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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 43-44 October 21 & 28, 2023

Nandini Satpathy: a moderniser who changed the political map of Odisha | Radhakanta Barik

Saturday 21 October 2023, by Radhakanta Barik


Nandini was born into an illustrious family in Odisha. It was a family of intellectuals and writers. Before independence, this sort of family was the rarest of rare ones in Odisha. Her father and other uncles were writers. All of them were humanists and wrote of the common man’s sufferings. Her father Kalindi Panigrahi perhaps was an outstanding writer. He was a story writer and novelist and poet. He has written poems for children to elder people. His novel Matir Manish is a unique one. It talks of common cultivating community and their sufferings both and materially and culturally. Conflicts within a family lead to intense sufferings. They run to court where they spend some painful days and money. Her father remained a poet of masses. His stories are a reformist in nature. One story talks of a Brahmin family which works in a brutalized manner against their own handicapped child. Their handicapped child suffers from beating. Nobody helps him except his young bhabi [sister in law]. They have a dog. His father and brothers beat this boy and dog and humiliate their young babhi. Their father being a pandit recites Sanskrit slokas to justify the sufferings inflicted on their young handicapped son.

His poems remain child-centric. All his textbooks got serialized in the name of Sundar Sahity which worked as Odiya primer for school children in primary and upper primary section. His uncle is a strikingly a different personality. He is the founder of Communist Party of Odisha. He has written some stories regarding tribals and dalits which have made him famous. She herself is an outstanding writer. She translated some popular books of Amrita Pritam and Bangladeshi writer Nasreen Sultana . Her novel Lajja got translated in a shorted period and in one go. In the preface she has written it which proves her command over language and style of presentation make it popular which got reprinted within one month of its publication. She wrote stories on women and dowry problems and her last story before death is about live in relation. She remains as feminist and created a movement against the dowry system in Odisha as a political leader.

She got her schooling in Mayurbhanja where she got into trouble with the school management over the issue of a school poem which is supposed to be recited by all in the name of praising the king. “ Aai mora janmabhumi aai Maharaja, Janme and Janme karuthibi tanka pada puja.” This made her angry and she forced her father to withdraw her from the school. She came back to study in Cuttack where she completed her schooling. Then she went to Ravenshaw College and became the Presidential candidate. In the history of the College this happened for the first time when a woman candidate contested the post of President. She opposed British rule for which she participated in the 1942 movement. She worked for the Communist Party and fell in love with Debendra Satpathy and got married while they were in jail.
She remained an active politician in the communist party till the Kumarmangalam thesis was accepted by some leading leaders of the party that they should join the Congress Party to use power politics for the sake of common people. Those who joined the Congress Party remained progressive and worked for common people which ever post they held with honesty and integrity. Her acumen and political imagination got recognized by people that a popular song in her name. “ Nandini Satpathy bhari chaturi, Chaula Kilo tanke saturi.”That brings the political intelligence of her got recognized by public at large.

Her intelligence and imagination got recognized by Mrs Indira Gandhi which made her a minister in her cabinet. She became the most powerful minister holding an Information and Broadcasting portfolio. Indira Gandhi nominated her as the chief minister in 1972 when the Congress Party lost some leading stalwarts in defection such as Biju Patnaik and H K Mahtab. There was a political vacuum in Odisha which was filled up by Nandini Satpathy. Nandini proved to be a powerful leader of the Congress Party. After she became the chief minister of Odisha in 1972 she turned the Congress Party into a reformist organization with the support of her old comrades who were given the party tickets as MLAs. Once they became the MLAs, the provincial congress party turned into an energetic one. As she was close to Indira Gandhi she succeeded in enacting an important legislation of Land Ceiling Act. Under this law those who have more than ten acres of irrigated land and more than to be declared as the surplus land need to be distributed to the poor landless either dalit or tribal. There were two chief ministers who have touched the land question in Odisha. The first chief minister of Odisha after Independence was Nabakrishna Chaudhury who introduced the Zamindari Abolition Act. He was a known socialist and committed to progressive reforms in land relations of Odisha. He got the backing of Nehru a progressive Prime Minister. In the Provincial Congress Organisation he had a very little support which had a control over by HK Mahtab. Mahtab was the Governor of Bombay but had a large following within the PCC. It happened so he took the majority of Naba Babu cabinet with him and Naba babu was forced to resign. The chair over which Naba babu was sitting and the legs of the chair got removed by the cunning Mahtab. H K Mahtab became the chief minister could not remove the land reforms act from the statute book. Only in implementation it got slowed down. Small zamindars who dominated the Congress Party played an aggressive role under the leadership of Mahtab to oppose the land reforms.

The party got changed under the leadership of Nandini who brought her old colleagues to the party and molded them to enact a land ceiling law. This was a time of emergency which supported her administration in implementing the act. The emergency is a complex political phenomenon. It is an authoritarian having a progressive component which is being published in twenty point programme of the Congress Party such as land reforms, abolition of bonded labour, and control over the usurious interest of the money lenders. The Congress Party played a decisive role on a regional plane in implementing these programmes of the party. Odisha is one case where Nandini Satpathy succeeded in implementing these progressive programmes to some extent. At the same time she as the chief minister arrested some well-known leaders who belonged to her uncle and father’s generation such as Nabakrishna Chaudhury who was in his seventies. She could have avoided these arrests at her own level as she was the powerful leader of her state.

While implementing the Land Reforms Act she faced a Hobbesian choice. She got an offer of heavy amount of money collected by the landlords and they met her in a marriage ceremony and offer a bribe to postpone the implementation of the policy; as a landlord told me in an interview. She did not bow down to the pressures of the landlords.

She as the chief minister had to renegotiate the relationship between the political executive and with administrative elite. Odisha being a poor state these civil servants such as IAS and IPS had a tremendous influence over the system and public space. For instance according to JP Das a retired civil servant tells me, “prior to Nandini the political leaders except the chief minister used to use Sir word for the civil servants. This word got dropped by Nandani and her cabinet colleagues. Moreover in the capital city of Odisha social space was controlled by these civil servants was unequal to their own position in the system. Most of the 8R quarters with big lawns and with peon quarters were occupied by the civil servants whereas the ministers acquired smaller houses. This changed with Nandini as she allotted the bigger houses to politicians and pushed the civil servants to the smaller flats where they could feel their limitations. As she was a strong chief minister she had tremendous authority over the administration. She opened the public grievance cell at the Block and Tehsil level where an ordinary citizen could give his and her complaints.She got some progressive officials with her such as Ramakanta Rath. In an interview with Ramakanta Rath who worked with Nandini said :’ She supported him to prepare the progressive land reforms act and with the backing of civil servants the legislation got implemented to certain extent.” She renegotiated her relationship with the bureaucracy. She motivated them to work for the people of Odisha which resulted in implementation of land reforms policy. It seems that the landlords got organized and collected money and gave the pursue to her in a marriage ceremony as told to me by a landlord. She refused to collect this pursue but implemented the progressive policy. There was a fear among moneylenders and rich farmers during this period. It is ironical that the landlords of the western Orissa who used to work as a part of Swatantra Party got scared of her and then joined the Congress Party to save their skin. It happened so their land remained intact no land ceiling act got implemented in Western Odisha.

Land question remained alive till 1989 when a RI the lowest level of revenue administration could cancel the land allotted to the poor tribals in G Udaygiri and given to the powerful people. This was reported in the local press such as Sambad which created a storm in assembly. The reporter got questioned but because of Nandini Satpathy he got saved as she was a MLA that time.
She had a close association with her electorate which is the quality of her leadership. She is a rare politician who has not lost election in her life time. As she got unhappy with the Sanjay Gandhi of Congress Party and as she told that he is my so like I cannot bow to him. This made Sanjay Gandhi angry with her. She was forced to resign with H N Bahuguna and Jagjivan Ram and floated a new group which got merged with the Janata Party in 1977. After the Janata Party came to power she got humiliated by some senior leaders of the Party. She contested election from assembly constituency her opponent was Malati Chaudhuri, wife of former chief minister who was the nominee of Jay Prakash Narain. But she won the election which gave a blow to the Janata Party. She showed that once she built a relationship with the electorate it is a difficult for losing the constituency. The whole Janata Party went against her and she won the battle.

Nandini belongs to a different species of politics. A scholar, writer and political activist combined together in her persona. Just before her death she wrote a story on Live in relation and she has many stories based on women centric. She remains as a reformer who campaigns against dowry as a social evil. She instilled scientific temper by opposing social superstition like tantric and sorcism in politics. Her death anniversary took place on 4th August by telling a story she instills pride in us. Nandini Satpathy, a brilliant writer belongs to a family of writers. All her father’s brothers are leading writers of their time. In her writings she is a modernist who takes problems of women. She writes in a style unique to herself. She is a very good translator and she has translated Gandhi’ s writings into odiya. She translated Lazza into odiya from Bengali. She brought land reforms as the chief Minister and landlords went to a marriage function where they wanted to bribe her. But she refused to their demands. As a political leader she contested against Malati Chaudhury and defeated her despite campaigns made by JP in the post Janata phase.

Nandini stands as beacon for women politician who want to pursue public life in Odisha. It is interesting to note that she encouraged many young women activists to join active politics. Many of them turned into leaders of the Congress Party. Some of them remained as social activists who work in politics and social life. With the implementation of fifty percentages of reservation of women in Panchayati Raj system it encouraged many women activists to come forward to political life. In the coming days they may turn into active political leaders of Odisha politics as there is possibility of working of Women Reservation Act in assembly and parliament in coming days. She encouraged many women writers to hold to pens under the pressures of male chauvinistic society of Odisha. it is interesting to note here there was a progressive feminist text written in a novel form “Basanti” with collective efforts of some progressive writers where one of them was his father is Kalindi Panigrahi and two leading women writers. Story goes in political circles that Basanti is reimagined as Nandini in politics of modern Odisha. Many more may come afterwards of Nandini who opened the road of women empowerment. She traversed the most difficult path before Independence till her death but she has carved a place in modern political history of Odisha.

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