The first social reformer of modern India
The last few years of the nineteenth century in India were years of rapid change brought about by social and religious movements. The leadership of these movements rested with Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, a thinker and a revolutionary activist committed to the common good. The crux of his work can be summarized in two words: education and equality.
Jyotiba Phule was born in 1827. At that time, illiteracy, superstition and untouchability reigned supreme in India. Women and untouchables were the most oppressed of the lot. Women’s education and abolition of untouchability thus became Jyotiba’s mission in life. In those days, women had no self esteem due to lack of education. Jyotiba realized that education was the only means to transform the status of women in the society. The education of one woman ensured the education of future generations. Accordingly, he began his mission with educating his own wife, Savitribai. He established India’s first girls’ school in Pune in 1848. Later, in spite of severe opposition from the society, he started many more girls’ schools with the help of his wife in 1850, 1851 and in the years to come.
In order to empower women, he strongly opposed child marriage, adolescent girls’ marriages and the cutting widows' hair to mark her widowhood. To break free from this tradition, he arranged the first widow-remarriage in 1864. This was a revolutionary act in those times. He also organised a strike of the barbers in order to protest against the cutting of widows’ hair. Even then, society did not accept widow-remarriage. Realizing the dangers of a widow giving birth to a child conceived in unfortunate circumstances after her husband’s death, he opened a home for newborn infants in 1863 to prevent infanticides and suicides. In order to set an example, he adopted a boy from this home. Looking back, one can see how modern, progressive and visionary were his outlook toward women.
Along with the upliftment of women, he was also concerned about the oppression of the untouchables and abolition of untouchability. The Dalit or untouchables at that time did not have any political, social, educational and economic rights. Mahatma Phule became the spokesperson for the social equality and rights of the Dalit. He started a school for the Dalit in 1852. He also made accessible a water tank for the lower castes. He severely criticized the caste system through the books Gulamgiri (Servitude) and Brahmananche Kasab (Skill of the Brahmin). He established the Satyashodhak Samaj in 1873 in Pune to instil confidence and awareness among the lower castes. Satyashodhak Samaj sowed the seeds of development of the masses and propounded the spread of rational thinking, rejecting the need for a Brahmin priestly class as educational and religious leaders. Jyotiba Phule inspired Rajarshi Shahu Maharaj. Also inspired by him was Vitthal Ramji Shinde who propagated the Bahujan Samaj. Later, Ambedkar carried this work forward.
Although India is mainly an agrarian economy, the farmers were an oppressed, poor and illiterate lot, always under debt. In order to represent them in the society, Mahatma Phule started organizing the farmers together. In the book, Shetkaryacha Aasud (Whip of the farmer), he stated in a matter of fact way that educating the farmers was the only means of eradicating their poverty and oppression. He also strived for the children of farmers to get a vocational training. He demanded that annual agricultural exhibitions be organised, building of lakes and dams for regular water for agriculture and for gun licenses to the farmers to protect their crops. In 1888, he dressed as an Indian farmer in front of the Duke of Connaught and represented the concerns and demands of the farmers.
Mahatma Phule also was concerned with the welfare of the unorganised labour force. Inspired by Phule, labour leader Narayan Meghaji Lokhande established the mill-workers union in Mumbai in 1884. This is recognised as the first labour union in India. Mahatma Phule was also the member of the Pune Municipal Corporation. Writings about him also note that he restored the samadhi of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj at Raigad.
Mahatma Phule was also an excellent writer. His expressed his thoughts on social reform through his work that includes Trutiya Ratna (Third gemstone), a play; a powada on Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, Sarvajanik Satyadharma (Common religion of truth), a book; and Akhand (Complete), a selection of poems.
Vidyevina mati geli; mativina neeti geli; neetivina gati geli; gativina vitta gele;
vittavina shudra khachale; itke anartha eka avidyene kele.
(Lack of education leads to lack of wisdom, which leads to lack of morals, which leads to lack of progress, which leads to lack of money, which leads to the oppression of the lower classes. See what state of the society one lack of education can cause!)
This poem is indicative of Mahatma Phule’s keen observation and understanding of the social milieu.
Phule believed in overthrowing the social system in which man has been deliberately made dependent on others who keep him illiterate, ignorant and poor, with a view to exploiting him. His humanitarian contribution includes mainstreaming the oppressed classes in society. The root of the modern social developments in present day India lies in the work undertaken by Mahatma Phule. His message to the society is timeless: “The religion of the Creator is truth; why then so many disputes?”