Looking Back

Phule—the Social Reformer

Subhash Gatade

...Most people do not realise that society can practise tyranny and oppression against an individual in a far greater degree than a Government can. The means and scope that are open to society for oppression are more extensive than those that are open to Government; also they are far more effective. What punishment in the penal code is comparable in its magnitude and its severity to excommunication? Who has greater courage—the Social Reformer who challenges society and invites upon himself excommunication or the political prisoner who challenges Government and incurs sentence of a few months or a few years imprisonment?...
(Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah, Address delivered by Dr Ambedkar on the 101st birthday celebration of M G Ranade, 18th January, 1943)

Modern India, cannot be imagined without the 'path breaking contributions' of Phule and other social reformers / revolutionaries who came after him, who fought against heavy odds to convince the people around about challenging existing social practices and questioning old mode of thinking and exposing millennial old oppressions which had religious sanctions as well and encouraging them to look beyond.

In his introduction to 'Selected Writings of Jotirao Phule' G P Deshpande says,
'Phule's canvas was broad, his sweep majestic. He identified and theorised the most important questions of his time—religion, Varna System, ritualism, language, literature, British rule, mythology, gender question, conditions of production in agriculture, the lot of peasantry etc... .Was Phule then a social reformer ? The answer will be 'no'. A social reformer is a liberal humanist. Phule was more of a revolutionary. He had a complete system of ideas, and was amongst the early thinkers to have identified, in a manner of speaking, classes in Indian society. He analysed the dvaivarnik structure of Indian society, and identified the shudratishudras as the leading agency of a social revolution.' (Page 20, Leftword)

If one goes by the mainstream media one learns that barring some stray programmes not many celebrations/programmes were held to commemorate his memory. Was it unintentional or inadvertent or part of fatigue being experienced by people active with transfor-matory movements?

And on part of the state should it be interpreted as rather a crude manifestation of identity politics when great leaders—especially belonging to the oppressed communities—have also been 'reduced' to the status of 'Heroes' of their respective castes/communities. And in such an 'identity loaded ambience' perhaps Phule—who was born into numerically not very strong Mali (gardner) caste, did not have much chance to be 'remembered' by the wider populace. Or should it be considered part of deliberate silencing of all such voices whose agenda is found to be inconvenient or subversive by the ruling classes?

Anyway, the apparent amnesia around his name does not reduce the importance of the path breaking work he did. It was an interesting coincidence that it was around the same time that the august parliament of the country was holding a special two day session focusing on 'Constitution day' and acknowledging the seminal role played by Dr Ambedkar in its making. History bears witness to the fact that Dr Ambedkar had called Phule the 'Greatest Shudra' and openly admitted that Buddha, Kabir and Phule inspired him. People who are always in search of silver lining can also say that thus the august parliament was indirectly appreciating the historic contribution made by Jyotiba Phule as well.

Silence around Phule and yearlong celebrations around Ambedkar can be considered part of the same coin, a tactics which the ruling elites use with ease.

Whether one celebrates Ambedkar or maintains silence about Phule, one thing can be easily discerned that the ruling classes are neither bothered about the real concerns of Phule, Ambedkar or other social revolutionaries. Perhaps they do not want people to remember that both Phule and Ambedkar had raised destabilising questions about nation, nationalism, culture and challenged tremendous fascination among the elite of their times. One of their key posers which still rings true which focuses on the caste ridden society—based on privileges for a few and disabilities for the broader masses—and the near impossibility of the emergence of 'a nation' from amongst its midst.

The ruling elite is more keen to carve out a 'suitable' Ambedkar or a 'convenient' Phule to further its agenda. Especially the present ruling dispensation at the centre led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—part of the broader Hindutva family—seems to be too eager to lay claim over his legacy and they want people to forget the fact that when Ambedkar was alive they had been in the forefront to oppose him on every count.

Any student of politics of the oppressed would vouch that it is rather a bane of most of the leaders of the exploited and oppressed who can no more be ignored by the dominant forces. In fact, people have been witness to a similar process which unfolded itself in USA where a very sanitised image of Martin Luther King, has been made popular. Instead of King who opposed Vietnam War, looked at capitalism as source of all evils, who equally struggled for workers' rights, the world has before it an image of King which seems more amenable to the ruling classes there.

There is an interesting commonality how ruling classes try to coopt/appropriate images of leaders of the oppressed. It is a three step process: First, they try to ignore them ; second, when this tactics fails they grudgingly acknowledge them ; third, they try to carve out a 'suitable' revolutionary for their own 'use'. They are adept at what a scholar describes as a deliberate process of 'mythologising the (great) wo/men and marginalising their meanings.

It is really easy to blame the cunning of the ruling classes for this state of affairs—which in fact can create a lot of heat but does not throw any light on the matter and which is always true—most difficult part of the whole exercise is one, how people—who claim to be the radical inheritors of their legacy—let it happen and secondly, whether there are any elements in the world view of these greats themselves which have made their 'appropriation easier'.

It is possible that few people would 'appreciate' the fact that the powers that be talk about these greats, organise celebrations around them, are keen to publish their collected works or even ready to make them part of curriculum. It rray also give them satisfaction that they claim to be walking in their footsteps or fulfilling their dreams but one should be wary of all such claims and also look at the hiatus between what they claim and what is the actual situation on the ground.

Should not this question really bother progressives that the official incorporation of these greats could be easily done or today these revolutionaries of a different kind who could be part of revolutionary arsenal in the fight against inequality and discriminations, hierarchies of various kinds today seem to be 'sitting cosily' with the adversaries.
Coming back to the original focus, question remains why and how the radical agenda of Phule which had a very broad canvas could not be taken further, with the same vigour, zeal and focus and how it metamorphosed first into non-Brahmin movement and later was submerged easily into 'nationalist' movement.

Dr Ambedkar offers an explanation while discussing Justice M G Ranade—who was a contemporary of Phule.
"The decline of Social Reform was quite natural. The odium of Social Reform was too great. The appeal of political power too alluring. The result was that social reform found fewer and fewer adherents. In course of time the platform of the Social Reform Conference was deserted, and men flocked to the Indian National Congress. The politicians triumphed over the Social Reformers. I am sure that nobody will now allow that their triumph was a matter for pride. It is certainly a matter of sorrow. Ranade may not have been altogether on the winning side, but he was not on the wrong side and certainly never on the side of the wrong as some of his opponents were. (Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah, Address delivered on the 101 st birthday celebration of M G Ranade, 18 January, 1943.
( ambedkar ranade.html')

While it seems apt in case of Justice Ranade, one definitely needs to go further deep to understand the later metamorphosis of the Phulevian movement.

History bears witness to the fact that Jawalkar, (1902-1932) a leading champion of the non-Brahmin movement—who was no less a radical—had called Gandhi a 'Satyashodhak' when the non-Brahmin movement decided to 'merge' itself with the national movement.

Was it just part of political expediency or did he really believe that Gandhi who called himself a sanatani (orthodox) Hindu and firmly believed in Varnashram Dharma was really taking forward Phule's mission. And this despite the fact that by the time this stream had joined the Congress it was very much clear that it was careful enough to sideline all those issues pertaining to the internal asymmetries of Indian society, scuttle all such attempts which challenge them,—which were the 'key concerns of Satyashodhak movement under the grand slogan of fighting Britishers'. In fact, Phule had rather prophesised this state of affairs when he had raised very important questions about the nature of Congress which was founded in 1885.

There cannot be a 'nation' worth the name until and unless all the people of the land of King Bali—such as Shudras and Ati-shudras, Bhils (tribals) and fishermen etc, become truly educated, and are able to think independently for themselves and are uniformly unified and emotionally integrated. If a tiny section of the population like the upstart Aryan Brahmins alone were to found the 'National Congress' who will take any notice of it? (Phule, Collected Works, ed. Patil, volll : 29)

A critical look at Gandhi is important because it was this period only when mixing of religion with politics gained a new legitimacy, despite his avowed respect for all religions. Under his leadership only task of reforming Hinduism was brushed aside and Ambedkar, a consistent modernist and a relentless critic of Hinduism, was pushed to the wall.

Looking back it becomes clear the side-lining of voices of internal reform in Indian society had started during Phule's time itself.

In its early stirrings, Lokmanya Tilak, who happened to be a key leader of the Congress movement then, had vehemently led the Conservative reaction against all those concerns for which Phule stood. It is widely known how it was because of Tilak's insistence (or one should say threat that the Pandal holding Social Conference would be burnt down) the tradition of holding Social Conference after Congress Conference which was initiated by the likes of Ranade etc. was discontinued. His opposition to the Sharda Act is also known where he opposed any British intervention in deciding the age at which girl can be married.

To say the least, it is rather baffling that the other face of Tilak's work—where he firmly opposed spread of education among girls, where he opposed moves by social reformers/revolutionaries which challenged age-old traditions/customs of Indian society or where he exhibited clearcut Brahminical bias has not received the attention which it has deserved.

In a voluminous work titled 'Foundations of Tilak's Nationalism' (Parimala Rao, Orient Blackswan, 2010) the author—who has based her work mainly on 'The Mahratta' the newspaper brought out by Tilak—raises many important questions, which exhibit a great hiatus between his image and reality. Two of the questions which she raises in the Introductory chapter 'Encountering the Myth' are worth quoting here :
Why did Tilak's 25-year-long anti-peasant struggle fail to enter the pages of history while his token no-tax campaign in ryotwari areas has been extolled? Why is his 40-year-long effort to stop women and non-Brahmin from receiving education is pushed under the carpet?

In fact, Tilak's ideological opposition to Phule went to the extent that the newspapers which he brought out then—namely 'Kesari' and 'Mahratta'—did not even publish a news about his death. He even preferred to gloss over the fact that when young Tilak and Agarkar were jailed for the first time, it was Phule only who had organised a public felicitation programme for both of them when they were released (1881).

Ranging from the left on the one hand to the other end of the spectrum, Tilak's image as a 'militant' face of the nationalist movement as opposed to the 'moderates' has been glorified but neither his ideas and actions which clearly present an anti-dalit, anti-women and anti-Muslim bias and a voice which is consistently against social reform has ever come under scanner.

Before coming to discuss Phule, it is also important to comprehend what Marx meant by 'social revolution' in India. Could it be limited merely to what he called '..[b]rutal interference of the British tax-gatherer and the British soldier, as to the working of English steam and English free trade." (Karl Marx, The British Rule in India, First published: in the New York Daily Tribune, June 25, 1853, (https://www. 853/06/25.htm) or something deeper. Marx was definitely explicit regarding these changes:
"All the civil wars, invasions, revolutions, conquests, famines, strangely complex, rapid, and destructive as the successive action in Hindostan may appear, did not go deeper than its surface. England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing. This loss of his old world, with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Hindoo, and separates Hindostan, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history....

...We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow."

The impact of the British rule on the Indian society could be better understood if one takes a look at the then existing society. In his speech 'Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah' Dr Ambekdar has described the situation present then when Ranade—a contemporary of Phule—came on the scene.

"Is there any society in the world which has unapproachable, unshadowables, and unseeables? Is there any society which has got a population of Criminal Tribes? Is there a society in which there exist today primitive people, who live in jungles, who do not know even to clothe themselves? How many do they count in numbers? Is it a matter of hundreds, is it a matter of thousands? I wish they numbered a paltry few. The tragedy is that they have to be counted in millions, millions of Untouchables, millions of Criminal Tribes, millions of Primitive Tribes!! One wonders whether the Hindu civilization is civilization, or infamy".

The rule by the Peshawas which essentially practised Manusmriti was more vicious especially for all those who did not belong to the Chitpavan Brahman caste (the caste to which Peshawa belonged). Forget right to education or right to wear clothes according to one's own choice, it even prohibited rest from using the greeting 'Namaskar'. The lowly of the low then—namely 'untouch-ables'—had to carry an earthen pot in their neck so that their spit does not spoil the street, their entry to the city was limited to few hours only as it was feared that their shadow may fall on the Brahmins and it can 'pollute' them.

In such a background colonialism was not simply change from one set of rulers to others, it involved a move from one kind of society to a qualitatively different one. Colonial rule definitely meant strengthening mechanisms of colonial exploitation but it did try to superimpose minimum capitalist relations on the old order. The prevalent social norms subordinated individual to the institution of caste. The daily life of the Hindus was regulated by the religious texts. Colonialism prepared the ground to 'break asunder' these relations. It was under this regime that India encountered Modernity for the first time, albeit attempts were on to curb/limit its spread in very many ways.

The differential experience of the change in rule vis-a-vis Brahmins and the rest could be easily understood. And it was not for nothing that Phule 'welcomed' the defeat of the Peshawas in the war of 1857 (variously described as 'war of independence' or 'sepoy mutiny' etc) and said that if Britishers would have lost 'Peshawa rule would have returned'. The issue of millenia old social-cultural oppression and denial of basic civic rights to a large section of people had finally truimphed over the issue of gaining of political rights by 'outsiders'. For the lowly among the low what was the difference in material as well as social life if people were oppressed under an 'insider' called Peshawa which denied them every sort of human right and an 'outsider' called the British, which for its own reasons granted limited civil rights to them.

All great revolutionaries of yesteryears are judged on the anvil of time.

It is part of the on-going evaluation, summation of work of earlier revolutionaries, movements.

Buddha—the great social revolutionary—and Anand, his very close fellow-traveller, popularly known as his disciple, present perhaps one of the earliest examples in written history, when Buddha's exclusion of women from Viharas became a talking point. It was only because of Anand's insistence that they were included and people were saved from critical references about position of women in Buddha's thinking.

Kabir, the radical Saint, who with his uncompromising attack on religious hypocrisies of his times, still inspires young generations, but it does not overshadow his negative opinion about women.

It is well known how the Jacobins—which formed part of the revolutionary political movement that had been the most famous political club of the French Revolution—were/are strongly criticised for their patriarchal views.

And thus whether one likes it or not neither Phule, nor Marx, not even Bhagat Singh or Ambedkar can save themselves from scrutiny by later day followers, critiques.

If the left movement in the country which has made tremendous sacrifices for the benefit of the people, can be (rightly) criticised for its failure to integrate the social, cultural question in its overall vision of transformation—which has proved to be an important reason for its stagnation, the ambiguity of the later day social revolutionary camp vis-a-vis state power and search for its origins should also be considered part of this ongoing process of review and reflection.

Phule's critique of religion and caste and his daring to stand apart and get counted, his approach towards question of gender, his interest in agriculture, education, his proposal to the British government for prohibition, his flair in writing literature, there are many many aspects of his life and struggles, which need further study and contemplation and perhaps emulation.

Young Marx—who with his Communist Manifesto (1848)—became a voice of the exploited and the oppressed the world over—died in 1883 whereas young Jyotiba—who started with the first public intervention by opening a school for Shudra-Atishudra girls way back in 1848—died in 1890.

Today, more than 125 years after their demise, when a real possibility exists for the coming together of both these streams, question arises whether they will be able to take benefit of it or not?

[This is a shortened version of a speech delivered by the author at a two-day National Seminar on 'Reading Jotirao Phule : In and For Our Times', 11-12 December 2015, Phule-Amdebkar Chair, University of Mumbai]

Vol. 48, No. 31, Feb 7 - 13, 2016