In June last year, when the politicking of the Uttar Pradesh election was just heating up, the India Policy Foundation, a Bharatiya Janata Party-affiliated think tank, organised a small event for the launch of a journal called Pakistan Watch. On stage, as the Indian Express reported, were two of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s senior-most functionaries—Dattatreya Hosabale and Manmohan Vaidya. On the subject of the journal’s first cover story, Hosabale said, “The story of J N Mandal clearly shows how Dalits were lured by the Muslim League’s politics which proved disastrous for them.” Dalits, he said, “were left with only two options—either get forcibly converted or migrate to India. Mandal’s realisation about his destiny is a great lesson.”
In the other camp, that of the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party, the same Jogendra Nath Mandal was being talked about in a very different way. As The Caravan reported in its cover story in February, to counter the BJP’s claim that BR Ambedkar was anti-Muslim, the BSP cadre held meetings with their Dalit electorate, pointing out that Ambedkar had been elected to the constituent assembly with the support of a Dalit leader of the Muslim League, Jogendra Nath Mandal. “If the Muslims had not helped Ambedkar, we would have neither got reservation nor dignity in the Indian constitution,” the story quoted a BSP worker as saying.
It’s unlikely that an average Indian today would know the name Jogendra Nath Mandal. The bare facts of Mandal’s life are thus: he was, at one point, one of the prominent Dalit leaders of Bengal, who switched over to the Muslim League and became a close associate of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. After Pakistan was formed, he served as the country’s first minister of law and labour. But after Jinnah’s death, the Liaquat Ali Khan government passed a resolution declaring Pakistan to be an Islamic republic, which Mandal had opposed. He eventually tendered his resignation from the cabinet and returned to India.
In the UP election, the BSP tried its best to forge a Muslim-Dalit alliance, which would have been a formidable electoral coalition, as together the two communities constitute almost 40 percent of Uttar Pradesh’s population. The BJP’s project of a pan-Hindu coalition, which happens to include Dalits, was naturally in conflict with the BSP’s plan. So the Mandal story became a different tool in the hands of different political parties. While the BSP portrayed Mandal’s alliance with the Muslim League as a worthy experiment, where Dalits and Muslims found common cause with each other, the BJP focussed on its outcome, which it claimed had a “great lesson” for Dalits who wished to align with Muslims. But a closer look at Mandal’s life reveals not just limitations of these simplistic readings, but also the possibilities in store for and the practical hurdles in the way of a Dalit-Muslim alliance.
To understand Mandal, one must first look at the history of the Namasudra community—into which he was born—and its struggle for social justice. The Namasudras fell outside of the four-tier Hindu caste system, and were based primarily in south-eastern Bengal. According to the historian Joya Chatterji, in the 1870s, the Chandals—a term now considered a slur—of the Bakharganj and Faridpur districts chose, on principle, not to associate with caste Hindus, took the title of “Namasudras” and declared themselves Brahmins. As many historians have argued, one of the important tools of social upliftment that the Namasudras used was education. But at the same time, finding it impossible to raise large funds for mass education of the community, they aligned themselves more with the British than with the nationalists—who at the time were mostly dominant-caste. As per the 1911 census, the group amounted to almost 45 percent of the total Hindus in the district of Bakharganj.
The alliance with Muslims, which would later be a bulwark of Mandal’s politics, was not new in this region of Bengal. The dominant-caste composition of the Swadeshi movement—an economic strategy to boycott British products—ensured that it never won the support of Muslims or oppressed-caste Hindus. In 1907, when the Swadeshi movement was gaining prominence in Bengal, Namasudras sent a deputation to Lancelot Hare, the lieutenant-governor of eastern Bengal and Assam. The Namasudra Suhrid, a prominent journal of the community, reported in its October 1907 issue about how the deputation conveyed to the British official that the community was praying for the permanency of the British rule. In 1908, when the Swadeshi movement was at its peak, Tagore pointed out in an article to the Bengali-language journal Prabashi how a boycott of British salt and textiles by the Swadeshi activists met with a rather tepid response in Bakharganj. “According to a reliable source,” Tagore wrote, “despite the fact that karkachlaban”—sea-salt produced in India—“has become cheaper than imported rock salt, the Muslims who are known to our informant use the imported one at a price. He says that the local Muslims use imported cloth and salt not in consideration of loss and gain but solely out of their sense of honour. The information has come to us that the same tendency is also observed among the Namasudras.”
Mandal was born in 1904 in the Barisal district—now in Bangladesh—of Bengal. Though very little is known of his early life, his political career started in 1937, when he stood as an independent for the Bengal legislative assembly from the Bakharganj North East Rural Constituency. He was up against Saral Kumar Dutta, the president of the district committee of the Congress and nephew of the Swadeshi leader and educationist Ashwini Kumar Dutta. Although Mandal expected to lose the election, he ended up winning by a healthy margin. In the late 1930s, Mandal came heavily under the influence of both the nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose and his elder brother, Sarat Chandra Bose. In fact, Mandal’s tilt towards the Congress during this time was largely due to the patronage that the Bose brothers gave him.
In 1940, Subhas Chandra Bose was expelled from the Congress, and Mandal completely lost faith in the party. Since the Congress and the Muslim League were the only two large national parties, the Muslim League was a natural choice for Mandal. Around this period, seeing the need for a self-sufficient Scheduled-Caste political outfit, in association with Ambedkar, he formed the Bengal branch of the Scheduled Castes Federation. At this time, the Hindu Mahasabha, an ideological ancestor of the BJP, too began to expand its social base rapidly and, as documented by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, they managed to wean a large section of the Namasudras towards themselves.
In a paper published in the Indian Economic and Social History Review, the historian Dwaipayan Sen has argued that during those chaotic years immediately preceding Independence, Mandal’s political choices offered an important critique of the communal terms in which both the Congress and the Muslim League approached Partition. The mid 1940s was a relatively short period in the political history of Bengal when governmental power was wielded by representatives belonging to two of the most socio-economically disadvantaged communities—Dalits and Muslims. Mandal was a minister in the cabinet of the Muslim League chief minister, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy.
In August 1946, the Muslim League—fearing that if the British pulled out, Muslims would suffer in an undivided Hindu-majority nation—declared 16 August “Direct Action Day” to protest the Congress’s rejection of its demand that the subcontinent be divided. The day saw large-scale communal riots between Hindus and Muslims. Mandal toured East Bengal during the time, urging calm in the violence-torn region. He stressed that this was not a battle between Dalits and Muslims, and that these riots were nothing but products of the political battles between the Congress and the Muslim League. He urged Dalits to remain neutral. In various editorials published in the Bengali-language journal Jagaran, he again emphasised that neither Dalits nor Muslims stood to gain from this violence. The only ones who did were caste Hindus, who were marshalling Dalits against Muslims in the name of Hinduism. But in the aftermath, both the Congress and the Mahasabha directly blamed Mandal for the massacre. A favourite epithet used to describe him then was “Jogen-Ali-Mullah,” and many Dalit leaders too distanced themselves from him, demanding his immediate resignation from the Suhrawardy ministry. But Mandal chose to stay in the Muslim League.
After Partition, though Mandal was awarded a ministry in Pakistan, he was not happy with how his community was being treated in the country. His resignation letter, dated 8 October 1950, was addressed to the prime minister of Pakistan, and is selectively quoted by Pakistan Watch in its cover story. In it, Mandal points out that, months after the Direct Action Day riots in 1946, in Noakhali, in eastern Bengal, many Hindus, “including Scheduled Castes were killed and hundreds were converted to Islam. Hindu women were raped and abducted. Members of my community also suffered loss of life and property. Immediately after these happenings, I visited Tipperah and Feni and saw some riot-affected areas. The terrible sufferings of Hindus overwhelmed me with grief, but still I continued the policy of co-operation with the Muslim League.” But in post-Partition Pakistan, as Mandal chronicles in this letter, “Islam is being offered as the sovereign remedy for all earthly evils. In that grand setting of the Shariat Muslims alone are rulers while Hindus and other minorities are zimmies”—a non-Muslim in an Islamic state who pays a capitation tax for her protection—“who are entitled to protection at price, and you know more than anybody else Mr. Prime Minister, what that price is.” He concludes the letter by saying that he can “no longer afford to carry this load of false pretensions and untruth,” and for the sake of his conscience he has decided to tender his resignation.
While this document helps the BJP’s argument against the idea of a Dalit-Muslim alliance, the party’s view of Mandal’s life is wilfully blinkered, to say the least. In the same resignation letter, Mandal also writes that the reason behind him shifting his allegiances to the Muslim League was because he thought that “the economic interests of the Muslims in Bengal were generally identical with those of the Scheduled Castes.” In the letter, Mandal also points out that he is “persuaded that my co-operation with the League and its Ministry would lead to the undertaking on a wide scale of legislative and administrative measures which, while promoting the mutual welfare of the vast bulk of Bengal’s population, and undermining the foundations of vested interest and privilege, would further the cause of communal peace and harmony.”
The prospect of a realisation of this vision has been spooking the BJP for some time now. For instance, last year, responding to the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi’s broad hints on supporting Mayawati in UP and helping cobble up a large Dalit-Muslim alliance, the RSS mouthpiece The Organiser ran a series of articles repudiating that such a move is even in the interest of Dalits. In one piece, titled “The Unviable Alliance,” published shortly after the suicide of the Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, the author claims how it was evident from Rohith’s Facebook wall that he was being drawn to Owaisi’s party. The author goes on to point out that this strategy of trying to bring Dalits and Muslims onto a common platform is nothing but a ploy to “create confusion among the Scheduled caste Hindus, to make them believe that they have been very close to Muslims from centuries.” The evidence the author marshals to refute this is the story of Jogendra Nath Mandal.
Since the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly-election results, many commentators have argued that the BJP has finally cracked the caste question. The Hindu nationalist party was successful in wooing non-Jatav Dalits, drawing them away from the BSP. Mayawati also failed to consolidate the Muslim vote, which ended up being divided among a number of parties, leading to a complete failure of her Dalit-Muslim project. For the moment, the Hindutva interpretation of the Mandal story seems to have prevailed.
But going by the RSS ideologues’ responses to Mandal, and their attempts to saffronise him, it is clear that the idea of a Dalit-Muslim alliance is still something the BJP feels insecure about. The complicated ways in which Mandal navigated the heady political waters of Bengal during those pre-Partition years show the radical potential of what such an alliance can bring forth.
Arnav Das Sharma is an independent writer based in Delhi. He is currently a doctoral fellow in the department of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics. His debut novel, Darklands, will be published by Penguin Random House during the fall of 2017.