Mahatma Jyotibha Phule: A Birth That Continues to Bring This Society to Life

“Their ancestors, in their fake scriptures, sophisticatedly hid the part about making us slaves…Their ancient fiendish books are a testimony to this. This is why we Shudratishudras have to face many miseries and hardships…those who deliver long speeches as guests in their huge conventions cannot understand it.

Even if they can, they have deliberately closed their eyes to it just to serve the fleeting interests of their own and of their children. They get pensions from the British government, they are diehard believers in the superiority of their caste and they are staunch idol-worshippers. Donning the mantle of phony sacredness, they consider us Shudratishudras lowly. Will these Aryan Brahmins bring about the progress of this wretched country?… We will no longer be misled by those who live off cheating us.”

Mahatma Jyotirao Govindrao Phule had written these lines as he comprehended society and fought for Bahujans in the 19th century.

Jyotiba Phule was born on April 11, 1827 in the Mali caste, who are present-day OBCs. He had lost his mother when he was only a year old. Despite being a diligent student, Jyotiba Phule himself faced various kinds of discrimination. One time when he went to attend the wedding ceremony of a Brahmin friend, he was rebuked by the Brahmin family who disparaged him saying that he should have avoided the ceremony because of his ‘Shudra’ caste.

Such callous casteism continues unabated till today.

With his revolutionary critical reasoning, fearless resistance against societal evils and everlasting concern for the marginalised, Jyotiba Phule led a path which if followed, would lead to an egalitarian society. Along with Savitribai Phule, an activist, reformer, writer, and Jyotiba Phule’s wife, they both founded the first school for girls in India in 1848 when Jyotiba Phule was only 21. They continued to open 18 more schools in the next three years.

Subsequently, they also opened schools for the education of Dalits (present-day Scheduled Castes), night schools for workers, farmers and women who had to toil throughout the day, as well as the first library for students. They formed the Satyashodhak Samaj (Society of Truth Seekers) to refute worshipping of idols, spread rational thinking, repudiate the caste system and practice a marriage of equality which aimed for working towards the marginalised. Satyashodhaks helped inter-caste couples get married and supported the struggle of women workers from Jacob Mills in Mumbai who were fighting against the oppression they faced from their male bosses. Jyotiba Phule faced ostracisation and murderous assaults from the oppressor castes all throughout his journey and wrote, “The Brahmins have been using bogus scriptures to show that their privileges are divine.”

Also read: Savitribai Phule Shall Never Die, For Her Pen Lives On

Jyotiba Phule had pragmatic and informed opinions. He critiqued superstitions by saying, “The talk about stars and planets is a lot of bunkum.” He asserted the self-respect of Bahujans through his myriad works including Tritiya Ratna, Gulamgiri, Shetkaryacha Asud, Brahmananche Kasab, Powada: Chatrapati Shivajiraje Bhosle Yancha, Satsar Ank, Powada: Vidyakhatyatil Brahman Pantoji, Ishara, Gramjoshya sambhandi jahir kabhar, Akhandadi Kavyarachana, Asprashyanchi Kaifiyat among several others.

In his book, Shetkaryacha Asud (The Cultivator’s Whipcord) published in 1881 Jyotiba Phule writes:

“Since the white government bureaucrats are mostly in a stupor due to their life of luxury, they have no time to get any information about the true condition of the farmers, and their overall carelessness allows Brahman employees to dominate all the government departments. Because of these reasons, the farmers are so much looted that they have no bread to fill their stomachs or clothes to cover their bodies.”

This haunting past has hitherto continued to be the gruesome reality of this agonising society. In the same book, Jyotiba Phule gives pragmatic advice to improve farming as well as the situation of farmers. He vociferously criticised oppressor caste moneylenders who cheated peasants, and also the Brahmin priests and Brahmin employees who together exploited farmers. He acerbically exposed how Brahmin teachers either didn’t let Shudra children study, or instead of educating Shudra students, exploited and tormented them.

Further, in his book Gulamgiri (Slavery), Jyotiba Phule posited that freedom is intrinsic to being a human. He critiqued the concocted historical narratives written by Brahmins by writing, “It is futile to expect to get a factual and impartial history from the Bhat(Brahmin) persecutors.”

Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule opposed child marriage and sati, encouraged widow remarriage, and criticised barbers for shaving the heads of widows. They founded a home where oppressor caste pregnant widows could safely give birth without any judgements and also founded an orphanage to reduce the glaring rates of infanticide. Jyotirao Phule vehemently criticised the barbarity practised towards Brahmin widows and the hypocrisy with which the widowers easily got remarried. Since Savitribai Phule and Jyotiba Phule were childless, there was immense societal pressure on Jyotiba Phule to remarry, however, he unequivocally refused by vocalising that even he might be the reason for them not having a child, and if that were so, would the same society implore Savitribai Phule to get married again.

When Tarabai Shinde’s progressive work Stree Purush Tulana, opposing the double standards prevalent in the society between males and females was published in 1882, it faced overwrought criticism. However, Jyotiba Phule rightfully defended and invigorated this piece of work. While stressing female education, Jyotiba Phule’s oppressor caste progressive contemporaries suggested that females need to be educated to be better wives and mothers. However, Jyotiba refuted for he believed that education was a fundamental right of females as individuals, who were competent enough to study and explore different fields of education.

Jyotiba was the first in India to not use the word “manus” (human being), but instead, use “stree-purush(women-men), for he debunked the sexist connotation of taking women as a subset of men. He believed in gender sensitivity and representation. This dystopian society would have long turned into a utopia had the privileged oppressors followed Jyotiba Phule. Exactly how Jyotiba Phule had explicated, “…If men do not come in the way of basic human rights of women, a free world would come into being.

Ankita Apurva was born with a pen and a sickle.

Featured image credit: YouTube screengrab