TIDAL waves, 21 ft high, and a cyclone had taken a toll of about 10,000 in Orissa's Cuttack and Balasore districts in 1971. Biju Patnaik requested chief minister Vishwanath Das to leave the relief and rescue operation to him. Indira Gandhi--with whom he had fallen out by then--swiftly responded to his SOS for a government aircraft. By the next morning, Patnaik took command of the operation and saved the rest of the populace from the tidal waves.
For Biju Patnaik, who died on April 17 in a Delhi hospital, fighting tides of any kind during his long and chequered private as well as public life was not just duty, but also a much relished pastime. He was a man in bondage of freedom, in the truest sense of the word, having personally participated in freedom movements in at least six countries, most of them with success. His efforts to set up a "training camp" for Tibetan Khampas in the '50s and secure a direct air-link between Delhi and Tibet, even as Chou-En-I.ai wrote him an angry letter saying that the "road to Tibet is only through Peking", was perhaps his only failed democratic mission.
But he never let his growing list of achievements develop into arrogance. For, there was always another challenge awaiting him. Always eligible and willing to take the plunge. Nor was he ever bound by Orissa or India's gee-political boundary.
In the early '50s began his long-lasting involvement in national politics. His heroic and romantic patriotism--flying and sheltering Indian leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia, C. Rajagopalachari and Aruna Asaf Ali during the Quit India movement, and later transporting troops to Kashmir in 1948 after the Pak attack--had already endeared him to many top leaders. Jawaharlal Nehru harboured a special affection for him and solicited his opinion on defence matters during war and peace. On Nehru's advice, Biju gave up his industrial empire and joined politics.
However, seven years later, he fell out with 'Indu'--as he called Indira Gandhi--on centralisation of power and formed the Utkal Congress, a regional outfit in Orissa. It merged with the Janata Party and changed avatars on many occasions but never returned to the Congress fold. His opposition to the Emergency took him to jail for 19 months, more than half his imprisonment from 1942 end to early 1946 during the British Raj.
Offices of power--though he was chief minister of Orissa twice, 1961-63 and 1990-95, and twice Union minister-- were not-his only goals. In fact, in the absence of those positions, he was as tall and "a great man in every sense", as Home Minister Indrajit Gupta said in his homage to Biju.
As a student in Ravenshaw College in his hometown of Cuttack, Biju--then Bijoyanand Patnaik--won medals for pole vault, javelin and the 100-m sprint, establishing a record which remained unbroken for a decade. But by then, an encounter with Mahatma Gandhi in 1927, and inspiration from two cousins who participated in the Chittagong armoury raid, set his mind on 'revolution'. A commitment which in later years he would take beyond India--flying arms and material into Russia to aid the embattled Soviet troops under siege from Hitler's army during the World War II or establishing clandestine contact with Indonesian leaders fighting Dutch rule.
A feat that would later earn the "emperor of Kalinga" the highest Indonesian award Bhumi Putra during Sukarno's regime. But Biju turned down a huge empire gifted to him there, saying "the emperor of Kalinga gives it back to his subjects". Even on such personal matters like choosing the name for his daughter (Megavati), Sukarno would consult Biju--an indication of the latter's clout in free Indonesia.
He used his career as a transport pilot with Britain's Royal Indian Air Force to serve the various causes he kept adopting. He captained a mission into China to deliver arms to forces fighting Japanese "aggression. Around the same time, he would again risk his own life evacuating British women and children from Burma, availing of this opportunity to mobilise world opinion for the Indian freedom movement by airdropping pamphlets in support of Netaji's Indian National Army. In early '50, he established contact with underground rebels in Nepal fighting against the autocratic Rana regime. So, in 1946, who else would Jawaharlal Nehru have turned to transport Indian troops to Kashmir following the attack from across the border? Biju, of course.
It was perhaps only on the home front that Biju could not achieve all that he wanted. "Amargarib Rahibu Nahi (we will not remain poor)," was the promise he made as chief minister in the Orissa assembly. Despite the fact that he established the largest man-made port in Asia (Paradip) in Orissa and set up many big industries, it remains one of the poorest states. That must have been Orissa's tallest leader's only regret as he looked back on his rich life.