She was a fearless reformer of the 19th century. Her opposition to Brahmanic patriarchy and caste enslavement, her resolve for social democracy, and her tireless fight to break the shackles of tradition made her a force to be reckoned with.
Savitribai Phule (1831-97) was modern India's first woman teacher, a radical exponent of mass and female education, a pioneer of engaged poetry, a courageous mass leader who took on the forces of caste and patriarchy. Her role in the anti-caste movement is unique, as she emerged as the only woman leader among all social movements in 19th century India who linked patriarchy with caste. It is a shame that she remains relatively unknown today though she was the torchbearer for the women's rights movement in India.
Savitribai was married at the early age of nine to Jotirao Phule, who was almost 13 at the time. He grew into a great leader and champion of the downtrodden and taught his wife while educating himself. They faced many challenges just trying to get an education.
While Jotirao was in school, some brahmins started questioning this and asked Govindrao, Jotirao's father to stop his English education 'since the Hindu Dharma doesn't allow a shudra to get educated'. On top of this, he was also teaching his wife, both of which were forbidden by the scriptures. The couple though, relentlessly wanted to learn and study. An exasperated Govindrao banished them from his home and broke all ties.
This struggle to just get an education made the Phule couple question their traditional belief system and they decided to work for people's right to live freely. Together they spearheaded the movement which was focused on the development of the 'Stree-Shudra-Atishudra', (women, OBCs and Dalits) who the couple believed were the most deprived, disadvantaged and oppressed people in society.
After Savitribai received her preliminary education from Jotirao, she was further trained in Ahmadnagar, which helped her teach and lead their educational revolution for the 'Stree-Shudra-Atishudra”.
Campaigning for social justice
‘Awake, arise and educate, smash traditions – liberate’ was a common refrain in her poems, to emphasise the negative roles traditions and caste equations played in oppression. She was an ardent advocate of modern education and the English language. “Learn English to annihilate caste,” she exhorted in most of her poems.
Before we take umbrage at the statement, one needs to understand that language in India is the product of the caste one is born in, the higher the caste, the better the language. Through our surnames, our addresses, and language we carry our castes always with us and are not able to liberate ourselves from it.
Her emphasis on the English language was to get everyone on the same plane, so that everyone could have equal opportunity to flourish and prosper. Her ideas may deem her anti-national today but on introspection, we would be able to realise that her struggle against caste and patriarchy has paved the way for a better India.
Savitribai did not see education just as a means for livelihood but as a tool for liberation from caste enslavement and Brahmanic patriarchy. When their first school for girls was opened, Savitribai became the first female teacher in India. Her struggle encouraged and inspired a whole generation of outstanding campaigners for gender justice in Maharashtra like Dr Anandibai Gopal Joshi, Pandita Ramabai, Tarabai Shinde, Ramabai Ranade and many others.
The love that the Phule couple shared sustained them in their fight against caste and patriarchy. They suffered great personal losses trying to liberate people and breaks the shackles of society.
They faced banishment from their own home and community because they were teaching women, OBCs and Dalits. Abuses, dirt, mud and stones were flung at Savitribai every time she left her house to teach.
This attack was organised by the upper castes and the ordeal only stopped after she slapped a Brahmin boy for continuous harassment. In spite of these difficult situations her resolve to work for social justice and social democracy only became stronger. The couple fought pitched battles to eradicate caste and social barriers. They stood by each other through every difficulty and worked for their cause relentlessly.
They set up the first school for downtrodden girls in 1848, which soon grew into a chain of five schools. Apart from education, Savitribai started the Mahila Seva Mandal in 1852, as she recognised the double disadvantage most women faced through caste and Brahmanic patriachy. The association worked towards raising women's consciousness about their rights and other social issues. She engaged herself at various levels to address women-specific problems. She campaigned against the victimisation of widows and advocated their remarriage.
Savitribai also organised a successful barbers’ strike against the prevailing practice of the forcible shaving of widows’ heads. She started a home for the children of widows who were raped. Her own home became a sanctuary for deserted women and orphans. She was continuously maligned, humiliated and attacked for challenging anti-women practices.
These misogynistic practices have now receded in the background due to a lifetime of ceaseless work by Savitribai Phule.
This brave woman was a pioneer of modern Marathi poetry and an intensely committed writer who used her skills to propagate her ideas and promote social democracy. She published two poetry anthologies, Kabya Phule and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratanakar, a collection of her songs and speeches, and another collection of Jotirao’s speeches.
When her husband passed away, she lit the funeral pyre instead of her husband's cousin or any other male member of the family. Her act of choosing to light her husband's funeral pyre, which is still considered to be audacious, must have sent shock waves across the land!
This one act speaks volumes of her self-confidence, independence and unconventional thinking. Such facts have been kept hidden from public knowledge, whereas the Brahmin male reformists' highly ambiguous and half-hearted efforts for women's upliftment continue to be hailed as the most glorious chapter of 19th century India. The truly liberating moments for Indian women happened in and through the life of Savitribai Phule, who chose to walk tall, in step with her husband, ahead of her time by centuries.
Jotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule, tried hard to convince others that the existing reform movements within Hinduism were insufficient to bring any lasting change. They formulated the belief in a compassionate Creator who was interested in the liberation of all human beings, irrespective of caste, class and gender. Their religious vision was finally propounded as the Sarvajanik Satya Dharma, or the Universal Religion of Truth. By this they broke caste enslavement and Brahmanic patriarchy and set Indians truly free, socially and in mind and body.
While we celebrate our independence and remember the contribution of our freedom fighters this year, let us appreciate Savitribai Phule and her efforts to free us from the chains of society and patriarchy. cannotappreciate the freedom of our country, if our minds are still in chains.
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