Bhaskar Parichha

Book Name: Nandini Satpathy: The Iron Lady of Orissa
Writer Name: Pallavi Rebbapragada
Publisher: Simon & Schuster India, New Delhi

Nandini Satpathy was a remarkable figure who truly deserved a comprehensive biography. Often overlooked in history, she was Odisha’s first female Chief Minister and was also known as the Iron Lady of Orissa. Born into a family of revolutionaries and intellectuals, she made a bold statement during her teenage years in the 1940s by being jailed for removing the Union Jack from Ravenshaw College. This marked the beginning of her journey towards becoming a formidable force in society.

Pallavi Rebbapragada’s book, Nandini Satpathy: The Iron Lady of Orissa, is an impressive piece of literature due to the extensive research conducted by the author.

Says the blurb: ‘Coming up through the ranks to ultimately reach the hallowed halls of the Rajya Sabha at the mere age of 31, this grassroots student politician went on to become the I&B minister in Indira Gandhi’s first government, where she facilitated the working of the Free Bangla Radio that played a key role in the information war that was ’71. She hobnobbed with the likes of Raj Kapoor, Nargis, and Meena Kumari as India produced films around socialist films and warmed up to Russia. And still, in Delhi circles, she is best remembered as ‘Indira Gandhi’s friend’.

Nandini’s political journey was marked by turbulence, mirroring the ups and downs of her friendship with Indira Gandhi. The bond between them was tightly woven, forged by the forces of fate and nurtured by a deep-seated fondness and unwavering loyalty. However, their relationship took a drastic turn during the Emergency.

While Nandini had once relished the proximity to the Prime Minister’s Office and the accompanying privileges, her dissent against the Emergency policies resulted in a dramatic downfall. This setback not only severed a cherished friendship but also spelled the end of her promising political career.

The book admirably mentions her achievements. Throughout her time as chief minister, how she successfully introduced significant land reforms and dismantled the powerful tobacco trade mafia. These bold actions garnered her numerous adversaries. Previously shielded by her close relationship with the prime minister, she now found herself targeted by a ruthless vendetta.

Divided into thirteen chapters, the book has a lot of interesting facts about Nandini. According to the author, she was a political figure who yearned for the affection and backing of the masses, despite the fact that they adhered to the same patriarchal system that her writing aimed to expose. Terming her life filled with contradictions, the author says ideologies like communism and feminism, which challenge established norms, often provoke collective suspicion. On one hand, you require the support and adoration of the masses; while on the other hand, you aspire to question prevailing beliefs. It is a precarious path to tread. She experienced the highs and lows of wielding power, from being part of the inner circle of the Prime Minister to running for MLA elections in one of the numerous constituencies in the country, triumphing in every single election she contested.

Drawing a parallel between Indira Gandhi and Nandini Satpathy, she says in the book : ‘Her friends, contemporaries, and juniors meandered into and away from sharing that a section of society had opinions about her character and her proximity to her male colleagues. What other way is there to do politics than roam the streets with men, one wonders. Unprovoked, people even shunned rumors of her disregard for her less-achieving husband, Devendra, inadvertently confirming the existence of such views in political and social circles. The last bit was most likely the doing of those constant parallels drawn between Indira Gandhi and her own life story.’

On Nandini Satpathy’s literary career, Pallavi states quoting Sachidananda Mohanty, who served as Vice-Chancellor of Central University, that Nandini’s writing, reflected the pain she carried in her heart. As Mohanty searched through the dusty, antiquated library shelves in search of slender volumes of her works to translate, he came to the realization that the literature she had crafted may have taken on a political (communist) undertone as she navigated through the realm of party politics. However, at its core, her writing delved into the depths of human suffering.

There are numerous accounts of bureaucrats who have served during her chief ministership, and one particular example is highlighted in the book. It mentions how Nandini carefully selected Sitakanta Mohapatra as her secretary, but due to the pressing demands of his writing, she appointed DP Bagchi as her private secretary. It was DP Bagchi who efficiently handled most of her work. The book vividly discusses Tahthagat and the highly debated Tathagat Diary, as well as shedding light on the vigilance cases against Nandini.

Nandini’s unwavering dedication to serving her state’s people, despite numerous obstacles and resistance, is truly commendable. She persisted in her fight for justice and equality, even in the face of declining health. Her fearless stance against corruption and injustice has left a lasting impact on all who were fortunate enough to have crossed paths with her.

Concludes Pallavi : ‘In the final stages of her life, Nandini succumbed to immense sorrow following the loss of her husband and the humiliation of fading into political insignificance. Though her life ended in tragedy, Nandini’s impact on the political landscape of her state will never be forgotten. Her courage and determination serve as an inspiration to all who strive to make a difference in the world.’

(Bhaskar Parichha is a senior journalist and columnist. Views expressed as personal.)