Jyotirao Phule was a 19th-century Indian leader and thinker who fought against social evils prevalent during his time. He propelled the Indian anti-caste movement, stood up against the atrocities of the Brahmins and fought for the rights of the people who belonged to the so-called ‘lower caste’. Jyotiba Phule and his wife, Savitribai, were the driving force behind Indian women's education and fought for the eradication of the caste system throughout their life.
Mahatma Jyotirao Phule
EARLY LIFE AND CHILDHOOD
Jyotirao Phule was born in the year 1827 into a family belonging to the 'mali' caste of florists and vegetable vendors, and hence, the surname ‘Phule’. Due to financial constraints, he discontinued his education at an early age and assisted his father on their farm. At the age of thirteen, he married Savitribai, who was barely nine and belonged to the same caste. After realising his capabilities and desire to study, Phule’s father enrolled him at the Scottish Missionary High School, Poona (Pune), where he completed his education.
MAHATMA JYOTIRAO PHULE’S CONTRIBUTIONS
Once, Jyotirao Phule was invited to a close friend’s wedding, who belonged to the ‘upper-caste’. As he participated in one of the rituals, the bridegroom’s family passed offensive comments on his social background. He felt extremely insulted and outraged with the treatment he had received. So, he left the ceremony and pledged to make it his life’s mission to uproot the caste-based discrimination, so that no one ever has go through what he had to.
Empowerment of Women through Education
Inspired by the book ‘The Rights of Man’ by Thomas Paine, Jyotirao worked relentlessly towards women’s empowerment and education for all. He strongly believed that it was the only way to bridge the gap to achieve social equality.
He decided to start with family and taught his wife to read and write. The couple then went on to start India’s first locally operated school for girls in Vishrambaug Wada, where both of them taught. Students from all walks of life, socio-economic backgrounds, and religions attended the school. A few years later, two more schools for girls and a local school were started for backward communities like Mahars and Mangs but were shut during the Revolt of 1857 due to lack of funds.
In those times, it was strongly believed that men were supposed to get an education and earn for the family, whereas women belonged in the kitchen. The idea of women’s education was not welcomed by the people, as taking care of children and doing all household chores was considered a woman’s responsibility. Jyotirao and Savitribai identified these orthodox beliefs and boldly addressed them.
However, the drive to change the age old norms was not that easy. They faced severe harassment. Stones, dirt, and mud were thrown at them as they left their house for the school. Phule's father was forced to banish them from the house. A close friend of Jyotirao, Usman Sheikh and his sister, Fatima Begum Sheikh, gave them food and shelter. Despite all these difficulties, they still carried on with their noble work to educate girls.
Jyotirao Phule and wife Savitribai
Fight Against Child Marriage, Exploitation of Widows and Female Infanticide
Child marriage was extremely common during those times. Young girls were married off to much older men who were likely to be left widowed not long after marriage. They were later sexually abused and exploited by family members and strangers. Most of the time, widows would then end up pregnant, with absolutely no support from anyone. In most cases, they were forced to opt for an abortion.
Phule was totally against child marriage and propagated the idea of widow remarriage. In 1863, he founded orphanages and an infanticide prevention centre with his wife, where pregnant widows could safely deliver babies and care for them.
Opposition to Caste System and Foundation of the Satya Shodhak Samaj
Jyotirao Phule believed in the Aryan invasion theory which claimed that Aryans were migrants from Central Asia who invaded North India, where the Indus Valley Civilization thrived. They are believed to have ridden chariots, spoken Sanskrit, and introduced Vedas to the Indian culture. Aryans considered themselves racially superior and invaded and oppressed the natives. They viewed the natives as inferior and ‘casted’ them as the lower class, in weaker section of the society. He believed that the land belonged to those who originally inhabited it and not to the invaders.
Jyotirao criticized the people belonging to the upper castes. He realized that Brahmins had exploited the lower castes with the help of Vedas. He held them responsible for adopting inhumane regulations to oppress the people who were treated as untouchables, to maintain their social superiority.
He was an outspoken supporter of social equality and welcomed individuals of all races and religions. His reforms infuriated the upper castes. The couple was held accountable for breaking society's laws and standards. Jyotirao, on the other hand, remained undeterred in his fight against societal injustice. His childhood friend Sadashiv Ballal Govande, who came from the upper caste, openly supported him. With the encouragement of his friend, he realized that a mass awakening towards the then prevailing social situation was imperative.
Hence, Jyotiba Phule founded the Satya Shodhak Samaj (Society of Seekers of Truth), in the year 1873. Through the Samaj, he aimed to destroy the orthodox beliefs, only to rebuild ideas of social justice and equality, and free the victims of the caste system. He opposed the Vedas, the ancient holy scriptures of the Hindus. He encouraged the oppressed class to not blindly submit to Brahmins and other upper castes and to not comply with the rules and regulations imposed upon them.
Postal Stamp honouring Jyotirao Phule
Phule was the first to coin the term ‘Dalit’. It is a Marathi word that refers to those who are considered lower caste and untouchables by the Brahmins. The main aim of the Satya Shodhak Samaj was not only to completely eradicate caste discrimination from the society but also to free those who belonged to backward classes from exploitation. He authored Gulam Giri, dedicated to people of America who fought against slavery, to help the Indian oppressed classes relate with their situation, and to encourage them fight for their rights. For his persistent attempts to completely destroy social injustices, Mahatma Jyotirao Phule was honoured with the title “Father of Indian Social Revolution”.
Phule and his wife were well ahead of their time. They spread awareness about the evils of the caste system, and inspired thousands of women to get an education, as they themselves had realized its value. Education empowers, uplifts, and makes one aware of their rights. Although the caste system is prevalent to this date, and a lot of work still needs to be done in the field of education, the society has progressed gradually. This is due to people like Jyotirao Phule and Savitribai who spent their whole life in empowering and educating women and people who came from the backward classes, and fought for their rights.
Pratha Content Writer