A room for an Indian hero at the Indonesian embassy
This story first appeared in The Hindu
The Embassy in Delhi honours Biju Patnaik’s role in Indonesia’s freedom struggle in 1947
Tucked away inside the Indonesian Embassy in New Delhi is a special room — one that has been built in recognition the nation’s freedom struggle from Dutch colonialism 74 years ago, and named, unusually, for an Indian leader, Biju Patnaik.
The former Chief Minister of Odisha (1990-1995), who was a skilled pilot, flew several missions in 1947 to transport Indonesian leaders including the nation’s tallest leader, President Sukarno, Vice-President Hatta and Prime Minister Sutan Sjahrir out of Indonesia, at grave risk to himself.
“We wanted to build a living memorial that would not just be a museum, so we decided that our meeting and video-conference room would be named the Bjiu Patnaik Room” explains Cultural and Social Counsellor at the Embassy Hanafi, who helped execute the project that was completed by Indonesian Ambassador Sidhartho Suryodipuro this month, before he ended his tenure in Delhi.
On the walls of the Biju Patnaik room are photographs, newspaper clippings and letters that document Mr. Patnaik’s secret assignments to fly out Indonesian leaders, as well as his relations with the Indonesian leadership. One photograph shows Mr. Patnaik and his wife holding President Sukarno’s daughter who was born the same year, whom they named “Megawati” (Cloud Goddess). Megawati Sukarnoputri went on to become Indonesian President 2001-2005, while Mr. Patnaik’s son Naveen Patnaik was elected Odisha CM in 2000, and is now serving his fifth consecutive term in office.
Biju Patnaik’s missions involved flying in undetected to Yogjakarta where the “resistance” Republican leadership led by Sukarno was based when Dutch forces launched “Operation Product” on July 20, 1947 to capture the capital Jakarta. At Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s request, Patnaik, who had earlier served in the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and then joined the freedom movement, agreed to fly one of his Dakota planes into Indonesia, eluding Dutch air surveillance.
A newspaper clipping in the room recounts his heroic actions: how Mr. Patnaik had a narrow escape when Dutch Mustang planes bombed an airfield where his plane had landed, but he was saved by an engineer who hid the plane. On the next day, he was caught in another air-raid at an oil dump and “had to run 300 yards for cover as the Dutch [planes] strafed it,” the report published by a journalist in Singapore said. His most salient mission was to fly out Prime Minister Sjahrir from Indonesia to India, where he was able to address the world about Indonesia’s plight as the Dutch sought to recolonise the country they had granted independence to in 1945.
Eventually, with the help of India, and other countries Indonesia won back its freedom. In 1950, President Sukarno was the chief guest at India’s first Republic Day, and India-Indonesia ties remained strong for the next decade.
A letter in the Patnaik room also tells the tale of how relations between the two countries soured after Indonesia didn’t support India in the 1962 war with China. Hoping to sway President Sukarno, Mr. Patnaik wrote to him in November 1962, “Today, through an irony of fate, our freedom is in danger. I do hope and pray that Sukarno, the man of destiny of Indonesia, would not forget his brothers-in-arms in India, in their hour of darkness.”
Relations were revived only decades later, when in 2005, India and Indonesia signed a Strategic Partnership agreement; military exchanges and trade ties have grown since. The newly-inaugurated Patnaik room, is a reminder not only of the historical bonds between the two countries, but the imperative of keeping ties strong in the present as well, diplomats at the Embassy said.