Mahatma Jyotiba Phule ,the important Social ac...

Mahatma Jyotiba Phule ,the important Social activist from Maharashtra, India. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

guest post – subhash gatade


“Lack of education lead to lack of wisdom,

Which leads to lack of morals,

Which leads to lack  of progress,

Which leads to lack of money,

Which leads to the oppression of the lower classes,

See what state of the society one lack of education can cause!”


..Most people do not realize that society can practise tyranny and oppression against an individual in a far greater degree than a Government can. The means and scope that are open to society for oppression are more extensive than those that are open to Government; also they are far more effective. What punishment in the penal code is comparable in its magnitude and its severity to excommunication? Who has greater courage—the Social Reformer who challenges society and invites upon himself excommunication or the political prisoner who challenges Government and incurs sentence of a few months or a few years imprisonment?.. 

(Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah, Address delivered by Dr Ambedkar on the 101 st birthday celebration of M G Ranade, 18 th January, 1943)




Understanding or rereading a historical figure – whose life and times have impacted generations of scholars and activists – who has been subjected to praise as well scrutiny by best brains of our times becomes a challenging task.  One gets a feeling that whatever has to be said has already been said and perhaps there is not much novelty left. An added challenge becomes when you are face to face with scholars/activists who could be considered experts on the issue having done more detailed and through work on the subject.

Today when I begin my presentation I find myself in a similar quandary.

Would it be repetition of what the earlier scholar just spoke or a glimpse of what the coming activist is going to present? And to avoid the possible monotony of any such ensuing discussion – where all of us would be doing ‘kadam tal‘ (a lexicon used in NCC parades) around similar arguments and similar insights and would be lamenting in similar voices, I have decided to flag of few queries which have been bothering my mind since quite some time. It is possible that it would be considered rather blasphemous to raise such questions or they are so mundane that participants can just exchange smiles about their content. Anyway, whatever might be the outcome I would like to raise them with a sincere hope that they would possibly generate a conversation?


1848 happens to be a year of historic importance for the exploited and oppressed of the world, as it was the year when Karl Marx and Frederick Engels – young German revolutionaries – published ‘The Communist Manifesto’. Its’ call to ‘Workers of the World‘ to Unite as they had ‘nothing but chains to loose but a ‘World to Win’ still reverberates around the world.

For all those radicals, revolutionaries – individuals, formations, organisations – who yearn for a fundamental social transformation in this part of the earth, 1848 has an added significance. It was this year when another young man -Jyotiba Phule along with his wife Savitribai and a family friend/fellow traveller Fatima Sheikh – opened the first school for the socially discriminated and historically despised ‘untouchable’ community’s girls in Pune. And things were never the same for the Shudras-Atishudras and Women.

Today when we look back at the more than four decade journey of this young man, who was given the honorific ‘Mahatma’ in the presence of thousands of people, a few years before he breathed his last, (1890) we are amazed to learn the expanse of his vision and the tremendous innovativeness and creativity which was exhibited in his actions. Miles ahead of his own contemporaries – who had the courage to raise his finger at the pressing problems of his time and had no qualms in attacking internal asymmetries of our society and no illusion about the ‘great traditions’ – one finds that there was no hiatus between what he spoke and he practised in personal as well as social-political life.

Apart from teaching his wife Savitribai – who later became a close comrade of the work he had initiated and later metamorphosed into a writer as well as an independent activist – which was rarity in those days or opening doors of his own house for those considered lowly among the low or coming to the defence of the scholar-activist Pandita Rambai, when she embraced Christianity, about her right to convert when she had to face conservative onslaught rather singlehandedly, one comes across many instances in his life, which are worth emulating in today’s times as well.

And in fact when moments came, he had the courage to question, challenge wrong understanding of his own colleagues which was exhibited in his devastating critique of another comrade Bhalerao (when he attacked the important monograph by Tarabai Shinde – a product of the Satyashodhak movement herself- titled ‘Stree-Pusush Tulana’ as it raised questions of gender equality and patriarchal oppression  in her own style) or the manner in which he went ahead with the publication of ‘Cultivators Chord’ independently when his colleague in the movement another legendary figure Lokhande -who was a pioneer in building the first union of workers in Bombay named ‘Bombay Millhands Association – and others found it too radical to be given space in the organisation’s organ after two installments.

Modern India, cannot be imagined without the ‘path breaking contributions’ of Phule and other social reformers/ revolutionaries who came after him, who fought against heavy odds to convince the people around about challenging existing social practices and questioning old mode of thinking and exposing millennial old oppressions which had religious sanctions as well and encouraging them to look beyond.

In his introduction to ‘Selected Writings of Jotirao Phule’ G.P Deshpande tells us

‘Phule’s canvas was broad, his sweep majestic. He identified and theorised the most important questions of his time – religion, Varna System, ritualism, language, literature, British rule, mythology, gender question, conditions of production in agriculture, the lot of peasantry etc….Was Phule then a social reformer ? The answer will be ‘no’. A social reformer is a liberal humanist.Phule was more of a revolutionary. He had a complete system of ideas, and was amongst the early thinkers to have identified, in a manner of speaking, classes in Indian society. He analysed the dvaivarnik structure of Indian society, and identified the shudratishudras as the leading agency of a social revolution.’ (Page 20, Leftword)


It has been exactly 125 years that Mahatma Jyotiba Phule died. (28 th November 1890).

If one goes by the mainstream media one learns that barring some stray programmes not many celebrations/programmes were held to commemorate his memory. Was it unintentional or inadvertent or part of fatigue being experienced by people active with transformatory movements?

And on part of the state should it be interpreted as rather a crude manifestation of identity politics when great leaders – especially belonging to the oppressed communities – have also been ‘reduced’ to the status of ‘Heroes’ of their respective castes/communities. And in such an ‘identity loaded ambience’ perhaps Phule – who was born into numerically not very strong Mali (gardner) caste, did not have much chance to be ‘remembered’ by the wider populace. Or should it be considered part of deliberate silencing of all such voices whose agenda is found to be inconvenient or subversive by the ruling classes ?

Anyway, the apparent amnesia around his name does not reduce the importance of the path breaking work he did. It was an interesting coincidence that it was around the same time that the august parliament of the country was holding a special two day session focussing on ‘Constitution day’ and acknowledging the seminal role played by Dr Ambedkar in its making. History bears witness to the fact that Dr Ambedkar had called Phule the ‘Greatest Shudra’ and openly admitted that Buddha, Kabir and Phule was the triumvirate which was source of his inspiration. People who are always in search of silver lining can also say that thus the august parliament was indirectly appreciating the historic contribution made by Jyotiba Phule as well.

Silence around Phule and yearlong celebrations around Ambedkar can be considered part of the same coin, a tactics which the ruling elite use with ease.

Whether you celebrate Ambedkar or maintain a silence about Phule, one thing can be easily discerned that the ruling classes are neither bothered about the real concerns of Phule, Ambedkar or other social revolutionaries. Perhaps they do not want people to remember that both Phule and Ambedkar had raised destabilising questions about nation, nationalism, culture and challenged ‘tremendous fascination among the elite of their times about our great civilisation’. One of their key posers which still rings true which focuses on our caste ridden society – based on privileges for a few and disabilities for the broader masses – and the near impossibility of the emergence of ‘a nation’ from amongst its midst.

The ruling elite is more keen to carve out a ‘suitable’ Ambedkar or a ‘convenient’ Phule to further its agenda. Especially the present ruling dispensation at the centre led by the BJP – part of the broader Hindutva family – seems to be too eager to lay claim over his legacy and they want people to forget the fact that when Ambedkar was alive they had been in the forefront to oppose him on every count. 1

Any student of politics of the oppressed would vouch that it is rather a bane of most of the leaders of the exploited and oppressed who can no more be ignored by the dominant forces. In fact, we have been witness to a similar process which unfolded itself in USA where a very sanitised image of Martin Luther King, has been made popular. Instead of King who opposed Vietnam War, looked at capitalism as source of all evils, who equally struggled for workers’ rights, we have before us an image of King which seems more amenable to the ruling classes there.

There is an interesting commonality how ruling classes try to coopt/appropriate images of leaders of the oppressed. It is a three step process: First, they try to ignore them ; second, when this tactics fails they grudgingly acknowledge them ; third, they try to carve out a ‘suitable’ revolutionary for their own ‘use’. They are adept at what a scholar describes as a deliberate process of ‘mythologising the (great) wo/men and marginalising their meanings.’


It is really easy to blame the cunning of the ruling classes for this state of affairs – which in fact can create lot of heat but does not throw any light on the matter and which is always true – most difficult part of the whole exercise is one, how we – who claim to be the radical inheritors of their legacy – let it happen and secondly, whether there are any elements in the world view of these greats themselves which have made their ‘appropriation easier’.

It is possible that few amongst us would ‘appreciate’ the fact that the powers that be talk about these greats, organise celebrations around them, are keen to publish their collected works or even ready to make them part of curriculum.  It may also give them satisfaction that they claim to be walking in their footsteps or fulfilling their dreams but one should be wary of all such claims and also look at the hiatus between what they claim and what is the actual situation on the ground.

Should not this question really bother us that the official incorporation of these greats could be easily done or today these revolutionaries of a different kind who could be part of our arsenal in our fight against inequality and discriminations, hierarchies of various kinds today seem to be ‘sitting cosily’ with our adversaries.

Coming back to the original focus, question remains why and how the radical agenda of Phule which had a very broad canvas could not be taken further, with the same vigour, zeal and focus and how it metamorphosed first into non-Brahmin movement and later was submerged easily into ‘nationalist’ movement.

Dr Ambedkar offers an explanation while discussing Justice M G Ranade – who was a contemporary of Phule.

The decline of Social Reform was quite natural. The odium of Social Reform was too great. The appeal of political power too alluring. The result was that social reform found fewer and fewer adherents. In course of time the platform of the Social Reform Conference was deserted, and men flocked to the Indian National Congress. The politicians triumphed over the Social Reformers. I am sure that nobody will now allow that their triumph was a matter for pride. It is certainly a matter of sorrow. Ranade may not have been altogether on the winning side, but he was not on the wrong side and certainly never on the side of the wrong as some of his opponents were. (Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah, Address delivered on the 101 st birthday celebration of M G Ranade, 18 th January, 1943, pritchett/00ambedkar/ txt_ambedkar_ranade.html)

While it seems apt in case of Justice Ranade, one definitely needs to go further deep to understand the later metamorphosis of the Phulevian movement.


History bears witness to the fact that Jawalkar, (1902-1932) a leading champion of the non-Brahmin movement – who was no less a radical – had called Gandhi a ‘Satyashodhak’  when the non-Brahmin movement decided to ‘merge’ itself with the national movement.

Was it just part of political expediency or did he really believe that Gandhi who called himself a sanatani(orthodox) Hindu and firmly believed in Varnashram Dharma was really taking forward Phule’s mission.And this despite the fact that by the time this stream had joined the Congress it was very much clear that it was careful enough to sideline all those issues pertaining to the internal asymmetries of Indian society, scuttle all such attempts which challenge them, – which were the ‘key concerns of Satyashodhak movement under the grand slogan of fighting Britishers.2  In fact, Phule had rather prophesised this state of affairs when he had raised very important questions about the nature of Congress which was founded in 1885.

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. If a tiny section of the population like the upstart Aryan Brahmins alone were to found the ‘National Congress’ who will take any notice of it ? (Phule, Collected Works, ed. Patil, vol II : 29)

A critical look at Gandhi is important because it was this period only when mixing of religion with politics gained a new legitimacy, despite his avowed respect for all religions. Under his leadership only task of reforming Hinduism was brushed aside and Ambedkar, a consistent modernist and a relentless critic of Hinduism, was pushed to the wall.

Looking back it becomes clear the side-lining of voices of internal reform in Indian society had started during Phule’s time itself.

In its early stirrings, Lokmanya Tilak, who happened to be a key leader of the Congress movement then, had vehemently led the Conservative reaction against all those concerns for which Phule stood for. It is widely known how it was because of Tilak’s insistence ( or we should say threat that the Pandal holding Social Conference would be burnt down) the tradition of holding Social Conference after Congress Conference- which was initiated by the likes of Ranade etc. was discontinued. His opposition to the Sharda Act is also known where he opposed any British intervention in deciding the age at which girl can be married.

To say the least, it is rather baffling that the other face of Tilak’s work – where he firmly opposed spread of education among girls, where he opposed moves by social reformers/revolutionaries which challenged age old traditions/customs of Indian society or where he exhibited clearcut Brahminical bias has not received the attention which it has deserved.

In a voluminous work titled ‘Foundations of Tilak’s Nationalism’ ( Parimala Rao, Orient Blackswan, 2010) the author – who has based her work mainly on ‘The Mahratta’ the newspaper brought out by Tilak – raises many important questions, which exhibit a great hiatus between his image and reality. Two of the questions which she raises in the Introductory chapter ‘Encountering the Myth’ are worth quoting here :

Why did Tilak’s 25 year long anti-peasant struggle fail to enter the pages of history while his token no-tax campaign in ryotwari areas has been extolled ? Why is his 40 yearlong effort to stop women and non-Brahmin from receiving education is pushed under the carpet ?’

In fact, Tilak’s ideological opposition to Phule went to the extent that the newspapers which he brought out then – namely ‘Kesari’ and ‘Mahratta’ – did not even publish a news about his death. (1990). He even preferred to gloss over the fact that when young Tilak and Agarkar were jailed for the first time, it was Phule only who had organised a public felicitation programme for both of them when they were released (1881).

Ranging from the left on the one hand to the other end of the spectrum, Tilak’s image as a ‘militant’ face of the nationalist movement as opposed to the ‘moderates’ has been glorified but neither his ideas and actions which clearly present an anti-dalit, anti-women and anti-Muslim bias and a voice which is consistently against social reform has ever come under scanner. 3


Coming back to the on-going debate a very valid question at this juncture could be why does one want to ‘excavate’ old history ? It can be said that let bygones be bygones.

The fact is that many questions regarding one of the most tumultuous period in India’s history still linger on and we are yet to reach any definitive conclusion about them.

For example, one is always amazed by the pioneering work which broke new grounds on the road to emancipation for the broad masses of the country – done by the social revolutionaries – in this part of Western India, but always baffled by the simultaneous/ staggered emergence of reactionary/status quoist movements which also became a ‘light house of a different kind’ to the rightwingers elsewhere.

As an aside one may note that the leading ideologue of the Islamist Right Maududi also had his beginning in this region only whose influence extends to the wider Muslim world. Maulana Maududi, is reverred by a broad spectrum of Islamists for the world over, who founded Jamaat-e-Islami, was born in Aurangabad and had his initial forays into social-political life here only. As rightly said Abul Ala Maududi is to ‘Political Islam’ what Karl Marx was to Communism?

Perhaps this query regarding not so silent emergence of social revolutionary and social reactionary trends from the same part of Western India can be further probed if we revisit this period.

We need to revisit not only to scrutinise the image of Lokmanya and how skilfully the grand agenda of social transformation put forward by Phule was side-lined and to understand the resistance to social change encountered by Phule, but also need to revisit the period of nationalist movement post-Tilak also which could not make a radical rupture with the overwhelming Hindu discourse – despite the fact that two of its senior most leaders, Gandhi as well as Nehru were die hard seculars.

Revisiting Tilak is important to know the genesis of Hindutva Right today because under the name of opposing the Britishers he inadvertently or so helped strengthen status quoist forces in Indian society and helped further a very regressive social agenda. In fact his imaginary vis-a-vis Hindu Nation or his mobilising Hindu constituency through organisation of festivals or his extolling Manusmriti in ‘Gita Rahsya’ – his critique of Bhagwad Geetha which he penned down during his prison days – or section of Hindu Rights taking inspiration from him has largely remained unaddressed.

While the triumvirate of Savarkar, Hedgewar and Golwalkar is rightly pointed out for their ‘leading role’ in Hindutva politics we should not forget two things, one, ‘pioneers’ of Hindutva claimed Tilak’s legacy as well. The likes of Dr Munje, who was one of the founders of RSS and a key leader of Hindu Mahasabha, was considered a staunch Tilakite and dissociated himself from the Congress after the death of Tilak as he was not convinced about the idea of Secularism in Gandhi and supposedly abhorred his politics of non-violence.

An added complexity about the unfolding situation is the wide acceptance of an illusion packaged as truth which veers around what people call ‘Purogami Maharashtra’- Progressive Maharashtra.

You mention assassination of activists, scholars – who were working within the bounds of constitution, you mention ascendance of Hindutva rightwingers in all their ferocity today or their growing ‘normalisation’ in the society, you mention rise in Dalit atrocities or the growing legitimacy of caste councils and all such talk can bounce back upon you by calling them aberrations and the ‘great tradition of Phule-Ambekdar’ would be invoked to blunt your argument, (Perhaps it can be reminded here that Com Govind Pansare, who was assasinated by Sanatan Sanstha terrorists had rightly called upon people to come out of this illusion.)


Looking back is important also to revisit the controversy which is often raked up to denigrate Phule’s contribution which veers around his approach towards British rule. And disturbingly, traditional left which upholds Karl Marx’s dialectical assessment of the British rule where he talks about its ‘crimes’ as well as its ‘causing a social revolution’, 4 also seems to follow the same track.

A representative sample of left’s criticism of Phule can be had from G P Deshpande’s introduction to ‘Selected Works of Jotirao Phule’ ( we should not forget how in the same Introduction GPD praises Phule in glowing terms, a glimpse of it can be seen in section 1) which is basically a masterly translation of Phule’s selected writings in English. GPD writes

[P]hule did not see imperialism dialectically. He did not see that the British ruling classes were not kind to the lower classes in Britain. The British legal system, in which he had invested his faith, was no less exploitative and unjust when it had to deal with the British peasantry and the working class. His enthusiasm for British rule made him skeptical of even the shudraatishudra uprisings against British rule in his own time, for instance the uprising led by Umaji Naik. It also prevented him from seeing the material basis of what he would brand as ‘Brahman’ nationalism….Phule did not see, for instance, the significance of Vasudev Phadke, a brahman, working with the ramoshis. The result was that Phule and his comrades and followers ended up taking softer and softer positions on British imperialism and ultimately lost ground to the nationalist movement.

(Ed. G.P. Deshpande, Selected Writings of Jotirao Phule, Leftword, 2002, Page 19)

Perhaps a more nuanced understanding of Phule’s more than four decade old social-political journey – which should include his exposure of the British government’s policies from time to time or his assessment of the Congress Party’s then brand of nationalism or his envisioning an alternate conception of nationalism – is in order to put things in proper perspective.

And before coming to discuss Phule, it is also important to comprehend what Marx meant by ‘social revolution’ in India. Could it be limited merely to what he called ‘..[b]rutal interference of the British tax-gatherer and the British soldier, as to the working of English steam and English free trade.”  (Karl Marx,, The British Rule in India, First published: in the New-York Daily Tribune, June 25, 1853, or something deeper. Marx was definitely explicit regarding these changes:

“All the civil wars, invasions, revolutions, conquests, famines, strangely complex, rapid, and destructive as the successive action in Hindostan may appear, did not go deeper than its surface. England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing. This loss of his old world, with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Hindoo, and separates Hindostan, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history. …..

..We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.”

The impact of the British rule on the Indian society could be better understood if one takes a look at the then existing society. In his speech ‘Ranade,, Gandhi and Jinnah’ Dr Ambekdar has described the situation present then when Ranade – a contemporary of Phule – came on the scene.

“Is there any society in the world which has unapproachable,, unshadowables, and unseeables? Is there any society which has got a population of Criminal Tribes? Is there a society in which there exist today primitive people, who live in jungles, who do not know even to clothe themselves? How many do they count in numbers? Is it a matter of hundreds, is it a matter of thousands? I wish they numbered a paltry few. The tragedy is that they have to be counted in millions, millions of Untouchables, millions of Criminal Tribes, millions of Primitive Tribes!! One wonders whether the Hindu civilization is civilization, or infamy.5

The rule by the Peshawas which essentially practised Manusmriti was more vicious especially for all those who did not belong to the Chitpavan Brahman caste ( the caste to which Peshawa belonged). Forget right to education or right to wear clothes according to one’s own choice, it even prohibited rest from using the greeting ‘Namaskar’. The lowly of the low then – namely ‘untouchables’ – had to carry an earthen pot in their neck so that their spit does not spoil the street, their entry to the city was limited to few hours only as it was feared that their shadow may fall on the Brahmins and it can ‘pollute’ them.

In such a background colonialism was not simply change from one set of rulers to others, it involved a move from one kind of society to a qualitatively different one. Colonial rule definitely meant strengthening mechanisms of colonial exploitation but it did try to superimpose minimum capitalist relations on the old order. The prevalent social norms subordinated individual to the institution of caste. The daily life of the Hindus was regulated by the religious texts. Colonialism  prepared the ground to ‘break asunder’ these relations.  It was under this regime that India encountered Modernity for the first time albeit attempts were on to curb/limit its spread in very many ways.

The differential experience of the change in rule vis-a-vis Brahmins and the rest could be easily understood. And it was not for nothing that Phule ‘welcomed’ the defeat of the Peshawas in the war of 1857 (variously described as ‘war of independence’ or ‘sepoy mutiny’ etc) and said that if Britishers would have lost ‘Peshawa rule would have returned’. The issue of millenia old social-cultural oppression and denial of basic civic rights to a large section of people had finally truimphed over the issue of gaining of political rights by ‘outsiders’. For the lowly among the low what was the difference in material as well as social life if you were oppressed under an ‘insider’ called Peshawa which denied them every sort of human right and an ‘outsider’ called the British, which for its own reasons granted limited civil rights to them.

As an aside one may note how for the Brahmin elite viewed end of Peshawa rule (1 st January,1818) in the final battle with Britishers at Koregaon and ushered us it into colonial regime, but how the same event was interpreted entirely differently by the Atishudras. Battle of Koregaon has a deep significance to Mahars and other Dalits in India, who remember it every January 1 as a mark of their triumph against the dehumanising rule of the Peshwas and as the first step in their on-going struggle against caste-based oppression. When Dr Ambedkar was alive he use to visit Koregaon (very near to Pune) yearly on 1 st January to remember the heroic role played by dalit soldiers. It is said that on New Year’s Day in 1818, about 500 soldiers of the East India Company’s Bombay Native Infantry regiment led by Colonel FF Staunton waded across the Bhima river and, at Bhima Koregaon, routed a superior force of 25,000 well-equipped soldiers of the Peshwa.(

Another important point which normally gets missed is how Phule ‘looked’ at nation and nationalism or how he thought about transfer of power.

If in the worldview of the traditional elite, which was the fulcrum around which nascent emergence of ‘nationalism’ could be traced, it basically meant ‘transfer of power’ in their hands, for Phule

.[‘]nation was a democratic society. The birth of a nation required the growth of a civil society, the celebration of citizenship, and the beginning of the process of empowerment of the marginalised.’

(Debrahmanising History, Braj Ranjan Mani, P 289, Manohar, Delhi)

Phule was wary of the basic postulates of these nascent nationalists which talked of reviving ancient glory or merits of the classical caste system and envisaged a future which would replicate similar social system where everybody will faithfully adhere to their respective caste duty.

In ‘Shetkaryacha Asusd’ (Cultivators Whipchord) he writes :

..If the Brahmans really wish to unite the people of this country and take the nation ahead, then first they must drown their cruel religion, which is customary amongst both the victors ( Brahmans) and the vanquished ( shudras), and they publicly and clearly, must cease using any artifice in their relationship with the shudras, who have been demeaned by that religion, and trample on inequality and the Vedanta opinion, and till a true unity is established, there will be no progress in this country. (Selected Writings of Phule, Leftword, 2002, P 178)

His forthrightness in criticising the Congress and emphasising his radical social agenda was no exception. When Justice Ranade invited him for the plenary session of the Conference of Marathi authors in 1885, he not only expressed his inability but also underlined that he sees no point in participating in such Conferences as they would not benefit downtrodden masses. (Selected Writings of Phule, Leftword, 2002, P 200-1)


All great revolutionaries of yesteryears are judged on the anvil of time.

It is part of the on-going evaluation, summation of work of earlier revolutionaries, movements .

Buddha – the great social revolutionary – and Anand, his very close comrade, popularly known as his disiple, present perhaps one of the earliest examples in written history, when Buddha’s exclusion of women from Viharas became a talking point. It was only because of Anand’s insistence that they were included and we were saved from critical references about position of women in Buddha’s thinking.

Kabir, the radical Saint, who with his uncompromising attack on religious hypocrisies of his times, still inspires young generations, but it does not overshadow his negative opinion about women.

We very well know how the Jacobins – which formed part of the revolutionary political movement that had been the most famous political club of the French Revolution – were/are strongly criticised for their patriarchal views.

And thus whether we like it or not neither Phule, nor Marx, not even Bhagat Singh or Ambedkar can save themselves from scrutiny by later day followers, critiques.

If the left movement in the country which has made tremendous sacrifices for the benefit of the people, can be (rightly) criticised for its failure to integrate the social, cultural question in its overall vision of transformation – which has proved to be an important reason for its stagnation, the ambiguity of the later day social revolutionary camp vis-a-vis state power and search for its origins should also be considered part of this ongoing process of review and reflection.


The times in which we are passing through are challenging ones.

Times when unbridled forces of neoliberalism coupled with forces of Communal fascism are playing havoc with the lives of the people.

Times when all such forces who are fighting for equity, democracy, secularism are finding themselves on the defensive.

And in such an ambience Phule’s teachings – his words and actions – the way he looked at challenges in his own times, definitely provide a window of opportunity.

As GPD states, Phule was a ‘system builder’ and he understood the then existing situation in a ‘dwaivarnik’ fashion, a binary in his own words. Is it possible for us to fashion a ‘new binary’ of our times.

Phule’s social- cultural work, – which has been rightly termed as ‘Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society’ – which anticipates not only the work of the Rightwing – may be the Hindutva or the Islamist types – but the work undertaken during anti-colonial struggles, is another important arena worth emulation.

Interestingly this Phulevian agenda which was later taken forward by Ambedkar and other social revolutionaries has largely been dropped/forgotten by people/formations claiming allegiance to their legacy and it has been swiftly taken over by the right. It has been well documented how forces like RSS/Jamaat-e-Islami or other status quoist or reactionary organisations have been very clear about their ‘exclucivist’ agenda which they tried to bolster through intervention in culture in a startegic manner. 6

Phule’s critique of religion and caste and his daring to stand apart and get counted, his approach towards question of gender, his interest in agriculture, education, his proposal to the British government for prohibition, his flair in writing literature, there are many many aspects of his life and struggles, which need further study and contemplation and perhaps emulation.


The manner in which the later day social revolutionary movement developed and the way left responded then to it has created rather an unusual situation which can be said to be typical to India. Another manifestation of what scholars term as ‘Indian Exceptionalism’.

Instead of a convergence of Phule-Ambedkarian movement with the left on broader agenda of social transformation – which involves attack not only on Capitalism but Brahminism/ Mullahism, Patriarchy and related issues of deprivation and hierarchy – we witness there being posited as being in adversarial relation.

Yes, there was definitely a time during the anti-colonial struggle that a possibility existed that both these streams would come together ( e;g Jawalkar, who was one of the key figures who helped revive Phule’s project of emancipation albeit in a different form, had a very positive opinion about the developments in the then Socialist Russia , even Ambedkar had talked of ‘fighting Brahminism and Capitalism together) but the left’s intrasigence and adamance and mechanical understanding of Marxism became a stumbling block in the path of emergence of broader alliance.

And looking at the hiatus which has developed between both the streams, the ruling classes have also tried to widen the chasm, so what we witness is that a section of those claiming to be carrying forward the legacy of Phule-Ambedkar getting cosy with formations, forces which are essentially communal, Brahminical and have no qualms in keeping themselves aloof from any alliance with various streams of the left.

This growing chasm needs to be bridged if the radical agenda of social revolutionary movement has to reach its fruition and the left has to fight its growing irrelvance, marginalisation in Indian polity.

Situation as it exists before us today is such that neither the stream(s) owning allegiance to Marx seem to be on the ascendance nor those formations who are keen to take forward the agenda of social revolutionaries are gaining new grounds and the combined onslaught of neoliberalism and communal fascism – which is inimical to voices of democracy, secularism, equity, harmony – has created new grounds for their coming together.

As mentioned in the beginning young Marx – who with his Communist Manifesto (1848) – became a voice of the exploited and the oppressed the world over- died in 1883 whereas Young Jyotiba – who started with the first public intervention by opening a school for Shudra-Atishudra girls way back in 1848 – died in 1890.

Today, more than 125 years after their demise, when a real possibility exists for the coming together of both these streams, question arises whether they will be able to take benefit of it or not ?


(Revised and expanded presentation made at a two day National Seminar on ‘Reading Jotirao Phule : In and For Our Times’, 11-12 December 2015, Phule-Ambedkar Chair, University of Mumbai)


Notes :

  1. Brief Chronology of Phule’s life

1827 – Born in Pune

1834-38 Primary Education

1840 – Marriage to Savitribai

1841-47 – Secondary Education

1848 – established first school anywhere in India for Shudratishudra girls alongwith his wife Savitribai

1851 – another school for girls of all castes

1855 – evening school for working people

1856- attempt on his life for his ‘divisive’ activities

1860 – started campaign for widow remarriage

1863 – started a home for widows

Organised a barber’s strike to protest tonsuring of widow’s head

1868 – drinking water tank in own house thrown open to ‘untouchables’

1 st June 1873 – publication of ‘Gulamgiri’ (Slavery) his best known work

24 th Sep 1873 – Satyashodhak Samaj ( Society of the Seekers of Truth) established

1876-1882 – nominated member of Pune Municipal Council

1882- Vociferously defended Tarabai Shinde (‘the first feminist theoretician’ according to Susie Tharu) when her book ‘Stree Purush Tulana’ evoked near hysterical reaction

11 May 1888 – a big public meeting conferred on him the title Mahatma

1889 – Publication of Sarvajanik Satya Dharma, his last book

28 Nov 1890 – Died in Pune


  1. Few details about Fatima Sheikh 

When Savitribai and Mahatam Phule started the first school for girls in Pune, they were hard pressed to find teachers. Savitribai took the role of Principal and Fatima Sheikh her classmate took the role of teacher. Little is known about Fatima Sheikh except that she taught in this school. One can assume that she endured similar humiliation and abuse as Savitribai as they made the trip to school and home.

Savitribai and Jyotirao continued to teach despite the humiliation heaped on them. The community then ostracised them and drove them out of their home. At this crucial time, Fatima Sheikh and her brother Usman provided them not just shelter but also a space to run their school in their house. (




It has been well documented how RSS as well as Hindu Mahasabha opposed making of a Constitution of the independent nation and proposed that Manu Smriti can even serve the same purpose. And when the newly indepdent nation thought of enacting Hindu Code Bill, to give rights to Hindu women for the first time in written history, under the stewardship of Dr Ambedkar, they in alliance with orthodox elements in the Congress opposed it and held violent demonstrations against the move.


Was it because there was a gap between Phule’s own worldview and social base of the movement he led, or was it because of the strong Conservative reaction to this cultural revolt from the dominant castes.

Here it is important to remember that the economically dominant Maratha community, was rather keen to accept Kshatriya status, rather than being identified with the ritualistically lower caste groups and ignored Phule’s opposition to Sanskritisation. ( O’Hanlon, Caste, Conflict and Ideology, Page 276). It is well known how affluent Maratha Sardars had kept themselves aloof from Phule’s movement and some affluent Marathas like Bhau Rangari actually assisted Tilak to undermine Phule’s polemic. ( Raminder Kaur, Performative Politics and the Culture of Hinduism, New Delhi : Permanent Black, 2003, pp 38-40) A marker of the changed times after death of Phule was an incident where dalits – Mahars, Chambhars and Dhors – were barred from a meeting in Bhavani Peth, on grounds of untouchability. ( Parimala Rao, Foundations of Tilak’s Nationalism, Page 14) 


Opposing the anti-landlord legislation, Tilak stated :’Just as the government has no right to rob the sowcar and distribute his wealth among the poor, in the same way the government has no right to deprive the khot of his rightful income and distribute the money to the peasant. This is a question of rights and not of humanity.’ ( Sumit Sarkar, Modern India 1885-1947, Delhi, Macmillan, 1983, Page 69)


England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfill its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.

(Karl Marx, “The British Rule in India,” New York Daily Tribune, 25 June 1853)


This is about the ideal. Turn now to the state of things as it existed when Ranade came on the scene. It is impossible to realize now the state of degradation they had reached when the British came on the scene, and with which the reformers like Ranade were faced. Let me begin with the condition of the intellectual class. The rearing and guiding of a civilization must depend upon its intellectual class—upon the lead given by the Brahmins. Under the old Hindu Law the Brahmin enjoyed the benefit of the clergy and could not be hanged even if he was guilty of murder, and the East India Company allowed him the privilege till 1817…

The Brahmin systematically preyed on society and profiteered in religion. The Puranas and Shastras which lie manufactured in tons are a treasure trove of sharp practices which the Brahmins employed to befool, beguile and swindle the common mass of poor, illiterate, and superstitious Hindus. ..

..Brahmins had started making claims for a right to deflower the women of non-Brahmins. The practice prevailed in the family of the Zamorin of Calicut, and among the Vallabhachari sect of Vaishnavas. What depths of degradation the Brahmins had fallen to! If, as the Bible says, the salt has lost its flavour, wherewith shall it be salted? No wonder the Hindu Society had its moral bonds loosened to a dangerous point. The East India Company had in 1819 to pass a Regulation (VII of 1819) to put a stop to this moral degeneracy. The preamble to the Regulation says that women were employed wholesale to entice and take away the wives or female children for purposes of prostitution, and it was common practice among husbands and fathers to desert their families and children. Public conscience there was none, and in the absence of conscience it was futile to expect moral indignation against the social wrongs. Indeed the Brahmins were engaged in defending every wrong for the simple reason that they lived on them. They defended Untouchability which condemned millions to the lot of the helot. They defended caste, they defended female child marriage and they defended enforced widowhood—the two great props of the Caste system. They defended the burning of widows, and they defended the social system of graded inequality with its rule of hypergamy which led the Rajputs to kill in their thousands the daughters that were born to them. What shames! What wrongs! Can such a Society show its face before civilized nations? Can such a society hope to survive? Such were the questions which Ranade asked. He concluded that on only one condition it could be saved—namely, rigorous social reform.”




They tried to enhance their ‘religious viewpoint’ by institutionalising it through n number of affiliated organisations. May it be the formation of schools or hospitals or organisations catering to diverse sections of society they tried to fashion society in their own image. It is not for nothing that RSS describes itself not as ‘organisation in society’ but ‘organisation of society’. (Samaj me Sangathan nahin, Samaj ka Sangathan) Prof K N Pannikar writes that RSS’s educational work started in the 40s itself and today they have 70,000 schools – from Ekal Vidyalayas to Saraswati Shishu Mandir – spread all over the country. These activities have helped them ‘in transforming the cultural consciousness of the people from the secular to the religious’ (P 169,History as a Site of Struggle, Three Essays Collective) According to him

 ‘This is qualitatively different effort from that of the secular forces who mainly focus on cultural intervention, the impact of which is limited and transient. The difference between cultural intervention and intervention in culture distinguishes the cultural engagement of the communal and the secular and their relative success’. (do)