Theory And Practice

Reinventing Jotiba Phule

Bharat Patankar & Gail Omvedt

In 1848, Jotiba Phule started a school in Pune for daughters of Shudra-AtiShudras. He opened the drinking water tap in front of his house for untouchables in 1858. In June 1869, he wrote a ballad of Chhatrapati Shivajiraje Bhosle and wrote Gulomgiri (Slavery) book in 1873. Phule took the lead in founding Satyashodhak Samaj, which was born on 24 September 1873. He appealed Satyashodak for contributing for drought relief on 17 June 1877. He wrote his Shetaryaca Asud (Farmers' Whipcord) on 1 July 1883. He wrote a letter to Marahi Granthkar (Bookwriters) Sabha on 11 June 1885. He completed the writing of Sarvajanik Satyadharma Pustak on 1 April 1889, which was published after his death. He was felicitated by people and given the honorary title Mahatma on 11 May 1888. He died on 20 November 1890, exactly one hundred and twenty five years ago. The piece deals with reinventing Jotiba Phule, the great Mahatma, of the world, very much little known even to India, after 125 years have passed since his death. It is like reinventing Jotiba because there is something in his thought and practices which still can play a crucial role in abolition of class-caste-gender exploitation and creation of the new world which would be prosperous and ecologically balanced as well as culturally liberated. Basic theoretical and practical aspects of his thought and practice demand serious attention.

1.  Material Power of Thought and Knowledge: Dialectics between ideas and material reality and material practice as a source of knowledge and thought
The great benefit which Mahatma Phule had was to take birth in South Asian subcontinent where there was a complete and exclusive control of abstract thinking, dissemination of knowledge and acquiring knowledge in the hands of only one caste, called Brahmans, and other castes were banned from getting involved in all these processes. Not only that, they were punished if they broke the ban. Mahatma Phule had gone through this kind of experience from the day he acquired any understanding of society in childhood. So he knew from experience that control over this kind of abstract thinking and knowledge generation and dissemination automatically gives rise to the control of all the production processes and system of exploitation in the hands of one caste, that is Brahmans. It could definitely be considered idealistic if one says that the prime determinant of the controlled processes in a social system based on exploitation is control over the process of abstract thinking and knowledge. But none other than Karl Marx has said that when thoughts capture peoples' imagination they become a material force. He also has talked about undermining the consideration of subjectivity as objective reality. So it is necessary to analyze the different stresses in Mahatma Phule and Karl Marx and their agreement despite these stresses.
In twenty first century today in the era of capitalist globalization when intellectual property rights is a hard fact of material life, in terms of the capitalist-imperialist economy and knowledge based industries have emerged controlling the largest share of world capital.

It is not essential to stress more the contemporaneousness of Mahatma Phule's thoughts which are expressed in a compact form in two ways.

(a)  "Without education wisdom was lost, without wisdom morals were lost, without morals development was lost, without development wealth was lost, without wealth the Shudras were ruined: so much of misery has happened through lack of education.

(b)  "Now if we observe the process of nature, it will be seen that aside from knowledge, humans and all other animals are basically alike in their nature. Animals need food, sleep and sexual intercourse; they raise their young, protect themselves from their enemies and understand nothing aside from belching after they have eaten and since there is not a speck of change in this constant behavior of theirs, there is no upheaval or basic change in their original condition. However the marvelous specially in the nature of human beings is intelligence. With its help they have won superiority over all the fish, animals, birds, insects and other creatures; and with this intelligence they have invented the system of writing to put their thoughts down on paper..."

In this quotation two aspects are stressed by Jotiba. One aspect is related to the role of intelligence, wisdom, knowledge etc. in a differentiating nature of human beings from other living beings and creation of their own world by humans. The second aspect is related to historical demarcating line between other living beings and humans which he points out, namely, all other living beings go on repeatedly living their life in the same way on the basis of their instincts, but human beings change their own life constantly and with that change their nature itself.

Mahatma Phule is saying almost the same thing as Karl Marx while expounding this methodology of materialist conception of history and materialist dialectics in "German Ideology," "Theses on Feuerbach", and his early writings about the state and rights. But Marx's stress tilted towards the determinant role of the ensemble of relations of production in the form of mode of production, and he had to go out of the way and write 'Theses on Feuerbach' to stress the importance of understanding the role of subjectivity, knowledge, intelligence etc. in shaping the world. But in Jotiba's writings there is stress on both aspects as well as stress on the role of the aspect of captive knowledge in enslaving people and running the system based on that.
In today's situation not only does one have to understand intellectual property rights and modern industry, but also it is necessary to understand the struggle going on in the field of culture which has to be understood from the standpoint of subjective also functions as objective. The struggle in the cultural field including religion has acquired such a bloody form that pogroms are being conducted reaching up to the genocide of a particular community. Just to have a negative criticism of these fascist actions is not going to prepare people for uprooting the process which prepared thousands of people at subjective level to take part in these pogroms which are in long term against the interests of those same people. One has to come up with positive cultural alternatives which can capture the imagination of people in such a way that they would not only reject the mass killing processes and adopt the processes which would bring together people with love and compassion by creation of new values and new cultural ethos.

2.  Caste annihilation, women's liberation, and liberation from religious oppression needing new theoretical approach towards analysis of human society
Human society from its inception is a society made up of men and women as autonomous constituents of human race along with transgender population. The entrance of exploitation of human beings by human beings has a very short history compared to overall vast span of time of totality of the history of human society. So before one talks about society with class, caste, gender exploitation along with existence of the state power, one has to understand human society from the standpoint of its non-exploitative period. Basic law of motion of this kind of history is the relation of human society with the rest of nature. At the same time, how men and women and other human beings come in relation with each other while relating to the rest of the nature.

Issues involved at this basic level of formulating the theoretical understanding are :
(a)  Whether relation of men and women are different with nature because of their natural differences in functioning as human beings re-creating humans themselves and recreating their relations while changing the nature or while getting involved with the nature. For example, Jotiba Phule says that women are basically superior human beings than men because their relations with other human beings are decided by their natural experience of carrying a growing embryo in their bellies, giving birth to the baby and rearing them at least to the point where they are dependent on breast milk and start walking. Phule means here that their relation with the process of natural re-creation of the race is different than men, and that makes their approach towards relation with the rest of nature different from men. Compassion, kindness, friendship, and motherliness are their characters which are not because of mainly the social relations in general but because of the natural functions of social relations with the child. This could be debated. But it brings forward the issue of relation between humans and nature not being just a bilateral relation but a trilateral relation between men, women and nature. And this itself gives rise to the basic theoretical attitude different from any other theory which tries to understand women's liberation from their specific exploitation as women which enables Phule to clearly expound a staunch theory of women's liberation than Karl Marx. In the situation in which on one hand women are entering more in number in varied fields of life where they had no entry and on the other hand atrocities on women and their exploitation as women in very modern form is getting accentuated. This difference in theoretical attitude matters much on the background of absence of mass women's movement as it was there from mid-seventies to mid-eighties.

(b)  The issue of hierarchical exploitation as it is in a caste system where even exploited castes are involved in at least marginal exploitation of other exploited castes hierarchically lower than them along with real exploiting castes raises a general issue about hierarchical exploitation in other relations like class and communal or racial exploitation. The theory of bilateral exploitation put forward by Marxist theoretical understanding becomes an obstacle in unfolding these kind of relations. Jotiba Phule cognized the contradiction within the exploited castes and hierarchies within them and pointed out the necessity of the emergence of organic unity by starting the process of dissolving contradictions among these castes. So, the question of hierarchical kind of exploitation as was pointed out by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, of division of laborers brought in by the caste system, was first identified by Jotiba Phule and he also brought forward the need for analyzing it. Materialist standpoint of history for Jotiba Phule included the cognition of human beings as men and women even before the beginning of exploitation and after exploitation he included any kind of hierarchical relations of exploitation, including caste, race, etc.

(c)  Jotiba put forward a different theoretical standpoint about emergence of the state and exploitation. For him, exploitation did not emerge because of the surplus production but it began with emergence of the quasi-state in a certain historical period, because after emergence of the surplus there was a long period in which democratic management of the society and collective use of natural resources and means of production as well as equitable distribution of the products was practiced for many years. From the Marxist standpoint, emergence of private property comes about because of the emergence of the family, which necessitates the descendent who would certainly control the property, but the first private property was state property in many areas of the world where the management of natural resources was controlled by the state on a large scale, including land.

These things are relevant today because the question of emergence of private property in the field of natural resources like wind, oceans, sunlight, spectrums, has become very crucial in the era of imperialist globalization. The relation of caste, class, gender and other exploitations with this should be identified, without which one cannot have a program of transformation which takes people toward a prosperous liberated society. Mahatma Phule's standpoint gives a starting point to develop theory in this relation.

3.  Vision of Alternative Society which could give a program of going through the process of bringing about alternatives culminating in realization of the vision
As Marx said, "Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways but the point is to change it" in one of the "Theses on Feuerbach." But despite this perspective, his concept of revolution as presented in Capital and other writings is to take hold of the means of production which are created by the masses which would abolish private property and that would be a negation of the negation. Here or in any other writings Marx does not give his comprehensive perspective about the alternative society as a whole which would be emerging after abolition of capitalist society. Phule, on the contrary, put forward his comprehensive vision of the future society which values culture, its approach towards natural resources, agriculture, forest, water, education, etc. He was the first person in the world who as a social revolutionary put forward prefigurative alternatives which would go on unfolding into fully developed new society without exploitation but prosperous and ecologically balanced. He put it forward in terms in the following aspects :
a)   Alternatives in relation to organic agriculture, including its ramification related to forest, streams of water, various water bodies, and methods of irrigation.

b)   Perspective about method of education and its relation to the lives of the people and cultural and socio-economic ethos of peoples' lives.

c)   Decentralized control of the people over natural resources and relatively autonomous and non-dependent existence of the national economy to the world economy.

d)   Development of industry basically related to agriculture and natural resources, maintaining the exchange of matter between humans and nature, as Marx has expressed in Capital, Volume I.

e)   Alternative culture and cultural mediums for people to express their joys, sorrows, exhilarations, friendship, collective love, etc.

f)    One of the things which he thought necessary for alternative society was something like religion, but not a religion. That is why he put forward the proposal of Sarvajanik Satya Dharma. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar also felt the necessity of this and found the solution in accepting Buddhism.

In short, one has to reinvent Mahatma Jotiba Phule from these angles and explore the possibility of coming up with development of his theoretical standpoint for the use of people's liberative movement today. This could be done by doing an organic synthesis of the perspectives of Mahatma Phule, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Karl Marx and Buddha.

Vol. 48, No. 37, Mar 20 - 26, 2016