Who is Bharat Ratna Karpoori Thakur, beacon of social justice?

Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award of India, has been conferred on “Jan Nayak” Karpoori Thakur. His name would be familiar to many today, but the details of his life less so.

Karpoori Thakur
“Jan Nayak” Karpoori Thakur, two-time chief minister of Bihar and a champion of backward classes, is named for posthumous Bharat Ratna in his birth centenary year. Photo courtesy: X/@narendramodi

On January 23, 2024, a day before the birth centenary of Karpoori Thakur, a post on X by Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi said: “I am delighted that the Government of India has decided to confer the Bharat Ratna on the beacon of social justice, the great Jan Nayak Karpoori Thakur Ji and that, too, at a time when we are marking his birth centenary. This prestigious recognition is a testament to his enduring efforts as a champion for the marginalised and a stalwart of equality and empowerment.

“His unwavering commitment to uplift the downtrodden and his visionary leadership have left an indelible mark on India’s socio-political fabric. This award not only honours his remarkable contributions but also inspires us to continue his mission of creating a more just and equitable society.”

Hailing from what was then the extremely backward class “Nai” (barber), Thakur was born on January 24, 1924, in an impoverished family in Samastipur district in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. He went on to make giant strides in politics that earned him the epithet “Jan Nayak (People’s Leader)”.

A journalist’s memory of Karpoori Thakur

In a first-person account written for Press Trust of India, veteran journalist Samir Kumar Mishra recalls the greatness and humility that co-existed in Karpoori Thakur.

One of the most articulate leaders of the socialist school

Meeting Karpoori Thakur, the twice chief minister of a volatile state like Bihar, where he was reviled and respected in equal measure, was always easy for me and anybody who sought his audience.

That he has been chosen for the country’s highest civilian award, Bharat Ratna, comes as a bit of surprise to me, as it would to even his most ardent admirers.

The “Jan Nayak” joins the pantheon of great political leaders like Lal Bahadur Shastri, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi, and Loknayak Jayaprakash Narayan, who were honoured with the award posthumously.

As a school student, I had seen him frequent the sprawling house of Jayaprakash Narayan on the narrow Jagat Narayan Lal Road in the once posh locality of the Bihar capital (Patna) in Kadam Kuan.

When I joined PTI in 1986, he was the Leader of the Opposition.

He had, by then, been the chief minister of Bihar twice in the 1970s, but had no qualms about hiring a cycle-rickshaw to transport him to the offices of news organisations, particularly PTI.

SK Ghosh, fondly called Mantu-da, the amiable and ebullient bureau chief, was his friend. Mantu-da had died when I first saw Thakur — one of the most articulate leaders of the socialist school I can remember — arrive in our office on a cycle-rickshaw. SD Narayan was then the chief of bureau.

Thakur would enter the newsroom alone, as quietly as he could, with his rubber-soled sandals aiding him in the endeavour, and sit unobtrusively on the recliner Mantu-da had ordered for himself.

He would then request us for a piece of paper on which he wrote his press releases, and leave as quietly as he came.

Surendra Kishore, a veteran journalist who was once Thakur’s private secretary, says that Thakur, who died aged 65 on February 17, 1988, never built a house for himself.

Fountainhead of OBC politics in Bihar

Thakur, considered the fountainhead of OBC (Other Backward Classes) politics in Bihar, was a foodie and loved the steaming hot balushahi and laddu prepared at the state assembly canteen. He would often pester his journalist guests to have some more.

Thakur’s private secretary Abdul Bari Siddiqui, his Man Friday, told us Thakurji was happy when his guests had their fill of the food he offered.

Siddiqui rose to become a minister and the state president of (later Bihar chief minister) Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal.

Sharad Yadav, a socialist stalwart and mentor to many a leader like Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar, was like a disciple.

On a cold January evening, when I visited Thakur, he had a bad cough. Wrapped in blankets in the portico of his bungalow, he sipped on kadha, a concoction made from tulsi (basil) and black pepper, to soothe his sore throat. He had three of those in massive stainless steel tumblers while Yadav and I waited for him to speak.

He spoke well and spoke loud about the rights of the backward classes (OBCs) much before Vishwanath Pratap Singh used the Mandal Commission report as a tool to thwart (BJP leader) LK Advani’s Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya to revive the Ram Temple movement.

Quotas for backward classes introduced in Bihar in 1978

Thakur’s tenure as Bihar chief minister is best remembered for implementation of the recommendations of the Mungeri Lal Commission, whereby quotas for backward classes were introduced in the state in 1978.

This panel was the forerunner of the Mandal Commission. Both Mungeri Lal and BP Mandal were from Bihar, which has a long history of socialist struggles.

A highlight of the Mungeri Lal Commission report was a separate sub-category called Most Backward Classes, which provided the template for the ati pichhda (extremely backward) plank built by (Bihar politician) Nitish Kumar years later. It also had a 3 per cent quota for women and 3 per cent for the economically backward among upper castes.

Thakur ushered in 26 per cent reservation in government services and educational institutions in Bihar in November 1978.

This was 12 years before the VP Singh government dusted off the Mandal Commission report and announced its implementation, providing those opposed to the “Kamandal Politics” of the BJP a weapon and a cause to fight for.

The deeply entrenched upper castes in Bihar responded with rage. There were protests all around and Thakur faced casteist slurs. “Karpoori kar poora, chhod gaddi pakad ustra (Karpoori, do your work; leave the seat of power and pick up the razor),” was one among a multitude of slogans that targeted his nai (barber) caste, whose tool of work is ustra (the razor).

Congress welcomes Bharat Ratna for Karpoori Thakur

India’s oldest political party, the Congress, welcomed the decision to confer Bharat Ratna on Karpoori Thakur. However, party leader Rahul Gandhi asserted that a caste census would be a true tribute to the socialist leader as the country now needed “real justice” and not “politics of symbolism”.

In a post in Hindi on X, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said: “The pioneer of social justice and public leader late Karpoori Thakur ji not only fought continuously for social justice but also played a decisive role in it. Humble tributes to him on the occasion of his birth centenary.”