As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Indonesia, the contribution of an Indian military pilot in shaping the present-day politics of the world’s largest archipelagic country needs to be remembered.
India’s ties with Indonesia date back to its independence, as an Indian pilot rescued the top Indonesian leadership from Dutch colonialists.
A dare-devil pilot, who later turned politician, was behind this daunting rescue. Biju Patnaik, a flamboyant young man from Odisha, was a pilot with the Royal Air Force.
His participation in the Indian freedom struggle brought him closer to Jawaharlal Nehru, who led an interim government in 1946 to assist in the transition of British India to an independent country.
The young pilot also has a room dedicated to him at the Indonesian Embassy in New Delhi.
At the same time, Indonesia was struggling to get itself freed from Dutch colonialists. Before World War II, Indonesia was a Dutch colony, with the imperial rulers owning significant resources.
During the war, Japan took over the reins of the country. But as Japan’s fortune worsened during the war, the Japanese government agreed to eschew its control over the island nation.
Two days after the Japanese surrendered, Indonesian freedom fighters Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta proclaimed Indonesian independence on August 17, 1945. The following day, on August 18, Sukarno was elected President, and Hatta was chosen as the Vice-President.
Sukarno appointed Dr. Sjahrir as prime minister and formed Indonesia’s new government. Sjahrir, a trusted lieutenant of Dr. Sukarno, became friendly with Nehru.
Following the ouster of the Japanese, the Dutch wanted to reclaim their economic interests in Indonesia. It blocked the Indonesian Sea to stop weapons from entering the country.
Despite colonialism losing traction with the Western public, the Indonesian freedom struggle was primarily seen as an internal matter of the Dutch. Nehru stepped in to support the Indonesian freedom struggle and launched a diplomatic blitzkrieg by recognizing the Sukarno government in Indonesia and raising the issue in the UN.
Nehru boldly congratulated the Republic (of Indonesia) on its first anniversary (August 17, 1946) and announced a plan to hold an Asian Relations Conference (ARC) in New Delhi.
Thrilled with this morale booster, Sukarno ordered India’s tricolor to be flown with the merah putih (Indonesia’s flag, Red and White) at anniversary celebrations in Yogyakarta.
Sukarno even wrote to Nehru on August 19, 1946, saying, “Your country and your people are linked to us by ties of blood and culture, which date back to the very beginning of history. The word ‘India’ must be a part of our life, for it forms the first two syllables of the name we have chosen for our land and race — the ‘Indo’ in Indonesia.”
Flight Of Freedom
The cause of Indonesian freedom was important for Nehru, who asked Biju Patnaik to help the freedom fighters in the island country.
Patnaik had allowed Indian freedom fighters to evade the British by “surreptitiously” flying them to different cities. Swashbuckling Patnaik also air-dropped leaflets on the Quit India Movement for Indian soldiers fighting against Myanmar as part of the British Indian armed forces.
These skills were tested when Patnaik piloted a Douglas C-47 Dakota ferrying medicines and humanitarian assistance to the rebels in Indonesia, deftly evading the land and sea blockades imposed by the Dutch.
The planes would fly from Kolkata with refueling halts at Mohanbari in the present-day state of Assam and Singapore. His wife, Gyana Devi, a trained pilot, accompanied him on some of these covert missions.
The island nation was under siege by the Dutch by July 1947. PM Sjahrir, tasked by President Sukarno to fly out of the country and garner support for their call for freedom, was put under house arrest by the Dutch forces in Jakarta.
Nehru, who was keeping a close tab on the developments in Indonesia, summoned Patnaik and asked him to rescue the Indonesian Prime Minister and Vice President Hatta from the clutches of Dutch forces. Patnaik, the dashing young pilot, accepted the mission without questions.
Biju Patnaik’s missions involved flying undetected to Yogyakarta, where the “resistance” Republican leadership led by Sukarno grew when Dutch forces launched “Operation Product” on July 20, 1947, to capture the capital Jakarta.
Patnaik landed in Jakarta on July 21, 1947, eluding the air surveillance of the Dutch. The daring couple, Patnaik and Gyana Devi, then flew Hatta and Sjahrir from a jungle hideout in Indonesia to India via Singapore on July 24, 1947, despite a warning from the Dutch to shoot down the aircraft.
Patnaik replied to the direct Dutch threat: “Resurgent India does not recognize Dutch colonial sovereignty over the Indonesian people. If my aircraft is shot down, every Dutch plane flying across the Indian skies will be shot down in retaliation.”
During the mission, 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. 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.
Prime Minister Sjahrir, after his daring rescue, addressed the world from India and apprised them of Indonesia’s plight as the Dutch sought to recolonize the country they had granted independence to in 1945.
According to Peristiwa Heroik, July 29, 1947, a book compiled by the Sub-Service of History, Public Relations and Media Directorate of the Indonesian Air Force, Patnaik had traveled to Indonesia in 1947 for more than two weeks to train pilots in the country.
As a reward for his bravery, Patnaik was given honorary citizenship in Indonesia and awarded the ‘Bhoomi Putra’ (son of the soil). He was also conferred the highest award of the country, ‘Bintang Jasa Utama,’ when Indonesia celebrated its 50th Independence Day in 1995.
Patnaik’s relations with Indonesia had a personal touch too. He had persuaded President Sukarno to name the latter’s daughter Megawati, who later became the President of Indonesia.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com