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India and Indonesia -Down Memory Lane

Paper No 6740                     Dated 24-Jan-2021

By Prof. V. Suryanarayan

The well-known columnist, Suhasini Haidar, in The Hindu dated January 24, 2021, has highlighted a noble gesture made by the Indonesian Ambassador to India, His Excellency Sidhartho Suryodipuro to commemorate the memory of an Indian hero, who played a heroic role in the Indonesian freedom struggle. The hero is none other than Bijayananda Patnaik (16 March 1916 – 17 April 1997), popularly known as Biju Patnaik, who, in later years, became the Chief Minister of the State of Orissa. A daring pilot, who floated the Kalinga Airlines, Biju Patnaik was a close friend and comrade of the Indonesian nationalist triumvirate – Sukarno, Hatta, and Sjahrir. He defied the ban imposed by the Dutch authorities over the Indonesian Republican territory and brought Sjahrir and Hatta to New Delhi in his small aircraft.

Jawaharlal Nehru paid a glowing tribute to Biju Patnaik in a press conference held on 28 July 1947: “I pay a tribute to the very gallant Indian airman who brought Sjahrir from Indonesia to New Delhi. He had been known to us for some years. Not only for his great efficiency in flying but also for his adventurous and daring spirit”. In fact, during the Indonesian Revolution (1945-1949), India was Indonesia’s window to the outside world. The first external broadcast of the All India Radio was in Bahasa Indonesia.

Biju Patnaik’s daring flights against heavy odds can be explained in the manner in which he brought Mohammad Hatta to New Delhi Patnaik had arrived in Jogjakarta carrying much-needed medical supplies. After a detailed discussion with the Indonesian leaders, Patnaik agreed to take Hatta as his co-pilot and renamed him, Abdullah. Patnaik had arranged for a pilot’s uniform and also a passport. It took four days of air travel from Jogjakarta to New Delhi.

Nehru did not know that Hatta was in India and when Hatta went to Teen Murti House, Patnaik informed Nehru that there was a guest from Indonesia called Abdullah, who had a message for him. When Nehru came out and saw Hatta, he was angry with Patnaik: “This is Mohammad Hatta. Why did you not tell me his real name” Nehru had met Mohammad Hatta in the Congress of Oppressed Nationalities in Brussels in 1927 and had corresponded with him since then. During the free and frank talks, Hatta asked whether India could provide arms to the Indonesian Republic because there were definite signs that the Dutch armed forces would attack the Indonesian Republic. Nehru answered that he was heading a provisional government and matters relating to arms supply had to be decided by the British Government.

While Nehru’s response was couched in diplomatic language, there was more to it. P R S Mani, journalist-turned diplomat, who was personally invited by Nehru to join the Indian Foreign Service and was posted in Jogjakarta in this critical phase has written in his book, India and Indonesian Revolution (published by the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras), the “full story is yet to be told”. To quote Mani: “In the classified archives of the Government of India, there is a memorandum still to be released for publication, which gives the totality of the entire spectrum of aid given to the Indonesian Republic. Till its release, suffice it to say, that no request of the Republic went unheeded at the hands of Nehru”.

An inter-related issue needs to be related. Sjahrir, who arrived in New Delhi on the last day of the Asian Relations Conference, had detailed discussions with Nehru on the strengths and weaknesses of the Indonesian Republic. Dr. Sarvepalli Gopal, the biographer of Jawaharlal Nehru, told me that of the three nationalist leaders Sjahrir intellectually was the closest to Nehru. Sjahrir mentioned that the Republic had no air defense at all against Dutch Air Force Nehru positively responded to this weakness and made arrangements for the training of Indonesian pilots by a private agency in Allahabad. A batch of 18 young men was sent to Hind Provincial Flying Club in Bamrauli, Allahabad. In later years these cadets rose to high positions in the Indonesian Air Force. They were known as Angkataan Paneerbang India – India Pilot Branch. After the training in Allahabad, they could not immediately return to Indonesia, so they proceeded to Burma and assisted the U Nu government in its fight against the Kachin and Karen rebels.  

While working in the National Archives for my book, Together in Struggle: India and Indonesia, 1945-1949, I saw in the catalogue a file entitled Biju Patnaik. With high hopes, I requisitioned the file, but to my great disappointment, the slip was returned the next day with the comment N T (not transferred). I tried to get the file through high ups in the Ministry of External Affairs but in vain. I do not know whether the Patnaik collection in the Indonesian Embassy has this file as also the Memorandum to which I had made a mention in an earlier paragraph. 

Many scholarly works have been written dealing with the emergence of Indonesian nationalism and the Indonesian struggle for freedom. As I mentioned earlier the Indonesian nationalist triumvirate has acknowledged India’s seminal contributions, but the Western scholars have generally displayed a marked tendency to minimize India’s role. Except for incidental references to Nehru’s plan to visit Indonesia (which did not take place) and the New Delhi Conference on Indonesia in 1949, even the oft-quoted and widely acclaimed book on Indonesian nationalism, Nationalism and Revolution in Indonesia, by Prof. George MCT Kahin does not give much credit to India’s efforts to mobilize international opinion on behalf of Indonesia. It is all the more saddening because Prof. Kahin was present in Jogjakarta and was an eyewitness to the momentous developments. Late Prof. Benedict Anderson, who considered Indonesia his second home, also errs on the same side. His book, Java in the Time of Revolution, suffered from the same shortcoming.

My book, Together in Struggle- India and Indonesia, 1945-1949  (published by Antar Rashtriya Sahayog Parishad) is a modest attempt to put the record straight and to highlight India’s role in the struggle for Indonesian independence. I hope it will help to generate interest among the younger generations, both in India and in Indonesia, and also help to foster better relations between the two countries. In the Ramayana, there is the story of the squirrel, which also contributed in a small way to the construction of the Ram Sethu. The squirrel got the blessings of Lord Rama. I hope my efforts would receive encouragement from all concerned with cultural diplomacy – the Indian Embassy in Indonesia, Indonesian Embassy in India, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, and Antar Rashtriya Sahayog Parishad. They should take the initiative and get this book translated into Bahasa Indonesia.

*Dr. V. Suryanarayan is Founding Director and Senior Professor (Retd.), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai. His email