This year when a grateful nation pays humble homage to Shri Biju Patnaik on the solemn occasion of the 24th anniversary of his sad demise on 17th April, people of India and the whole world is confronting a gigantic disaster and pandemic caused by COVID 19. How do we recall and locate legendary Biju Patnaik in the context of this disaster of global dimensions which has endangered health and human security and paralysed economic activities and caused lock down and shut down hardly witnessed in recorded history.
Adventurous Spirit of Defending Human Rights in Face of Disaster
In many respects Biju Patnaik emerged in shining armour in face of numerous manmade and natural disasters. His glorious track record in meeting the challenges of those disasters have left behind a rich legacy for the posterity to derive lessons and remain prepared and resilient to defend not just life and livelihood but also defend of nationhood. The first Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in his famous tryst with destiny speech said, "Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and so also is disaster in this one world that can no longer be split into isolated fragments." In 1950 he in one of his letters to Chief Ministers he wrote about recurrent disasters confronting the nation and insightfully stated that the way disasters are confronted and met defined our nationhood. It was Biju Patnaik who on the instructions of Prime Minister Nehru reached out to the leaders of Indonesia when that country was caught in the whirlpool of manmade disaster caused by Dutch colonialism and brought them to Delhi in a daring and intrepid aerial operation which put into trial his expertise as a pilot and registered his success in navigating labyrinths of disastrous terrains. In 1971 when the erstwhile East Pakistan faced a terrible humanitarian disaster because of genocide caused by the military regime of West Pakistan it was Biju Patnaik who asked the then Prime Minister Shrimati Indira Gandhi in May 1971 itself to recognise Bangladesh and not take the plea that the disastrous situation prevailing in East Pakistan was the internal matter of Pakistan. He reminded her that when Prime Minister Nehru asked him to rescue the Indonesian leaders from the disaster caused by Dutch colonialism and imperialism he never said that the disaster confronted by Indonesia was an internal matter of Netherlands. He asserted by saying that India was guided by the adventurous spirit to defend human rights of Indonesians and forcefully pleaded to uphold that adventurous spirit all the time. Today when humanity is facing a colossal disaster and assault on human rights from a highly infectious virus, corona, that adventurous spirit so brilliantly articulated by Biju Patnaik and displayed in practical life assumes critical relevance to summon human, material, medical and non-pharmaceutical resources to save humanity from the pandemic which in many ways is a manmade disaster rooted in the reckless consumption of flesh and meat of wild animals. It is gratifying to note that that adventurous spirit to defend human rights is on display in ample measure in Odisha and several other States of India which spearheaded in adopting preventive measures to counter COVID 19 and trounce corona virus.
Again when we recall late Biju Patnaik's heroic actions in the erstwhile Soviet Union in reaching out to allied forces in their war against Axis forces during the second world war we find that daring and adventurous spirit in defence of humanity engaged in fighting a manmade disaster and calamity caused by fascist forces. The same spirit he displayed in saving Jammu and Kashmir from Pakistani raiders when he became one of the first pilots to fly Indian forces to Srinagar and land them there. That historic flight again was a flight to defend our nationhood which was facing a disastrous assault from the intruders from Pakistan.
Providing Succor to Victims of Natural Disaster in Kendrapara
It is instructive to note that Biju Patnaik while emerging as a hero in the aforementioned disasters continued to enrich his own legacy in reaching out to people in Odisha with succor and relief when they became victims of flood and cyclone, the two natural disasters which ravage the State on a recurrent basis. He endeared himself to people of Kendrapada region on a lasting basis and they would never forget him for his role in flying his own aircraft and dropping food packets at his own cost when people lost everything due to nature's fury. The sight of his aircraft in the vast expanse of the sky was like the advent of an angel who dropped food packets to the badly ravaged people at the time disaster. Someone serving people at the time of their pain and agony and that to at his own cost set an example of a messiah for the people. He was a warrior in defence of life and livelihood at the time of disasters both manmade and natural and now the Government of Odisha under the leadership of Shri Naveen Patnaik is relentlessly engaged in safeguarding life and livelihood during the lock down and shut down of the whole State to stem the accelerating spread of corona virus and infection and flatten the curve.
Bottom Up Approach from Panchayat Level to face disaster
Biju Patnaik's birth anniversary is celebrated in Odisha as Panchayatraj Divas to commemorate his pioneering leadership in India to strengthen Panchyatiraj institutions by reserving 33 per cent of seats for women in these grassroots democratic bodies. Today in the context of COVID-19 disaster experts are flagging decentralisation of governance process to effectively check the transmission of the corona virus. It is said that Trust, Technology, Decentralisation of governance, Test and Tracing of Contacts are key elements to counter corona generated disaster. The fact that quarantine and other facilities have been arranged for COVID patients in Odisha right from the Panchayat level speaks volumes for a bottom up approach which Biju Patnaik stressed for ensuring people governance and administration. It now constitutes a critical step for safeguarding human, health and economic security from gigantic disaster caused by alarming transmission of corona virus across the world.
Baripada Fire Tragedy of 1997 and Biju Patnaik's exemplary Leadership in Bringing Relief to the Victims
Biju Patnaik's sensitivities to reach out to the victims of disaster and take measures to mitigate their sufferings were displayed in ample measure till the last days of his life. When hundreds of people lost their lives due to sudden outbreak of fire in a gathering of devotees of Swami Nigamananda in Baripada in Odisha in February 1997 he urged Prime Minister Shri Deva Gouda to visit the region and stand by the disaster affected people. He accompanied the Prime Minister to Baripada along with other distinguished public figures and requested the Prime Minister to grant double the amount granted by the Government of Odisha to the victims. Shri Deva Gouda nodded in agreement and his return to New Delhi Prime Minister made a statement in the Parliament on 25th February 1997 on that disaster and tragedy and informed the august Houses of the apex legislature that he went to the spot along with Biju Patnaik and others to be with the victims and get the first hand information about the incident. After a few days when the grant assured by the Central Government did not reach the victims Biju Patnaik telephoned Prime Minister and reminded him about the issue. In a matter of few days the money was released by the Union Government and victims of disaster got the much needed relief. The way he sensitized the highest executive authority of our country, the Prime Minister, to visit the place struck by the disaster and the way he followed up the matter for mitigating the sufferings of the victims brought out the role model of leadership required to deal with disasters and calamities which are getting multiplied in the twenty first century world. He established the highest bench mark of a caring leader a month and half before his sad demise in April 1997. It clearly testified to the fact that he was concerned for the victims of disaster till the very end of his life.
Biju Patnaik Saved Life of Congress MP from a Disaster caused by accident
During his tenure as Chief Minister of Odisha from 1990 to 1995 Shri Biju Patnaik displayed rare leadership in saving life of Shri Manmohan Mathur, Rajya Sabha MP, hailing from Kalahandi and belonging to Congress party. Shri Mathur while driving a two wheeler on a lonely road in a far off location of the district met with an accident and fell unconscious. One passerby saw some his unconscious body and informed the Collector of Kalahandi district. On reaching there on the spot the officials recognised the unconscious person as Manmohan Mathur, Rajya Sabha MP. The ditrict Collector informed Chief Minister's Office and Shri Biju Patnaik immediately ordered that Shri Mathur be air lifted to Bhubaneswar. A team of doctors examined him in Bhubaneswar and recommended that he should be immediately shifted to All India Institute of Medical Science, New Delhi. Shri Patnaik straight away air lifted him to Delhi at the expense of the State Government and after surgery and treatment in AIIMS he regained consciousness and miraculously recovered. I recall meeting him in AIIMS during his treatment there and he used to say that only a leader like Biju Patnaik could act so decisively to save his life from a disastrous situation which he faced because of that accident about which he had no memory.
Majoritarianism is a disaster
In another deeper and larger sense Biju Patnaik's life and work assumes significance in saving India from majoritarinaism which itself is a disaster no less than the disaster caused by corona virus. In his last speech in the Lok Sabha Biju Patnaik asked BJP leader Sunderlal Patwa not to conflate nationalism and Hinduism and urged him to talk about country and not Hindusim. He reminded him that BJP rose from two seats in the Lok Sabha to more than hundred seats after demolishing Babri Masjid, a manmade disaster. He also cautioned him that the kind of nationalism his party was advocating would break our country in to twenty pieces, an obvious reference to the unfolding disastrous situation the country would confront because of exclusivist and narrow nationalism. The avoidance of majoritarianism which Biju Patnaik advocated in his last speech is evocative of Dr. B R Ambedkar who had said, "If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. ... Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost".
Indeed on the solemn occasion of Biju Patnaik's death anniversary we need to derive lessons from his life and work to save nation and humanity from natural and manmade disasters. In doing so we would not only carry forward his legacy but pay tribute to him in a fitting and ample measure. Already the State of Odisha has set up a global bench mark of governance in disaster management and received applause at the national and international arena. We need to deepen and expand it in the context of corona menace and save humanity from this pandemic and uphold, in the words of Biju Patnaik, "the adventurous spirit of defending human rights". Long Live Biju Patnaik.
#The author S N Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Views expressed in the article are in his personal capacity.