Remembering B.P. Mandal, the Man Behind India’s Silent Revolution

A visionary with a revolutionary zeal, Mandal had an instrumental role in placing India's marginalised sections in an inclusive picture.

Note: August 25 marks the 100th birth anniversary of B.P. Mandal and 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the implementation of the Mandal Commission report. 

During one of my field trips to Madhepura in Bihar, I came across an old, wise man who said that the names Mandela and Mandal were the global revolutionary buzzwords of the 1990s. Both these distinguished activists and thinkers, who fought for ending social discrimination, were coincidently born in the same year – 1918 – and propagated their socially and politically uplifting models in the 1990s.

August 25 marks the 100th birth anniversary of Bindeshwari Prasad Mandal (B.P. Mandal). He was born on this date in 1918 in Varanasi, quite away from his sleepy village, Murho, near Madhepura in Bihar. Mandal has attained a ‘symbolic status’ for social justice movement in India, but surprisingly, not much information is available about his life, which is reflective of a deliberate exclusion of the leadership and the movement seeking emancipation of the marginalised masses in postcolonial India.

For more than a quarter-century, Indian politics has been centred on the binary of Mandal-kamandal mobilisations. On one hand, Mandal’s ideals represented an umbrella coalition of the oppressed Bahujan comprising Shudra, Atishudras, Adivasis and Muslims, symbolising unity of the marginalised social groups. They also formed the majority in terms of their numerical strength fighting for social justice and their due representation in the field of governance. On the other hand, the kamandal belief system displayed the unity of the oppressors contesting against reservation and affirmative-action largely under the rubric of right-wing Hindutva.

Although Vishwanath Pratap Singh, the then prime minister heading the United Front government, implemented the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, which B.P. Mandal chaired, on August 7, 1990, it finally came into effect only in 1993 after the Supreme Court gave a green signal for its implementation with a historic judgement, popularly known as the Indra Sawhney judgement in November 1992. In this regard, 2018 also marks the 25th anniversary of the implementation of the Mandal Commission report. Co-incidentally, on August 2, 2018, the Lok Sabha passed the 123rd constitutional amendment bill providing constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes.

The Mandal Commission report also recognised the caste-based discrimination of certain professions among the Muslims.

Mandal, a visionary with a revolutionary zeal, had an instrumental role in placing India’s marginalised sections in an inclusive picture. The milieu in which he was born was that of colonial India, which was not only undergoing prejudices and subordination under the British rule, but was also facing massive communal, caste and gender biases within its own social fabric. This further alienated the struggle for national unity and communal harmony.

Born in a Shudra family, Mandal first experienced caste discrimination during his higher secondary school years at the Raj High School, Darbhanga, where he, along with other students belonging to the same social section, were given meal only after the savarna students had finished eating. His young, rebellious temperament refused to keep silent and shook the school and hostel administration by raising the issue and ensuring an end to such practices at a fundamental level.

Mandal was a man of strong sense of self-worth, who stood his ground amidst everything unfavourable and chaotic. His hometown, as several other small pockets of India, was stained with social, educational and economic stigmas. However, due to its location near Calcutta, the reforming drizzles of the Bengal Renaissance percolated in the region and sparked further interest in Mandal in his earnest endeavours towards social development.

His skilled rhetoric and rationale soon secured him a place in the Bihar state assembly. He was not only intolerant of any practical execution of discriminatory actions but also rebuked any derogatory remarks made to belittle people belonging to the depressed classes. One such incident was when he retaliated against an upper-caste legislator who used the word gwala in the arena of the assembly to disparage his counterparts. V.P. Verma, the then speaker of the Bihar legislative assembly had to issue a notice condemning the use of the word which was identified as unparliamentary.

His household was that of a politically active and socially vigilant background. He was only 23 when he became an unopposed member of the Bhagalpur district council in 1941. His father, Rasbihari Lal Mandal, was himself a social reformer. One of the founding members of Indian National Congress, he valiantly worked to eradicate the social ignominies associated with the caste system and estrangement on the bases of low social status from the social and political makeup. It was during the first general elections for the state assembly of Bihar in 1952 that B.P. Mandal won the Madhepura assembly seat on a Congress ticket against Bhupendra Narayan Mandal, who represented the Socialist Party. Although Mandal was victorious against Bhupendra Narayan, he considered the latter as influential in formulating socialist notions and converting Madhepura into a breeding ground for socialism and its advances. Ram Manohar Lohia, another parliamentarian who lost against Nehru from the Phulpur constituency (near Allahabad) had high regards for Bhupendra Narayan and kept visiting Madhepura to support the models of socialism advocated by him, which further had an impact on Mandal’s political and social policies.

Mandal made headlines in newspapers all across the nation for his audacious act in the Pama case, when local Rajput landlords of Pama village in Bihar attacked a Kurmi village, leading to police atrocities against backward class citizens. Mandal was pressurised to remove his plea for immediate government action against the police and compensation for the victims during the session of the Bihar assembly. He instantly left the treasury bench and joined the opposition bench to fight for the cause, which further humiliated the inactive ruling party. This action fetched him the post of president of the state parliamentary board of Ram Manohar Lohia’s Samyukta Socialist Party. He later won the Lok Sabha elections in Bihar on the ticket of the Samyukta Socialist Party and was appointed in-charge of the state government’s Ministry of Health.

Later, he left the party due to differences with Lohia. He formed his new party named Shoshit Dal in March 1967. He took oath as the seventh chief minister of the state on February 1, 1968, a historic moment in the north Indian political scenario as Mandal became the first ever Shudra chief minister. Since he was an elected member of the Lower House, in order to take the post of chief minister, he was required to be a member of either house of the Bihar assembly. Satish Singh, an MLA of his party, was made the chief minister for four days before Mandal became a member of the legislative council and took charge as chief minister. It was during his reign that another dramatic picture in the history of north Indian politics took place, wherein his ministry noticeably comprised OBCs in a majority over those belonging to upper castes. The radical shift in the representation paradigm during this short-lived government – it lasted only 47 days – brought a new spirit in Indian politics. Later, Kansiram’s reiteration Jiski jitni sankhiya bhari, uski utni hissedari during the call for the implementation of the Mandal Commission’s report further emphasised the ideals of majority representation and its urgency as opposed to the monopoly of so-called savarna upper castes in the political domain who were a numerical minority.

Mandal resigned as chief minister protesting Congress’s removal of the enquiry commission named ‘Aiyar Commission’, headed by T.L. Venkatarama Aiyar, to cater to the charges of corruption on several senior Congress leaders and ministers. Furthermore, in 1968, he contested and won the by-elections from the Madhepura parliamentary constituency without much challenge and became a Lok Sabha member. Again, in 1974, he joined hands with Jayaprakash Narayan and resigned from the assembly protesting a corrupt Congress administration. He became a Lok Sabha member again in 1977 on a Janata Party ticket from the Madhepura constituency.

File photo. B.P. Mandal submitting copies of the Mandal Commission report to Gyani Zail Singh, former President of India.

Mandal’s longstanding anti-dogmatic stance and support for the depressed classes resulted in the formation of the ‘Mandal Commission’ or the ‘Backward Classes Commission’ under Prime Minister Morarji Desai on December 20, 1978. Chaired by Mandal, the Commission intended to acknowledge and emancipate the socially or educationally backward classes of India and redress the issues of reservation for those facing caste-based discrimination. In 1980, OBCs (other backward classes) was recognised to be emancipated on the grounds of caste, economic and social markers, which further formed a majority of 52% of India’s population. A report of the Commission suggested a 27% reservation of jobs under the Central government and public sector undertakings for OBCs. A total of 49% reservation for SC, ST and OBC was thus conscripted as per the Supreme Court ruling.

The Mandal Report which was submitted on December 31, 1980, to the then President of India Giani Zail Singh, substantiated its position on equality of opportunity with a beautiful lived example:

Mohan comes from a fairly well-off middle class family and both his parents are well educated. He attends one of the good public schools in the city which provides a wide range of extracurricular activities. At home he has a separate room for himself and his assisted in his studies by both his parents. There is a television and radio set in the house and his father subscribes to a number of magazines. In the choice of his studies and finally his career, he is continuously guided by his parents and teachers. Most of his friends are of similar background and he is fully aware of the nature of the highly competitive world in which he will have to carve a suitable place for himself. Some of his relations are fairly influential people and he can bank on the right sort of recommendation or push at the right moment…On the other hand, Lallu is a village boy and his backward parents occupy a low social position in the village caste hierarchy. His father owns a 4 acre plot of agricultural land. Both his parents are illiterate and his family of 8 lives huddled in a two room hut. Whereas a primary school is located in his village, for his high school he had to walk a distance of nearly three kilometres both ways. Keen on pursuing higher studies, he persuaded his parents to send him to an uncle at the Tehsil headquarters. He never received any guidance regarding the course of studies to be followed or the career to be chosen. Most of his friends did not study beyond middle school level. He was never exposed to any stimulating cultural environment and he completed his college education without much encouragement from any quarter. Owing to his rural background, he has a rustic appearance. Despite his college education, his pronunciation is poor, his manners awkward and he lacks self-confidence.

The report thus underscores the need to identify and redress the loopholes in the social, educational and economic structures that are detrimental to a major section of the society. Furthermore, the implementation of the Mandal Commission report enshrined the idea of equal opportunity with fascinating opening lines which read: There is equality only among equals. To equate unequals is to perpetuate inequality.

The Mandal Commission recommendation was not merely for reservation as mass media has generally presented. It has instilled in the large Shudra masses a confidence that they are not worthless. It is perhaps this realisation and newly developed consciousness that, despite not having reserved seats for these caste groups in the assemblies and the parliament, the composition of the state assemblies and the central parliament, particularly the lower houses, dramatically changed after the implementation of the recommendation. Perhaps, for this precise reason, Christophe Jaffrelot termed Mandal movement as India’s silent revolution.

Another path-breaking achievement of the Mandal Commission recommendation is the recognition of a section of the Muslim population, primarily those engaged in occupations like blacksmith, barber, washermen and cobbler among others, as OBC. The very categorisation of Muslim caste groups as OBCs punctures dogmatic communal binaries prevalent in India. So much so that the upper castes, while protesting against the Mandal Commission recommendation, made a mockery of these menial jobs and occupations with a broom in hand portraying that reservation in jobs for these caste groups will eventually push them into such menial occupations. Mandal, who took his final breath at the age of 64 in 1982 due to a heart-stroke, therefore had far-reaching consequences for this young nation. William Dalrymple has rightly observed that this movement in the 1990s in India has brought about a stake in power for the shudra castes and made them politically conscious: exactly what the civil rights movement did for the American blacks in 1960s.

Arvind Kumar is an assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Jamia Milia Islamia.

The author acknowledges the humble financial assistance provided by the Indian Council for Social Science Research towards research for this article.