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Jotiba Phule: Sine Qua Non for Social Revolution

Jotiba Phule: Sine Qua Non for Social Revolution

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Manikanta Bahujan

BAPSA (Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association), JNU

“There cannot be a ‘nation’ worth the name until and unless all the people of the land of King Bali – such as Shudras and Ati-shudras, Bhils (tribals) and fishermen etc, become truly educated, and are able to think independently for themselves and are uniformly unified and emotionally integrated.” – Jotiba Phule

Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association (BAPSA) pays revolutionary tributes to the social revolutionary Rastrapitha Jotiba Phule on his 189th birth anniversary. Jotiba Phule was born on April 11th 1827 at Satara, Maharashtra. He belonged to the Mali caste (Shudra community, now in the OBC list). Influenced by Thomas Paine’s classic work “Rights of Man” and by reading all the religious scriptures, Phule educated himself, by overcoming all the caste constraints and humiliation. Married to Savitribai Phule at an early age, Jotiba Phule educated her (who became the first woman teacher in India) and other community women (for example, Fatima Sheikh) this later resulted in establishing first school for the untouchable girls in India in the year 1848. He was very much aware of the Brahminical Social Order, which was prevailing during his time and understood its hegemonic institution (Caste System) as being responsible for the graded inequalities in the society.

 Phule as a social revolutionary was not just fighting for material benefits for the lower castes during his period but systematically understood the elements of brahminical hegemony and started building a mass movement against the existing casteist social structure. His struggle was to emancipate the Shudra-atishudras from the trammels of bondage, which Brahminism had woven. He rejected the dubious avatarakalpana (Dashavatara) and understood Brahminical Hinduism as a dharmik order that perpetuated, institutionalised and made sacrosanct the dominance of the Brahmans (ideology of social and cultural hegemony). Phule cautions us by saying that, the lower castes have become mental slaves in this brahminical social order.

 Ironically, today most of the upper castes and few sections of the Bahujan Samaj reduced him as mere educationist and philanthropist. His struggle has paved a path for the radical anti-caste movement across the country. Phule started Satyashodhak Samaj in 1873 and led a movement along with Savitribai to annihilate caste system and Brahminism. With the efforts of Satyashodhak Samaj, later, Chatrapathi Shahu Maharaj, Dr. Ambedkar and Manyawar Kanshiram carried forward the legacy of Jotiba Phule. Therefore, one can say, Phule was one among the foremost persons to wage a systematic struggle (now known as on-going anti-caste movement or Ambedkarite movement) against the Brahminical (Hindu) socio-cultural-economic-political order.

Phule’s understanding of women’s oppression comes from the critical reading of the misogynistic Hindu scriptures. He directly attacked the social and familial oppression of women, which results in economic and political oppression. He stood with Pandita Ramabai and Tarabai Shinde, who were humiliated by the caste Hindus for their struggle against gender inequality. Though many social reform organizations were present during his time, they merely tried to reform the unequal structures within the Hindu family but did not encounter the Brahminical Social Order in toto.

 Phule, while addressing the question on women’s subordination, has intersected caste and gender categories. His understanding of the women’s question is very much central to the functioning of the caste system as a whole and believed that the end of women’s subordination lies in the total rejection of the Brahminical Shastras/Vedas, which has written malicious strictures about women of all castes. In both theory and practice, Jotiba’s struggle against gender inequality is radical in nature.

 Though Phule understood women of all castes as oppressed, he has never homogenized the category of “women” (Indian feminist movement has glorified the homogenized category of women and ignored the problems of lower caste women). In his poem ‘Kulambin’ (A Peasant Woman), Phule clearly draws the difference between lower caste women and upper caste women in their physical and mental work. He says, lower caste women after finishing all the work at home, work for upper caste families. He says “…poor hard-working peasant-woman cannot afford the luxury of sitting on a swing in the cool shade like Bhat woman.” As a lower caste woman, she faces caste humiliation/untouchability and being a woman, she is under continuous household drudgery (he was against patriarchy within too). He also led a movement against Sati, enforced widowhood, child marriages, child killings (abortions/infanticides), household drudgery. To end all these forms of oppressions, Phule advocated compulsory education for women and directed them to reject the malicious brahminical scriptures.

 Jotiba Phule, in his seminal work Gulamgiri (Slavery), exposed the Arya-Brahmans creation of avatarakalpana in institutionalizing brahminical hegemony. He warns us by reminding that the brahminical gluttons have created this ‘fraudulent rigmarole’ caste order in order to divide the Shudras and Atishudras and antagonize them against each other.

 In another important work, Cultivator’s Whipcord, Phule addressed the plight of peasants by exposing the Brahman conspiracies to deprive the peasantry of its meagre income in the name of one ritual or the other. For him, the production conditions and relations are affected by the dichotomous (Shetji-Bhatji vs Shudra and Atishudras) socio-cultural-economic structure.

 Apart from the above-mentioned contributions, he also opened night schools for the working classes in 1855. He used to teach them about the inegalitarian established social structure and advised them to stop idol worship and consuming liquor. Much before the communist movement in India took form, Phule mobilized the workers and fought for their rights. Similarly, Ayyankali (1863-1941), an anti-caste leader in Kerala, mobilized workers and organized strikes under the banner of Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham.

 Phule’s emphasis on education as liberating force is something mostly discussed but his recommendations submitted to Hunter Commission in 1882 were not taken seriously. He advocated compulsory and free primary education (ironically, RTE Act was enacted in 2009) and insisted that withdrawal of state funded higher education would bring greater hardship to the oppressed communities.The fascist Hindutva BJP government is rolling back the state’s role in providing free education and is instead inviting the casteist corporate forces to take over the educational institutions. Fee hike in IIT’s etc., fund cut in various educational institutions, proposal of stopping the fellowship to research scholars, the rising saffronization/brahminization/privatization of education, project of destroying the campus democracy etc., are the major threats now being faced by all of us.

 The murder of Rohith Vemula once again cautioned us about the brahminical nexus and socio-cultural hegemony in the universities. Day to day exclusion and humiliation of marginalized students is increasing in the modern agraharas. In spite of repeated struggles against the systemic discrimination on the campus, the casteist forces still dare to continue their agenda of destroying the intellectual capacity of the oppressed groups.Do these events not indicate that the only solution is the one which Phule suggested i.e. “Let there be schools for the Shudras and Atishudras in every village; but away with all Brahmin school-masters!” “…the education should not be transmitted through the medium of Brahmin teachers, for, while educating, they create in the minds of the pupils wrong religious ideas and lead them astray.”

 Except a few dominant OBC castes majority of OBCs castes are the victims of political untouchability and exclusion from opportunities and are deprived of basic human rights at every level.

 Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association, once again appeal to the oppressed sections to join in the struggle against the brahminism in uprooting the caste system. It is high time that we carry forward the legacy of Jotiba Phule in envisioning his Balirajya. Jai Birsa! Jai Phule! Jai Bhim!


“…if the shudras and atishudras ever get an opportunity like your (Brahmin) women to get education then all of you Arya brahmans will have to leave your brahmanism” – Jotiba Phule