A politics subsumed
Jogendranath Mandal was born on 29 January 1904, in a predominantly Namasudra (an ‘untouchable’ caste, formerly called ‘chandala’) village called Maisterkandi of northern Barisal District, in a Bengal on the verge of being partitioned by George Nathaniel Curzon’s pen. Though his parents, Ramdayal and Sandhyadebi, doted over him as the youngest of their six children, they often struggled, and at times failed, to provide him with an education at nearby village schools. Over the next few decades, he would rise from these humble origins to become one of the most vocal and articulate leaders from amongst the Scheduled Caste communities of British India.
Despite (or perhaps because of) his trenchant critique of the social relations of caste inequality in Bengal, he is today hardly remembered, much less understood by the people and country into which he was born. In a state that has long proclaimed its exceptionality in terms of the casteism seen elsewhere in India, Mandal’s marginality in historical narratives seems eerily and curiously fitting. Recovering and listening to his past, then, is to encounter social forces deemed anachronistic in an allegedly secular, communist state. Mandal’s most significant contribution was his struggle for a freedom that embraced the ideals of social equality and democracy – a struggle directed squarely against the ideologies and practices of both casteism and communalism.
Mandal’s childhood coincided with the Swadeshi movement in Bengal, an initiative driven predominantly by upper-caste Hindus that sought to galvanise the Muslim and lower-caste-Hindu peasantry against the British-led partition of the province. This attempt to enlist the support of these communities for a cause to which they were at best indifferent, if not downright inimical, dramatically failed. It was in these early years of Mandal’s life, through conversations with his uncles and some of his own embittering experiences, that he would learn of caste discrimination. He therefore grew up unusually sensitised to the everyday slights of caste society. Cobbling together whatever financial means possible, his family sent him to a number of proximate village schools. In a waterlogged Barisal, this meant rowing through marshlands and wading through inundated fields, returning home to attend to the domestic duties required of any child of an agriculturalist family, and studying by the light of a lantern. It was thus with considerable difficulty that Mandal received a primary and secondary education.
In 1924, with financial assistance from his extended family, he was able to join the Barisal Brajamohun College to pursue studies in Indian administration. While at college, he became involved with the nationalist leader Aswini Kumar Datta’s organisation Little Brothers of the Poor, a social-welfare association primarily concerned with the alleviation of poverty and health-related issues amongst the peasantry. In 1926, he would organise a campaign of protest against the treatment meted out to a fellow Namasudra student by caste Hindus for daring to enter a local temple. The same year, he would address a meeting in Agailjhara village, beginning to hone his oratory for which he would later be renowned, stressing the need for lower-caste unity. Clearly, as early as his 20s, Mandal exhibited significant concern for transforming the conditions of life endured by lower-caste communities. He graduated the same year and, several years later, in 1929, earned admission to the Calcutta Law College.
While studying law in Calcutta, Mandal supported himself by tutoring the children of Pyarimohan Das, in whose home he resided, and working as a proofreader in a local press. His years at the Calcutta Law College were particularly turbulent ones in the history of the Indian nationalist movement. Notably, the British Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald’s Communal Award was announced on the heels of the failure of various Indian representatives to resolve the minority issue at the Round-Table Conferences, and the subsequent Poona Pact was agreed upon, wherein M K Gandhi coerced B R Ambedkar into settling for joint electorates with seats reserved for the depressed classes. Mandal would no doubt have been closely following these developments; indeed, his years in the Law College and immediately thereafter were spent reflecting on what he could do to further the cause of the downtrodden. After passing the bar in 1934, he took up an apprenticeship in the Calcutta Small Causes Court under the noted advocate Chandmohan Chakrabarty, and in 1936 became a practicing lawyer in the same court. Before long, however, Mandal returned to his native Barisal, and joined the district court.
His return to the mofussil was motivated by a desire to more closely serve the interests of his community. Mandal’s practice of undertaking cases for agriculturalists free of cost caught the attention of his colleagues, many of whom were far from pleased with the precedent he was setting. At the same time, this earned him the goodwill of his clients, and his reputation spread quickly among a local peasantry racked with debt. This surge in popularity enabled his election to the Barisal Sadar Local Board and, later, to the Barisal District Board from Gournadi thana, developments that further irritated his detractors. Mandal would later turn down the overwhelming support for his candidacy as vice-chairman of the district board from among both Hindu and Muslim notables of the area. It was in this context of his mass district-wide appeal that he was catapulted into his formal political career.
In 1937, Mandal was the sole Scheduled Caste representative in the first elections to the newly constituted provincial assemblies to be elected to a general seat – so convincing was his support from the Scheduled Castes, and a not insignificant number of caste Hindu voters of his constituency in northeast Barisal. He had defeated Saral Kumar Datta, nephew and inheritor of the renowned nationalist Aswini Kumar Datta’s legacy, despite one other caste Hindu candidate retracting his candidature. As an independent-elect, Mandal sat in opposition to the first A K Fazlul Huq-led ministry that headed the partially devolved government, on many occasions criticising the coalition for insufficient action taken on measures for primary education, rural credit, the representation of Scheduled Castes in various government bodies, and facilities for the Scheduled Castes’ education. He eventually emerged to become one of the prominent leaders of the Independent Scheduled Castes Party, a pressure group within the legislative assembly, and became its secretary.
Significantly, Mandal also associated with the Bose brothers, Sarat and Subhas. The two were positioned within the left wing of the extant Bengal provincial as well as national Congress, Subhas even supporting Mandal’s successful 1940 bid for election to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation. This connection was abruptly interrupted, however, following the younger Bose’s ideological impasse with Gandhi over the direction of the Congress, his subsequent ejection and highly controversial departure from India, and the elder’s consequent imprisonment.
Mandal soon thereafter identified with B R Ambedkar’s politics, indicating a significant shift in his ideological position, meeting with him several times in the early 1940s. He would found and assume leadership of the Bengal branch of Ambedkar’s All-India Scheduled Caste Federation in 1943. The same year, he was chosen to the Muslim League and the Khwaja Nazimuddin-led coalition cabinet as minister of co-operative credit and rural indebtedness. The cabinet represented a culmination of the notion of Scheduled Caste and Muslim representatives working in concert, an ideal grounded in the political economy of Bengal. These were, however, far from ordinary times – not only was there a famine in the land they governed, but the impending demise of the British rule and resulting independence dominated political activity. In such an entirely exceptional context, Mandal undertook initiatives and adopted positions that clearly demonstrated his commitment to the interests of the peasantry and Scheduled Castes, as well as his antagonism towards the caste Hindu communalism of Congress and Hindu Mahasabha politics.
Perhaps most significantly, in 1946 Mandal was able to orchestrate support in Bengal for Ambedkar’s election to the Constituent Assembly, as the latter’s attempt from his home constituency in the Bombay presidency had been foiled. This is an episode that is largely unknown and underappreciated. Indeed, it would not be unfair to claim that Mandal created the conditions for Ambedkar to undertake the work of far-reaching consequence that he would later accomplish in the writing of the Constitution of India. Only an anachronistic view undoes the significance of the event, on account of Ambedkar’s subsequent decision to work with the Congress.
The same year, Mandal was the sole candidate elected from the general election on the Scheduled Caste Federation platform, becoming minister of the legislative department in H S Suhrawardy’s cabinet. His decision to stay on in the cabinet after the August riots in Calcutta earned him severe public disapprobation and ire, including denunciations from other Scheduled Caste leaders. Mandal had replied by requesting the Scheduled Castes to remain aloof from the communal riots in Bengal, as they only served the interests of caste Hindus and Muslims; he also held the Congress and Mahasabha responsible for exciting the Scheduled Castes against the Muslims. His response and appeals, however, were not published by the mainstream Hindu press.
It was in this context that M A Jinnah nominated him in charge of the Department of Law, as one of the Muslim League’s choices for the interim government of India – a position that he held, albeit briefly. Along with Sarat Chandra Bose, H S Suhrawardy and others, Mandal had opposed the partition of Bengal for, among several reasons, the devastating impact it would wreak on the province’s Scheduled Caste communities and their political organisation. But the ‘united Bengal’ proposal they tabled had few takers. With Partition, Mandal’s deepest fears were realised – the vivisection of the Scheduled Caste community. They thus faced an intractable dilemma: in West Bengal, they would be subject to a predominantly caste Hindu governance; in East Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim one.
As Mandal’s home constituency was located in what would be East Pakistan, he joined the Government of Pakistan, delivering the inaugural address to the newly constituted Constituent Assembly and assuming his position as minister of law and labour. In these offices, his efforts were primarily directed towards the protection of minorities, Scheduled Castes and labour organisations. But Mandal’s expectations that Pakistan would be a country in which minorities would be able to live in security, with all guarantees of social welfare, were soon sorely disappointed. In the context of the mutual bloodletting that accompanied the first few years of independent West Bengal and East Pakistan, he resigned his ministerial positions and returned to Calcutta in 1950, a defeated man.
Mandal would never again assume public office, even though he tried to win election to the West Bengal legislative assembly several times using various political platforms, including the Congress, which he had for so long vociferously criticised. His resignation from the Government of Pakistan was a highly publicised affair in both countries, interpreted by many as evidence of the failure of his political vision. Thereafter, he took up residence in a decrepit apartment – hardly, one would say, befitting a leader of his stature.
Before long, Mandal became wholly embroiled in the politics of rehabilitating the refugees who had been migrating to West Bengal in fits and starts from East Pakistan, travelling from one refugee camp to the next, leading demonstrations in Calcutta and pressing demands (amongst others) upon the government that these refugees not be relocated to regions outside West Bengal. The government had been doing this on the plea of there being insufficient land in the state for their rehabilitation. Initially, he joined forces with the Communist Party’s United Central Refugee Council, the largest body agitating on behalf of refugees – though he would eventually dissociate himself from this organisation, due to ideological and strategic differences, and instead help to convene the Eastern India Refugee Council. He was arrested on several occasions for protesting the rehabilitation policies pursued by the government.
Alongside his struggle to achieve suitable conditions for refugees from East Pakistan, who were predominantly of the Scheduled Caste communities, he also continued his activism in support of the now constitutionally mandated rights for the Scheduled Castes in India. This he engaged in as president of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes Welfare Council of West Bengal, and as provincial head of Ambedkar’s Republican Party of India. In this regard, Mandal would oppose the recommendations of the 1965 Lokur Commission, which provided for the de-scheduling of particular castes, including Namasudras and Mahars, the communities to which Mandal and Ambedkar respectively belonged.
On 5 October 1968, Mandal passed away while on an election campaign in Bongaon, 24 Paraganas, site of one of the state’s largest refugee camps. With his passing, one of the most tireless champions of the rights of the under-privileged of Bengali and Indian society – a ‘sole spokesman’ in his own right – left a legacy of social critique that remains unanswered to this day. Mandal lives on in public life, but not through the usual state-sanctioned statues or days of remembrance. There are two schools in suburban Calcutta and Kalyani, and a college in Nahata, that have adopted his name; the Jogendranath Mandal Smriti Raksha Committee (Committee for Preserving the Memory of Jogendranath Mandal) also organises annual meetings on his birthday. More recently, there have been glimpses of the resuscitation of Mandal’s vision of Scheduled Caste-Muslim political unity. Mandal was survived by his only son, Jagadishchandra, who in recent years has published several volumes on his father’s life and on issues relating to the Scheduled Castes.
The state in West Bengal, and the politics it has spawned over the decades since Mandal’s demise, has perhaps only partially answered (if that) some of the questions with which Mandal grappled over his lifetime. In these days of Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh, where political debate is hopelessly hamstrung over the supposed imperative of a particular vision of industrialisation, one wonders what Jogendranath Mandal might have had to say.
~ Dwaipayan Sen is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Chicago.