Jogendra Nath Mandal’s relentless struggle for the rights of the historically deprived

It was amid the socio-cultural struggles initiated by the Matua religion that Jogendra Nath Mandal was born. He went on to secure a place for Ambedkar in India’s Constituent Assembly and spend a lifetime fighting for the rights of the downtrodden and minorities in India and Pakistan, writes Devendra Sharan

Jogendra Nath Mandal was born on 29 February 1904 into a poor Namasudra (Dalit) family in Maistarkandi village of Barisal district in undivided Bengal. At the time, the Namasudras were addressed as Chandals. Harichand Thakur, founder of Matua religion, and his son Guruchand Thakur, are credited with bringing about cultural and social consciousness among the Chandals. Harichand Thakur believed that societal inequality was rooted in the exploitative nature of the Hindu religion. During the famine of 1876, lakhs of Untouchables succumbed to starvation. The landlords and the savarna Hindus all over were invoking religion to oppress the Untouchables so that they remain perpetually enslaved. They would tell the Untouchables that the Chaturvarnya system was in keeping with divine diktats. Cruelty and exploitation were justified as being religiously ordained. At the same time, the British government and the clerical fanaticism of Muslims were also heaping misery on the Untouchables. It was against this backdrop that in 1830, Harichand Thakur founded the Matua religion based on egalitarianism.    

The Matua religion called for a boycott of Brahmanism and upheld the values of freedom, equality and brotherhood. It urged its followers to respect their parents and families, shun rituals and tread the path of truth. 

Jeeve daya, name rupi, manushete mishtha
Iha chaada aarjan sab kriya bhrasht

(Humans must have compassion for living beings. Barring this, all else is hypocrisy)

Harichand Thakur and his son Guruchand laid emphasis on the Untouchables organizing and even more importantly, educating themselves. In 1880, Guruchand started a school in his house to educate the Untouchables. He wrote: 

Bachi kigamba mori tate khati nayi
Grame-grame pathshala gade tola chaee

(Whether we live or die every village must have a school) 

Tayibali bhai mukti jadi chaee vidhan haile habe
Pele vidyadhan dookh nivaran chir sukhi have bhave

(If you want freedom from poverty and misery, if you want to be happy, education is necessary).

Guruchand Thakur established a total of 1,096 schools and colleges for Dalits as well as for the backward castes and women. This is counted as among the biggest achievements of the Dalit movement in Bengal.

The Chandals decided to go on strike. They said they would not till the fields of the upper castes and thatch the roofs of their houses. This was a protest against the atrocities committed by the upper castes. According to historical records, the strike lasted for 4-5 months. 

Guruchand Thakur was not happy about people of his caste being addressed as Chandals. The Manuvadis of Bengal had deliberately referred to the Untouchables as Chandals in government records. Guruchand waged a long struggle against the British government to secure a respectable name for his community. Ultimately, in the Census of 1911, the community was referred to as Namasudra. 

Historians often write about Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and other Bhadralok heroes of Bengal as the leaders of Indian renaissance. They ignore the powerful Matua movement that brought about cultural and educational awakening among the Untouchables, women and backward communities. 

It was amid these socio-cultural struggles that Jogendra Nath Mandal was born. His parents were poor but understood the importance of education. He was admitted to the primary school in the village and later to the middle school at Barthitara Institute, about 2 km away. In his book Mahapran Jogendranath Mandal: Jeevan Aur Vichar, Sheelipriya Bauddha writes that Mandal was a brilliant and inquisitive student. He felt deeply hurt by the way his savarna classmates behaved with him. Complaining to the teachers yielded nothing as they too were steeped in casteist biases. Mandal could not understand why Brahmins should have all the privileges and why wearing the sacred thread made them superior. Whether it was housewarming or consecration of idols in temples, whether it was a wedding or a funeral, nothing could be done without the Brahmins. Why should Brahmins be placed on a higher pedestal? Why does the social order give Brahmins the status of gods and reduce Shudras to servitude?  

For further education, he enrolled in a college. But financial constraints came in the way. His uncle then volunteered to bear half of the expenses on his education. Mandal passed his BA examination with Sanskrit and Mathematics as his subjects from the Brajmohan College in Barisal. 

Meanwhile, in 1926, he married Kamla Devi, daughter of Prahladchandra of Khajbadi village (which came under the Gaur Nadu police station), Barisal. After marriage, Mandal wanted to study further. This time, his father-in-law agreed to provide the necessary finances. 

Legal practice in service of the downtrodden 

Mandal passed his LLB examination in 1934 and moved to Calcutta the following year to practice law there. But as he could not fulfil his desire of serving the common man in Calcutta, he returned to Barisal and began practising at the district sessions court. During this period, he got the opportunity to closely observe the various problems plaguing his community. He saw how the Untouchables and the Backwards were being exploited. He decided to join politics to provide succour to them. 

In 1935, the Bengal Legislative Council came into existence under the Government of India Act 1935. Mandal filed his nomination for elections to the Council from Makadganj Northeast constituency. Votes were cast on 6 January 1936 and he was declared the winner with a margin of 1,416 votes. A Namasudra candidate winning from an unreserved seat was unheard of at the time. 

Jogendra Nath Mandal (29 January 1904 – 5 October 1968)

Mandal’s term as an MLA was very productive. His initiatives for the welfare of the people led to schools for Dalits, recruitments to the police department, appointment of Dalit officials, scholarships and hostels for students and construction of canals for farmers.  

At the time, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was in charge of the Bengal chapter of the Congress party. Netaji was very impressed with the pro-people initiatives of Mandal. In 1940, Netaji quit the Congress and founded the All India Forward Bloc. As the leader of the new party, Netaji also visited Barisal. He appreciated Mandal. The relations between the two remained very cordial. After his disillusionment with the Congress, Mandal launched the Swatantra Anusuchit Jati Party in 1938. 

In 1941, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League joined hands to form the Shyama-Huq government in Bengal. Syama Prasad Mukherjee and A.K. Fazlul Huq jointly picked the council of ministers. Starting in August 1942, people from across the country enthusiastically took part in the Quit India Movement but Mukherjee opposed it. According to Leaves From a Diary (Oxford University Press) by Syama Prasad Mukherjee and an article by historian Sumit Guha published in The Indian Express dated 17 August 1992, Mukherjee not only opposed the Quit India Movement but also wrote to the then governor suggesting ways to deal effectively with the movement. On 28 March 1943, Huq resigned from the government and requested the Governor to dismiss the council of ministers. 

With Mandal’s help, the government led by Khawaja Nazimuddin was formed on 24 April 1943. It had six Hindu and three Dalit ministers. Mandal was made minister of cooperatives and rural debts. As a minister, he took many steps for the education and employment of the Dalits. 

Mandal launched a magazine on 1 June 1943 called Jagran Patrika for raising awareness among Dalits and spreading education among them. A two-storied house, 92/1/2, Sitaram Ghosh Street, in the Machli Bazar area of Kolkata was designated as the office of the magazine. After the Partition in 1947, the office was moved to Dhaka. The magazine ceased publication in 1950 after Mandal left for Pakistan. 

Dr Ambedkar founded the All India Scheduled Castes Federation to address the issues of Dalits and labourers and workers in the unorganized sector. An all-India meeting of the federation was convened in Delhi on 30-31 March 1942. Mukund Bihari Malik, R.L. Biswas and Jogendra Nath Mandal took part in the meeting as representatives of Bengal.

Mandal is remembered for the pivotal role he played in sending Dr Ambedkar to the Constituent Assembly. The Congress, on the other hand, tried its utmost to block Ambedkar’s entry into the House. The Constituent Assembly was to draw up the Constitution of free India and Sardar Patel had gone to the extent of saying that “I have shut not only the doors and the windows but also the ventilators of the Constituent Assembly. Let me see how Ambedkar gets in.” 

Mandal was busy looking for a way to get Ambedkar elected to the Constituent Assembly. The assembly had 296 members, of which 39 were Dalits. All of them were elected by the provincial legislatures. The legislature of Ambedkar’s home state, the Bombay Presidency, didn’t elect him. Ambedkar lost the election but did not give up. He travelled to Calcutta and tried to mobilize the support of the members of the Bengal Legislative Council. But his efforts proved futile and he returned to Delhi. 

Mandal was very impressed by the writings and scholarship of Ambedkar and his unflinching commitment to the Dalit cause. When Mandal, who was a member of the Bengal Legislative Council, came to know that Ambedkar had failed to get elected to the Constituent Assembly, he mobilized fellow MLCs and invited him to contest from the Jaisore-Khulna constituency in Bengal. 

Ambedkar won the polls with the help of Mandal, thus paving the way for his entry into the Constituent Assembly. The inaugural session of the assembly was held on 9 December 1946. On 13 December, Jawaharlal Nehru presented an “Objectives Resolution” before the Assembly, laying down what would be the underlying principles of the Constitution. He declared that India will be an “Independent Sovereign Republic”. On December 17, Rajendra Prasad, the pro tem chairman of the Assembly, asked Dr Ambedkar to present his views before the House. Ambedkar’s maiden speech impressed Nehru.  

On 4 July 1947, the Indian Independence Bill was presented in the British Parliament. It was passed on 15 July 1947. Given its demographic composition, the Jaisore-Khulna constituency, located in East Bengal, became a part of Pakistan. Accordingly, after the Partition, Dr Ambedkar lost his membership of the Constituent Assembly. In view of Ambedkar’s scholarship and his excellent grasp of legal matters, Rajendra Prasad and Nehru were convinced that they had to get him re-elected. Ambedkar was re-elected against the vacancy caused by the resignation of M.R. Jayakar. 

The British had decided to leave India in 1946 and had initiated the process of handing over the reins of the government to the Indian leadership. On 2 September 1946, an interim government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru was formed. At the time, the Pakistan had yet to be carved out but communal riots had begun erupting in different parts of the country. Initially, the Muslim League did not join the interim government. With the mediation of Viceroy Wavell, the Muslim League, too, became part of the government. Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram was appointed the Labour Minister in the interim government. He was the nominee of the Congress. Jogendra Nath Mandal was named the Law Minister as a nominee of the Muslim League. The interim government lasted till 15 August 1947.

The Congress wanted to induct Maulana Azad into the ministry but Jinnah opposed it and proposed the name of Mandal, a Dalit Hindu, as its representative in the interim government. Wavell bowed to the insistence of Jinnah. 

Mandal was in touch with the Congress. But after Subhash Chandra Bose quit the Congress, he had sided with Bose. Along with Subhash Chandra Bose’s elder brother Sharat Chandra Bose and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Mandal opposed the Partition and demanded a composite Bengal nation. The British government rejected this demand. During his term as a minister in the interim government, Mandal openly opposed the partition of India. He convened a press conference in Delhi on 22 April 1947, in which he elaborated on the reasons for his opposition. Before announcing the Partition, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League held parleys with Lord Mountbatten. Sikh leader Baldev Singh was also consulted. Finally, on 3 June 1947, Nehru announced on All India Radio, “We have accepted the proposal of the British government and have sent it for approval to our highest body.” Besides Nehru, Mountbatten, Jinnah and Baldev Singh also addressed the nation on radio. Nehru ended his speech with “Jai Hind” and Jinnah with “Pakistan Zindabad”. 

The Dalit question arose again after the Partition. Before leaving for Karachi, Pakistan, Mandal sent a telegram to Ambedkar asking him whether he should be part of the Muslim League government of Pakistan. 

Dr Shankaranand Shastri writes, “Babasaheb did not reply to Mandal’s telegram.” At the time, Shastri was staying with Babasaheb Ambedkar at Tilak Marg, Delhi. Ambedkar had told Shastri, “Mandal should not join the Muslim League ministry. The Muslims are no lovers of Dalits. Their behaviour with the Dalits is as full of hatred as that of the brahmanical Hindus.”

Mandal left for Karachi on 5 August 1947 from the Old Delhi Railway Station and arrived in Karachi the following day. However, the fact that he asked Ambedkar whether he should join Jinnah’s government shows that he was ambivalent about moving to Pakistan. 

Jinnah was a shrewd and mature politician. On 9 August 1947, he threw a dinner for his ministers at a hotel in Karachi. Liaquat Ali Khan, who was sitting by the side of Jinnah, asked Mandal, “Will you preside over the first session of the Constituent Assembly?” Mandal didn’t respond. At the end of the dinner, Liaquat Ali told Mandal that he would be chairing the first meeting of Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly in accordance with Jinnah’s wish. 

On the following day, 10 August, Mandal expressed his gratitude for being named as the pro tem president of the Pakistan Constituent Assembly. In his speech, he expressed the hope that Pakistan would become a happy and prosperous nation and said he felt that under Jinnah’s leadership minorities would be secure.  

With Mandal as pro tem chairperson, Mohammed Ali Jinnah was appointed permanent president of the Constituent Assembly on 11 August. Addressing the Assembly, Jinnah said, “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed … that has nothing to do with the business of the State … You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship. In this state of Pakistan, all are equal citizens.”

Jinnah’s speech may have provided some solace to Mandal, who was then appointed minister of law and labour. It was not a coincidence that both in India and Pakistan, Dalit leaders were put in charge of the law ministry. Dr Ambedkar was India’s law minister at the time.

Going by what Prof Istiaq Ahmed wrote, Jinnah just wanted to show to India that Pakistan had appointed a Dalit as the law minister. It was nothing but political showmanship. That no record of Mandal’s work as minister of law is available is confirmation of this mere posturing. But some details about his work as labour minister are available. They include his initiatives for resolving the problems of workers, providing security to Hindus during communal riots, extending help to Pakistani Dalit students for their education and the constitution of a minorities board for East Bengal. As the labour minister he was to attend the 33th International Labour Council meeting at Geneva. But instead of him, Mohammed Anwar was sent to Geneva as Pakistan’s representative. This was an indication that the Pakistani leadership was waiting to clip his wings.  

In 1948, Jinnah fell ill. He was moved to Balochistan in the hope that his health would improve. But nothing came out of it. He returned to Karachi on 11 December 1948 and, the same night, succumbed to a heart attack. After Jinnah’s death, Liaquat Ali completely sidelined Mandal. He was asked to mandatorily seek prior permission from the prime minister before making any public statement in his capacity as law and labour minister. He was placed under surveillance. 

Amid all this, Mandal established the Scheduled Castes Federation in Pakistan. Here, too, Dalits were brutally oppressed. They were reduced to bonded sanitation workers. An ordinance was promulgated, prohibiting their migration to India. The reason was that if the Dalits left the country, there would be nobody to do the sanitation work. At the same time when riots or violence broke out or when it came to commiting atrocities against Hindu women, the Muslims did not differentiate between the savarnas and the Dalits. For them, a Hindu was a Hindu. Riots broke out in East and West Pakistan and Hindus were the victims. Mandal began touring the riot-hit areas. In Dhaka, 10,000 Hindus were done to death in communal riots. Many of them were Dalits. The Dalits were being forcibly converted to Islam. Hindu women were raped. Their property and livestock were looted. On 19 January 1950, Mandal wrote a letter to Prime Minister Liaquat Ali to put an immediate stop to this mayhem and violence. 

On 8 April 1950, the prime ministers of India and Pakistan signed the Nehru-Liaquat pact. Under this pact, both the countries promised to protect the life and property of their minorities and uphold the freedom of expression and religion. But how serious Pakistan was about implementing this pact is clear from the Mandal’s resignation letter dated 8 October 1950 and addressed to Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, and his decision to return to India. Mandal’s resignation letter ran into 8,000 words. 

Mandal was obviously regretting his decision to move to Pakistan. He must have realized the truth in Dr Ambedkar’s contention that Muslim brotherhood was rooted in their religion and that even they were divided into different sects like Shia, Sunni, Ahmadiya and Suhrawardiyya. They had a social hierarchy too, with the Ashrafs at the top and Arjals at the bottom. 

To push Mandal to the margins, the Pakistan government proposed a legislation providing for a minimum jail term of seven years for ministers who directly or indirectly made statements against the interests of the country. It was called the Censor Act. It seems Mandal had decided to leave Pakistan before the passage of the bill. 

The third phase of his life began in 1950 after his return to India. Many have written that Mandal spent his time in India in oblivion. According to Professor Anirban Bandopadhyaya, some upper-caste Hindus blamed Mandal for the Partition while others addressed him as “Jogen Ali Mullah”. The Pakistan government considered him a deserter. But Sanjay Gajbhiye’s well-reserached book Babasaheb Ambedkar and Mahapran Jogendranath Mandal asserts that Mandal continued to strive for and remained devoted the Dalit cause up to his death in 1968. 

After his return from Pakistan, Mandal, along with his family, began living in a rented accommodation at 64, Sadar Avenue, Calcutta. The house was in the Tollygunge area of Calcutta and had seven-eight rooms. While living there, Mandal raised the issue of the Indian refugees. At the time, Ambedkar was busy drafting the Hindu Code Bill and his health was indifferent. He often used to summon Mandal to Delhi to discuss the issues pertaining to the refugees. 

Ambedkar was also in touch with Nehru on this matter. Mandal fought many elections after his return to India but lost all of them. He also held a Satyagraha on 17 March 1958 demanding rehabilitation of the refugees.

In 1951, following the Hindu Code Bill reaching a dead end in Parliament, Ambedkar resigned from the Union Cabinet and later, in 1956, embraced Buddhism. Mandal waged a long struggle to secure reservation for Buddhist Dalits. He wrote a detailed letter to the Government of India on 14 August 1959 on this issue. Sanjay Gajbhiye has quoted from this letter in his book. 

In 1963, Mandal established the West Bengal branch of the Republican Party of India (RPI). From 1 December to 4 December 1963, he participated in district conventions of RPI in Aligarh and Agra. He inaugurated a library and a large procession was taken out in his honour. On 4 December, he addressed a massive public meeting at Aligarh. On 23 December, he spoke at well-attended public meeting of the RPI at Bulandshahr. From there, he travelled to Nashik via Delhi. He addressed a night meeting of the RPI in Nashik. From Nashik, he went to Bombay. On 3 January 1964, he travelled from Mumbai to Ahmedabad along with RPI president N. Shivraj and the party’s general secretary and Ambedkar’s son Yashwant Rao Ambedkar. He addressed the annual convention of the RPI in Ahmedabad. Next, he travelled to Akola in Maharashtra, onwards to Wardha (Gujarat) and then to Nagpur. He visited the Dikshabhumi in Nagpur on 10 December and addressed a public meeting there. Thus, in 1964-1965, he was busy mobilizing support for the RPI.  

In December 1967, he fought what would be the last election of his life. He decided to contest from the Barasat constituency as a joint candidate of the Communist Party and other opposition parties. He got immersed in canvassing. He received 84,644 votes while his Congress rival’s tally was 1,43,883. But despite losing the polls, he did not sit idle. In 1968, some workers of the RPI approached him and requested him to campaign for the party in Naogaon, Bagdah and Gaighata. Mandal was unwell but he agreed. He took a tram to Dharmtala from where he reached Sealdah and then Naogaon. He was finding it difficult to walk across the platform. The programme ended at 3am, and as he was returning home, he collapsed while crossing the hanging bridge at Motiganj. Mukund Mandal was with him. He had suffered a heart attack and passed away before medical assistance could arrive. The day was 5 October 1968. 

Thus, Mandal’s life was devoted to Dalit cause. Until his last breath, he worked tirelessly for the grown and advancement of Dalits

(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)


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