Nurtured By Biju Patnaik, Destroyed By Jyoti Basu: Ironic Fate Of Star Swimmer Mihir Sen

Cuttack: But for Biju Patnaik’s intervention, Mihir Sen would have been left swimming in Katjodi river here. He would not have gone on to become the first Indian, indeed the first Asian, to swim across the English Channel in 1958.

The legendary swimmer was born in a village in then undivided Bengal in 1930. But Mihir grew up in Cuttack. He was academically brilliant and graduated at the top of his class from Utkal University with a Law degree. He was 21.

Mihir dreamt of pursuing further studies abroad, but his father was a local doctor with limited means and couldn’t afford it.

It was then that former Chief Minister Biju Patnaik offered to finance the youth’s passage to England. There, Mihir joined Lincoln’s Inn, the prestigious society of barristers.

During his stay in England, Mihir’s dream of becoming the first Indian to cross the English Channel was revived again. The dream was first born while he was still studying in Utkal University.

Mihir had read about the exploits of Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to cross the English Channel. He was inspired and felt it his patriotic duty to set an example for the country by himself crossing the English Channel.

It was indeed an extreme task. Till then, Mihir had no formal training in swimming. His only prowess was swimming across the Katjodi river in Cuttack.

But the athlete was not a man for half measures and determined to succeed. Mihir spent hours at the YMCA pool in London to develop his technique and endurance.

But that was only half the challenge. He also had to learn to manage the treacherous tides of the Channel, avoid the poisonous jellyfish and other creatures of the deep, navigate the open seas as well as to deal with the extreme weather conditions.

The weather forced him to abandon his first attempt midway in 1955. Three years later on September 27, 1958, Mihir once again entered the sea off the coast of Dover. This time, he was better prepared. Mihir stroked his way into the record books, completing the solo crossing in 14 hours and 45 minutes. He also became the first Indian, indeed the first Asian, to swim across the English Channel.

Like all athletes, Mihir strived on risks. By then it was the early 1960s and he was back in India. He had a lucrative law practice. But Mihir once again dived into the unknown. He established a silk manufacturing and export business in Bengal,

Over the next decade and a half, Mihir became a very successful businessman as his company expanded manifold.

Then fate struck a tragic blow. In 1967, the first Communist-led United Front government came to power in West Bengal. While Ajoy Mukherjee was the face of the party, the real power lay with then deputy Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, who took over as the CM in 1977.

Soon, industrial unrest, political murders, blockades and targeting of business owners and managers by the Communist government became the order of the day.

These also had a deep impact on Mihir’s business. Matters took a worse turn when Mihir refused an offer by Jyoti Basu to contest the 1977 election as a CPM candidate.

Faced with threats to his business and family, Mihir made the fateful decision to contest the polls as an independent candidate against Jyoti Basu.

Over the next few years, Mihir’s business was targeted, his manufacturing units were shut down by labour unrest, his personal finances were targeted by government agencies, and fake cases were filed against him.

His bank accounts were frozen and he was forced to file for bankruptcy. This also affected his physical and mental health.

Mihir passed away in 1997, financially broken and suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. He was 66.

It’s ironic that the champion swimmer who was nurtured by a chief minister in Odisha, died a broken and bankrupt man because of another CM in neighbouring Bengal.

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