Obituary: Biju Patnaik

Kuldip Singh
Thursday 01 May 1997 23:02

Besides being a powerful and influential politician and businessman in India, Biju Patnaik was also a buccaneering pilot, whose feats during and after the Second World War were legendary.

As an officer in the Royal Indian Air Force in the early 1940s, Patnaik flew innumerable sorties to rescue British families fleeing the Japanese advance on Rangoon, the capital of Burma. He also dropped arms and supplies to Chinese troops fighting the Japanese and later to the Soviet army struggling against Hitler's onslaught near Stalingrad. Two years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, Patnaik was honoured by the Russians for his help.

After the war, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, who was committed to decolonisation, entrusted Patnaik with the seemingly impossible task of rescuing Indonesian resistance fighters struggling with Dutch colonisers for control of Indonesia. Assisted by his wife Gyanwati, in 1948 the lanky pilot flew an old Dakota aircraft to Singapore en route to Jakarta where the rebels were entrenched.

Despite attempts by the Dutch forces to shoot him down after he entered Indonesian airspace, Patnaik landed on an improvised airstrip near Jakarta. Using left-over fuel from abandoned Japanese military dumps, he flew out several prominent rebels including Sultan Shariyar and Achmad Sukarno for a secret meeting with Nehru at New Delhi which greatly helped their cause.

After independence, when Sukarno became president, the Indonesian government conferred the title "Bhoomiputra" or "son of the soil" on Patnaik and gave him honorary citizenship. He remained close to Indonesian leaders and Sukarno's daughter was named Meghavati or "goddess of the clouds" on Patnaik's suggestion.

Soon afterwards Patnaik took to the skies once again, flying Indian troops into Kashmir to fight Pathan guerrilla fighters from Pakistan's North West Frontier Province who had raided Kashmir and forcibly occupied a third of the principality. He also carried out scores of civilians from Kashmir's summer capital Srinagar, including his infant son and his daughter Gita Nehta (now an internationally renowned author, of Karma Cola and Snakes and Ladders).

Patnaik also tried to establish an airlink between India and Tibet, shortly before it was occupied by the Chinese in 1951. And, though unsuccessful, he was able to persuade the Indian government to provide arms and logistical support to Tibetan Khampa fighters waging terrorist attacks against the occupying Chinese.

Patnaik was born in Cuttack in the eastern state of Orissa in 1916, into an aristocratic family. He began flying shortly after graduating from Ravenshaw College, Cuttack. In 1939 he married, with his customary flamboyance, Gyanwati Sethi. His marriage party arrived with a fleet of Tiger Moth planes which flew in formation over the train which carried the young couple to their honeymoon.

Influenced by Mahatma Gandhi's freedom struggles against colonial rule, Patnaik joined the independence movement and often sheltered prominent revolutionaries in his house. He was commissoned into the Royal Indian Air Force in the early 1940s, rising to head its Air Transport Wing before becoming a commercial pilot.

Penniless after Independence, Patnaik set about establishing an industrial empire, which eventually comprised iron ore and manganese mines, steel and textile mills and an airline, most of which he sold later in order to enter politics full-time. He had joined the Congress Party during the independence movement and, after winning state elections in 1961, became Orissa's chief minister. However, he quit two years later after an upheaval within the party.

Thereafter he became a close confidant of prime minister Indira Gandhi but fell foul of her and was imprisoned when he opposed the internal extergency she declared in 1975, in which civil liberties were suspended and press censorship imposed. Patnaik spent two years in gaol before being released, elected as an MP and made a federal minister. The collapse of the government in 1979 pushed Patnaik into political oblivion, but he bounced back in 1991, becoming Orissa's chief minister and going on to complete a five- year term.

Patnaik increasingly lost popularity in recent years through his arrogant and unseemly behaviour. In 1993, for instance, he celebrated his 78th birthday with a party which cost the bankrupt state of Orissa 20 million rupees (some pounds 360,000) at a time when thousands in the state were dying of starvation and government employees had not been paid their salaries. Patnaik's political party was voted out of office two years ago and, though he retained his parliamentary seat, he was considered a political liability and left out of the federal government.

An avid bridge player, Patnaik was also a ladies' man, known for his many conquests and irreverence towards authority.

Kuldip Singh

Bijoynanda (Biju) Patnaik, aviator, businessman and politician: born Cuttack, Orissa 5 March 1916; married 1939 Gyanwati Sethi (two sons, one daughter); died New Delhi 17 April 1997.

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