Biju Patnaik, the Daredevil Maverick

A chance occurrence can reveal the depths of one’s ignorance in a particular field. For me, the latest such was a linkedin post that I read about Shri Biju Patnaik. I realized that that I hardly knew anything about him. The extent of my knowledge could be more or less captured in the following bullets:  that he was a freedom fighter; that he had been CM of Orissa/Odisha for a few terms; that he opposed the Emergency; that he had done a lot for the development of his State; that the Bhubaneswar Airport is named after him, and there is a large, imposing statute of him outside the airport; and that his son has been the CM of the State for so long that I quite forget any other CM.

Appalled at my ignorance, I set out to find a good biography. There was hardly anything available. I finally ordered one called ‘Legendary Biju: The Man and Mission’. edited by Maj. KP Mohanty, which seemed the most promising of the slim pickings.

Biju Patnaik
Biju Patnaik

I won’t go into the merits of the book, except to say that I am grateful that Maj. Mohanty and other friends and admirers of the great man put this book together, so that someone like me can get glimpses of him.

Born in 1916 in a well-off family, Biju never followed the conventional route. Daredevilry and adventure were his defining characteristics. The highlight of his school days was when he cut school to go and see an aeroplane which had landed near his town. Just looking at the plane, a very unusual sight in those days, filled him with excitement and he determined to become a pilot. The fact that the guards posted around the plane chased him away and would not let him get near it, only strengthened his resolve.

When he grew older, he with three friends undertook to ride from Bhubaneshwar to Peshawar on cycles. He joined Ravenshaw College, only to drop out so that he could get trained as a pilot. And he became a flying ace.

There are several tales of his derring-do as a pilot which sound more the stuff of fiction and film than real life.

After qualifying as a pilot, he joined a private airline, but ‘somehow or the other sneaked into the Royal Airforce’. This was at the height of World War II. Stalingrad was surrounded by the Nazis, and Red Army did not have enough weapons to hold the city. The fall of Stalingrad would have meant that the Nazis would be able to march to Moscow, and things would get really serious for the Allies. It was Biju Patnaik to the rescue! He flew 27 sorties and dropped arms and ammunition into the besieged city, which helped the Red Army defend it, and force the Germans to retreat. This was an important milestone in WW II.

During the Quit India movement, Biju Babu continued to in the service of the British—in fact, he was pilot to Lord Wavel, the Viceroy of India, and most trusted by him. But all the time, he was pinching secret papers and files which he had access to, and passing them on the freedom fighters. He  dropped political leaflets to Indian soldiers fighting under British command in Burma. He flew several leaders of the Freedom Movement, including Aruna Asaf Ali the intrepid freedom fighter, clandestinely. He was finally caught and imprisoned by the British. A secret agent more daring than James Bond!

Post-Independence, there were many occasions when his courage and skill as a pilot were called to the service of the nation. India was supporting the Indonesian Freedom Movement, which was fighting the Dutch colonizers. At one stage, Nehru with whom Biju Patnaik was very close, wanted the Indonesian leaders to attend the first Inter-Asia conference, and present their case at the world stage and garner support for their cause. The colonial masters were not keen that the freedom movement leaders go out of the country, and stopped all air and sea routes. But Biju Babu flew a secret sortie, brought the leaders to address the conference, and then dropped them back.

When the Pakistan Army attacked Srinagar in late 1947, the situation for India was really bad. There were just not enough troops or weapons in J&K for the country to hold and defend it. The only way was to fly them in. But it was not clear whether the Airport was still in Indian hands or had been taken over by the attackers. The Indian Airforce expressed their inability to land under the circumstances. One again, Biju to the rescue! He landed in Srinagar Airport, took over the control tower, ensuring that our Airforce places could land. And that turned the tide of history.

He had a role to play in Nepal too. When there was struggle between the Ranas who were the rulers, and freedom fighters of Nepal, India supported the freedom fighters, but could formally do nothing to interfere in the internal affairs of a neighbor. But Biju Patnaik went ahead and dropped 15,000 guns into Nepal to aid the anti-royalists!

And these were just his exploits as a pilot. But he was so much more. Apart from being an industrialist, he was of course a politician on the national stage, the CM of Orissa, a man credited for many significant development projects there.  (Hopefully, I can briefly cover some of these in a subsequent blog).

‘Maverick’ and ‘Daredevil’ are two terms which recur through the book. And for sure he was both of those. ‘Controversial’ could be added too. In his time, he was accused of corruption, of mis-administration and of encouraging lawlessness by asking people to take law into their hands and beat up corrupt officials (when he himself was CM!).

There is a crying need for scholarly biography, one which is accessible to the intelligent reader. It is the least that India can do to honour and remember this remarkable individual. They don’t make them in this mould any more!