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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 42 October 14, 2023

Karpoori Thakur: Social Justice and Its Limits | Manish Thakur and Nabanipa Bhattacharjee

Saturday 14 October 2023


History has its own ways of revivifying past icons and their politics. Of late, Karpoori Thakur has seen such a revival in contemporary political discourse. In particular, politics in Bihar is suffused with references to his simplicity, honesty, integrity and his lifelong commitment to the welfare of the poor and the downtrodden. Parties across a wide-ranging ideological spectrum – from the real and pretentious legatees of socialist politics to the ruling JD (U)-RJD alliance and also the BJP – are united in singing paeans to Karpoori Thakur – the man and his politics. Moreover, his implementation of the policy of reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBC) (as per the recommendations of the Mungeri Lal Commission, 1971-1977) in government/public employment and educational institutions at the state level in 1977 is seen as a transformative moment in the politics of reservation in India. So much so that political analysts have been talking of the Karpoori Formula as a praiseworthy template for large scale emulation, for, among others, it has a layered distribution of castes and sub-castes in two annexures highlighting an understanding of graded social backwardness as well its inclusion of various Muslim caste groups in the Bihar state OBC list. Also, the Formula was of a piece with Ram Manohar Lohiya’s understanding of women (irrespective of caste) being socially backward. Viewed thus, Karpoori Thakur surely deserves enormous credit for having not only conceptually innovated with the scope of social backwardness but also for displaying immense political courage in implementing reservations at a time when high-caste groups controlled key levers of social and political power in Bihar. Expectedly, the implementation of the OBC reservation policy led to large scale violence in the state and ultimately cost him his chief ministership in 1979.

Be that as it may, there is no denying the fact that Karpoori Thakur is one of the tallest leaders in post-independence Bihar. Equally, his political and ideological influence has been prodigious which, in fact, is quite disproportionate to his actual years in office as the Chief Minister of Bihar (December 1970-June 1971; December 1977-April 1979). Little wonder, Karpoori Thakur continues to dominate much of the political imagination (if not political practice) in Bihar. The mushrooming of Karpoori Vichar Manch, a forum espousing and disseminating Karpoori Thakur’s political program, in addition to the countless statues and busts across the length and breadth of Bihar is a case in point. In recent times, there has been much fervour to celebrate his birth (24 January 1924) and death (17 February 1988) anniversaries including by the official state establishment. Metaphorically speaking, it is difficult to conceive of leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan and Nitish Kumar without acknowledging and appreciating the kind of politics that Karpoori Thakur envisioned and practised. Justifiably enough, there are demands for the conferment of Bharat Ratna on him from all kinds of political quarters. As it happens so often, public memory focuses on the positive elements of the legacy of a politician-statesman leaving out of discussion and debate more controversial aspects of the same. Indeed, we do not hear at all about Karpoori Thakur’s endless squabbling within the larger socialist tradition and his joining, breaking away and re-joining a long list of political parties with short-lasting names. But then, the internecine conflicts among Indian socialists have been, so to speak, their most lasting attribute, giving rise, in turn, to dozens of parties ever since the founding of the Congress Socialist Party in 1934. And, therein lies the sad tale of continuous shrinkage of the scope of social justice – which in early Indian socialist thought included a substantial component of economic justice – and its ultimate evolution as a program solely articulating the need for caste-based proportionate representation in admissions, jobs, and so forth, a process sanctified by the Mandal Commission recommendations and their implementation in 1990 by the then V. P. Singh (central) government.

Sure enough, in the initial decades after Independence, the socialists championed an agenda of social justice which was, quite correctly, mindful of the concerns of equity and economic well-being of the masses. Undoubtedly, social justice then encapsulated much more than the currently prevalent idea of social justice qua caste-based quota/reservation. The socialists consistently focussed on the rights of the tenants, agricultural labour, zamindari abolition and the general alteration of the structure of socio-economic power in the countryside. In short, the economic was an indispensable part of the politics of social justice that socialists have been the votaries of. It is not for nothing that the Bakasht movement in Bihar was largely led by the socialists. Likewise, they were prominent participants in all the major peasant movements in the state. Leaders like Ramnandan Mishra, Suraj Narayan Singh, Rambriksha Benipuri were active in socialist politics and were influential kisan leaders in their own right. Most of them were frontrunners in the Quit India movement of 1942, a movement that also politically baptised Karpoori Thakur. However, with the passage of time there appears to have developed a division of political labour whereby economic issues like the rights of tenants, minimum agricultural wages, distribution of surplus land etc. became the preserve of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and its later offshoots, while the socialists of all hues started digging in the legacy of the Triveni Sangh, an organisation established in 1934 by representatives of three dominant backward castes of Bihar, namely, Yadav, Koeri and Kurmi, to demand reservations for the backward castes.

The politics of anti-Congressism of Ram Manohar Lohiya provided a discursive legitimacy to this ongoing process of systematically undermining the significance of the economic in political projects of social transformation. All the same, capturing state power (rather snatching it from the Congress) turned out to be the prime motivation of socialist politics. Complexity of social justice was made reducible to caste-based reservations alone; it was as if nothing else mattered except for the limiting agenda of representational parity among castes. Social backwardness came to stand for a constellation of newly assertive caste groups later designated as OBCs. Political machinations of cobbling majority on the floors of parliament and legislative assemblies led to shifting alliances among various self-styled caste leaders. Political instability (volatility) became the new normal. It is noteworthy that Karpoori Thakur was the Chief Minister for just six months in the much-celebrated wave of non-Congressism in north India in the 1967 assembly elections.

In any case, this decline of the economic in socialist politics in Bihar is inconceivable unless one factors in Karpoori Thakur’s role in reconfiguring that politics for the sake of political expediency. Substance gave way to symbols. Social justice became a rhetorical end in itself without necessitating any structural change in governance or developmental priorities. Indeed, the rhetoric of social justice did yield tangible political pay-offs. Otherwise, how would one explain Lalu Prasad Yadav’s seamless control of political power for fifteen long years (1990-2005)? Or, the continued presence of Mahagathbandhan in power in the state? Unfortunately, though, the social justice parties in states like Bihar failed to create the kind of impact that observers have started calling the Dravidian model drawing from the Tamil Nadu case. In effect, the disconnect of the social and the economic lies at the centre of perfunctory politics of social justice that even leaders like Karpoori Thakur could not eschew. Rather, his politics contributed to the growing economic vacuousness of social justice. It is time we re-visited Karpoori Thakur and his politics with the larger aim of understanding varying political trajectories of social justice in the country. Such an exercise is bound to give us insights into the impasse that competing demands of reservations by various groups and communities have cumulatively created.

(Authors: Manish Thakur and Nabanipa Bhattacharjee teach Sociology at IIM Calcutta and Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi respectively)

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