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Karpoori Thakur deserves the Bharat Ratna but so does Karunanidhi

Is this a genuine expression of respect for Karpoori Thakur or does it have a hidden agenda? Will civilian honours now be used as tools for politicking? What Karpoori Thakur did in Bihar, M. Karunanidhi did in Tamil Nadu. Why, then, should the top honour not be conferred on Karunanidhi as well? asks Prof Ravikant

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Ram Temple at Ayodhya on 22 January 2024. Over 11 days in the run-up to the big day, he hopped from one temple to another in south India and performed myriad rituals. These rituals were turned into election events by the media. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and different Hindu organizations ensured that the Ayodhya function was celebrated nationally. Not only the media but also political analysts began predicting that the Ram Mandir wave would see Modi through in the 2024 General Elections, that Hindutva would fetch another poll victory to the BJP.

Then within less than 24 hours after the Ayodhya event, Narendra Modi made an announcement that took most by surprise: former Bihar chief minister Karpoori Thakur, who was also known as Jannayak, was to be awarded the Bharat Ratna. 

Karpoori Thakur had implemented reservations for the backward classes in Bihar before the Mandal Commission was set up. In 1978, he announced 20 per cent reservations for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), including 12 per cent for the Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) and 8 per cent for Backward Classes (BCs). This decision is recalled as a potent formula for social justice.

The EBCs included castes of traditional artists, handicraftsmen, skilled workers and service providers. Setting aside a separate quota for them was a momentous move on the part of Karpoori Thakur. The EBCs of Bihar still see him as their messiah.   

The decision to confer Bharat Ratna on Karpoori Thakur is admirable. But there are questions that need an answer. Is this a genuine expression of respect for Karpoori Thakur or does it have a hidden agenda? Will civilian honours now be used as tools for politicking? What Karpoori Thakur did in Bihar, M. Karunanidhi did in Tamil Nadu. Why, then, should the top honour not be conferred on Karunanidhi as well? Of course, there are many others who deserve this honour, but here we are confining ourselves to those who empowered the backward classes through reservations, thus ensuring social justice. Karunanidhi comes to mind also because Tamil Nadu was the first state to grant reservations to the backward classes as a social-justice measure.

Bharat Ratna Jannayak Karpoori Thakur and M. Karunanidhi

Under British rule, Madras Presidency was the first to provide reservations for the backward classes. The decision, announced in 1921, could only be implemented in 1927 due to some opposition. This decision was based on solid reasoning. The Madras Presidency government was dominated by Brahmins, and Dalits and other backward classes were in dire straits. Brahmins formed just 3.2 per cent of the population but (in 1912), 55 per cent deputy collectors, 76.2 per cent district munsifs and 83 per cent sub-judges were Brahmins. According to the census conducted in 1921, one-fourth of the Brahmins in the Presidency were educated. The inhuman Devadasi system was practised and farm lands were predominantly owned by a certain class of people. The Dalits and the other backward classes were exploited and oppressed. In 1915-16, the Justice Movement began in the Madras Presidency under the leadership of the backward castes. It was also called the Dravidian movement. C.N. Mudaliar, T.N. Nair and P. Theagaraya Chetty were leading lights of the Justice Movement. The movement would become a party and in 1920, the Justice Party won the elections for the first time. The Devadasi system was abolished and land reforms were introduced. Depriving Dalits of their rights was declared illegal. Later, E.V. Ramasamy Periyar joined the Justice Party and the Dravidian Movement. Until 1919, Periyar was a member of the Congress party and along with Gandhi, he took part in the Vaikom Movement. In 1925, he quit the Congress because he felt that the Congress was discriminating against the Dalits and other backward classes. In 1926, Periyar launched the Self-Respect Movement to arouse feelings of self-respect among the Dalits and the other backward classes. In 1939, Periyar became the head of the Justice Party. In 1955, he gave the party a new name – Dravidar Kazhagam. Later, the party split, and one of the factions became the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in 1949 under the leadership of C.N. Annadurai.

The Dravidian movement challenged Brahmin supremacy and Periyar played a key role in it. Dravidian politics replaced the politics of the Congress in Tamil Nadu. In 1967, Annadurai became the chief minister of the state. In 1969, Madras got a new name – Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi entered the legislative assembly in 1957 for the first time and would never lose an election, becoming its member 13 times.   

In 1971, the total reservation in Tamil Nadu was 41 per cent. In 1969, after Karunanidhi took over as the chief minister for the first time, following the demise of Annadurai, he constituted the Sattanathan Commission. Based on its recommendations, reservation for backward classes was raised from 25 per cent to 31 per cent and for SCs and STs from 16 per cent to 19 per cent, taking the total to 49 per cent. In 1980, the AIADMK government of M.G. Ramachandran increased the quota for the backward classes to 50 per cent. Thus, the total quota rose from 49 per cent to 68 per cent. Ramachandran was compelled to do this because of Karunanidhi. MGR, as he was popularly known, had inserted a provision for creamy layer in the reservation rules, stipulating that only members of the various backward classes with an annual income of less than Rs 9,000 would be entitled to reservation. This was bitterly opposed by Karunanidhi. MGR realized that he was losing ground and to regain popularity, he not only had to withdraw the income ceiling but also increase reservation.  

All this shows that Tamil Nadu adopted unambiguous policies and laid down clear rules for promoting social justice. Hence, the question why Karunanidhi, who came from a backward community and who implemented robust policies for securing social justice to the backward classes, has been overlooked for Bharat Ratna. Will political exigencies guide the awarding of these honours? Was Karpoori Thakur picked for the top honour with an eye on the Lok Sabha elections? It is being said that the BJP decided to give the top honour to Karpoori Thakur as it was losing ground in Bihar and wanted to preserve and protect its base among the EBCs. 

What the BJP is doing today is nothing but a charade. In 1978, when Karpoori Thakur implemented reservations for the OBCs, Jana Sangh, the former avatar of the BJP, had withdrawn its support to his government and its leaders had rained abuses on him and his government. 

“Ee aarakshan ki niti kahan se aayi, Karpoori ki mai…” (From where did this reservation come? From Karpoori’s mother!) was one the slogans used to attack Karpoori Thakur. 

(Translation from the original Hindi by Amrish Herdenia)

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About The Author


Ravikant is assistant professor of Hindi in Lucknow University. He was born into a Dalit family in Jalaun district, Uttar Pradesh. He holds an MA and an MPhil from JNU, Delhi, and a PhD from Lucknow University. Among the books he has authored are 'Samaj aur Aalochana', 'Azadi aur Rashtravad', 'Aaj ke Aaine mein Rashtravad' and 'Aadhagaon mein Muslim Asmita'. He has also edited the 'Adhan' magazine.

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