Friday, April 15, 2016

Krantijyoti Savitribai Jotirao Phule: Liberating Women and Lower Castes

Kiran Agawane

The 19th century Maharashtra was dominated by Brahmanical ideology and dominance of upper caste over social, cultural, economic and political facets. The oppressed and deprived sections of the society could not find their space in the Hindu social system, which resulted into the lack of assertion against their deprivation, and elimination of basic human rights. Many anti-social practices were not only prevailed but they found their sanctity from the Hindu social structure and dominant class of this system. Rationality and reason which is considered as values necessary for making ‘thinking individual’ was lacking in this system. In such conditions, raising voice against these anti-social practices, and working immensely for empowerment and assertion of deprived sections was really an intricate responsibility. Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule accepted this challenge, confronted against oppressive social system, and believed ‘education’ as a tool to empower the deprived.

Krantijyoti Savitribai Jotirao Phule (3 January 1831-10 March 1897) is considered as first Indian female teacher, revolutionary poet, social reformer who worked for women and lower castes. She is an inspiration of movement for the liberation of these sections from oppressive social system. She successfully confronted against many evil social practices, and worked for establishment of ideals based on rationality and human reason such as truth, equality and humanity. She promoted gender equality and considered women equally with men. She recognized self-respect of women and their basic rights. It was almost impossible to start schools for girls and lower castes in the place like Pune which was highly dominated by Brahmanical ideology in the mid nineteenth century. Mahatma Phule challenged this dominance and started educating girls and lower castes. His encouragement to Savitribai Phule, his wife instilled confidence in her to contribute to his struggle. Savitribai actively participated in the struggles waged by Mahatma Phule’s mission. She became the leader of the movement after Jotiba’s demise. In order to recognize the significance of contribution of Savitribai Phule it is essential to know social, cultural, religious and political conditions of Maharashtra, especially of Pune, in the 19th century.

Caste System and Patriarchy: Defining features of the 19th century Maharashtra
The 19th century Maharashtra was not much different from the rest of India. The basic features of Hindu society were as prevalent here as anywhere else. As Ambedkar argues, the Hindu social system is characterized by the caste system and male dominance. Graded hierarchy created by caste system contributed to the social inequality and inhuman condition of lower castes who could never find any place in the social structure. Being at the bottom of the hierarchy the lower castes remained deprived of social, cultural, religious and political privileges. They were denied some basic rights which they were entitled to as being human beings. The violation of basic rights of lower caste, however, received sanction from the religious authorities who used religious texts and social system based on this ideology as the source of their dominance. Brahmanical authority and monopoly over reading and interpreting religious texts immensely contributed in the deprivation and oppression of the ‘unprivileged’ castes. Along with the caste system, prevalence of male dominance and patriarchy in the social system reflects the irrational behaviour of society towards women. The individual autonomy of women had never been recognized. The close association between caste and gender was very much visible in the social system. The condition of women was affected dually by patriarchy and caste system. These two practices were impediments in the making of egalitarian society as visualized by Phule.

Pune, one of the most socially, culturally and, politically influential places of Maharashtra, was deeply characterized by these two practices. Mahatma Phule attempted complete elimination of irrational social practices. As Gail Omvedt argued that “Any culture rests upon a class society and the dominance of a particular class. In India, Hindu culture and the caste system rested upon Brahmanism; hence Phule linked his thought with a movement of opposition to the Brahman elite.”[1] Mahatma Phule did not set a limited objective of reforming the Hindu social structure but to eliminate anti-social practices and rituals which discriminated a community which is socially unprivileged. He wanted to empower them, thus they could fight for their rights. Through education, they could ‘think’ about oppressive nature of Hindu social system, and confront the system which promotes social inequality. Phule thought that getting education would make the so-called lower castes capable enough to realize their marginalization and the need to struggle for their rights without depending upon any one individual. This was a truly revolutionary thought at the time which inspired Savitribai. She was determined to educate women so that they too could stand for their rights.

It is important to understand that the place and period is important to analyze the significance of the social movement. The locale in which Mahatma Phule started his movement was Pune which was socially, culturally and politically dominated by Brahmanical ideology. This Brahmanical ideology and the system it has created sustained itself on complete deprivation and subjugation of women in the society as well as the people from the lower castes. The patriarchy did not even spare the women from upper caste. The society in Phule’s period was suffering from a ‘slavery’ of all aspects of life including social, economic, political and cultural.

‘Education’ as a tool of Emancipation and Empowerment for Women and Lower Caste:
Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule always considered ‘education’ as best possible way to improve the life of socially oppressed. Education is significant technique of social awareness and social revolution. Thus, they always strived for providing education to these classes of the society. The Hindu social system denied right to education to women as well as lower castes on the grounds that they were not ‘competent’ enough to take education. The upper castes had this right as they were regarded as most competent. Education was a privilege only available to upper caste males. According to Phule, this deprivation of education was a strategy of upper castes/ dominant classes in the society to keep unprivileged classes vulnerable and marginalized. It resulted into the maintenance of their dominance in social structure and dependence of the ‘vulnerable’ class on them for survival. Hence, the denial of right to education to women and lower castes made them more ‘vulnerable’ and ‘marginalized’.  This denial also led to the refutation of right to knowledge and spread of information. The upper castes’ monopoly over knowledge system and interpretation of religious texts led to the maintenance of their authority over Hindu social structure. Due to this the lower castes and women couldn’t recognize their oppression which also helped the maintenance of such oppressive system.

Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule were the first social reformers in India who recognized the essentiality of ‘education’ for any reform movement and thus, they had given utmost importance to it. In fact they recognized that it is necessary to provide education to women first for the progress of the society and its transformation. Therefore, they established the first women school in Maharashtra in 1948 at Bhide Wada which is located at Budhwar Peth. They also started a school for lower caste women in Pune at Maharwada. M. G. Mali, who wrote immensely on Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule, considered the movement started by them as the first declaration of women equality in India.[2]

While emphasizing importance of education, Mahatma Phule said:

            “विद्येविना मति गेली, मतिविना नीती गेली
            नीतिविना गति गेली, गतीविना वित्त गेले
            वित्तविना शूद्र खचले, इतके अनर्थ एका अविद्येने केले |”

It clearly explains the importance of education. Education is significant for human progress. Without education, lower castes will always remain oppressed and deprived. Denial of education is responsible for degradation of society. Phule did not have a limited purpose to make people literate. They wanted to create informed citizens and leaders of social reform through education. Mahatma Phule expressed his views for women education, lower caste education, vocational education, restructuring curriculum, agricultural education, technical education, teachers’ training, etc. Unfortunately, his ideas on education did not get acknowledgement in India.[3] Both husband and wife believed that the education can change circumstances. Such views on education are still considered as radical.

Phule’s contribution can also be recognized by looking at his opposition to Macaulay’s Downward Filtration Theory of Education. He challenged this theory. According to this theory, it would be more suitable to provide higher education to higher classes than to give elementary education to the masses.[4] Mahatma Phule did not believe in this theory and argued against it. He argued that some selected upper castes elites could not provide education to unprivileged masses as they are not interested in this cause. In fact, Phule argued they are more interested in maintaining their hegemony and dominance in the society. Thus, he demanded that maximum amount of revenue collected by British government from Indian people should be spent on education, and more importance should be given to the education for women.

Savitribai Phule as an inspiration for Women and Lower Castes Movement:
As mentioned earlier, the autonomy of women was restricted in the Hindu social structure. Being reduced to ‘slaves’ in the society, the women and lower castes had lost their existence, and most of the time they were unaware about their non-existence in the social structure. This prolonged condition of ‘slavery’ actually reduced women and lower castes into nothing but mere bodies with no consciousness. Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule precisely realized this limitation in the process of empowerment of these sections. Hence, they emphasized the need for the ‘consciousness’ and ‘awareness’ among the lower castes and women about their situations in the society, and their continuous marginalization and deprivation in the hands of dominant upper castes. For the purpose of creating consciousness Phule promoted and utilized ‘education’ as means to achieve the empowerment. They believed that education alone can bring capabilities among the women and lower castes and make them realize their marginalization. This realization will inspire them to agitate for their rights. In fact, Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule were the first to focus on education to remove social inequalities, untouchability, marginalization, deprivation and anti-social practices.

Savitribai Phule argued that it is important to recruit teachers from lower castes for teaching lower castes students for their educational progress. At the same time, educating lower castes is not enough. It is important to solve their basic needs like food, heath, clothes, etc. At the same time, teachers should be trained.

Mahatma Phule articulated his views and concerns in his ‘Sarvajanik Satya Dharma’; it was in fact a declaration of fundamental principles of democratic revolution in this country. Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule’s contribution to the empowerment of women and lower caste is immense and noteworthy because their mission of educating the unprivileged classes was difficult due to the domination of conservative ideology. Their objective of establishing a society based on ideal principles of truth, equality, and humanity was difficult to attain in such conservative milieu. In such situation, devoting a life educating deprived classes amids confronting dominant classes and their ideology was truly difficult objective. However, both of them strived hard to achieve this objective and paved the way for the future movements.

Savitribai Phule as a Revolutionary Poet:
Savitribai Phule was also a poet whose literature is considered as literature of oppressed. It is a literature of social awareness. It was a declaration of liberation of women and lower castes from age old slavery. It helped to create consciousness of the oppressed and unprivileged. It is a literature against the dominance of orthodox religious texts and rituals. It is a literature which is based on certain ideals such as truth, equality, justice, liberty etc. Her important works includes Kavya Phule [Anthology of poetry] (1854), Bavankashi Subodh Ratnakar [Anthology of poetry], Matushri Savitribai Phulenchi Bhashane Va Gaani [Collection of Savitribai Phule’s speeches and songs] (1891), Jotibanchi Bhashane Vol. 1 to 4 [Collection of Mahatma Phule’s speeches, edited by Savitribai Phule], her speeches at various places as president of Satya Shodhak Parishad, and letters written to Mahatma Phule.

While emphasizing importance of Savitribai Phule’s literature, M. G. Mali argued that her poetry collection is a history of social revolution in India.[5] Her works reflected situation of society at that time. It was the literature which challenged established Marathi literature of that time where voices of suppressed and unprivileged classes couldn’t find any space. Her literature reflected sufferings and consciousness of the oppressed sections at that time. The specificity of her writings is that she used the language of masses in her literature. Due to this, masses easily comprehended this literature.

Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule’s thoughts and practical contributions in the field of education are significant for the realization of ideals of truth, equality, justice, humanity in Indian society and polity. They were the pioneers in the field. Unfortunately, the thoughts and contributions did not get proper attention due to prevalent Brahmanical biases in the academia. Nevertheless, their works have played significant and relevant role in the empowerment and consciousness of the lower castes and women in modern India.

It was impossible to think about a woman from backward caste becoming a teacher in a society driven by anti-social traditions and rituals. Savitribai Phule eloquently supported Mahatma Phule in his mission against caste system and discrimination based on it. After the demise of Mahatma Phule, Savitribai Phule proficiently carried forward his mission of Satya Shodhak Samaj. She is recognized by the people not only as a wife of Mahatma Phule but also as the main leader and activist of the Samaj. She handled the Samaj and other institutions and their programmes from 1890 to 1897. In short, Savitribai Phule’s contribution as the first Indian woman teacher, first educationist, researcher and first thinker in education field is gigantic and astonishing.

Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule significantly contributed to the process of progress of deprived sections of society. Their views and ideals of truth, equality and humanity are important in the development of the Indian society. However, the success of their efforts depends on the current status of the groups for which they spent their life. It is important to examine the status of women and lower castes in the contemporary Indian society. Is the dominance and hegemony of Brahmanical ideology in the society still prevailing? Are women and lower castes empowered enough? Are they asserting their rights? Why injustices and atrocities are still going on against them? Is our society really based on the principles of truth, equality and humanity? Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule relentlessly worked for empowerment of women and lower castes without any intention of getting recognized for their work. It is, thus, our responsibility to promote their ideas and thoughts, and carry forward their task of empowering weaker and oppressed groups of the society.

Deshpande, G. P. (ed.) Selected Writings of Jotirao Phule. New Delhi: Leftword, 2002.
Deshpande, Sushma. Vhay, Mee Savitribai. Pune: Nilkanth Prakashan, 2006.
Gavaskar, Mahesh. “Colonialism within Colonialism: Phule’s Critique of Brahmin Power.” In Dalits in Modern India: Vision and Values, edited by S. M. Michael, 91-107. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2011.
Keer, Dhananjay. Mahatma Jotirao Phule: Aamachya Samajkrantiche Janak. Mumbai: Popular Publication, 1968.
Mali, M. G. Krantijyoti Savitribai Jotirao Phule. Thane: Majestic Publishing House, 2002.
____. Savitribai Phule Samagra Wangmaya. Mumbai: Maharashtra Rajya Sahitya Ani Sankriti Mandal, 2011.
____. Savitribai Phule: Kaal Ani Kartutva. Mumbai: Maharashtra Rajya Sahitya Ani Sankriti Mandal, 2006.
Mani, Braj Ranjan and Pamela Sardar. A Forgotten Liberator: The Life and Struggle of Savitribai Phule. New Delhi: Mountain Peak, 2008.
Manohar, Yashwant. Mee Savitri! Nagpur: Yugsakshi Publication, 2006.
O’Hanlon, Rosalind. Caste, Conflict and Ideology: Mahatma Phule and Low Caste Protest in Nineteenth Century Western India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Omvedt, G. “Jotirao Phule and the Ideology of Social Revolution in India.” Economic and Political Weekly 6, no. 37 (1971): 1969-1979.
____. Dalits and Democratic Revolution: Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1994.


[1] Gail Omvedt, “Jotirao Phule and the Ideology of Social Revolution in India,” Economic and Political Weekly 6, no. 37(1971): 1969.
[2] M. G. Mali. Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule. (Thane: Majestic Publishing House, 2012), 31.
[3] Ibid., 69.
[4] R. N. Sharma and R. K. Sharma. History of Education in India. (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributers).
[5] M. G. Mali. Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule. (Thane: Majestic Publishing House, 2012), 82.

Author is doing his Ph.D from JNU and teaches political science at Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi

1 comment:

  1. Like all other cases of BJP's wining, Assam also looks more like a win of communalism than that of development! Here is my take on What is means for Congress.


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