Karpoori Thakur (1924-1988): A leader of the people

The posthumous Bharat Ratna on the incorruptible Thakur's birth centenary is loaded with political and electoral significance, but may be his least impressive achievement

Karpoori Thakur (pictured) , Bihar's late CM, known for introducing various social reforms, receives posthumous Bharat Ratna (photo: @RahulGandhi/X)
Karpoori Thakur (pictured) , Bihar's late CM, known for introducing various social reforms, receives posthumous Bharat Ratna (photo: @RahulGandhi/X)

A.J. Prabal

Conferring the Bharat Ratna 36 years after his death on the former chief minister of Bihar Karpoori Thakur and barely three months before the Lok Sabha election is certainly dictated partly by political considerations. Nothing however can detract from the fact that he was truly a remarkable leader and much ahead of his time.

He was the chief minister of Bihar who introduced old age pension in 1971, made education up to matriculation free in 1977, enforced prohibition in the state and reduced surcharge on small holdings of land. In 1971, the government headed by him implemented the reservation formula recommended by the Mungeri Lal Commission for backward and most backward communities, besides women and upper castes almost 20 years before the Mandal Commission was implemented.

Karpoori Thakur, twice the chief minister of the state, never completed a full term in office and spent just about three years in office, two years and six months as chief minister. That did not affect him or his stature though. He was a restless man and worked tirelessly as an MLA, MP, minister or as the leader of the opposition.

When he suddenly passed away in 1988 after a short illness at the age of just 64, he was the leader of the opposition; and old-timers still recall the instruction that the Congress chief minister Bindeshwari Dubey had left with the bureaucrats. If Karpoori Ji reached out to them for anything, they were told, they should first do it and then inform him, if necessary. Such was the trust between the two.

It gave rise to much speculation. Karpoori ji, some of the MLAs said, was in the payroll of the chief minister. The fact was that he was totally incorruptible and had to borrow money from friends and well wishers all the time. His needs were simple and few and even as chief minister in 1977 he would often be seen moving in the state capital on the ubiquitous cycle rickshaws. He did not allow his children to even live with him in the state capital, leave alone allowing them to take any political benefit.

As leader of the opposition he did have an Ambassador car at his disposal along with a driver. The 1980s was a turbulent time in Bihar when private armies of different castes like the Lorik Sena, Ranbir Sena, Bramharshi Sena etc. would often raid villages overnight and massacre villagers belonging to rival caste groups. Dalits were often suspected by them to be in cahoots with Naxalites and were the victims more often than not. Naxalites too would retaliate and sometimes kill all the people living in a village (around 57 villagers were killed one night at Dalelchak village of Aurangabad in a retaliatory raid by the Naxalites). Long before daybreak the perpetrators would disappear into the night and often information would reach the state capital several hours after the massacres.

On several occasions, if not the most, Karpoori Thakur would reach the spot before anyone else, sometimes even before the police. How he received information in the dead of night, with poor and few landlines remains a mystery; but he would often leave at 2 a.m., drive through the night on poor roads for five to six hours and reach the spot early in the morning, long before journalists in the state capital got to know of the massacres.

There were no mobile phones of course those days and the leader of the opposition would often be the first non-official and reliable source of information. He would often return from such overnight trips by 5 pm and reach the office of the news agency UNI on the Fraser Road at Patna to virtually write a first-person account that would be photo-copied and distributed to the newspapers and other agencies.

A self-made and a self-taught person, he was an ardent votary for primary school education through one’s mother tongue. He is blamed till today for doing away with English teaching in government schools in the state. His very short stints as education minister and as chief minister, however, came in the way of rolling out all the reforms he may have had in mind.

A voracious reader, his desk on the floor of the legislative assembly, would always have books with markers, files, reports etc. for reference. With no Internet to fall back upon, he was one legislator who would do his homework and prepare thoroughly before attending assembly sessions. His speeches would often be peppered with references to parliamentary rules and practices as he attacked the government relentlessly. His successor as leader of the opposition and thereafter the chief minister, Lalu Prasad Yadav, picked up several of Karpoori Ji’s habits but did not have his patience for homework and his eye for detail.

Among the many anecdotes about Karpoori Ji, some of them apocryphal, is the one in which an exasperated prime minister Morarji Desai is said to have told a delegation of Janata Party leaders that when Indira Gandhi did not find him during the Emergency, how could he? When the Emergency was declared, Karpoori Ji went underground and slipped into Nepal, remaining active in bordering areas.

Another anecdote is that as chief minister the ceiling fan in his bedroom was on one night in the middle of a harsh winter. The next morning, the chief minister disarmingly explained that it was to keep the mosquitos away as he could not find a mosquito net.

He passed away all too soon and all too suddenly, before he could fully groom Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar as his successors, though both have tried to implement many of his ideas in the state.

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