In India, Maharashtra a state with cultural heritage and is also land of social thinkers, social reforms and social revolutionaries who have not only molded and enriched all facets of life of Maharashtra but have also made singular contribution to growth and development of India .In this website of the great social reformer - Mahatma Phule, contempory of KARL MARX, we have the "patria protesta" of the Indian social revolution and the first leader of peasants. In those days there was a conflict between the rationalist and the orthodox. His period can, therefore, be a aptly described as the dawn of revolution in the history not only of Maharashtra but of the country as a whole in the various fields like Education, Caste Systems, Agriculture, Economics, Women and widow upliftment , Human Rights, Untouchability ,Social Equality.
MAHATMA JYOTIRAO GOVINDRAO PHULE occupies a unique position among the social reformers of Maharashtra in the nineteenth century. While other reformers concentrated more on reforming the social institutions of family and marriage with special emphasis on the status and rights of women, Jyotirao Phule revolted against the unjust caste system under which million of people had suffered for centuries. In particular, he courageously upheld the cause of the untouchables and took up the cudgels for the poorer peasants. He was a militant advocate of their rights. The story of his stormy life is an inspiring saga of a continuous struggle, which he waged relentlessly against the forces of reaction. What was remarkable was his ability to stand up against all kinds of pressure without faltering even once and act always according to his convictions. Though some keen observers of the social scene in Maharashtra like Narayan Mahadeo Parmanand did acknowledge his greatness in his lifetime, it is only in recent decades that there is increasing appreciation of his service and sacrifice in uplifting the masses.
Jyotirao Phule was born in 1827. His father, Govindrao was a vegetable vendor at Poona. Originally Jyotirao's family, known as Gorhays, came from Katugan, a village in the Satara district of Maharashtra. His grandfather Shetiba Gorhay settled down in Poona. Since Jyotirao's father and two uncles served as florists under the last of the Peshwas, they came to be known as 'Phules'. Jyotirao's mother passed away when he was hardly one year old. After completing his primary education, Jyotirao had to leave the school and help his father by working on the family's farm. Jyotirao's marriage was celebrated when he was not even thirteen.
Impressed by Jyotirao's intelligence and his love for knowledge, two of his neighbours, one a Muslim teacher and another a Christian gentleman persuaded his father Govindrao to allow him to study in a secondary school. In 1841, Jyotirao got admission in the Scottish Mission's High School at Poona. It was in this school that he met Sadashiv Ballal Govande, a Brahmin, who remained a close friend throughout his life. Both Jyotirao and Govande were greatly influenced by Thomas Paine's ideas and they read with great interest Paine's famous book ' The Rights of Man'. Moro Vithal Valvekar and Sakharam Yashwant Paranjapye were two other Brahmin friends of Jyotirao who in later years stood by him in all his activities. After completing his secondary education in 1847, Jyotirao decided not to accept a job under the Government.
An incident in 1848 made him aware of the qualities of the caste system, the predominant position of the Brahmins in the social set up. He was invited to attend a wedding of one of his Brahmin friends. As the bridegroom was taken in a procession, Jyotirao accompanied him along with the relatives of his Brahmin friend. Knowing that Jyotirao belonged to the Mali caste which was considered to be inferior by the Brahmins, the relatives of the bridegroom insulted and abused him. Jyotirao left the procession and returned home. With tears in his eyes, he narrated his experience to his father who tried to pacify him. After this incident Jyotirao made up his mind to defy the caste-system and serve the Shudras and women who were deprived of all their rights as human beings under the caste-system.
Education of women and the lower caste, he believed, deserved priority. Hence at home he began educating his wife Savitribai and open girl's school in August 1848. The orthodox opponents of Jyotirao were furious and they started a vicious campaign against him. He refused to be unnerved by their malicious propaganda. As no teacher dared to work in a school in which untouchables were admitted as students, Jyotirao asked his wife to teach the girls in his school. Stones and brickbats were thrown at her when she was on her way to the school. The reactionaries threatened Jyotirao's father with dire consequences if he did not dissociate himself from his son's activities. Yielding to the pressure, Jyotirao's father asked his son and the daughter-in-law to leave his house as both of them refused to give up their noble endeavour. Though the school had to be closed for sometime due to lack of funds, Jyotirao re-opened it with the help of his Brahmin friends -Govande and Valvekar. On 3rd July, 1851, he founded a girls' school in which eight girls were admitted on the first day. Steadily the number of students increased. Savitribai taught in this school also and had to suffer a lot because of the hostility of the orthodox people. Jyotirao opened two more girls' schools during 1851-52. In a memorial addressed to the Education Commission (popularly known as the Hunter Commission) in 1882, he described his activities in the field of education - 'A year after the institution of the female school I also established an indigenous mixed school for the lower classes, especially the Mahars and Mangs. Two more schools for these were subsequently added. I continued to work and whereas them for nearly nine to ten years.' Jyotirao was aware that primary education among the masses in the Bombay Presidency was very much neglected. He argued that 'a good deal of their poverty, their want of self-reliance, their entire dependence upon the learned and intelligent classes' could be attributed to the 'deplorable state of education among the peasantry'. He blamed the British Government for spending profusely a large portion of revenue on the education of the higher classes. According to him, this policy resulted in the virtual monopoly of all the higher offices under the Government by the Brahmins. Jyotirao boldly attacked the stranglehold of the Brahmins, who prevented other from having access to all the avenues of knowledge and influence. He denounced them as cheats and hypocrites. He asked the masses to resist the tyranny of the Brahmins. All his writings were variations on this theme. His critics made fun of his ignorance of grammar and philology, his inelegant language and far-fetched interpretations of India history and the ancient texts. They brushed his criticism aside by saying that he was merely echoing what the Christian missionaries had said about the Indian society in general and Brahmins in particular. The established scholars in his time did not take Phule's arguments seriously. His critics did not realise that Jyotirao's acrimonious criticism was basically a spontaneous outburst of a genuine concern for the equal rights of human beings. Emotionally he was so deeply involved in his work that he could not make a dispassionate analysis and take a detached view of the social forces. Jyotirao's deep sense of commitment to basic human values made it difficult for his to restrain himself when he witnessed injustice and atrocities committed in the name of religion by those who were supposed to be its custodians.
Widow remarriages were banned and child-marriage was very common among the Brahmins and other upper castes in the then Hindu society. Many widows were young and not all of them could live in a manner in which the orthodox people expected them to live. Some of the delinquent widows resorted to abortion or left their illegitimate children to their fate by leaving them on the streets. Out of pity for the orphans, Jyotirao Phule established an orphanage, possibly the first such institution founded by a Hindu. Jyotirao gave protection to pregnant widows and assured them that the orphanage would take care of their children. It was in this orphanage run by Jyotirao that a Brahmin widow gave birth to a boy in 1873 and Jyotirao adopted him as his son. For sometime, Jyotirao worked as a contractor for the government and supplied building material required for the construction of a huge barrage at Khadakvasala near Poona. He had a direct experience of working with the officials of the Public Works Department which was notorious as well as a hotbed of corruption. Except the British officers holding very high positions in the Department, the clerks and other officers were invariably Brahmins and they exploited the illiterate workers. Jyotirao felt it necessary to explain to the workers how they were duped by the Brahmin officials. In one of the ballads composed by him, he described vividly the fraudulent practices resorted to by the Brahmin officials in the Public Works Department (printed at the end of 'Slavery').
In 1868, Jyotirao decided to give access to the untouchables to a small bathing tank near his house. In his controversial book called Slavery published in June, 1873 Jyotirao included a manifesto which declared that he was willing to dine with all regardless of their caste, creed or country of origin. It is significant that several newspapers refused to give publicity to the manifesto because of its contents. His book slavery was severely criticised for its 'venomous propaganda' against the Brahmins. Jyotirao dedicated this book 'to the good people of the Unites States as a token of admiration for their sublime, disinterested and self-sacrificing devotion in the cause of Negro Slavery'. The book is written in the form of a dialogue. After tracing the history of the Brahmin domination in India, Jyotirao examined the motives and objects of cruel and inhuman laws framed by the Brahmins. Their main object in fabricating these falsehoods was to dupe the kinds of the ignorant and to rivet firmly on them the chains of perpetual bondage and slavery which their selfishness and cunning had forged. The severity of the laws as affecting the Sudras and the intense hatred with which they were regarded by the Brahmins can be explained on no other supposition but that there was, originally between the two, a deadly feud arising from the advent of the soil while the Brahmins argued that the Sudras were the sons of the soil while the Brahmins came from outside and usurped everything that was possessed by the Sudras. He also claimed that what he had described in his book was 'not one hundredth part of the rogueries' that were generally practised on his 'poor, illiterate and ignorant Sudra brethren'.
On 24th September, 1873, Jyotirao convened a meeting of his followers and admirers and it was decided to form the 'Satya Shodhak Samaj' (Society of Seekers of Truth) with Jyotirao as its first president and treasurer. Every member had to take a pledge of loyalty to the British Empire. The main objectives of the organisation were to liberate the Shudras and Ati Shudras and to prevent their exploitation by the Brahmins. All the members of the Satya Shodhak Samaj were expected to treat all human beings as children of God and worship the Creator without the help of any mediator. The membership was open to all and the available evidence proves that some Jews were admitted as members. In 1876 there were 316 members of the 'Satya Shodhak Samaj'.
Jyotirao refused to regard the Vedas as sacrosanct. He apposed idolatry and denounced the Chaturvarnya. In his book Sarvajanik Dharma Pustak published in 1891, his views on religious and social issues are given in the form of a dialogue. According to him, both men and women were entitled to enjoy equal rights and it was a sin to discriminate between human beings on the basis of sex. He stressed the unity of man and envisaged a society based on liberty, equality and fraternity. He was aware that religious bigotry and aggressive nationalism destroy the unity of man.
In 1876, Jyotirao was nominated as a member of the Poona Municipality. He tried to help the people in the famine stricken areas of Maharashtra when a severe famine in 1877 forced people in the rural area to leave their villages. Some of them had to leave their children behind and an appeal issued on 17 May 1877 by Jyotirao indicates that the Victoria Orphanage was founded under the auspices of the Satya Shodhak Samaj to look after these unfortunate children. From the beginning of the year 1879 Krishnarao Bhalekar, one of his colleagues, edited a weekly called Deenbandhu which was the organ of the Satya Shodhak Samaj. The weekly articulated the grievances of the peasants sand workers. Deenbandhu defended Jyotirao when Vishnushastri Chiplunkar, a powerful spokesman of the conservative nationalists, attacked Jyotirao's writing in the most vitriolic style.
Narayan Meghaji Lokhande was another prominent colleague of Jyotirao. Lokhande is acclaimed as the Father of Trade Union Movement in India. From 1880 onwards, he took over the management of Deenbandhu which was published from Bombay. Along with Lokhande, Jyotirao also addressed the meetings of the textile workers in Bombay. It is significant that before Jyotirao and his colleagues Bhalekar and Lokhande tried to organise the peasants and the workers, no such attempt was made by any organisation to redress their grievances.
One of the charges levelled by Jyotirao against the leaders of the Brahmo Samaj and the Prarthana Samaj, the Sarvajanik Sabha and the Indian National Congress was that despite their programmes, in reality, they did very little to improve the lot of the masses. He felt that these organisations were dominated by the Brahmins and were not truly representative in character. In his booklet called Satsara (The essence of Truth) published in June, 1885, he criticised the Brahmo Samaj and the Prarthana Samaj. Addressing their leaders he declared, 'We don't need to help of your organisations. Don't worry about us.' In his book, Sarvajanik Satya Shodhak Dharma Pustak, a posthumous publication, he observed that the peasants and the untouchables were not members of either the Sarvajanik Sabha or the Indian National Congress. He warned that the persistent demand made by these organisations for Indianisation of the administrative services, if accepted, would lead to Brahminisation of the services in India. He thought that it was difficult to create a sense of nationality so long as the restrictions on dining and marrying outside the caste continued to be observed by people belonging to different castes. Education of the masses would promote the process of nation making.
It should be remembered that just Jyotirao did not mince words when he criticised the leaders of the reformist movement, he was equally fearless in criticising the decisions of the alien rulers which did not contribute to the welfare of the masses. When the Government wanted to grant more licences for liquor-shops, Jyotirao condemned this move, as he believed that addiction to liquor would ruin many poor families. On 30th November, 1880, the President of the Poona Municipality requested the members to approve his proposal of spending one thousand rupees on the occasion of the visit of Lord Lytton, the Governor-General of India. The officials wanted to present him an address during his visit to Poona. Lytton had passed an Act, which resulted in gagging the press, and Deenbandhu, the organ of the Satya Shodhak Samaj, had protested against the restrictions on the right to freedom of the press. Jyotirao did not like the idea of spending the money of the taxpayers in honouring a guest like Lytton. He boldly suggested that the amount could be very well spending on the education of the poor people in Poona. He was the only member out of all the thirty-two nominated members of the Poona Municipality who voted against the official resolution.
Another incident also revealed his attachment for the poor peasant and his courage in drawing the attention of a member of the British royal family to the sufferings of the farmers in rural area. On 2nd March, 1888, Hari Raoji Chiplunkar, a friend of Jyotirao, arranged a function in honour of the Duke and Duchess of Connaught. Dressed like a peasant, Jyotirao attended the function and made a speech. He commented on the rich invitees who displayed their wealth by wearing diamond-studded jewellery and warned the visiting dignitaries that the people who had gathered there did not represent India. If the Duke of Connaught was really interested in finding out the condition of the Indian subjects of Her Majesty the Queen of England, Jyotirao suggested that he ought to visit some nearby villages as well as the areas in the city occupied by the untouchables. He requested the Duke of Connaught who was a grandson of Queen Victoria to convey his message to her and made a strong plea to provide education to the poor people. Jyotirao's speech created quite a stir.
Throughout his life, Jyotirao Phule fought for the emancipation of the downtrodden people and the struggle, which he launched at a young age ended only when he died on 28th November, 1890. He was a pioneer in many fields and among his contemporaries he stands out as one who never wavered in his quest for truth and justice. Though he was often accused of fomenting hatred between the Brahmins and the non-Brahmins, very rarely an attempt was made to consider his scathing criticism in a broad perspective. The later generations also took considerable time to understand and appreciate the profound significance of his unflinching espousal of the 'rights of man' which remained till the end of his life a major theme of his writings and a goal of his actions.