Berhampur Diaries: The Life And Times Of Rabi Mahapatra

Suresh Choudhury

“The secret of harvesting the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is to LIVE DANGEROUSLY”- Nietzsche

“No blood, no sacrifice, no guts – then no grandeur. Real Heroes Spill Blood” – Nietzsche

“Our crime against criminals is that we call them scoundrels” – Nietzsche

Revisiting the sordid saga of 1970s-80s Berhampur is like remembering one’s own painful past, without the possibility of any redemption. Anyone who loves my hometown Berhampur as much as I do will share my anguish, and mourn the untimely passing away of two of its notable sons, Rabi Mahapatra and Pratap Swain. It is another matter that some people may not share my point of view, those who view people through the prism of moral binaries, leaving out the grey areas to which most of humanity belongs.

If Rabi Mahapatra and Pratap Swain strayed into the dark alleys of violence, vengeance and retributive justice, so were a large proportion of our ancestors since the beginning of history. Isn’t it possible that the epoch they were born in rejected the best part of their personalities and drew from their vast reserves of accumulated strength, courage, and defiant spirit only the wasteful part they never intended to use against anyone? At least my argument finds some echo by Goethe who wrote: “A man’s shortcomings are taken from his epoch; his virtues and greatness belongs to himself.”

Old surviving friends of Rabi even today vouch for his enduring human qualities of selflessness, magnanimity of spirit, his ever smiling and cheerful disposition. How crazy is our moral compass that Alexander is called “Great” for killing millions, and our brave Berhampur heroes like Rabi Mahapatra and Pratap Swain who perhaps never killed anyone, are called by some as ” criminals”. Didn’t our heroes deserve any lesser adjectives of adulation than “great”? The moot question to ask is, did they really love and enjoy the unseemly incidents of violence that took away their lives? Or were they forcibly drawn into them despite themselves? Both were victims of political rivalry, intrigue and conspiracy, but there is some truth to the popular perception that they had earned some notoriety for their involvement in senseless violence. It is still a matter of utter disbelief and regret that at a personal level, all the four brave young men, Prabha, Nillu, Rabi Mahapatra and Pratap Swain were close friends, but turned into bitter foes once party interests took precedence over friendship. Maybe it never dawned on them that their lives were far more precious than the political causes they were espousing, and should never have allowed events to overtake them. That perhaps were the tragic flaws in their character these young icons never realised, for which they paid with their lives.

Also Read: Berhampur Diaries: The Larger Than Life Figures Of 1970s

Rabi Mahapatra’s life and subsequent death or assassination was nothing short of a tragic story. Always bubbling with bursting energy, youthfulness, and confidence, he was the very picture of a youthful leader with great promise. Of all the youth icons of the time, Rabi stood out as one of the tallest of them all by virtue of his leadership and organisational skills. Even while pursuing his B.Sc in Khallikote College, he had attracted the attention of the highest political bosses ruling the state at the time, and was persuaded to join the Congress to checkmate the rising influence of communist parties in South Odisha. Rabi had emerged by now as the undisputed youth leader of Berhampur, and was entrusted with the responsibility of winning over people’s sympathies towards the Congress. Nandini Satapathy, the then Chief Minister of Odisha, had personally groomed Rabi to galvanise the party in entire South Orissa, and Rabi had worked tirelessly by bringing in new, youthful, popular leaders such as Giridhar Gamang from Koraput who later rose to be a central minister and Chief Minister of Odisha. Rabi was also the man who had brought in Mrityunjay Naik of Phulbani into Congress;  he too rose to be a Member of Parliament in later years. One can only imagine to what height Rabi Mahapatra would have risen in the political arena of Odisha, had he not fallen victim to the intrigues, and conspiracies of his political opponents who most likely could not stomach his rising popularity and influence. It also speaks volumes about his popularity that even such legendary Naxal activists as Charu Majumder, Kanhu Sanyal, and Nagbhusan Patnaik tried their best to win him over to their side in order to spread the movement in South Orissa. It was alleged in some quarters that Rabi was secretly hobnobbing with the above-mentioned leaders, and the Congress leadership came to suspect his allegiance. And all through this tumultuous political shenanigans of the time, Binayak Acharya, who was a senior Congress leader from Berhampur, and later rose to be the Chief Minister of Odisha, stood by him all through, always taking Rabi with him to all important meetings, and introducing him to the highest political bosses of the time.

Also Read: Berhampur Diaries: My Childhood Heroes

But ultimately the conspirators were successful in their designs and Rabi was eliminated or assassinated by some of his old friends turned political foes in August 1974, when he was barely 23-24 years old. Too many of his assassins were subsequently jailed for varying prison terms, but the town had never witnessed the kind of sorrow, gloom, and dejection his death had brought forth in its wake. It was drowned in mournful loss of one of its bravest sons, and Rabi’s martyrdom was duly recognised by way of the installation of a statue of his bust in the heart of the city. It must be added that Rabi had achieved in his death what he had dreamt of achieving in his short-lived life: the town became a Congress bastion for many many years to come, and his prodigies came to prominence and power on the strength of his contribution. The town may have forgotten its fallen heroes, but Rabi’s statue stands mute witness to the inglorious events of one of the momentous periods of its history. As is said wisely, it’s not how one dies that matters, it’s how one lived that matters in the end. Beyond life and death now, their message of easy belief, credulousness, and tactlessness are all ours to avoid and learn from.

Suresh Choudhury

Academic & Writer

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