An Anniversary

Remembering Phule

By a Correspondent

Social activist, writer, educationist and radical intellectual, Jyotirao Phule was born on April 11, 1827, in Maharashtra’s Satara district. A staunch critic of the Brahmin domination of Hindu society, he robustly analysed the caste system and its appalling effects on the lower castes.

The scholar and activist Gail Omvedt writes in her book Understanding Caste: From Buddha to Ambedkar and Beyond: “Apropos women, his [Phule’s] personal life stands in contrast to the compromises made by almost every other social reformer and radical: he not only educated his wife, Savitribai, and encouraged her to become a teacher in a school for girls, but also resolutely withstood all community pressures to take a second wife in spite of their his later years... he took a stronger position describing male patriarchal power as a specific form of exploitation.”

Phule believed that the “deplorable state of education among the peasantry” was responsible for “a good deal of their poverty, their want of self-reliance, their entire dependence upon the learned and intelligent classes”.

In an essay titled Ishara, he wrote: “Not long ago, until the end of the regime of the last Arya Peshwa, Rao Baji, if a peasant committed a slight default in payment of land revenue, he was made to stand half-bent in the blazing sun, a big stone put on his back, and his wife was made to sit on it, and down in front of him was lighted a fire with chillies thrown on it. The ruler treated his subjects as animals. Their only use was to produce for the ruler and the men and women of his caste, food and clothing by toiling hard in the sun and the rain, and to keep them provided with their numerous luxuries....”

Challenging the hegemony of the Brahmins and other upper castes in Indian society was a major focus of his life and work. He established the Satya Shodhak Samaj in 1873 that aimed to prevent the Shudras and Ati-Shudras from being exploited. As Omvedt puts it: “The Brahmins whom Phule attacked so strongly were not only the orthodox. They also included the ‘moderates’, liberals and reformers, grouped in organisations such as the Prarthana Samaj, Brahma Samaj, Sarvajanik Sabha and the Congress. All of these were seen by him as elite efforts, designed to deceive the masses and establish upper-caste hegemony. Caste, to him, was slavery, as vicious and brutal as the enslavement of the Africans in the United States...”

In 1876 Phule became a member of the Poona Municipality. He helped in arranging relief when a famine struck parts of Maharashtra in 1877.

Besides theorising about caste, Phule focused on a wide range of issues including people’s livelihood and sustainable development (in today’s parlance), and many of his concerns are relevant in the 21st century. For instance, on the complex issue of state ownership of farmland and forests, he wrote: “Previously those farmers who had very little land.. .used to go to the hills to eat fruit from figs or jambhuis or other trees, and they could scrape together a bit of money by selling fruit and leaves from the trees and wood cut from the forest, or by grazing one or two cows or three or four goats on the village pasture... However, the European administrators.. .set up for the first time a gigantic forest department. Since they have included all the mountains, hills, peaks, glens, dales and all the uncultivated lands and pastures as ‘forest’, this forest department has risen to such a pinnacle of power that the poor helpless paralysed farmers have an inch of ground left on earth for their goats to even inhale the wind of the fields.”

Jyotirao Phule’s hard-hitting analyses were often ahead of their times. As the academic and Marathi playwright G P Deshpande put it : “Phule’s thought proved that socio-political struggles of the Indian people could generate universal criterion... [his] efforts were to change the world/society with the weapon of knowledge.”   

Vol. 49, No.47, May 28 - Jun 3, 2017