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Jotiba Phule and Tilak and the question of education for Women and non-Brahmins

Jotiba Phule and Tilak and the question of education for Women and non-Brahmins

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Anoop Kumar

I am posting a few extracts from a paper written by Parimala V. Rao (“Educating Women and Non-Brahmins as ‘Loss of Nationality’: Bal Gangadhar Tilak and the Nationalist Agenda in Maharashtra“).

This was published as an ocassional paper by the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi. She is also the author of ‘Foundations Of Tilak’s Nationalism‘, published by Orient Blackswan in 2010.

I have placed the extracts point-wise for easy reading; the references given below have also been quoted from the same paper.


The nationalists, led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, during 1881-1920, consistently opposed the establishment of girls’ schools, the imparting of education to non-Brahmins, and implementing compulsory education. They were also instrumental in defeating the proposals to implement compulsory education in nine out of eleven municipalities.The important source for this paper is Tilak’s own writings in his paper, the ‘Mahratta’.

* The battle of Kirki in 1818 ended the Peshwa’s rule in Maharashtra. Within a decade of the fall of Brahmanical Peshwai, many intellectuals of Maharashtra began to work towards ending gender and caste inequalities. The revolt against caste disability was taken up more forcefully by Jotirao Phule.

* He judged Hindu culture ruthlessly by applying two values – rationality and equality. The application of these two principles called for a total rejection of the unequal aspects of culture like the caste system, the authoritarian family structure, subordination of women, the ban on their education, and the enforcement of life-long widowhood and child marriages upon girls/women.

* Jotirao Phule was the first reformer to articulate the importance of educating women and Shudras as a means of empowering them. Phule had the most radical ideas on educating women. He considered that men had kept women in an unenlightened state in order to preserve their own superiority.

* He argued that had a holy woman written any scripture, men would not have been able to ignore the rights due to women, and would also not have waxed so eloquent about their own rights. If women were learned enough, men would never have been able to be so partial and deceitful.

* Phule started a school for girls in 1848 and undertook the task of teaching there. He opened two more schools in 1851-52. The difficulty in obtaining teachers for his school encouraged him to teach his wife Savitri Bai who in turn began to teach in these schools. Both faced intense hostility from their society.

Jotiba Phule Vs Tilak and others

* A small group of anti-reformists led by Vishnushastri Chiplunkar emerged in the 1870s. They were soon joined by V.N. Mandalik and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. This group called themselves Nationalists and began to analyse every reform as ‘loss of nationality or rashriyata.’ They termed the loss of caste as the loss of nationality.

* They declared that ‘the institution of caste had been the basis of the Hindu society and undermining the caste would undermine the Hindu society’. Phule, who advocated the abolition of caste-based inequalities, was called ‘as traitors to the nation-rashtra’ by Chiplunkar and Tilak, who claimed that they represented the real Hindus.[1]

* The campaign led by Phule and reformers for the implementation of compulsory education was opposed by Tilak . He devised various arguments against compulsory primary education. Tilak explained that teaching reading, writing, and the rudiments of history, geography and mathematics to Kunbi (peasant) children would actually harm them. This was the most definite way the elite had of avoiding competition in higher education and jobs. He also emphasised that the peasant’s children should be taught traditional occupations, and that the curriculum meant for other children was ‘unsuitable for them’. [2]

* Criticising the reformers who pressed for compulsory education and argued that since the municipal schools were supported by public funds, they should be open to all, Tilak countered that ‘it was not public money as the entire population did not pay taxes and it was taxpayer’s money and only the taxpayers had a right to decide how this money was spent’.[3]

* He suggested that if the government was bent upon providing education for all, then only ‘the education befitting their rank and station in life’ should be provided to the peasant’s children, while general education should be given to those who had a ‘natural inclination’ for it.[4]

* Tilak argued that by supporting the extension of ‘liberal education for the masses the reformers were committing a grave error’ as ‘English education encouraged the people to defy the caste restrictions and the spread of English education among the natives will bring down their caste system’. Tilak argued that caste was the basis of the Hindu nation, and that it was extremely essential to preserve it to assist the process of nation-building. [5]

The Hunter Commission

* The appointment of the Hunter Commission in 1881 to look into the issues concerning both the medium of instruction and the role of the government in maintaining educational institutions

* Phule, in his representation, demonstrated the neglect of the primary education of the Shudras, Mahars, Mangs and Muslims in the Bombay presidency. Arguing for the cause of compulsory education, he suggested that the government should give more importance to primary education. [6]

* Tilak opposed the admission of Mahars and Mangs to the schools. He criticised ‘the emotional British officers and impractical native reformers for encouraging the Mahar boys to seek admission into government schools’. [7]

* Tilak also stressed that the nationalists ‘would not tolerate the alien government and anglicised reformers who in their zeal for the doctrine of the equality of mankind were interfering in the internal affairs of the Hindu society’.

* The colonial government’s support to such an endeavour was, according to Tilak, ‘against the spirit of Queen’s proclamation, which guaranteed that the government would abstain from all interference with religious belief’.[8]

* Tilak stated that the attempts made by ‘the indiscreet officers to force association of Mahars and Dhades on Brahmin boys was against the guarantee of religious neutrality.’ [9]

Tilak on Women’s Education

Let me stop my note here by saying that according to Tilak ‘education would make women immoral‘.

[ For rest of his views on education for SC/ST/OBC and women you can directly read this excellent paper entirely at]

We have been told about Tilak that he gave the slogan ‘Swaraj is my birth right’. I want you to ponder on just two questions.

1. What did the ‘swaraj’ he was fighting for mean for Tilak?

2. Did Tilak’s ‘swaraj’ include SC/ST/OBC and women?



1. Mahratta, 24 August 1884, p. 1.

2. Mahratta, 22 March 1891, pp. 2, 3: ‘What shall we do next?’ Editorial; Mahratta, 12 April 1891, p. 3: Editorial; Mahratta, 26 April 1891, p. 2: ‘How Shall We Do It?’ Editorial.

3. Mahratta, 15 May 1881, pp. 3-4

4. Ibid., p. 3.

5. Mahratta, 15 May 1881, p. 3.

6. S. Bhattacharya, et al. (eds), Educating the Nation (New Delhi, 2003), Document no. 1, p. 1.

7. S. Bhattacharya, Educating the Nation, Document no. 49, p. 125.

8. Mahratta, 26 March 1882, pp. 5-6: ‘Admission of Mahar boys into Government Schools’.

9. Ibid. p. 5.

Date: July/16/11