In February 2016, a tidal wave of change struck India with full force. Protests sparked across the country; young people were roughed up by police, authors returned government-given awards in defiant symbolism and politicians delivered angry speeches and committed public gaffes. The issue: politics and discrimination on the country’s campuses.
It began when Rohith Vemula, a low-caste Ph.D. student at the University of Hyderabad, committed suicide after losing his stipend due to his political activities. In Delhi, Kanhaiya Kumar, another Ph.D. student at top liberal-arts school Jawaharlal Nehru University, was arrested on charges of sedition. In India’s lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha, politicians were talking. Amongst them: Tathagata Satpathy, a member of the regional Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in the state of Odisha (formerly Orissa). In a stirring 20-minute speech, this slight, silver-haired man raised his soft voice to chastise the moderate Congress Party for reducing Vemula’s death to a mere caste issue, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for making Kumar’s arrest about nationalism. “I am heartbroken to say the youth of this country does not deserve us,” he said to the crowd.
The four-term parliamentarian’s speech was as unusual as it was impassioned; Indian politicians are better known for politically correct platitudes than for castigation of their ilk. Not, though, Satpathy, who had previously shot into the limelight when he asked for cannabis to be legalized in India and admitted in a Reddit AMA to smoking and — gasp! — even inhaling while in college. His party has been an ally of the BJP, and remains on the fence over a possible alliance with the BJP after the 2019 general elections. But that hasn’t stopped Satpathy from criticizing the Modi government. In December 2018, when it emerged that the federal government had authorized investigative agencies to snoop on any citizen’s computers, Satpathy tweeted: “This Govt’s love for spy games (without Parliament’s or Judicial control/oversight) is amazing.” Earlier in September 2016, Satpathy became the face of a campaign to decriminalize defamation in India — a colonial-era law in the same bucket as the sedition charges pressed against Kumar. “Democracy, in my understanding, is where every individual is free yet considerate and understanding of the person next to her,” he says.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi tried to have him arrested …
Born in 1956 to the late Nandini Satpathy, former chief minister of Odisha, the younger Satpathy started out in journalism. In 1976, as a new graduate of a spiritually infused college in south India, he met Ramnath Panda, the ailing, debt-burdened owner of Dharitri, an Oriya-language daily newspaper. He bought Dharitri with family money, took a distance-learning course in journalism, installed new machines and reported and edited the paper himself. “I was probably trying to become a fish exporter,” Satpathy said of his original ambitions. He is punny, though reliant on dad humor: “Instead of becoming a fishy exporter, I wanted to do something that enthralled and excited me, and journalism did that for me.”
After 14 years of running Dharitri, Satpathy joined politics, in part thanks to the influence of his late mother, a longtime Congress Party member. But Satpathy didn’t join her ranks. He was coming into politics at a time when young people were protesting Congress Party member and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’ s Emergency, a two-year period during which she suspended civil rights and imposed press censorship. His decision wasn’t to his advantage — choosing a different party meant he couldn’t rely on his parents’ connections and support base, and Gandhi tried to have him arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act — a draconian law used to arrest anyone who opposed Gandhi’s rule; his mother objected, a career-threatening choice. “I must admit that I also damaged my mom’s relationship with Mrs. Gandhi,” he added. But he says he and his mother never fought personally over his choices: “We had no palaces or deep sunken diamonds to fight over. Ideologically, I just didn’t like the Congress.”
Without his parents’ lead to follow, Satpathy turned to the leadership of the BJD. Ever since, he’s been defined by his progressive ideology that endears him to the English-speaking middle-class. In Parliament, he’s supported decriminalizing homosexuality, opposed a ban on alcohol and demanded the abolition of a law that gives the army sweeping powers.
Satpathy is enjoying the advantage that comes with regional parties in India. His BJD is equidistant from both major national parties (Congress and the BJP). He doesn’t form edgy alliances or build coalitions, and he says the party’s leader has never pressured him to be anything but his renegade self. Case study: Satpathy announced in his first speech that he wouldn’t accept the pension he was entitled to. The party’s leader, he says, “called me and said, ‘You crazy fool!’ ” It was reasonable: Satpathy, in his youthful vigor, might have jeopardized needed pensions for elder colleagues.
He has some challengers, including Dharmendra Pradhan, India’s oil minister. “He feels that Pradhan is a hurdle in his way,” says Sajjan Sarma, chief spokesperson of the BJP in Odisha, of which Pradhan is a member. “People here feel that Pradhan is a contender for chief minister, not Satpathy.” Sarma says Satpathy hasn’t lived as a member of the opposition, “where one has to struggle a lot.”
Today, Satpathy remains editor of Dharitri, making him a clear “heavyweight” in the state, says Prashant Patnaik, a veteran journalist based in Odisha. He’s even managed to critique his party leadership in editorials in his own paper. In an editorial in 2016, Satpathy wrote that the state’s water resources appeared “headless” — a veiled dig at his party president and state chief minister. In Delhi, Satpathy’s treated with affection by the press, who know him as progressive parliamentarian with a fondness for Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead. “He doesn’t expect you to respect him because he’s an MP,” says a member of his staff who has worked with several other parliamentarians across parties. Chalk his popularity up to idiosyncrasy. Everyone loves a maverick.
(This article has been updated since its original publication on October 28, 2016)
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