The Man, His Methods, Asia’s Moments


“Be loyal not to me but to the destiny of the State.” – On Odias & Odisha – Bijayananda Patnaik also known to our era as ‘Biju Babu.’

Biju Patnaik is not a figure in the state, he is the modern equivalent of those great kings and scions who have ruled with impunity, dignity, valour, conviction and with tremendous popularity. His name is etched into the annals of history as not just a father figure to Odisha and India but also the nation with whom we have a huge cultural and commercial connect since the ages, Indonesia.

Biju Patnaik was born in an aff luent family on 5th March 1916, at Cuttack, Odisha in what was then British India. Born to Laxminarayan Patnaik and Ashalata Devi. He had two brothers and one sister. His elder brother Saradhanada (Dr. George Patnaik) was a renowned dentist and his younger brother Jayananda (Siju) was a pilot and the only sister was Sukruti. His father was a successful businessman who was also a very vocal supporter for the formation of the Odisha state. Biju Patnaik’s home was always filled with a flurry of activities involving dinner table discussions on what would be the future of this country? Would we ever get independence? And would our state ever be made? Important values like unity of the nation (when the concept of free India was still decades away), secularism and democracy were what he received at his home.

Biju Babu was a giant of a person towering at over 6feet 3 inches, he was a person with immense physical strength making him excel in sports during his school days at Mission School, Chirst Collegiate and later also in Ravenshaw college.He was a champion in football, hockey, athletics and in the cricket team. Throw at him words like ‘unconventional ’ and ‘unpredictable’ and he’ll catch them happily. He never backed down from being criticized and actually liked the fact that people would directly confront him on matters. This attitude made him win friends who stayed with him till the end of his life.

The young Biju Babu belonged to a breed of people who are adventurists. Had base jumping or free diving or bungee jumping been there back then he would have done it too. There are number of stories of him flying aircrafts even at the age of fifty ferrying people across the country and even helping other aircrafts in distress.

His will power and grit originated from his immense physical strength and sharp wit. Biju Babu like any other teenager also was a keen traveler. A daredevil personality, Biju Patnaik had achieved fame through sheer hard work and determination. He always wanted to scale, fly or achieve ‘terra nova’. He was moved by the spirit of adventure and was an avid cyclist. He was spotted cycling his way to the State Secretariat on a bicycle many a times when he was the Chief Minister. When Biju Patnaik was a student at the Ravenshaw College in 1932, he embarked upon an adventurous journey on a bicycle and pedaled all the way from Cuttack to Peshawar in now Pakistan, a distance of 4,500 kilometres to and fro with two of his friends Amar and Bhramarbar Sahu on a ‘Visit India Mission.’ The sole reason was to travel the massive land of India and also take in the cultural diversity of this great and ancient land which for ages has been a seat of learning. Sans the political problems that mire the two nations it is still a daunting task even now. Back then there were no good roads or means of communication. It was a big challenge for him and his team mates, no Satnav or google maps there to aid them but as they say nothing is impossible for a willing heart. Without fearing he and his friends completed this ‘Visit India Mission’ successfully.

Biju Babu like any other youth of his era had to think of a career option and flying was something he chose after dropping his B.SC mid way. Awestruck by watching an aircraft land at Cuttack he wanted to be a pilot from day one. He joined the famed Delhi flying club and soon became a qualified pilot and started flying for commercial airlines just before the outbreak of Second World War. Biju Babu loved Western philosophy but hated imperialism. For him western technology was the instrument through which India could be modernized and led into a new era but definitely not under the rule of King, Queen or Kaiser for sure. As a reader you must understand that he was only two years old when the First World War got over and was hardly in his teens when the Second World War broke out. He came in contact with many Gandhian ideals which motivated him especially in 1927 when Gandhi toured Odisha for the ‘Khadi Andolan.’ He became an ardent follower of Gandhi and a member of the dominant political force the Indian National Congress. Soon he established lifelong bonds with leaders of the Congress party like Nehru, Sardar Patel and many others like Jyoti Basu from the Communist party and Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the Jan Sangh. Biju babu was respected amongst the political stalwarts for his immense knowledge and troubleshooting skills which earned him accolades wherever he went. He was a rare combination of class and charisma. A man who was equally comfortable in dealing with capitalist forces and also revolutionary ideas. He could find a middle path always.

Biju Babu had loved flying and it is said that when he married his love Gyan Sethi, he had arranged the guests to be flown in a fleet of Tiger Moths for the wedding in 1939. A flamboyant and far thinking man he envisaged that just like our Odia mariners in the ancient times had ruled the seaways with our naval prowess he thought the same could be achieved for Asia by making India and Odisha an aviation and aviators hub. Air power was the key to superiority and also a tool to use as soft power for the development of Odisha, India and Asia. Just to give you a glimpse of his flying skills which was difficult to achieve, here is a small excerpt from –

‘When Japan entered the war in 1941, Biju Patnaik evacuated British families from the advancing invaders. He f lew supplies to China and the Soviet Union. He pioneered risky operations across the Himalayas to help the Chinese revolutionaries in Chiang Kai Shek’s China. He once flew all the way to Stalingrad on yet another mission. The British Government Particularly appreciated his efforts to evacuate British families from Rangoon (Yangon) when the Japanese invaded Myanmar during World War-II.’

He during these missions over the Arakan and Kunming eventually ended up saving many lives both British and Indian. He was driven only by what he thought was right and not what was dictated to him. Moved by the speeches of Gandhi he would drop bags of Gandhi’s “Quit India” leaflets to the Indian soldiers while flying under British Command. But though he served the British, Biju Patnaik’s loyalty was with the Indian freedom struggle. While on leave, he ferried freedom fighters to secret meetings with their supporters in his private aircraft. As head of the Air Transport Command of the RIAF(Royal Indian Airforce), he sheltered in his house prominent fighters like Jay Prakash Narayan, Ram Manoher Lohia and Aruna Asaf Ali. While, flying the British to safety from Yangon, he also airdropped leaflets supporting the cause of Netaji’s Indian National Army. “When the British authority found out, they nearly got me shot for subversive activities. That was the time I was put behind bars during the Quit India Movement” Biju Patnaik said later. Some of the hazardous flying missions that he undertook were first with the RIAF and later with Indian National Airways that earned him the sobriquet of a “daredevil.”

On 15th August 1947 India became free, Biju Babu could see the dream of a democratic India release out of a colonial cage which had dominated the sub-continent for nearly three hundred years. Before he could take some time off and stop to smell the flowers the man was hauled up for landing troops during the Kashmir crisis.

Kashmir a princely state at that point of time was still undecided as to which way it would swing to whether accede to democratic India or to the theocratic state of Pakistan. Complexities of both sociopolitical, geo-political and religious alignments came into play while deciding the future of Kashmir. In this background Kashmir valley was invaded by tribesman under the garb of freeing their brethren from the oppression of the Rajah of Kashmir. The Maharaja of Kashmir acceded to India and thanks to the heroic actions of pilots like Biju Patnaik troops promptly landed in the Kashmir and proceeded to secure the frontline of what is now known as the ‘Line Of Control.’ Many years later during the period when Deve Gowda was the Prime Minister of the United Front Government and Biju Patnaik a member of the Cabinet had proposed then to make the Line Of Control into an International Border. He understood the fact that a progressive India can only be successful if a progressive Pakistan’s stability was achieved. His wife who was Punjabi had also influenced his thought process by narrating horrific stories of the partition which strengthened his resolve about solving a crisis not through war but effective forward thinking diplomacy. As his piloting career waned over the ages his political acumen increased by leaps and bounds. At the age of thirty two Biju Babu was as much a political heavy weight as he was an ace pilot and navigator. His piloting skills gave him focus and determination in achieving programs for the poor and his navigation skills earned him the skillset to convince vastly opinionated leaders into one common voice.

His last major aerial mission was given to him by Nehru. India was the proponent of the Non-Aligned movement which neither supported the Americans or the Soviets in principal. One of the prime aims of this movement was to remove European colonial influence from countries like Dutch Indonesia and French Indo-China or Vietnam.Under this background the newly formed Indian government with the NAM policy in place decided to help Dutch colonized Indonesia achieve independence. President Sukarno of the newly created Republik Indonesia ordered Sultan Sjahrir, the former prime minister of Indonesia to leave the country to attend the first Inter- Asia Conference, organised by Nehru, in July 1947 and to foment international public opinion against the Dutch. Sjahrir and senior statesman Mohammed Hatta were unable to leave as the Dutch controlled the Indonesian sea and air routes. Nehru asked Biju Patnaik, to rescue Sjahrir so that they could attend the conference and speak about their cause.

Another reason as to why Biju Babu took up this mission was probably because during his war years he had come into contact with various groups like that of Sukarno in Indonesia and Chian Kai Shek in China. Although Sjahrir was one of the most significant Indonesian politicians of his time, he did not engage in politics through a sense of vocation nor out of interest, but rather through a sense of duty to his country, compatriots and commitment to his democratic ideals. Described as an omnivorous intellectual Sjahrir, was passionate about education.

A buccaneer and an adventurist who never says no to his friends or the cause of having a democratic Asia immediately took charge. Biju Babu had the situation right under his control from the word ‘go.’ He had managed to obtain war surplus transport aircrafts which he used to fly under the banner of ‘Kalinga Airlines’ chartering them on routes all over Asia and Africa. Upon receiving the order from Nehru he flew along with his wife Gyan Patnaik on a regular route doing what Kalinga Airlines routinely did. Pick and drop supplies. Upon reaching Singapore he was accosted of the ever evolving situation at Indonesia and also of the Dutch air blockade. The Dutch were ready to shoot down any aircraft that was going into the blockade and his intelligence contacts in Singapore dissuaded him from flying even if his aircraft bore Red cross markings and livery. Biju Babu was flying on the registration number VT-CLA which was owned by his company and he managed to save Sultan Sjahrir, Mohammed Hatta and many others changing the course of world history in a few unsettling hours. But this was not once ‘Kalinga Airlines’ kept continuing its flights right till 1949 in support of the Indonesian freedom movement. For this remarkable achievement of nation building Bijayananda Patnaik was given the highest civilian award of Indonesia not once but twice. He was awarded the title of ‘Bhoomiputra’ and later ‘Bintang Jasa Utama’ during the tenure of General Suharto in 1995. “I’m happy to have been of some use and it’s nice of them to have remembered me,” is all that this modest statesman of Asia. One note for our dear readers here that recently a Dakota which was flown in one these missions by Biju was brought back and is now placed inside the Bhubaneswar Airport as display but there is another aircraft which also flown by him still survives in bits and pieces since it was shot down. The famed VTCLA lies forgotten in the remote village of Ngota in the Province of Yogyakarta in Central Indonesia. Very few know about it. Hardly anyone from Odisha might have visited.

Nation building would not be as easy as achieving liberation for it. This Biju babu knew and he dealt with it in his style of functioning. Biju Patnaik is considered as a pioneer of the industrial growth of Odisha and established a string of industries with regards to building a resurgent India. He went on to become Odisha’s third Chief Minister in 1961 and continued till 1963. He set up the Kalinga Tubes, the first modern Textiles Mills at Choudwar, Odisha, the first Refrigerator factory at Jobra, Cuttack and a low shaft Furnance at Barbil, Rourkela Steel Plant and not to mention later on Paradeep Port- port in which he put in a sum of fourteen crores to fund since the government at that time was not willing to award the project at Paradip but subsequently political nepotism had no place between the promise made by Pandit Nehru to Biju Babu and the port became a reality. These instituitions still exist and give jobs even today to millions of Odias.

In 1951, he established the Kalinga Prize for the Popularisation of Science and entrusted the responsibility to the UNESCO. The prize still exists and has given impetus to many researchers and scientists through awards and prize money. He believed education was the key to the future generation of India to have prosperous life and lead the nation to the 21st century. With regards to this he initiated the Regional College of Education at Bhubaneswar. The Regional Engineering College at Rourkela was established in 1961, the Odisha University of Agriculture and Technology was set up and during the Chief Ministership of Biren Mitra (when Biju was the Chairman of the State Planning Board). Universities were established in Berhampur and Sambalpur.

Biju Babu was dubbed the ‘India’s Buccaneer’ by Jawaharlal Nehru. When Nehru was criticized in parliament for giving more than the share of aid to Odisha, Pdt. Nehru retorted back by saying ‘”Biju Patnaik has the courage, dynamism and zeal to work. So there is no blunder in giving more aid to Odisha.” During the Sino- Indian War in 1962, he consulted the Odia leader repeatedly for advice.

He built what is today we know as Odisha. I and millions of Odias like me are what we know as the millennial generation and for us whatever infrastructure we saw growing up was built by or was because of Biju Patnaik. After Pdt. Nehru, Biju Babu and his ideas were shortly sidelined by the Kamraj clique inside the Congress and later by Indira Gandhi when he was briefly imprisoned during the emergency but that did not deter him. He co-founded and joined the Janata Dal whose members and founders were known to him since his flying days and he won again by massive victory and went on to become Chief Minister again in 1990 to 1995 as a Janata Dal government took power in Odisha from the incumbent government of J.B.Patnaik. During his second term he ushered in much needed revenue for a crippled state economy and opened new avenues in mining and core business areas for many. By then Biju babu held a very pivotal position of being a king maker in Indian politics and kept alive the coalition government of Deve Gowda by maneuvering through the problems being created by his own coalition members. He went to call them a “bunch of quarelling lobster” on national media. At a time when successively weak governments in the Centre failed at addressing developmenta l issues elder statesman like Biju Patnaik helped keep India together and also tide over religious tensions being caused during the Ram Janamabhoomi movement. He always wanted a secular and democratic nation but never at the cost of blood. Perhaps this is because of a simple fact that Biju babu had seen what religious tensions can do- like the partition or probably because if we bicker amongst ourselves we just might end up losing our hard fought independence. He soldiered on till his last breath. He died on 17th April 1997 due to a massive heart attack.

Bijayananda Patnaik or Biju babu or Kalinga Sandha(Bull of Kalinga) was motivated not by petty goals of self indulgence but rather by a vision for all around development of Asia and his immense love for Odia people. Limiting him and his ideas to Odisha would today be considered as sacrilegious to say the least. Biju babu with his global vision of prosperity through his well meaning and well funded initiatives in his role as a avant garde Businessman, Social worker, Daring Freedom Fighter, Ace Pilot, Defense analyst and also as a visionary Statesman helped build millions of lives across the Asian sub-continent. So to put it simply he is not a Bull of Kalinga but also a founding figure for a powerhouse that we collectively call as Asia.

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