Nabakrushna Choudhuri

Nabakrushna Choudhuri was a politician and activist who served as Chief Minister of the Indian state of Orissa. He was born on 23 November 1901 at Cuttack, Orissa State, India. Son of advocate Gokulananda Choudhuri, Nabakrushna had shown unusual talents during his childhood. He was very fond of games and sports. Noticing that he was devoting more time to games and sports, his father engaged a private tutor for him. Subsequently he studied at the Peary Mohan Academy and completed his studies leading to Matriculation Examination at the age of 14. He had to wait for two years and eventually passed the examination with a good division.


Ravenshaw College to Shantiniketan

In 1917, Nabakrushna Choudhuri took admission in the Ravenshaw College, Cuttack. At about this time his brother Gopabandhu Choudhury resigned from government service to serve the people of Orissa. That year the people of Russia had achieved victory by fighting against the oppressive king. This had a deep influence on Nabakrushna Choudhuri. One thought repeatedly came to his mind. When the people in the country are facing innumerable problems in dependent India, what is the use of studying in the college to get a good job? He left the Ravenshaw College along with Nityananda Kanungo, Loknath Patnaik, Jadumani Mangaraj and Harekrushna Mahtab. At this point of time he lost his father. His elder brother Gopabandhu Choudhury became his guardian. Many others followed them. This was in 1921. Gandhiji was organizing the people for taking up some constructive programmes, the most important of which was attaining self-sufficiency in clothes through spinning and weaving. Unfortunately, spinning and weaving had been completely stopped in Orissa. In 1922, Nabakrushna Choudhuri went to Sabarmati in Gujarat to learn all about Khadi – the principles and philosophy of spinning and weaving. Gandhiji was living in an Ashram in Sabarmati. Within ten months Nabakrushna learnt all about Khadi.

On return from Sabarmati, Nabakrushna tried to organize Gandhian constructive programmes in Orissa despite opposition from his own family and others in his society. In the same year a new type of school was established by Gopabandhu Choudhury at Alakashram, now in Jagatsinghpur District in Orissa. Both the brothers taught there. Correlation between head and hands was the hallmark of Alakashram. In 1925, Nabakrushna went to Shantiniketan to study at the feet of Rabindranath Tagore. During his ten-month stay there, he came in contact with Malati Choudhury (née Sen), whom he married later.

Simple Life

After marriage both Nabakrushna Choudhuri and Malati Devi decided to lead a simple life. They went to Tarikund, a village near Jagatsinghpur. At Tarikund, some land belonging to Nabakrushna’s father was available for cultivation. They stayed at Tarikund, and Nabakrushna worked on the land like a farmer. Their house had only one room; subsequently another room was added to it. They had some cattle also. They grew sugarcane, potato and groundnut. They completely identified themselves with the people of Tarikund, who took them as their own kith and kin.

In 1928, their eldest daughter Uttara was born. Nabakrushna broke the old custom and took care of the child along with his wife. He even washed Malati Devi’s clothes. Tarikund people, especially the women, raised their eyebrows. It was the talk of the village. Eventually this was an educational experience for the entire village.

Literacy and Adult Education

At Tarikund, besides agriculture, literacy and adult education demanded the involvement of Nabababu and Malati Devi. Malati Devi used to motivate the women for attending the night school and educate them for taking care of their children. She used to visit both Hindu and Muslim homes, which is why, the Hindus were not allowing her to enter their houses. Gradually the resistance began to dilute and she became the most liked person for everybody.

First Imprisonment

Came the Lavana Satyagraha in 1920. This was in response to the Law enacted by the British to disallow the people to get salt out of seawater in the coastal areas of Gujarat and Orissa. Inchudi in Orissa came to limelight. Srijang was equally active in another area – the movement against payment of Tax for Chowkidari. Nabababu was the frontline leader in this movement, for which he was behind the bars for four months. This was the first imprisonment for him, for which he did not regret at all. He utilized the prison time in studies and in organising games and gymnastics for his fellow prisoners. In 1931 a son was born to him. By that time, Gopabandhu Choudhury and his entire family were in the jail. All of them were transferred to Hazaribag Jail. Nabababu got the opportunity of meeting Minoo Masani, Ashok Mehta, Yusuf Mehrali and Jayaprakash Narayan, and shared with them his thoughts on the freedom struggle and the struggle of the poor to have two square meals a day. Surendranath Dwivedy, Rabindra Mohan Das, and Nabababu’s close friend, Bhagawati Panigrahi were there to be guided by his plans.

Nabababu came to Tarikund after being released from Hazaribag Jail. He created a small group within the Congress and began editing and publishing a journal named ‘Sarathi’. For meeting the recurring costs of ‘Sarathi’, Malati Devi sold her ornaments. ‘Sarathi’ was the mouthpiece of small farmers and labourers.

When the Congress Socialist Party was formed in India with Ram Manohar Lohia, Acharya Narendra Dev and Jayaprakash Narayan as its founders, Nabababu’s small group was merged in this. The Navayuga Sahitya Sansad was organized at his instance. Its aim was to create progressive literature in Orissa.

Entry into Politics

Orissa became a separate province on the first of April 1936. In 1937, elections to the Orissa Legislative Assembly were held for the first time. Nabababu contested against Rai Bahadur Chintamani Acharya from the Tirtal-Ersama constituency and won the election with an overwhelming majority. This was his entry into active politics.

As an MLA, he was always sensitive to, and concerned about, the interests of the poor and downtrodden in Orissa. All the farmers of Orissa united themselves to fight against the landlords who were exploiting them. The journal ‘Sarathi’ had closed down. With Nabababu’s efforts another journal titled ‘Krusak’ was published containing news and features on the problems of the farmers and labourers together with those of the ‘Praja Andolan’ movement in the princely States.

Princely States

Orissa had 26 Princely States, which were not governed by the British. The Ruling Chiefs were directly governing their respective States according their own whims and fancies, by paying a royalty to the British.

The Congress Party had a policy of non-interference with the princely States. Nabababu disobeyed such a policy directive. Malati Devi, Gouranga Das and Sarangadhar Das joined him in mobilizing resistance against the princely States. At their instance there was a stiff resistance against the princely State of Nilgiri. Dhenkanal was known for its oppression of the people. Nabababu did not keep quiet. He was joined by Gouranga Das, Ananta Pattanayak, Baidyanath Rath, Sachi Routray, Manmohan Mishra, Surendranath Dwivedy, and of course Malati Devi. They went from door to door in the villages around Dhenkanal, and explained about the oppressional tactics of the Raja of Dhenkanal. In 1938, he was again imprisoned for his involvement in the Praja Mandal Movement.[citation needed]


The most spectacular event of Dhenkanal oppression was the sacrifice of 12-year old Bajiraut, who succumbed to the bullets of Dhenkanal forces along with Hurushi, Nata, Raghu, Guri and Lakshman. Nabababu and Malati Devi, from their base at Angul, further accelerated the movement. In January 1939, they had their third child – a daughter named Krishna (Tinu).

In 1940, at the instance of Gandhiji, Nabababu was jailed for six months as an individual Satyagrahi.

On August 8, 1942, Gandhiji gave his clarion call called ‘Do or Die’. This was his last call for the fight for freedom. This had an electrifying effect in arousing the people. Before the morning of August 9, Gandhiji and all the important leaders were imprisoned. Nabababu had already prepared a blueprint for sustaining the fight before going to prison. Youngsters like Surendranath Dwivedy organised the fight from underground. Nabababu was kept in succession at Cuttack, Angul and Puri Jails where he was mingling with all the fellow prisoners, and was organizing them against the misdeeds of the Jail employees.

Nabababu was sent to Berhampur Jail from Puri Jail. On January 26, 1944, some young prisoners hoisted the National Flag. The Jail and Police personnel tried their best to bring down the Flag, but it was a futile effort. Eventually the matter was reported to a District British Executive, who came to the Jail for inspection, and at his orders the prisoners were mercilessly beaten resulting in injuries. Even then they resisted the efforts to dehoist the Flag. The District Executive gave firing orders. Nabababu, on hearing such orders appeared in the scene and stood still facing the gun. The British officer was afraid of him, and withdrew the firing orders. By the end of 1945, Nabababu was released from Berhampur Jail.

Congress Government

Came the elections in 1946. Nabababu won the elections from the north Kendrapara Constituency, and became a Cabinet Minister in the Congress Government having the Revenue, Supplies and Forest Departments under his charge. His spectacular achievement was the enactment of the Anchal Shasan Bill which was meant to empower the people, but it became a victim of vested interests. He also nationalised some transport services and organised a new transport company for south Orissa.

Integration of the princely States in Orissa, for which Nilgiri had shown the way, was an event of historical importance. Nabababu was so such engrossed with the problems of the people that he had little or no time to be devoted to his family affairs. Malati Devi was working in the tribal areas. In 1948, their only son Vinayak committed suicide. This was a great shock for Nabababu. Completely shaken, he resigned from Government and decided to work for the people.

Nabababu became the Organiser of Basic Education for the State of Orissa. His thinking on, and interest in, Basic Education got a chance to be put into action in the field. He worked hard to make Basic Education pragmatic as well as viable.

Jawaharlal Nehru was then the Prime Minister of India. He wanted that Nabababu should return to Government and become the Chief Minister of Orissa. He tried to persuade him, but did not succeed. A series of letters exchanged between Nehru and Malati Devi suggests that Nabababu was persuaded through Malati Devi to become the Chief Minister of Orissa, and eventually he became the Chief Minister.

Progressive Chief Minister

Nabababu was a very progressive Chief Minister. The age-old Zamindari system was finally abolished. The farmer became free of exploitation by the Zamindar and got ownership right on his land. Nabababu’s experience as Revenue Minister stood him in good stead. His concern for the welfare of the people made Anchal Shasan a reality which was the precursor to the Community Development Programme launched in Orissa on the Gandhi Jayanti Day of 1952. Mere formulation of rules and regulations with the appointment of officers did not mean much to Nabababu. He used to see the fieldwork for himself.

The Hirakud Dam was constructed during Nabababu’s Chief Ministership. There were resistance and opposition from many quarters who were not in favour of having the Dam. Even some of his own people belonged to that camp. Nothing doing. Nababu’s determination saw to it that the Dam was constructed according to schedule.

In those days officers were reluctant to visit the tribal areas. Some officers in the tribal areas were exploiting the people. Moneylenders were also exploiting them by forcibly occupying their land and employing them as bonded labourers. Such exploitation of the simple tribal people went on increasing, as a result of which the tribals of Koraput District revolted against the erring officers and tyrant moneylenders. Government officers wanted to suppress the same by the police, but they were not permitted to do so by Nabababu. He sent some good officers there to understand the problems of the tribal people.

He himself went to those areas to have a feel of the whole thing. He used to walk in those areas. When the Chief Minister was going to the people to assess and appreciate their problems, the Government Officials, landowning farmers and moneylenders could not exploit them.

In 1954, an Agriculture College and a Veterinary College were established at Bhubaneswar. An Engineering College was also established at Burla, Sambalpur. The Agriculture and Veterinary Colleges became two components of the Orissa University of Agriculture and Technology, which also had a Department of Architecture. Nabababu was a member of its Governing Body for many years. The Burla Engineering College became a part of the Sambalpur University.

Oriya as Official Language

Nabababu had realised for quite sometime that a people-oriented government has to use Oriya as its language for communication and administration. Therefore, he formulated rules for using Oriya in the administrative process. As an MLA, Nabababu used to speak in Oriya in the Assembly and discuss there in the same language.

When the Orissa Legislative Assembly was constituted in 1946, the question of language to be used in the Assembly was raised. Lalmohan Patnaik, as the speaker, desired that English should be used as before. But Nabababu demanded that Oriya, the people’s language be used instead. And his just demand was not only retained, but sustained.

As mentioned elsewhere, Nabababu’s decision to use Oriya as the language for communication and administration was opposed by senior officers in the administration. Some of them were from outside the State, without the knowledge of Oriya, and others suffered from a colonial hangover. Nabababu did not listen to anyone. Oriya was the language to be used for administration. An Encyclopaedia of Oriya Language was prepared. Oriya typewriters were also fabricated. But all these initiatives taken by him discontinued after he left the Government in October 1956. Prime Minister Nehru persuaded him again not to leave the Chiefministership, but Nabababu was determined in his decision. For him service to the people was more important than power.

Acharya Vinoba Bhave had launched the Bhoodan and Gramdan movement when Nabababu was the Chief Minister. He was deeply involved in this movement. He was moving with Vinoba from village to village spreading the message of Gramdan. Not a pie was spent from the Government funds.

His work was in everybody’s lips. In 1957, he was elected as the President of the Sarva Seva Sangh, whose activities were accelerated by him.

Diplomatic Mission

In 1959, Nabababu and Mridula Sarabhai worked as principal negotiators for Kashmir Affairs. Many Kashmiri leaders used to visit him at Angul for consultations. Around June 1959, he went to Srinagar and stayed there for quite sometime. This was a top level diplomatic mission. He used to interact with top political leaders and Military Officers. Major General H. Singh was the Liaison Officer.

Guwahati to Mokakchung to Dhaka to Rourkela

In early sixties, the conflict between Bengali and Assamese people in Assam assumed serious proportions. Jayaprakash Narayan, Nabababu, Rama Devi Choudhury, Malati Devi and other Sarvodaya workers visited Assam to talk with the people. Situation became normal.

At this time the Nagas were organising themselves to be separated from India. There was violence and bloodshed. Even military intervention by Government could not silence the Nagas. Nabababu went there with Jayaprakash. Through the establishment of an institution named Peace Centre at Mokakchung, they talked with the people to appreciate their problems. After Jayaprakash, Nabababu became the Director of the Peace Centre. The Nagas stopped their hostile activities.

Nabababu was a voracious reader. He used to read extensively books, even the latest ones, and journals on politics, education, Marxism, Gandhian philosophy and development.

Another important event. Today’s Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan. It was known as East Pakistan. In the name of religion, some persons of doubtful character were torturing the Hindus, who were migrating to India. Some of them came to live in Orissa. This was enough for the Hindus. To take revenge, they attacked the Muslims. It had its repercussions in Orissa. Rourkela saw killing of Hindus and Muslims. The entire country was worried. Nabababu, Rama Devi, Malati Devi and others rushed to Rourkela. They worked among both the communities till the situation became calm.


In another part of Orissa, Koraput, Naxalites were quite active. The poor tribals were being exploited by the rich people. The Naxalites were not able to tolerate this sort of exploitation. They were killing the rich. The Government tried to stop this. In the name of law and order, atrocities were committed on the people by the Police. The commitment of atrocities touched those who were working for the tribals for their development. On hearing this, Nabababu and Malati Devi went there and organised meetings at different places to find out the truth. Peace workers from different parts of the world came there. Atrocities were considerably reduced. The Naxaline leader, Nagabhusan Patnaik was sentenced to death for his Naxalite activities. Nabababu intervened and wrote to his friend President Sanjeeva Reddy for pardoning Nagabhusan. Other Naxalites, who were convicted for life were also pardoned and released.

National Emergency

By 1974, there was corruption everywhere in the country. Those belonging to government service were earning huge amounts of money by unfair means. Common people were suffering. Jayaprakash Narayan voiced his displeasure and opposition to this sort of corruption which had entered the body politic. He appealed to the young people to fight against this. This was too much to be swallowed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She declared National Emergency in the country in 1975.

During the Emergency days Nabababu, Malati Devi and other leaders were imprisoned. Nabababu was sent to Baripada Jail and Malati Devi to Cuttack Jail. Nabababu became sick in Baripada Jail. He was not able to tolerate the solitary confinement. He developed partial paralysis. At his age, this was too much for him. Even then, he was enquiring about the people and their condition. His family members were very much disturbed and asked him to keep out of politics. He told them by a meaningful smile, “ People are my life.” When he was slightly better, he was released on parole. The doctors put some restrictions on his movements. Malati Devi was also released from Cuttack Jail. Both of them came to Angul.

All over the country there was expression of resistance to Emergency. This was a sub-surface activity.

Nabababu’s life was a living example of breaking meaningless and superstitious rituals and conventions. His actions in these areas did not exclude his family circles. He had lifelong interest in children and the youth.

Indira Defeated

The Government of India was an object of criticism all over the world. Many world leaders put pressure on Indira Gandhi to withdraw the Emergency Rule. The result was another general election in India. Many leaders were still in jail. The opposition lacked adequate financial resources. The opposition leaders were not able to go to the people. The party in power thought that an Election at this time would be favourable. But just the opposite happened. Many important leaders of the party in power, including Indira Gandhi, were defeated miserably. This was people’s mandate. Nabababu was really happy over this.

Nabababu had not fully recovered, but had kept his habit of reading books and journals. Many intellectuals from abroad were visiting him to discuss about Gandhian philosophy. Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy had come to look him up.

Lost a grandson and grand-nephew

He had many bereavements earlier. His grandson and grandnephew (his brother's grandson) died of road accidents - the former near Chowdwar, close to Cuttack, and the latter (Kabeer Chaudhury) in Indiana in USA on October, 1983. He was completely shaken and for many days cried in silence! In addition to this, his anguish over the mounting selfishness of the educated few and the poverty of the common people made him more restless and sick.

By mid-June 1984, Nabababu’s health had further deteriorated, when the wedding of Kasturi, his granddaughter was celebrated. After the departure of Kasturi and her husband to Guwahati, the atmosphere at Bajiraut Chhatravas was rather gloomy. Nabababu breathed his last following a massive heart attack on 24 June. He was 83.

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