In the 2011 movie Captain America: The First Avenger, the inventor-industrialist Howard Stark takes on the task of flying the main protagonist behind enemy lines on his first mission. In the Marvel Comics universe, Howard Stark is the father of Tony Stark AKA Iron Man.
The character of Stark was modelled on real-life pilot and businessman Howard Hughes. Hughes is best remembered for his work to build the H-4 Hercules (also known as Spruce Goose), a giant amphibious aircraft to carry troops and supplies in the Pacific during World War 2.
One might think could India ever have had such an adventurer pilot and businessman? Yes, we did and ours was even a chief minister… twice!
Biju Patnaik, father of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, was famous for his deeds as a pilot in World War 2 and the 1948 Kashmir war and for founding private carrier Kalinga Airlines long before he became chief minister of Odisha in 1961.
On Tuesday, debate raged in the Lok Sabha over the Narendra Modi government’s decision to scrap Article 370 and bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir. Speaking during the debate, Pinaki Mishra, the Biju Janata Dal MP for Puri, demanded that Biju Patnaik be given the Bharat Ratna for his role in flying Indian Army forces to Kashmir in 1947 after the tribal invasion from Pakistan.
Biju Patnaik had fearlessly flown a DC-3 transport aircraft to Srinagar on October 27, 1947, ferrying soldiers of the Sikh regiment.
Biju Patnaik was approached by then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who was his friend, for help. Mishra remembered, “He flew at a very low level to look around whether the enemy had already taken over the airport or not. Nehru had given very clear instructions to not land his DC-3 if he detected Pakistani presence there but Biju Babu acted very skilfully and with great bravery accomplished the work assigned to him.”
Biju Patnaik’s role in countering the Pakistan-backed invasion of Jammu and Kashmir was crucial as the tribal invaders had blocked off roads and the airport was the only means to ferry troops and supplies. Mishra argued loss of the Srinagar airport would have resulted in complete loss of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947.
While the flights into Kashmir at the height of a war might seem like daredevilry to many, for Biju Patnaik, it was perhaps second nature. Biju Patnaik trained to be a pilot in the early 1930s and joined the Royal Indian Air Force in 1936.
During World War 2, Biju Patnaik flew transport missions to help the British forces fight Japanese forces in Burma (present-day Myanmar). In addition to flying missions in World War 2, Biju also helped the freedom struggle ‘on the side’. He dropped leaflets in support of independence and even collaborated with freedom fighters including Jayaprakash Narayan and Aruna Asaf Ali. Biju Patnaik paid the price for his support to the freedom struggle, being imprisoned by the British from 1942 to 1946.
The exploits of Biju Patnaik, the pilot, were not confined to India alone. During World War 2, Biju Patnaik flew missions to resupply the Soviet Red Army, which was besieged by German forces in Stalingrad.
Nehru requested Biju Patnaik for another ‘mission’ in 1948. Biju flew two Indonesian independence struggle leaders—Mohammad Hatta and Sultan Shariar—from a remote location in the archipelago to India, an act that outraged the territory’s Dutch colonisers. When the Dutch administration threatened to shoot down Biju Patnaik’s plane, he is reported to have said, ”Resurgent India does not recognise Dutch colonial sovereignty over the Indonesian population.”
Both Russia and Indonesia honoured Biju Patnaik for his contributions to the two countries.
Not surprisingly, most obituaries by international publications on the death of Biju Patnaik in April 1997 referred to his deeds as a pilot. The New York Times called him a “daring pilot-patriot of India”, while the UK’s Independent noted he was “a buccaneering pilot, whose feats during and after the Second World War were legendary”.