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Satpathy was born on 9 June 1931 and grew up in Pithapur, Cuttack, India. She was the eldest daughter of Kalindi Charan Panigrahi. Her uncle Bhagwati Charan Panigrahi founded the Odisha branch of the Communist Party of India.
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In 1939, at the age of eight, he was brutally beaten up by the British police for pulling off the Union Jack and also hand-pasting anti-British posters on the walls of Cuttack. At that time it became a widely discussed topic and it was the fuel in the fire in the fight for India’s freedom struggle under the British Raj.
While doing her post-graduation in Odia at Ravenshaw College, she became involved with the Student Federation, the student wing of the Communist Party. In 1951 a student protest movement started in Odisha against the rising cost of college education, which later turned into the National Youth Movement.
Satpathy was a young leader of the same movement, the police lathi-charged the protesters and Nandini Satpathy was seriously injured. He was imprisoned along with many others. In prison, she met Devendra Satpathy, another student federation member, whom she later married. (He was later elected twice to the lower house from Dhenkanal.
In 1962, the Congress party emerged as the dominant party in Orissa. The Congress party had over 80 members in the 140-member Orissa state assembly. At the national level, there was a movement to have more women representatives in the Indian Parliament.
The Assembly elected Satpati (then chair of the Mahila Manch) to the upper house of the Parliament of India (Rajya Sabha), where she served her two terms. After Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister of India in 1966, Satpathy became a minister attached to the Prime Minister, given the distinguished portfolio of her Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
He returned to Odisha in 1972, after being made the Chief Minister of Odisha, to fill the vacancy caused by Biju Patnaik and others leaving the Congress party. During the Emergency of 25 June 1975 to 21 March 1977, he imprisoned several notable individuals, including Nabakrishna Choudhury and Rama Devi.
However, Odisha had the least number of prominent people jailed during the Emergency and Satpathy attempted to oppose Indira Gandhi’s policies during the Emergency. Satpathy stepped down in December 1976. During the 1977 general election, she was part of a group of protesters led by Jagjivan Ram, which became the Congress for Democracy Party.
Satpathy returned to the Congress party in 1989 at the behest of Rajiv Gandhi. The Congress party in Odisha was completely unwelcome, because of its bad governance in the last two periods (mainly Janaki Ballabh Patnaik as Chief Minister).
He was elected as a member of the State Legislative Assembly from Gondia, Dhenkanal and remained in the Legislative Assembly until 2000, when he announced his retirement from politics; He did not contest the 2000 election. She had not been influential at that time and was critical of the Odisha branch of the Congress party.