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HomeOPEDInitiating social change is the legacy of Karpoori Thakur

Initiating social change is the legacy of Karpoori Thakur

Niraj Krishna

Jan Nayak Karpoori Thakur is the 5th Bihari to receive the Bharat Ratna. Before him, luminaries from Bihar such as Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy (1961), the country’s first President Dr. Rajendra Prasad (1962), the progenitor of the entire revolution movement J.P. Narayan (1999), and the maestro of the shehnai, Ustad Bismillah Khan (2001), have been adorned with the Bharat Ratna. Continuing this illustrious series, Bharat Ratna was conferred upon Karpoori Thakur, enriching the lineage of distinguished personalities associated with Bihar. All these luminaries connected with Bihar have been honored with the Bharat Ratna posthumously.

Karpoori Thakur first became the Chief Minister of Bihar in 1970. On December 22, 1970, he assumed the reins of the state for the first time. His first term lasted only 163 days. Even when the Janata Party secured a resounding victory in the 1977 wave, Karpoori Thakur became the Chief Minister of Bihar for the second time. However, he could not complete this term either. In less than two years of tenure, he worked tirelessly for the welfare of the oppressed and backward sections of society.

Although in Bihar’s politics, they are often accused of engaging in party-switching and pressure politics. Allegations persist that they are adept at political maneuvering, and questions are raised about their role in selecting candidates in elections based on caste equations. However, in traditional Bihar politics, they continue to be the voice of millions of deprived individuals.

The significance of January 24th in Bihar has gained political prominence in recent years. On this day, a fierce competition among the state’s major political parties is witnessed as they vie to claim the legacy of former Chief Minister Karpoori Thakur on the occasion of his birth anniversary. In this context, a pertinent question arises: Why does the political legacy of Karpoori Thakur, the leader of a community that constitutes less than two percent of the population in Bihar, create such a stir even years after his demise?

The primary reason for this lies in the fact that Karpoori Thakur’s identity has been crafted as a leader of the Extremely Backward Classes (EBC). While individually, this caste may not be crucial in terms of electoral mathematics, collectively, they constitute a vote bank of 29 percent. EBC includes more than 100 castes from various small population groups. In 2005, this community played a significant role in propelling Nitish Kumar to the position of Chief Minister for the first time. In Bihar’s political landscape, this community has become extremely important, and every political party aims to incorporate this vote bank into its fold.

In Bihar, the politics of socialism is being carried forward by Laloo Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar, both disciples of Karpoori Thakur. During the tenure of the Janata Party, Laloo Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar learned the nuances of politics under the guidance of Karpoori Thakur. Consequently, when Laloo Yadav came to power in Bihar, he furthered the work initiated by Karpoori Thakur. Similarly, Nitish Kumar has also undertaken various initiatives for the rights of marginalized communities.

While Ramnath Thakur may be active in politics these days and may have benefited from his father’s name, Karpoori Thakur did not actively work to advance him politically in his life. Claiming the legacy of Karpoori, Ramnath Thakur, the son of Karpoori Thakur and a Rajya Sabha MP of the Janata Dal United, says, “Karpoori Ji has been a symbol of a social movement in Bihar. Therefore, people from all walks of life and various political parties continue to pledge on his birthday to fulfill the dreams of social justice. However, now the claims and counterclaims have certainly increased.

In reality, before the implementation of the Mandal Commission, reaching the heights of Bihar’s politics for someone coming from a background like Karpuri Thakur seemed almost impossible. He emerged as the loudest voice for the poor and marginalized in Bihar’s politics.

Karpuri Thakur is considered a leader who awakened social justice in Bihar’s politics. He was born into an ordinary barber family. His father’s name was Shri Gokul Thakur, and his mother’s name was Shrimati Ramdulari Devi. Karpuri Thakur was born during British rule in the village of Pitaujhia in Samastipur, now called Karpurigram. His father was a marginal farmer in the village and worked as a traditional barber. He spent 26 months in jail during the Quit India Movement.

It is said that Karpuri Thakur dedicated his entire life to anti-Congress politics and achieved his political position. He served as Deputy Chief Minister once, Chief Minister twice, and remained a legislator and opposition leader for decades. After winning the elections in the first Legislative Assembly in 1952, he never lost a Bihar Legislative Assembly election. In his two terms as Chief Minister, the impact he left on Bihar’s society is unparalleled. It is noteworthy that he was Bihar’s first non-Congress Chief Minister.

In 1967, the commencement of social reforms began with Karpoori Thakur’s first term as the Chief Minister when he abolished the mandatory requirement of English. Despite facing criticism, the reality is that he successfully brought education to the common people. During this period, the mockery of those who failed in English after passing the matriculation exam was silenced, as he abolished the mandatory requirement of English in the matriculation examination. This move aimed to enable even children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds to participate in competitions by obtaining degrees.

Simultaneously, he held the position of Education Minister, and due to his efforts, missionary schools started teaching in Hindi. Additionally, he worked to waive the school fees for economically deprived children. He was the first Chief Minister to declare free education up to matriculation in his state. He also worked towards granting Urdu the status of a second official language in the state.

Upon becoming Chief Minister in 1971, he provided significant relief to farmers by discontinuing the land revenue tax on unprofitable land. The lift in the building of the Chief Minister’s office in Bihar was not available to fourth-class employees. Still, upon becoming the Chief Minister, he ensured that the lift for fourth-class employees was used, securing their accessibility. Though seemingly a small step today, it held significant meaning in the realm of transformative politics, as it reflected Karpoori’s efforts to amplify the voice of the underprivileged in political discourse.

While serving as Chief Minister, he made it mandatory for all departments in the state to work in Hindi. Not only that, but he also implemented the recommendations of the State Pay Commission in the state government, ensuring that the salaries of state government employees were at par with central government employees. His commitment to providing employment to the youth was evident when he organized a camp that provided jobs to over 9,000 engineers and doctors simultaneously.

In 1977, when Karpoori Thakur became the Chief Minister of Bihar, he took several steps to enhance reservations for the Scheduled Castes. He effectively implemented reservations for Scheduled Castes in schools and colleges and implemented the recommendations of the Mungekar Commission. This move benefited the backward class in government jobs and educational institutions. Despite becoming an adversary of all sections due to the implementation of the Mungerilal Commission, Karpoori Thakur continued to work for the welfare of the oppressed in society. Though he lost his power two years later due to these decisions, he became famous as “Jan Nayak” for the steps taken to reduce inequality. He was a leader who provided reservations for backward class leaders before the Mandal Commission. He played a crucial role in Bihar, where today, the oppressed have a share in power.

Karpoori Thakur not only established himself as the foremost leader of the oppressed and downtrodden in Bihar but also sowed the seeds of new ideologies. Today, leaders like Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar, who are recognized as advocates for the Dalits and backward classes in Bihar, have learned the nuances of politics from Karpoori Thakur. Karpoori Thakur is the mentor of these two leaders who work for the marginalized in Bihar.

Karpoori Thakur’s presence in Bihar’s politics cannot be overlooked. Although he passed away in 1988, he remains immensely popular among the Dalits and extremely backward voters in Bihar. It is noteworthy that approximately 52% of Bihar’s population belongs to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Consequently, all political parties in Bihar invoke Karpuri Thakur’s name to strengthen their foothold. In 2020, even the Congress announced the opening of ‘Karpuri Thakur Service Centers’ in its manifesto.

Karpuri Thakur is considered a symbol of social justice not only in Bihar but throughout the country. He played various roles as a freedom fighter, educator, social reformer, and politician. During the fight for independence, he joined forces with Acharya Narendra Dev initially and later participated in the Quit India Movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. After his release from prison, he launched campaigns to eradicate social discrimination, especially untouchability, in Bihar.

Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna, a prominent leader from Uttar Pradesh, mentioned in his memoir, “Observing Karpoori Thakur’s financial constraints, Devi Lal once said to his Haryanvi friend in Patna, ‘If Karpoori i ji ever asks you for five to ten thousand rupees, give it to him. It will be a debt on me.’ However, every time Devi Lal inquired, his friend’s response was, ‘No sir, he never asks for anything.'”

Ramnath recounts a story that reflects Karpuri Thakur’s simplicity, “When Karpuri Thakur became a legislator in 1952, he had the opportunity to travel to Austria with a delegation. However, he did not have a coat. He had to borrow one from a friend. When he went to Yugoslavia from there, Marshal Tito noticed that his coat was torn and gifted him a coat.”

In an era where leaders are being exposed for corruption involving millions of rupees, the trust in politicians has diminished. Despite his long political career, Karpoori Thakur, who served as Deputy Chief Minister, Chief Minister twice, and remained an MLA for decades, did not even have a house in his name to bequeath to his family when he passed away. Whether in Patna or his ancestral home, he did not own an inch of land. Even during his extensive travels, he wore the same set of clothes, drying them after bathing to wear them again. Despite the financial scarcity, he often provided economic assistance to party workers. He preferred staying among the common people, especially in villages, rather than luxurious surroundings. Karpuri Thakur used to travel by rickshaw.

In reality, Karpoori Thakur was a significant leader in socialist politics. Those who attempt to exploit his name for monetary gains will find it challenging to emulate his simplicity and honesty. Therefore, remembering leaders like Karpoori Thakur is crucial. On January 26, 2024, posthumously, the Government of India will honor him with the highest civilian award, Bharat Ratna.

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