Mainstream, VOL LV No 1 New Delhi December 24, 2016 - ANNUAL 2016
A memorable chapter neglected in history: Ambedkar’s Odyssey to the Constituent Assembly of India through Bengal
Monday 26 December 2016, by
“Turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform; you cannot have economic reforms unless you kill the monster.” — Dr B.R. Ambedkar,
Annihilation of Caste
The public parade of deplorable ignorance of some of the Members of Parliament from West Bengal about the election of Dr B.R. Ambedkar to the Constituent Assembly in 1946 while celebrating the first ever Constitution Day on November 26, 2015 in Parliament was shocking, if not expected. His election forms a memorable chapter, marked by tension, lawlessness and violence on the streets of Calcutta, besides illegal confinement of a supporting MLA by the opponents of Dr Ambedkar. The Indian National Congress had waged an all-out war, turning the whole of India against his entry into the august House that was to draft the future Constitution of the free nation. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, to cite one specific instance, led the charge against Ambedkar by publicly proclaiming that “apart from the doors, even the windows of the Constituent Assembly are closed for Dr Ambedkar. Let us see how he enters into the Constituent Assembly.”
This was both a formidable challenge as well as a fearful threat to the fate and fortune of 60 million untouchables. The Congress Party, then in session at Bombay, fielded its most trusted hand, Kiran Shankar Roy, to frustrate all efforts of Ambedkar for victory from Bengal. This exemplifies the bhadralok’s abomination against Ambedkar who articulated the aspirations and interests of the underprivileged in the public domain.
The inherent significance of the proverb “pride goes before a fall” did not take time to manifest itself. The Scheduled Castes of Bengal inflicted a humiliating defeat on the “iron man of India” and the Congrss. In all, seven Members of the Legislative Council of Bengal—four Namasudra, two Rajbanshi and one tribal—created the history that the glib intelligentsia shied away to record. In plain words this perhaps exposed the shallow knowledge of the parliamentarians from West Bengal about the Father of the Indian Constitution. In a rare display of political sagacity, determination and commitment, Jogendra Nath Mandal (1904-1968), a Namasudra lawyer from the district of Barisal (now in Bangladesh), then 42 years old, invited Dr Ambedkar to contest the election to the Constituent Assembly from the Jessore-Khulna constituency in Eastern Bengal when his political fate was sealed in his native province. Mandal was the solitary Member of the Legislative Council of the Scheduled Caste Federation (SFC) established by Dr Ambedkar.
Dr Ambedkar had earned unmixed aversion and hatred of the entrenched upper social strata by then through his intelligence, scholarship and research reflected in his innumerable writings. They not only felt deeply embittered and dismayed but were rendered defenseless also to counter his scholarly enunciation of sociopolitical thoughts and administrative issues. All his works that the Hindus hated were already available in public forum in print. Ambedkar had dissected caste, its social ramification and significance like a skilled surgeon, pinpointed their orthodoxy and morbidity and shaken up their belief in the pernicious chaturvarnavyavastha, ridiculed their belief in transmigration, their gods and avatars including Rama, Krishna etc. His pen did not spare Gandhiji, their avatar, who nonetheless observed that: “Dr Ambedkar has every right to be bitter. That he does not break our heads is an act of self-restraint on his part.” Even his bitterest enemy will admit that Ambedkar did not use an illogical argument, launched any immoral attack or uttered an undignified word against his opponents, a rare quality in political class. His forte was always sound logic, facts and information, weighty argument, and liberal outlook. He hated and attacked orthodoxy, superstitious outlook and morbid rituals.
The Constituent Assembly had 296 members—including 31 reserved for Scheduled Castes—elected by Provincial Legislative Assemblies. The Bombay Presidency, Ambedkar’s home province, turned against him. Propelled by prejudice and vengeance, the Bombay Congress Premier, B.G. Khare, ensured his defeat in the election to the Constituent Assembly. The Cripps Mission brushed aside the Scheduled Caste Federation of Ambedkar as a represen-tative body of the untouchables. According to Dr David Keane of the Middlesex University, UK, the Cabinet Mission, on the request of the Congress President in 1946, “met the Congress Scheduled Caste representatives including Jagjivan Ram” who emphasised that “the Scheduled Caste masses considered themselves as Hindus and their main disabilities were not religious or social but economic with which the Cabinet Mission agreed”.1 Sinister though, this was and is the sweetest music that Hindu India wants to listen from the untouchables. Such paeans established the oppressors and tormentors of the untouchables as their “heaven-born leaders”2 and exclusive patrons. This was contrary to the position Dr Ambedkar adopted: social disabilities were the source of all miseries of the untouchables.
The crux of the problems of the Scheduled Caste representatives either in Assemblies or Parliament arose (still arises) from their mindless submission to subserve upper-caste Hindu interests. The bitter realisation of his irredeemable follies dawned on ‘Babuji’, as Jagjivan Ram was fondly referred to, in the dusk of his career—that social disabilities were the curse of the untouchables. A wealthy untouchable is as much hated as a poor one because caste is the Hindu’s religion.
Election of Ambedkar from Jessore-Khulna Constituency of Eastern Bengal
Dr Ambedkar had visited Calcutta for soliciting support of the European Members of the Bengal Legislative Council, but they, sadly, had already resolved not only to not participate in the election but also not support any candidate in the election. Deeply disillusioned, he returned to Delhi. At this critical juncture, Jogendra Nath Mandal invited Ambedkar to contest the election from Bengal. The elections were due in just three weeks when Ambedkar reached Calcutta! Mandal had proposed Dr Ambedkar’s candi-dature which was seconded by the Congress MLC, Gayanath Biswas. Both were Namasudras.
The Namasudra leader, Mandal, had a history of long, uninterrupted humiliation, exploitation, injustice and caste hatred suffered by his people at the back of his mind in inviting Ambedkar to Bengal for contesting the election. About 73 years ago in 1873, we may note, the Chandals (who in 1911 were re-designated as Namasudras) of Faridpur, Barisal and Jessore had observed the first ever peaceful and non-violent move-ment, which was till then unknown to India, in protest against the low social status in which they were held by the upper castes. Their movement, officially described as ‘general strike’, was a “novel state of affairs” which paralysed the normal life of the 5.5 million population in those districts. A Chandal villager, rich and influential, of Barisal in January-February, 1872 had invited 10,000 guests, including Brahmans, Baidyas and Kayasthas, to a feast to mark his father’s shradh, obsequies. At the instigation of the Kayasthas, the upper-caste Hindus rejected the invitation with taunts about their women and reproaches for their conservancy services as jail prisoners which triggered the path-breaking movement. The Superintendent of Police of Faridpur (now in Bangladesh) reported after a personal investigation about the causes of the strike that the “Hindus of the higher caste consider them (Chandals) only little better than beasts”.3 Any Hindu worth his name shared this reprehensible perception about the Chandals anywhere in Bengal. Besides only the Chandals were made to work as sweepers as prisoners in jail while all other castes and communities enjoyed immunity. The strike hit the Hindus as well as Muslims.
The District Magistrate of Faridpur, who was also required by the higher authorities to conduct another inquiry into the factors responsible for the widespread Chandal strike, bemoaned that “this unfortunate race (Chandals), generally despised”, comprised “a hardworking, patient, uncom-plaining people with none to say a good word for them”. They were, he further noted, “handi-craftsman, operative, the fisherman, and the cultivator working as boat builders, carpenters, fishermen, and watermen generally and in all trades they excel, being strong, able-bodied, patient and painstaking”. This was a strike of such a body of men, who merited to be counted as valuable human resources for any society in any clime, and yet were subjected to unbridled hatred. Nonetheless, the Chandals, noted the Magistrate, were “abused and ill-used”. The impact assessment by the Magistrate, though cryptic, is self-explanatory: “a large body of Hindus and Mohammedans came up to complain to me of the ruinous effects to them arising out of the action of the Chandals”.4 (Italicised by this writer) The overall assessment was yet to be attempted.
Their peaceful strike and passive resistance had hit their oppressors though the techniques the Chandals adopted seemed yet unknown to mankind. The apostle of peace and non-violence, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was born barely three years ago. The word ‘boycott’ entered into the English lexicon seven years later in 1880. Twentyone years after the unique Chandal revolt, in 1894 Leo Tolstoy enunciated and published the noble concept of non-violence in his outstanding work, The Kingdom of God is Within You, that shaped Gandhi’s ideas and principles of satyagraha. In 1860 John Ruskin wrote Unto This Last which Gandhi read in 1904. It may be preposterous to believe that the illiterate Chandals were influenced and inspired by any of these great writers and philosophers in resorting to a peaceful and non-violent strike in 1873 against the Bengali upper-caste Hindus.
The MLCs who voted for Dr Ambedkar were as follows—
1. Jogendra Nath Mandal (Namasudra), Barisal, Scheduled Caste Federation,
2. Mukund Behari Mallick (Namasudra), Indepen-dent, Khulna,
3. Dwarikanath Baruri (Namasudra), Congress, Faridpur,
4. Gayanath Biswas (Namasudra), Congress, Tangail,
5. Nagendra Narayan Ray (Rajbanshi), Indepen-dent, Rangpur
6. Kshetranath Singha (Rajbanshi), Congress, Rangpur; and
7. Bir Birsa (Adivasi), Congress, Murshidabad.
While Nagendra Nath Ray and Kshetranath Singha belonged to the great Rajbanshi community and Bir Birsa was a tribal leader, the remaining four were Namasudras. The Muslim League, in coalition with the Scheduled Caste Federation, had extended moral support to Ambedkar in the election. The victory of Ambedkar in the election of 1946 is fully attributable to the unity, fraternity and solidarity subsisting between the Namasudra community and depressed classes of Bengal.
On January 21, 1929, the All-Bengal Nama-sudra Association and All-Bengal Depressed Classes Association, under the leadership of Mukunda Behari Mallick, jointly deposed before the Simon Commission and gave oral evidences. The latter organisation had in writing intimated the Commission at Calcutta that they were “in general agreement with the suggestions” of the All Bengal Namasudra Association and “we adopt the same generally”.5 This was the magnitude of the friendship and solidarity between the victims of caste injustice and oppression. After 18 years, they jointly clinched a victory by electing Dr Ambedkar for the Constituent Assembly that promised to usher in a new era in their life. It is a different matter that their dreams remain unfulfilled yet.
According to Japanese scholar Prof. Masayuki Usada, “Ambedkar was found to be elected by the greatest majority. This is dealt as a mere episode as well as a matter of course in Ambedkar’s biographies. Yet it has not come to a pass without the dedicated canvassing of the educated youth of the Bengali Scheduled Castes.”6 It is no surprise that the Indian intelli-gentsia has turned a blind eye to this phase of political activites marked by tectonic shift. An army of energetic and patriotic Namasudra youths, who included Apurba Lal Majumdar, Rasiklal Biswas, Chuni Lal Biswas, Manohar Dhali, Rajkumar Mandal, Kamini Prasanna Majumdar, Sashi Bhusan Halder, Upendranath Mullick, Dr Swarnalata Maitra and Bina Samaddar from various parts of Bengal, vigorously canvassed and campaigned for Ambedkar and ultimately turned the tables on the Congress. Gayanath Biswas, interestingly, was kept in hiding, nay in illegal confinement, by Congress-men so that he did not reach the Legislative Council, Calcutta for voting. He was, however, rescued in the nick of time so as to enable him to vote for Ambedkar. Ambedkar’s victory from the Jessore-Khulna constituency made him the solitary political leader with an all-India appeal. None else, save Ambedkar, went beyond his/her native province to contest the election.
The magnitude of the ‘greatest majority’ secured by Ambedkar merits attention: Sarat Chandra Bose had polled six votes as against seven votes secured by Ambedkar. This was the largest number of votes polled by any candidate in Bengal. The former was a towering Congress leader and elder brother of Subhas Chandra Bose, whose sparkling reputation as a patriot is legendary. On the day of the election, the Hindu goondas indulged in largescale violence in the streets of Calcutta to be countered and neutralised by the Scheduled Caste Sikh supporters of Ambedkar with swords alongside Namasudra volunteers!
The Scheduled Castes in general and the Namasudras in particular knew the high stakes involved in the election of Ambedkar to the Constituent Assembly. The psychological aggression of the Indian National Congress against the untouchables, we have noted already, was broadcast by Sardar Patel. The leading political party had no problem with the 29 Scheduled Caste Members elected on its ticket. If the untouchables were malleable, the Congress leaders nursed no apprehensions. With elastic docility they were like delicious lambs for the hungry tiger. With his knowledge, selfless sacrifice for the downtrodden and indefatigable struggles against inequality, discrimination and injustice, Ambedkar made a profound difference which his political adversaries and social opponents were not capable to counter. He had expressed his strong unhappiness and disappointment against the position the Cabinet Mission had adopted for the untouchables. He made no bones about it. According to him, “They (untouchables) are bound hand and foot and handed over to the caste Hindus.”7
Here is a candid and critical approbation for Ambedkar’s work and sacrifice. “The magnitude of [Dr Ambedkar’s] sacrifice is great. He is absorbed in his own work. He leads a simple life. He is capable of earning one to two thousand rupees a month. He is also in a position to settle down in Europe if he so desires. But he doesn’t want to stay there. He is only concerned about the welfare of the Harijans (untouchables).”8 This was not an admirer speaking about him but Gandhiji, his bitterest adversary all through his life. While addressing students in Karachi in 1934, he made this observation. The entire architecture of Ambedkar’s mission, vision, sacrifice and indefatigable struggles glowingly emerged out before our eyes from this observation.
The Bengali untouchables, by electing him to the Constituent Assembly, provided him the platform that propelled him to merit the attention of the world as the Father of the Indian Constitution. We can be sure that without him the Constitution, that was gifted to the country, would have been an amalgamated version of the laws of Manu, Yajnavalkya, Parashar, etc. at the hands of bigoted and orthodox elements. Ambedkar precisely fore-stalled such a dreadful catastrophe. The Bengali untouchable and depressed classes MLCs did the spadework by enabling Ambedkar right in the nick of time to take his lifelong struggles to the logical conclusion.
The sacrifice of political aspirations, foresight and sagacity, besides dedication, of Jogendra Nath Mandal and other Scheduled Caste leaders and supporters were behind Ambedkar for accomplishing what he actually did and for which he will always be remembered in history. When Bengal was partitioned following the legislation of the India Independence Act 1947, the districts of Jessore and Khulna went out to East Pakistan. He, like many others, was no longer a Constituent Assembly Member. His talent, knowledge and untiring energy displayed in the Constituent Assembly led its Chairman, Dr Rajendra Prasad, to direct the Bombay Premier, B.G. Khare, for his re-election this time on the Congress ticket in the vacancy caused by the resignation of Dr Mukund Ramrao Jayakar.
“Apart from any other consideration we have found Dr Ambedkar’s work both in the Constituent Assembly and the various committees to which he was appointed to be of such an order as to require that we should not be deprived of his services. As you know, he was elected from Bengal and after the division of the Province he has ceased to be a member of the Constituent Assembly. I am anxious that he should attend the next session of the Constituent Assembly commencing from the 14th July and it is therefore necessary that he should be elected immediately.”
The country needed the meritorious services of Dr Ambedkar. His presence satisfied an urgent national deficiency. It was the defining moment for India that she narrowly averted the catastrophe that the task of Constitution-making did not fall into the hands of morbid and bigotted elements. Granville Seward Austin (1927-2014), an American historian and leading authority on the Indian Constitution, described the Consti-tution drafted by Dr Ambedkar as ‘first and foremost a social document’. Elaborating the point he noted: “The majority of India’s constitutional provisions are either directly arrived at furthering the aim of social revolution or attempt to foster this revolution by estab-lishing conditions necessary for its achieve-ment.” If India were to undergo a social revolution, overnight she would become a modern, vibrant and liberal nation. But a microscopic section abhors a social revolution which would throw caste, obscurantist elements and orthodoxy to the dustbin first by the nearest window.
When the Constituent Assembly was grappling with task of drafting the Constitution for free India, the bigoted elements were breathing furiously down the necks of the countrymen. In an article in Organiser, November 23, 1949—just three days before the Constitution was adopted on November 26—-Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar(February 1906—June 1973) bared his menacing fangs: “In our Constitution there is no mention of the unique constitutional develop-ments in ancient Bharat. Manu’s laws were written long before Lycurgus of Sparta or Solon of Persia. To this day laws as enunciated in the Manusmriti excite the admiration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and confor-mity. But to our constitutional pundits that means nothing.”9 He and his ilks wanted a rerun of the era of Manu.
In the early days of the twentieth century, the relations between the Namasudras and bhadralok in East Bengal deteriorated perilously. The Bengali Hindus were abhorrent. “The Nama-sudras of Faridpur and Barisal have virtually declared a boycott against the Brahman, Kayastha and Baidya. There were possibilities of their being united with all other lower classes and if this happened, the happiness and honour of the higher castes would all be washed away.”10
The ‘happiness and honour’ of them precariously depended on the disunity of their oppressed victims! No comments.
This catastrophe of India being turned into a Hindu India was effectively and sharply pre-empted and scuttled by Dr B.R. Ambedkar. By securing victory for Ambedkar in the most crucial elections that brought him to the Consti-tuent Assembly, the Namasudras, Rajbanshis and Adivasis under the leadership of the pioneer, Jogendra Nath Mandal, created a glowing chapter in history. They checkmated the machinations of the upper castes to browbeat the untouchables. He got the granite-like foundation to bloom in the august House with charm, dignity and magnanimity and to put his scholarship and erudition to use in national interest. Those people who made it possible deserve the highest applause and appreciation but sadly, they have been forgotten. This chapter is not discussed in public lest the towering contribution towards nation-building of the Bengali chotalok (low castes), got highlighted.
Describing his historic role, Ambedkar had commented disarmingly: “The Hindus wanted the Vedas, and they sent for Vyasa who was not a caste Hindu. The Hindus wanted an epic Ramayana and they sent for Valmiki who was an untouchable. The Hindus want a Constitution and they have sent for me.”
1. David Keane, Caste-based Discrimination in International Human Rights Law, Ashgate, 2007.
2. The term ‘heaven born leaders’ was coined by the All-Bengal Depressed Classes Association in its memorandum submitted to the Simon Commission in January 1929. A.K. Biswas, The Namasudras of Bengal, Blumoon, Delhi, 2000, p. 75.
3. A.K. Biswas, article captioned “Chandal’s Rage, How a peaceful strike by Dalits paralysed life in Bengal”, Outlook, August 29, 2016.
4. Letter no 44 dated April 22, 1873 from District Magistrate to the Inspector General of Jails, Lower Provinces of Bengal.
5. Biswas, A.K., The Namasudras of Bengal, Blumoon Book, Delhi, 2000.
6. Sadananda Biswas, Mahapran Jogendranath—Banga-bhanga O Ananya Prasango (a Bengali work), March 2004, p. 61.
7. Christophe Jaffrelot, Ambedkar and Untouchability, Permanent Black, Delhi, 2005, p. 80.
8. Jaffrelot, op cit., p. 71.
9. M.S. Golwalkar in an essay in Organiser, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) mouthpiece, November 23, 1949, p. 3.
10. Bandyopadhyay, Sekhar, Caste, Protest and Identity of Colonial India—The Namasudras of Bengal, 1872-1947, OUP, 2011, p. 81.
The author, a retired IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur (Bihar), can be reached at biswasatulk[at]gmail.com