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A Misfit: On the BJP Government's Bharat Ratna to Karpoori Thakur

We argue that giving the Bharat Ratna to Thakur is in stark contrast with the ideas of the BJP and its alma mater.

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(Editor's note: Nitish Kumar has now resigned as chief minister of Bihar.)

A long-awaited demand of political parties in Bihar like the RJD and the JD(U) was finally fulfilled after the Union government announced the posthumous honour of the Bharat Ratna to ardent socialist leader Karpoori Thakur, popularly known as Jan Nayak for his lifetime battle for poor and marginalised people.

He is recognised as a pioneer of social justice politics in India but he is more than that — a freedom fighter, a leader of farmers, a firebrand opposition leader, and the epitome of simplicity.

But it is very ironic that on the one hand, the BJP inaugurated the Ram Mandir (a symbol of Hindutva) last week, and on the other, gave an award to an icon of social justice politics. It is a well-known fact that the Mandir politics of the BJP-RSS was started to counter the Mandal politics of the 90s.

This article seeks to unravel the politics of Karpoori Thakur and his legacy in the context of recent political developments in Bihar.

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Karpoori Thakur belonged to the Nai caste — a very marginal social group in Bihar politics. During the 1960s, there was a conflict in the socialist bloc within Bihar. They were divided on different ideological issues and the idea of reservation for the backward classes. Lohia flagged off the slogan, “sansopa ne baandhi gaanth, picche pawan sau me sath.” However, many of them like Ashoka Mehta were against it.

This allowed Karpoori Thakur to grab the opportunity as he was a total fit for Lohia’s brand of politics. He became the prominent voice of the backward classes in Bihar and posed serious challenges to the domination of upper caste politics in the state.

The political achievement of Karpoori Thakur counted in two phases — first as deputy CM and education minister, and then as two-time chief minister. As a minister, he decided to remove English as the compulsory subject for matriculation, in line with Lohia’s anti-English policy. This decision democratised education in Bihar which benefited marginalised sections of society to enter higher education and jobs.

During his chief ministerial period, he implemented the Mungeri Lal Commission report, which entailed 26 per cent reservation in state government jobs. Out of them, 12 percent were for the most backward castes, 8 per cent for the backward castes, 3 per cent for the upper castes, and 3 per cent for women.

The introduction of reservations also democratised the entire society of Bihar. It increased the share of backward classes in politics, education, and jobs. Thakur also introduced the Panchayati Raj election in 1978 for the very first time in Bihar.

Whether it was Lalu Yadav, Nitish Kumar, or Ramvilas Paswan, everyone claimed themselves to be the true heir of Karpoori Thakur. However, Thakur and his ideas indeed trained a generation of socialist leaders in Bihar to bring transformative socio-economic reform.

Later, Lalu Yadav consolidated the OBC votes in Bihar and displaced the hegemony of upper castes in the state assembly and other government institutions. Furthermore, Nitish Kumar implemented EBC reservations in local body elections. Recently, the coalition government of Tejashwi and Nitish conducted the caste census and expanded the reservation quota.

It seems that all these socialist leaders continued the legacy of Karpoori Thakur’s idea of social revolution. However, Bihar is still grappling with absolute poverty and people’s lives across castes and communities are abysmal. The recently released caste survey data indicated that 34 per cent of people in Bihar are living on just Rs 6000 per month. 

Even Karpoori Thakur tried to pursue land reform in 1978 but it was not fully implemented. Nitish Kumar tried the same in 2007 but the report of the committee on land reforms was never published. What could be the reason for that?

Anyone who knows Nitish Kumar's politics can easily imagine how he needs the support of upper castes to maintain his power. To appease the landholders and feudal forces of Bihar, he kept two reforms on two issues on hold — land and the common school system. It forces us to rethink whether these socialist leaders are, indeed, the true heir of Karpoori Thakur. 

Is the BJP Fit to Inherit Karpoori Thakur's Legacy?

We show in the coming paragraphs how giving the Bharat Ratna to Karpoori Thakur is in contrast with the ideas of the BJP and its alma mater, that is, the RSS and the Jan Sangh.

First, In 1978, when Karpoori Thakur was implementing reservations for backward classes, Jan Sangh leader Kailash Pati Mishra vehemently opposed the steps taken by him and broke the alliance with his government.

Second, in an interview, Gautam Sagar Rana, a close associate of Karpoori Thakur, describes that during his second tenure as CM, his government released political prisoners and activists of the Naxalite movement because they were considered fighting for the downtrodden and the marginalised. In stark contrast, the Modi regime has incarcerated and criminalised activists and intellectuals speaking out for the rights of Dalits, minorities, and Adivasis, be it in the case of Bhima Koregaon or the CAA-NRC.

Third, Karpoori Thakur sat on a fast unto death for 28 days against the Tata factory in Jamshedpur for increasing wages, weekly holidays, and job security for workers. However, the BJP passed the four labour code bills last year which completely dismantled labour rights and made the lives of workers more precarious.

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Fourth, the Bihar government recently published a caste survey report and extended reservations up to 75 per cent. It is an extension of the ideas of Lohia and Thakur but the position of the Modi government on the caste census is totally the opposite. The BJP sees it as an anti-India and anti-developmental tactic, and a way to divide Hindus on the basis of caste.

Then how can we understand the BJP’s decision to commemorate Karpoori Thakur with the Bharat Ratna? After 2014, the BJP appropriated different leaders of freedom movements. Some of them were in the Congress, or had differences with Congress or Socialist leaders. Some were even ideologues of the Left. 

It started with Sardar Patel. The BJP also tried to appropriate Subash Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Baba Saheb Ambedkar, and Bhagat Singh. Giving the Bharat Ratna to Karpoori Thakur is not to continue his true ideals but just a mere tactic to accommodate the 36 per cent of EBC voters in Bihar for the coming election. It is also a process to create an icon in Bihar for the BJP.

However, if alive in this Modi era, Karpoori Thakur would never have accepted this Bharat Ratna from a government that is anti-farmer, anti-poor, anti-worker, anti-Dalit, and anti-minority. He would have been termed as an 'anti-national andolanjeevi'. 

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