Why the late Biju Patnaik deserves a Bharat Ratna| Opinion
Honour the freedom fighter, aviator, modern Odisha’s architect, and a symbol of fierce courage and patriotism
Among the revered scientists, social activists, lawyers and civil servants who have contributed to India’s nation building in the 20th century, one striking name is that of the daring aviator, Biju Patnaik.
There has been a steady stream of demands over the years to confer India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, on him. His 104th birth anniversary today provides the perfect occasion to reiterate this demand to honour the former chief minister of Odisha.
It was Patnaik as chief minister who recognised the value of Odisha’s 400-km coastline and maritime traditions by establishing, against all odds, the Paradip deep sea port. This enabled the state to tap vast reserves of iron and manganese ore and push ahead with industrial development. He founded the Industrial Development Corporation of Odisha in 1962 to create the necessary industrial infrastructure for the state. He also accelerated the completion of landmark projects such as the Rourkela steel plant and Hirakud dam, both of which continue to significantly impact Odisha’s economy. His vision for a new Odisha is the cornerstone of the state’s governance model to this day.
Disillusioned with the Congress leadership, especially the autocratic ways of Indira Gandhi, he left the party to go his own way in 1969. He was one of the first leaders to be arrested during the Emergency in 1975. He re-emerged from those dark days to become chief minister for a second time in 1990. This time, he made social development and empowerment for women his focal points. He was instrumental in setting up a large number of women’s schools and colleges, with special emphasis on science, skill development and vocational training. Subsequently, he announced 30% reservation for women in all government jobs. He also announced 33% reservation in panchayati raj institutions. This became a reality through the Odisha Zilla Parishad Act of 1991.
However, Patnaik’s legacy extends far beyond the realm of politics and governance. He played a major role in World War II and the Kashmir War of 1948 as a pilot in the Indian Air Force. In his versatile DC-3 Dakota transport plane, an iconic workhorse of pre-war vintage, he engaged in vital sorties for troops in Kashmir, and supervised the mass air evacuation of civilians from the area when hostilities broke out. As most roads were blocked by the invading forces, securing Srinagar airport and utilising it to supply troops and ammunitions proved to be the deciding factor in Kashmir’s takeover by India. He also served as an adviser to the prime minister during the 1962 conflict — the only civilian in such a position.
Earlier, Patnaik had put his technical skills as a pilot to use in the service of India’s freedom struggle. He fearlessly undertook covert missions, ferrying freedom fighters to secret meetings with their supporters, and even airdropped leaflets in support of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. He was eventually punished by the British for his subversive activities, and imprisoned from 1942 to 1946.
After Independence, he founded Kalinga Airlines in 1947, and became its chief pilot, taking the first steps towards air connectivity in Independent India. The airline was later merged into what would become the national carrier, Air India.
He voluntarily undertook a risky mission, on then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s request, to fly the former Indonesian Prime Minister Sultan Sjahrir from a remote hideout to safety, away from the Dutch colonial rulers. For his contributions to Indonesian independence, the Indonesian government, in 1996, honoured him with the title of Bintang Jasu Utama for displaying exemplary courage in a time of adversity. Russia also honoured him for flying missions to resupply the Soviet Red Army in World War II during the pivotal battle with Germany at Stalingrad.
But one cannot discuss the Bharat Ratna without addressing associated controversies. In the absence of a formal nomination process, the Union government has much discretion in granting this honour. This has led to a loss of objectivity. As a result, deserving individuals have not been given due recognition. Janata Dal (Secular) leader Danish Ali recently raised this issue, and asked why mass leaders like Patnaik and Kanshi Ram had been denied the honour so far.
Patnaik made a significant impact on contemporary Indian history. He was, and still remains, an awe-inspiring figure. It was due to his own humility that the full breadth of his achievements is not more widely known. However, his influence in shaping both Odisha and India cannot be denied. It would be appropriate to confer a posthumous Bharat Ratna on this legendary leader. In order for this generation to be better informed about his life and achievements, an official biography for Patnaik ought to be commissioned by the government . This would be to do true justice to one of India’s greatest sons.