Biju Patnaik’s second term as Chief Minister came nearly 30 years after his first short-lived spell. He was disappointed to find that the bureaucrats, administrators and elected representatives were very different from what he had seen his during his previous stint. There was a palpable disconnect between the government and the people, and this frustrated him a lot. He was like a bull in a China shop, raring to go. Biju Patnaik was a man in a hurry, with grandiose plans for the upliftment of the poor and the downtrodden of the State.
There was rampant corruption and sloth had set in at all levels in the official machinery. It was this frustration which had made him remove many corrupt officials.He had vigilance raids conducted on many engineers, IAS and IPS officers, including the previous Chief Minister and his cronies. The premises of Eastern Media Limited, owned by the Soumya Ranjan Patnaik, son-in-law of ex-CM Janaki Ballav Patnaik, were raided.
On November 29, 1990, an indignant Biju gave a clarion call to the people of the State to beat up corrupt officials to make them realise their mistakes. He even asked the people to bash up corrupt Ministers and MLAs, and said that he too should not be spared if the public perception of corruption was felt about the Chief Minister himself. Earlier in the day, he had come down heavily on the State’s bureaucracy, calling it corrupt and inefficient and stated that he felt cloistered and helpless to run the government.
Biju’s public outburst drew a lot of flak from all circles both within the State and on a nation-wide basis. No politician since Independence had given such a call. The few honest and well-meaning officials protested and wrote to him. Biju took this in his stride and appreciated their views too.
When the people took the call of the Chief Minister literally and assaulted a few officials, the Orissa High Court took notice of this and a Division Bench castigated him and ruled that he had transgressed his limits. The court said that these were “the helpless outbursts of a man who even as the Chief Minister was unable to root out corruption which had spread its tentacles like an octopus into the entire system of administration and politics”.
A flustered Biju than amended his stand and told the public that they should first inform him and take his permission before assaulting the officials. Biju never regretted his apparent faux-pas, as it certainly had a good effect on the officials.
Two months later, on the January 4, 1991, Biju shot off another loose cannon when he expressed his opinion of the Naxalite menace in the State Assembly. He said “The Naxalite movement is spontaneous people’s resentment against the administration. I want to handle them (the Naxalites) by being a revolutionary myself. Why the hell not? What is so wrong in a Chief Minister being a revolutionary? And what is so right about a Chief Minister being corrupt and hypocritical, shedding tears for the downtrodden? Have we not seen enough of the type in this country of ours, whether of the Left, Right or the Centre?”In a public meeting at Bhubaneswar which was also attended by Union Defence Minister K.C.Pant, he said “When Prime Minister Chandrasekhar is discussing with the extremists in Punjab who are crueler than the Naxals, no one should have objections if he (Biju) opened a dialogue with them”. Even K.C.Pant supported him publicly.
The next month, on the February 21, he said “I have no objections if the Naxalites plunder and loot rich moneylenders, the exploiters, the sahukars and mahajans. Eighty percent of the demands of the Naxals are justified.” That very day, he extended an olive branch to the Naxal leader Kondapalli Seetharamaiah, assuring him full protection if he desired to discuss the ‘socially oriented’ demands of the Naxalites. When quizzed on the incident of the chopping of the fingers of a forest contractor for not giving the minimum wages of Rs 25 to the labourers, Biju babu said: “It appears that they have extended my theory of beating up corrupt officials and men to chopping up their hands to be effective”.
His statements, made with the intent of hauling up the corrupt, erring politicians and officials, not only confused the administration but gave impetus to the Naxalite movement.They consolidated their hold in the forests of southern Odisha. There was an influx of Naxalites from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh who felt that they were safe in Odisha where the Chief Minister was sympathetic to their cause.
In a measure to make the administration more accessible, Biju Patnaik undertook reorganisation of the districts and created new districts in the Naxal-affected areas. Four new districts were created from the erstwhile districts of Koraput and Ganjam. Malkangiri, Rayagada, Nabrangpur and Gajapati were carved out of the old districts.
I have a personal experience of Biju Patnaik being soft on the Naxalites. It must have been sometime in 1992, when he was the chief Minister. The ailing Naxalite, Nagabhusan Patnaik, was suffering from some serious disease. He had been released on parole in 1981, after he spent 12 years in prison (including three on death-row). Biju had heard of his plight and offered him help for his treatment. The proud Nagabhusan refused to accept any government help; earlier he had even refused to file a clemency petition when he was given the death sentence.
While in Bhubaneswar, Nagabhusan Patnaik was staying in a small lodge in Ashok Nagar. He would go to Cuttack for treatment. I had met him many times as his nephew, journalist Nagabhusan Patnaik was a friend. We used to go to meet him in his small room some evenings. He mentioned that in spite of his refusal, Biju Babu would repeatedly send word to him and enquire about his health.
Nagabhusan was instrumental in the historic judgment passed by the Supreme Court, declaring Section 309 of the India Penal Code as unconstitutional. After he was released, he spent his days at Gunupur, serving the poor. His strong moral stand gave him popularity across party lines. He himself acknowledged that his release came about because of the efforts of leaders like Biju Patnaik, Jayaprakash Narayan, Harekrushna Mahatab and Malati Choudhury. He was one among the few founders of CPI(M-L) who remained active till the end of their lives.
While replying to the debate in the Assembly in March 1994, Biju had said “I claim myself as the first Naxalite, as I too fight for social justice, but I would not tolerate if those belonging to Naxalite groups resort to killing people. I will support any Naxalite movement if it provided social justice to the poor and the neglected”.
(The writer is a historian and researcher and the views ate personal)