Jyotirao Govindrao Phule, also known as Mahatma Jyotirao Phule was a social worker, activist, teacher, and writer, regarded as one of our country’s most important anti-caste figures. Along with his wife, Savitribai Phule, he is most well-known for his contributions towards the education of women and oppressed castes. This article aims to provide an overview of his ideas and beliefs, his contributions towards social welfare and the legacy he left behind.
Early Life: Jyotirao Govindrao Phule
He was born on the 11th of April, 1827, in Pune, Maharashtra, into a family that belonged to the Mali caste, which was classified as Shudra within the varna system. Their occupation was that of gardening, and fruit and vegetable cultivation. At that time, the head of state, Peshwa Baji Rao II, commissioned his family to work as florists for them, which was also how they got the name Phule (flower-man). Jyotirao grew up without his mother, as she passed away when he was only a toddler. Like the others in his family, he went to work alongside them after completing his basic studies. However, a teacher noticed how smart the young child was and convinced Jyotirao’s father to let him continue his schooling. Thus, he was able to finish his education at the Scottish Mission High School, an English medium school. At school, he met two of his friends, Sadashiv Ballav Govande and Moro Viththal Valavekar, both Brahmins, who would go on to work with him. He was married as a teenager to Savitribai, who, along with him, would go on to fight for various causes throughout their lives.
Facilitating Education For the Underprivileged:
There was one incident in particular which affected Jyotirao Phule a lot and drove him to start doing the work he did. In 1848, he was attending the wedding of a Brahmin friend and was part of the wedding procession. However, when they found out he was a Mali and taking part, he was scolded, humiliated, and made to leave. This incident made him realise that he wanted to fight against the caste system and ensure that this did not happen again to his fellow men and women. He and his friends were also deeply inspired by the book “The Rights of Man” written by Thomas Paine. After reading it, he came to the conclusion that the only way to emancipate and uplift oppressed minorities was through education. He passed on his education to his wife, and then together, they opened the first school for girls, which was not run by missionaries.
It can be said that Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule embodied intersectional feminism well before the term was coined – as they recognised the different ways in which oppressions intersect in society and thus strove for the upliftment of all, and opened their school to girls of all castes and religions and socioeconomic statuses. Jyotirao and Savitribai were ostracised for their actions, and often targeted by the upper caste elements who felt threatened by their actions; however, they did not give up. They received help from their friends Usman Sheikh and his sister Fatima Sheikh, who opened their home so that the school could run there. Together, they further went on to establish schools for children from the oppressed Mahar and Mang castes.
Further Contributions to Social Welfare:
Jyotirao wrote extensively on a wide variety of social issues; he was one of the first people to articulate and call out the stronghold that the Brahmin community. He wrote about caste-based slavery in one of his books, dedicating it to the African American movement in the US against slavery. Phule was a staunch opponent of child marriage and also encouraged widow remarriage as he recognised that these were ways of subordinating women. He ran a campaign for widow remarriage and opened up an infanticide prevention centre in 1863, which acted as a safe space where pregnant widows could give birth and stay to take care of their babies. It was also from here that a decade later, he and his wife adopted their son.
In 1873, on the 24th of September, he established the Satyashodak Samaj, with the foundational principles being that all human beings are equal. Membership was open to all regardless of their background, and the society set out with various social reform movements, with the main aim being the upliftment of those most backward in society and spreading rational thinking. One of the many examples of the reforms the society introduced was the Satyashodak marriage system, which consisted of alternative marriage rituals and lines which were more progressive and equal.
Phule engaged in social work alongside his profession – a merchant who supplied metal-casting gear to construction sites. He was also a part of the Poona municipal council for many years, and also stood in front of the Hunter Commission for Education in 1882 and demanded universal compulsory primary education for all and incentives for those who came from socioeconomically backward backgrounds. He published about 16 books in his lifetime, with some of his most famous works being Gulamgiri (slavery), also mentioned above and Shetkaryaca Asud (Cultivator’s Whipcord), where he critiqued the exploitation of peasants.
Death and Legacy:
In 1888, he was bestowed the title of Mahatma by fellow social reformer Vithalrao Krishnaji Vandekar, the same year he was afflicted by a stroke. After two years of suffering, he then passed away at the age of 63 on the 20th of November, 1890. However, his legacy and influence on anti-caste movements have stayed throughout the years. Dr.B.R Ambedkar, the framer of our constitution and one of our country’s biggest inspirations credited Mahatma Phule as one of his three most significant influences. Phule is also said to have coined the term Dalit (translating to broken or crushed) to refer to those who do not come under the varna system, a term used and preferred by the community today. There exist various monuments and buildings in his name throughout the country, such as the Mahatma Phule Museum in Pune. His writings and books remain ever popular as till date, they continue to inspire all those who wish to fight for the liberation of the downtrodden and resist against oppressive systems.