From either side of the India-Pakistan border, Bhim Rao Ambedkar and Jogendra Nath Mandal are two of the most prominent Dalit leaders. And the lives of both legal stalwarts had a similar trajectory. Navigating a casteist society and facing humiliations at each step, the ‘political’ journey of India and Pakistan’s first law ministers culminated in both resigning from their respective cabinets – J.N. Mandal from Pakistan PM Liaquat Ali Khan’s cabinet on 8 October 1950; and B.R. Ambedkar from PM Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet on 27 September 1951.
And the reasons for their resignations is pertinent today in the wake of the debate around the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the politics of Dalit-Muslim coalition propounded by leaders like Chandrashekhar Azad, and the troubles of Dalits in the face of Islamic and Hindu fundamentalism. But it is also important to look into Mandal’s decision because of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s sustained campaign to use it to push its own divisive agenda.
Remembering J.N Mandal, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had in April 2019 equated him with Ambedkar and Jagjivan Ram but only to take a swipe at the Congress, alleging it had always disrespected ‘great leaders’ from ‘backward’ caste.
Today, when India is swept by a movement against the Modi government’s discriminatory citizenship law, and when calls for a Dalit-Muslim unity is louder than ever, the BJP is repeatedly turning to Mandal to bolster its divisive claim of Hindu persecution in Muslim-majority Pakistan.
The idea is not lost on anyone that the main agenda of the BJP, and of its ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is to drive a wedge between India’s Muslims and Dalits.
Consider these instances. While defending the CAA, former Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh recently said that J.N. Mandal “had to leave Pakistan and take shelter in a refugee camp in West Bengal where he died” for raising the “issue of atrocities on minorities”. Union Minister Smriti Irani said despite being the first law minister of Pakistan, Mandal was booed out and forced to take refuge in India. BJP’s IT cell in-charge Amit Malviya also used Mandal’s name to tell everyone “If this is what happened to a high ranking public official (in Pakistan), imagine the plight of normal people…”.
The RSS has been slightly clearer in laying out why the Indian public must be repeatedly told “the story of J.N. Mandal”, which according to top RSS leader Dattatreya Hosabale, “clearly shows how Dalits were lured by the Muslim League’s politics which proved disastrous for them”. “They were left with only two options — either get forcibly converted or migrate to India. Mandal’s realisation about his destiny is a great lesson,” Hosabale had said at a function in June 2016, where RSS ideologue Rakesh Sinha had asserted in no uncertain terms: “Dalit-Muslim unity is impossible.”
With such sustained invocation of J.N Mandal, the BJP and the RSS want to achieve mainly four things:
- They want to establish that Dalit-Muslim unity is a myth, and any such associationwill prove disastrous for Dalits.
- They want to show why the CAA is necessary –because Muslims have persecuted Hindus – especially Dalits – in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.
- They want India’s Dalits to support the CAA because the law will give citizenship to fellow Dalits.
- Also, the BJP seeks to wean Dalits away from leaders like Mayawati, Chandrashekhar Azad, Prakash Ambedkar and Jignesh Mevani, all of whom oppose the CAA.
So, is the BJP lying? Or is it simply cherry-picking some historical facts that further polarises Hindus and Muslims?
Mandal’s letter of resignation
It’s true that Pakistan failed Jogendra Nath Mandal, who took a considered decision to stay there for mainly two reasons. First, Muslims and Dalits in eastern Pakistan are a lot similar and Mandal believed they could have a shared future. Second, there was nothing about Indian society to inspire confidence that Dalits in Hindu-dominated India won’t continue to face caste discrimination. So, he considered it was better if Bengali-speaking Dalits stayed in their birthplace.
History proved his first hypothesis wrong, which is tragic. It brought miseries to lakhs of Dalits in Pakistan who might have escaped this fate had Mandal taken a different decision.
In his resignation letter to PM Liaquat Ali Khan, Mandal explained why he became disillusioned with the idea of Pakistan. He listed the unfulfilled promises made to him prior to his decision to remain in Pakistan. He cited the cases of atrocities against Dalits and the involvement of Pakistani establishment in them. He also noted that Eastern Pakistan had been turned into a colony of West Pakistan and many Muslim leaders of North-West and Eastern Pakistan, like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, and A.K. Fazlul Huq were either in detention without trials or in misery.
He wrote: “When I am convinced that my continuance in office in the Pakistan Central Government is not of any help to Hindus I should not with a clear conscience, create the false impression in the minds of the Hindus of Pakistan and peoples abroad that Hindus can live there with honour and with a sense of security in respect of their life, property and religion.”
India proved Mandal right
But J.N. Mandal’s second reason for staying in Pakistan – that Dalits will be discriminated by Hindus (the term was used for caste Hindus) in India – ultimately proved to be true. Anyone not ready to accept this only needs to look at human development indicators, number of people who have died cleaning toxic sewers, cases of atrocities against Dalits, data released by National Crime Records Bureau, or take a quick glance at the upper echelons of all power centres in the country – bureaucracy, higher judiciary, media, corporate sector, academics – to find out who holds the top positions.
There might not have been mass persecution of Dalits that J.N Mandal witnessed in Pakistan, but the discrimination against Dalits in India at societal, economic, and institutional levels has been nothing short of a tragedy. And India’s ‘collective conscience’ has not even begun to acknowledge it, let alone make amends to undo the damage it has caused to the lives and psyche of millions of people.
B.R. Ambedkar was able to sense what lay ahead for Dalits in the ‘upper’ caste-ruled Hindu-dominated India at an early stage. In his resignation letter, Ambedkar scathingly wrote: “What is the Scheduled Castes today? So far as I see, it is the same as before. The same old tyranny, the same old oppression, the same old discrimination which existed before, exists now, and perhaps in a worst form.”
He goes on to write: “I can refer to hundreds of cases where people from the Scheduled Castes… have come to me with their tales of woes against the Caste Hindus and against the Police who have refused to register their complaints and render them any help. I have been wondering whether there is any other parallel in the world to the condition of Scheduled Castes in India. I cannot find any.”
Ambedkar, like J.N. Mandal, left Nehru’s cabinet a disillusioned man. He listed some of the important promises that had not been met. Nehru’s cabinet had failed to constitute the backward classes commission. The Congress scuttled Hindu Code Bill prepared by Ambedkar. For him, the Hindu Code was “the greatest social reform measure ever undertaken by the legislature in this country. No law passed by the Indian Legislature in the past or likely to be passed in the future can be compared to it in point of its significance”.
“To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex, which is the soul of Hindu Society untouched and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap,” Ambedkar wrote in his letter.
We should be thankful to J.N Mandal, though. If it wasn’t for him, B.R. Ambedkar would not have made it to the Constituent Assembly. The Congress and caste Hindus had ensured that Ambedkar was not elected from Maharashtra. It finally fell upon Mandal, who got Ambedkar elected from Bengal.
Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.
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