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Why the naming of an airport in Maharashtra is a fitting tribute to Nath Pai

The Maharashtra cabinet’s decision to name the greenfield airport in Sindhudurg after the freedom fighter and spirited parliamentarian coincides with his birth centenary

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Why the naming of an airport in Maharashtra is a fitting tribute to Nath Pai
Nath Pai addressing a public gathering

By Aditi Pai : The Maharashtra government’s decision to name the year-old Chipi-Parule greenfield airport in Sindhudurg district after Nath Pai coincides with the birth centenary celebrations (September 25) of the freedom fighter and parliamentarian. The decision was made at a meeting of the state cabinet on September 27. The request was led by Deepak Kesarkar, Maharashtra school education minister and member of the legislative assembly from Vengurla, where the airport is located.

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Pai may not be a name read too often in history books, but in parts of Maharashtra, especially the Konkan region comprising Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg, his loss is still mourned by people. He is widely hailed as the man who championed the cause of the Konkan railway, who toiled to ensure facilities such as roads and post-offices in the remote areas of the region, and who brought attention to his Lok Sabha constituency with his dazzling debates and arguments inside Parliament.

Born on September 25, 1922 in the coastal port town of Vengurla, Pai was the youngest among eight siblings. They were raised by their mother after their father’s early death. Abject poverty didn’t prevent the siblings from attaining basic education before moving to Belgaum, the nearest big town, in search of work.

In the early 1940s, Belgaum was a hotspot of the Indian independence movement, especially after a visit by Mahatma Gandhi. Here, as a 20-year-old, Pai plunged into the freedom movement after his older brothers were arrested for participating in a satyagraha. With the British police on his heels, Pai grew a beard and led an underground movement along with his friends. Young men and women joined in and Pai charmed them with his evocative speeches. They set on fire a police station in the city, leading to the arrest of Pai and 10 others and their brutal thrashing in jail.

In the winter of 1948, with money collected from relatives and a small scholarship, Pai sailed to study law at England’s Lincoln Inn. Here, he was exposed to socialism as he worked in the chambers of Lord Clement Attlee and joined various groups professing socialism as the only means to end poverty and bring equality in society. As the first non-European president of the International Union of Socialist Youth (IUSY), he drew international attention to the cause of the liberation of Goa, a movement he had been involved with ever since he had met Ram Manohar Lohia in 1948. The IUSY led protest marches against atrocities committed by the Portuguese on the people of Goa.

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In the Indian general elections of 1957, Pai, as a member of the Praja Socialist Party, won the Rajapur seat by a margin of 100,000 votes. During his 14-year-long stint in Parliament, he was acclaimed for his evocative oratory and deeply studied debates on matters of defence, finance and foreign affairs. “Nath stood out for his integrity, eloquence and patriotism. When he rose to speak, people listened with respect. He was extremely eloquent and impressive,” recalls Dr Karan Singh, former Union minister who worked closely with Pai in Parliament. He elaborates: “In the 1960s, Nath was a leading voice of the Opposition. I remember he had devastated Indira Gandhi’s budget with an electrifying speech but despite that, she had a lot of respect for him. Jawaharlal Nehru also had a lot of affection for him even though Nath constantly challenged the government.”

A champion of labour rights, Pai led the central government employees’ strike in 1957 and 1960. His fiery speeches castigating the government’s handling of border tensions after the wars with China and Pakistan were hailed as examples of well-studied and researched debates. “He was the voice of just issues in the Lok Sabha. All leaders would look forward to his scholarly speeches, which are referred to even today,” former Union minister Suresh Prabhu says in an article on Pai.

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With in-depth knowledge of the Constitution and law, Pai moved several private members’ bills, including the ones on the demand to include the Right to Work as part of the Fundamental Rights and the need to secure the rights of citizens in case of declaration of an emergency. “In the Lok Sabha, his first speech created a storm that compelled then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to invite him for a cup of tea. During his three consecutive terms, he was recognised for his unsparing criticism and well-studied views on varied subjects, ranging from defence and foreign policy to finance,” says Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar.

A fast-deteriorating health, after two heart attacks, didn’t slow Pai down. He relentlessly demanded a railway line connecting Konkan to Mumbai. It led to the government ordering a feasibility study of the project in 1970. A cause dear to him was the integration of Marathi-speaking areas of Karnataka into Maharashtra, on the basis of principles of the linguistic reorganisation of states.

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Pai held the belief that the wishes of the people were supreme in a democracy. Hours after he addressed a mega public gathering in Belgaum, he died of a heart attack at the age of 48. His colleague and friend Atal Bihari Vajpayee mourned his death in Parliament by saying: “He carried the burning fire of patriotism in his heart, a desire for the equality of all humans in his soul and had unwavering compassion for all. He was a magician with words and could leave his audience spell-bound.”

Even as his Praja Socialist Party crumbled and vanished from Maharashtra over the years, the people of Konkan rue that Pai has often been neglected by the chroniclers of modern history. Boards bearing his name at the Sindhudurg airport will now serve to remind people of his life and work.

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