A lesser-known and underrated personality who fought for and asserted the rights of Dalits in India till his very last breath is Jogendranath Mandal. Time and again, his loyalty to India has been questioned because of his life story – that in his political career, he chose to work in cohesion with the Muslim League and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and as a result pledged allegiance to Pakistan, only to be later disillusioned about his choice. He remains a forgotten leader, despite being multidimensional in his political skills, all because he chose to shift to Pakistan as law minister.

Whether it was in education, the judiciary, the economy, politics or even cooperative bodies, Mandal always stood for adequate representation of Dalits and gave voice to their concerns and oppressions in any form he could.

It is unfortunate that his name skips mention in the biographies of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Perhaps he was the only Dalit leader to serve as a minister in the last two governments of undivided Bengal (1943-46) and the first government of Pakistan (1947-50).

Mandal was born in a Namasudra (largest lower caste of Bengal, formerly called Chandal) family on 29 January 1904, in the Maisterkandi village of the Barisal district in what was then the Bengal Presidency under British India – today’s Bangladesh. He was the youngest of six children, born to Ramdayal Mandal and Sandhyadebi. He passed his BA examinations in 1932 from BM College in Barisal. He then joined the Calcutta Law College and passed the law examination in 1934. Beyond this not much is known of Jogendranath Mandal’s early years.

Mandal, who was deeply influenced by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Sarat Chandra Bose, began his political career as an independent candidate in the Indian provincial assembly elections of 1937 by winning a general seat. He contested from Bakharganj North East Rural Constituency for a seat in the Bengal Legislative Assembly and defeated Saral Kumar Dutta, the president of the district committee of the Indian National Congress (INC).

Despite Mahatma Gandhi’s efforts to reach out to Jogendranath Mandal to join the INC, Mandal didn’t, as he found the Congress casteist. Instead, he worked to bring together the All Bengal Scheduled Castes Federation and the Calcutta Scheduled Caste League to ensure adequate representation of SCs in the legislature. It is at this stage that Mandal even proposed the reorganisation of the Independent Scheduled Castes Assembly party.

However, subsequently, in 1940, since Mandal was close to both the Bose brothers, he contested on a reserved seat as a Congress candidate in the Calcutta Municipal Corporation in 1940 and won.

In 1943, he extended support to the Nazimuddin government in Bengal and became a minister to lead key portfolios such as Co-operative Credit and Rural Indebtedness.

Another interesting fact about Mandal’s close bond with Netaji is that after Netaji was removed from the INC, Mandal began his tryst with the Muslim League. Subsequently, after Netaji formed the Forward Bloc, Mandal accompanied him on a tour when the former visited Barisal. Bose respected Mandal because of his “honeyed behaviour, unwavering determination and his singular devotion to service”, embracing him like one would a brother.

Ambedkar and Mandal’s friendship deserves mention as well. When Ambedkar established the All India Scheduled Caste Federation (AISCF), he deputed Mandal to head the Bengal Scheduled Caste Federation (BSCF). In the general election of 1946 that followed, Mandal stood on a BSCF ticket and won. He was straightaway inducted into the legislative ministry under HS Suhrawardy.

Mandal played a vital role in the framing of the Constitution as well. There were occasions when Ambedkar sought his advice through letters on matters pertaining to the framing of the Constitution. Beyond this, not much is available on the specific contributions he made.

It is relevant to note here that Mandal was instrumental in Ambedkar’s getting elected to the Constituent Assembly, thereby facilitating his political career.

It was around this time that Mandal and Ambedkar established the Bengal branch of the Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF). Ambedkar failed to win the Bombay Provincial Assembly election in 1946, but Mandal ensured he rallied enough support for Ambedkar to enter the Constituent Assembly.

In 1946, the British government proposed election of the members to the Constituent Assembly of India by members of the Provincial Assemblies. For this Ambedkar came to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to seek support from the European members of the Bengal Legislative Assembly. But the latter decided not to participate in the elections. It was then that Mandal began to rally people around to vote for Ambedkar in Bengal.

With Mandal’s efforts and reassurance, Ambedkar was elected from the state with the highest number of votes in Bengal. The Congress opposed Ambedkar’s contesting of elections, so it can be said that it was mainly because of Mandal that we had one of the finest minds in India working on our Constitution.

Although Ambedkar’s fight was against both the Congress and the Muslim League, he reaffirmed his support for Mandal, even when he was made the first law minister of Pakistan by Jinnah. Ambedkar saw Mandal’s elevation in Pakistan as a clever strategy by Jinnah to signal that even Indians were in favour of Partition, but never stopped Mandal from taking on the responsibility. In their friendship, one can discern a mutual admiration bound by the cause both of them were serving, that is Dalit-led empowerment.

Mandal used political power to reaffirm his stand in ensuring adequate representation for Dalits.

As part of the Bengal Legislative Assembly, Mandal made several key arguments in their favour. He called for the representation of Dalits in key roles in the cooperative department of Barisal and in the posts of debt settlement officers.16

One of Mandal’s debut interventions in the Bengal Assembly was on the amendments proposed during the discussions on the Bengal Tenancy Bill and, given his legal background, he posed questions to the judicial and legislative departments about the number of suits for the enhancement of rent in different courts of the Sadar subdivision of Bakarganj.

He was also committed to providing quality education for Dalits – he tried to change the Bhegai Halder Public Academy in Agailjhara, a secondary school at the time, to a higher-secondary one. Along with helping raise funds for the school, he also spread awareness on the importance of education. Mandal got government assistance for this with help from Syama Prasad Mookerjee, a towering figure in Bengal politics at the time.

History tells us that it was Ambedkar who espoused the cause of reservation for Dalits, but even before him, Mandal encouraged the idea as he felt that through reservation, representation would be guaranteed for the Dalits. This is evident in his rationale behind working with the Muslim League in Pakistan, in which he sought the inclusion of SC ministers in the Cabinet as well as an annual monetary grant for the education and representation of the SCs in government services.

Makers of Modern Dalit History

Excerpted with permission from Makers of Modern Dalit History, Sudarshan Ramabadran and Guru Prakash Paswan, Penguin Books.