[Updated with corrections. Author: Frank Krishner]
The Indian government has decided to confer the prestigious Bharat Ratna on the late socialist leader and former Bihar Chief Minister, Karpoori Thakur. This announcement, made a day ahead of Thakur’s birth centenary, is seen as an attempt by the government to steal the thunder of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s celebration plans.
Yesterday, January 24th,Patna saw separate celebrations and rallies taken out by The Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Janata Dal United, and the Bharatiya Janata Party. All three praised the late Karpoori Thakur to the skies.
However, the ‘Bharat Ratna’ announcement has sparked discussions about his contributions to social justice and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) historical stance on backward classes’ quota.
The I.N.D.I.A bloc leaders welcomed the decision, using the occasion to remind the BJP of how the Jan Sangh had sabotaged Thakur’s government over the issue of backward classes’ quota. The present reluctance of the BJP to announce a nationwide caste census was also highlighted, bringing attention to the party’s current stance on social justice issues.
Top Opposition leaders, including Rahul Gandhi and Lalu Prasad, expressed their support for the decision, emphasizing the long-pending demand of socialist parties for a caste census. They argued that the country needs ‘real justice’ rather than symbolic gestures. Rahul Gandhi accused the BJP of concealing the results of the socio-economic and caste census 2011 and called for a shift towards genuine justice.
The timing of the announcement, just ahead of Thakur’s birth centenary, is viewed as a strategic move by the Narendra Modi government to engage with the Nitish Kumar-led JD(U) and Lalu Prasad-led RJD camps, which champion social justice. The move is seen as an attempt to woo the backward classes, particularly in Bihar and other regions where they are not dominant.
Rahul Gandhi praised Thakur as an “incomparable warrior of social justice” and a “precious gem of India.” He criticized the BJP for its indifference towards caste census and stressed the need for real justice. Lalu Prasad, who hailed Thakur as his political and ideological guru, lamented that the Bharat Ratna should have been conferred upon him much earlier and accused the Modi government of waking up to their demand only after the Bihar government conducted a caste survey and increased the scope of quotas.
Recalling historical opposition, RJD senior MP Manoj K Jha and Congress media department Chairperson Pawan Khera highlighted how Jan Sangh elements in the Janata Party opposed Thakur during his tenure as Chief Minister when he implemented the Mungeri Lal Commission recommendations to provide quotas for backward classes in government jobs. Thakur faced political turmoil in 1979 and lost the Chief Ministership due to this opposition.
Pawan Khera pointed out that Kailashpati Mishra, a prominent Jan Sangh leader and Finance Minister, played a key role in sabotaging Thakur’s attempts, leading to the downfall of his government. Khera referred to Mishra as the ‘Bhishma Pitamah’ of BJP in Bihar and highlighted that when the Congress returned to power in Bihar in 1980, the Mungeri Lal Commission report was fully implemented.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar expressed gratitude for the announcement but reminded the government that the demand for conferring Bharat Ratna upon Karpoori Thakur had been raised for years.
Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge reflected on Thakur’s belief that development in the country is incomplete without social justice. Thakur’s support for the caste census, which is opposed by the BJP, was emphasized by Kharge. He noted that the highest honor given to Thakur on his 100th birth anniversary would create positive sentiments among Dalits, the deprived, and neglected sections of society.
It is interesting to watch many leaders fall over themselves to praise the man. I distinctly remember several educationists and journalists in the past discussing how it was Karpoori Thakur, who by introducing the ‘Pass without English’ status on secondary level report cards, had done a grave disservice to the education system in Bihar! No doubt, Thakur is seen as a champion of the ‘backward classes’, but a true assessment of his legacy must invariably include discussion of his flaws as well.
Karpoori’s Significance in the Bihar Landscape
One of Karpoori Thakur’s significant achievements was his commitment to the upliftment of backward classes. He implemented the recommendations of the Mungeri Lal Commission, providing reservations for backward classes in government jobs. However, this move faced opposition from certain quarters, leading to political turmoil.
During the Emergency imposed by the Indira Gandhi government in the mid-1970s, Karpoori Thakur took a bold and principled stance against authoritarianism. He was known for his anti-Emergency activism, advocating for civil liberties and democratic values during a challenging period in Indian politics.
Karpoori Thakur was a vocal advocate for social equality and justice. He consistently raised issues related to the rights and welfare of socially disadvantaged groups. His commitment to the cause of social justice contributed to his popularity among various communities in Bihar.
He played a significant role in the Janata Party, a coalition of non-Congress parties that came to power after the Emergency. His leadership within the party, despite facing internal challenges, showcased his political acumen and ability to navigate complex political scenarios.
Karpoori Thakur’s legacy is characterized by his efforts to address the concerns of marginalized sections of society and promote a more inclusive and equitable socio-political environment in Bihar.
The recognition of Karpoori Thakur with the Bharat Ratna also reignites discussions about social justice and the historical opposition faced by the man in championing the cause of backward classes during his political career.