for his state, Patnaik will be most remembered for starting National Aluminium Co. (NALCO), India’s first aluminium maker.

He also bought in big IT players like Infosys and Tech Mahindra into the software park of Bhubaneswar — a semi-rural settlement in the 1980s which he developed through rapid creation of parks, libraries and educational institutes.

With his significant knowledge of art, culture and literature, he wrote several books and translated epics like the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Srimad Bhagavad Gita into Odia.

In 2001, he was honoured with the Sahitya Akademi award for translating Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s novels.

He died at the age of 88 on 21 April 2015.


Also read: In Assam, NRC is now National Register of Confusion


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