[Dalit History Month Special] Mahatma Jyotiba Phule: The Visionary Who Transformed Indian Society for Generations to Come

Jyotiba Phule and his wife, Savitribai Phule, spearheaded the movement for women's education in India.
Mahatma Jyotiba Phule
Mahatma Jyotiba Phule

Mahatma Jyotirao Govindrao Phule, born on 11 April 1827 in Maharashtra, can be described as the pioneer of modern India. As a social reformer, his scientific ideas and public service are a continuing source of inspiration.

Living during an era when Dalits were deemed as polluting shadows and made to carry a broom on their backs to wipe the path they traveled on, Phule was a witness to a caste system that had frayed the fabric of social life. Every society was divided into different castes, which lacked brotherhood. This led to the deplorable plight of the backward castes subjected to untouchability and treated like animals.

Jyotiba Phule and his wife, Savitribai Phule, spearheaded the movement for women's education in India. Phule established her first girls' school in 1848 at the residence of Tatyasaheb Bhide or Bhidewara in Pune.

The Satyashodhak Samaj

On 24 September 1873, Phule founded the Satyashodhak Samaj (Society of Truth Seekers) in Pune, Maharashtra. This social reform organization worked towards uplifting the oppressed classes, and anyone regardless of religion or caste could join it. The significance of this organization was that it provided a platform for people to unite and fight against social discrimination.

Through the Satyashodhak Samaj, Jyotiba Phule aimed to promote the rights of women, Dalits, and other marginalized groups. He opposed idolatry and condemned the caste system, campaigning for rational thinking and rejecting the need for priests.

Phule founded the Satyashodhak Samaj to fight for the rights of the lowest castes in the caste hierarchy. The organization played a crucial role in promoting education, social rights, and political access for disadvantaged groups in Maharashtra, particularly women, farmers, and Dalits. Savitribai, Mahatma Jyotirao's wife, was the head of the women's section of the organization.

However, the Satyashodhak Samaj disbanded in the 1930s as most of its members left the society and joined the Indian National Congress Party. Despite that, the Samaj influenced various social and political groups that emerged later and played a significant role in shaping modern Indian society.

Empowering women through education 

Jyotiba Phule witnessed the plight of young widows who had to shave their heads and were prohibited from participating in any celebrations, robbed of any joyful moments in life. He also saw how Dalit women were forced to dance naked, amongst many other social evils that perpetuated inequality. Observing such injustices, he recognized the need to educate women.

Phule believed that education was crucial for the empowerment of Indian women. He campaigned vigorously for compulsory education for girls and established the first school for girls in Pune. He believed that education would equip women with the necessary tools to stand up for their rights and combat societal discrimination. His efforts for spreading education were pivotal for the progress of broader women's rights issues in India.

The Establishment of the First Indigenous School for Girls

Inspired by his visit to a girls’ school run by a Christian missionary, Jyotirao Phule realized the dire need for better education for oppressed castes and women in Indian society. In 1848, at the age of 21, Phule read Thomas Paine's book, Rights of Man, promoting social justice. He believed that education was crucial to empowering women and enhancing society as a whole. The same year, he taught his wife Savitribai to read and write, after which they established the first indigenous school for girls in Pune. The school marked the beginning of a new educational revolution in India that aimed to break down discriminatory barriers and make education accessible to women of all castes and backgrounds.

Challenging Brahmin Conservatism

The conservative upper-caste society of Pune opposed Jyotirao Phule's groundbreaking work for women's education, but many Indians and Europeans generously supported him. Conservatives in Pune even forced the couple's family members and community to boycott them, making it challenging to procure the resources required for school operations. However, when the Phules faced adversity, their friends like Usman Shaikh and his sister Fatima Shaikh provided them with shelter and helped them set up a school in their campus.

Despite this opposition and adversity, the Phule couple persisted in their efforts to educate the most marginalized sections of society. They established schools for children from the Mahar and Matang communities. By 1852, three schools operated, with 273 girls studying in these schools. However, by 1858 the schools closed down due to relentless opposition from conservatives and hostile circumstances.

Identifying the Source of Social Evils

In his 1873 book, "Gulamgiri," Phule despaired at the barbaric attacks perpetrated on native people, leading to their eviction from their homes and land, and subjection to various brutalities. As a result, they were made slaves, bandits, and treated inhumanely. He placed the blame on Brahmanism's poisonous roots, which were perpetuating inequality, discrimination, and social injustices in the country.

Jyotiba Phule's Impact Through Literature

Jyotiba Phule's writings critically examined religious scriptures, providing readers with a rational perspective that challenged traditional beliefs. In his book "Gulamgiri," he engaged with the fictional character, Dhondirao, in a question-and-answer dialogue, captivating readers with his unique writing style. Phule's work compelled the readers to look beyond the false and misleading world and to delve into the reality of the world around them.

In "Gulamgiri," Phule argues that Brahmins maintained their influence and dominance over society by resorting to stratagem. The Brahmin-priests propagated several fake texts to keep the Dalit and backward castes as their slaves. These fraudulent claims suggested that all the privileges enjoyed by Brahmins were a providence from God. The illiterate masses were misled by this falsehood, and their subjugation to mental slavery continued.

Phule: An Inspiration to Many

“Jyotirao Phule was a true Mahatma” - M.K. Gandhi.

“There is no problem in saying that the target on the Brahminical texts was precise. The truth created by Phuleji is the essence of human culture and knowledge attained by the hard work of a thousand years.” - Lakshman Shastri Joshi.

“The personality of Mahatma Phule will come to the fore as the farmers and laborers progress in Indian democracy.” - Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India.

“Mahatma Phule was the first great man of the grassroots revolution in India, and therefore he was the descendant of Mahatma Budh, Mahaveer, Martin Luther, Nanak, etc. His dedicated life is the source of inspiration for today's time.”  - Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Former Prime Minister

Story Translated by Pratikshit Singh

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