Savitribai Phule, crusader against caste and patriarchy, deserves a higher pedestal in Indian history

Unfortunately, Dalit women did not figure either in women studies or caste studies in the academic paraphernalia.
Savitribai Phule, crusader against caste and patriarchy, deserves a higher pedestal in Indian history
Savitribai Phule, crusader against caste and patriarchy, deserves a higher pedestal in Indian history

“Educate, Organize, Agitate,” roared Babasaheb Dr. BR Ambedkar. It is important to recognize the premise of such a statement from Babasaheb especially in the context of the rapidly advancing yet unequal 21st century. In all of his conferences, lecture and meetings, Babasaheb Ambedkar encouraged youth belonging to the subaltern segment to acquire education and seek empowerment. India has been witness to a legendary woman pioneer, who led the social and gender justice movement in the country, who was also in the true sense an epitome of education-led empowerment at par with Babasaheb. It is in this context that India, especially Gen-next, must remember and recall the great work and take inspiration from the legendary Savitribai Phule.

Caste and gender based exclusion forms the nucleus of marginalized narrative in the post-colonial academic imagination. Not much effort has been made, to be specific; no literary investigation has been conducted on the plight of socially and politically deprived womenfolk in Indian society. One can only imagine the predicament of facing double jeopardy in a society that has been disproportionately harsh on the socially disadvantaged.  

Sadly, it is today that, as part of its Sustainable Development Goals, the United Nations has realized and placed emphasis on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. In its words, the United Nations says, “While the world has achieved progress towards gender equality and women’s empowerment under the Millennium Development Goals (including equal access to primary education between girls and boys), women and girls continue to suffer discrimination and violence in every part of the world. Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. Providing women and girls with equal access to education, health care, decent work, and representation in political and economic decision-making processes will fuel sustainable economies and benefit societies and humanity at large.”

India was ahead in terms of recognizing this lacuna and the country was fortunate to witness Savitribai Phule, who took it on her to lead the gender justice movement in India, Savitribai Phule not only fought for right education for girls but also for the right to dignity for widows. She was the first female teacher of the first women’s school in India. Savitribai Phule’s contribution to education remains unparalleled.

January 3 marks the birth anniversary of Savitribai Phule who was born in 1831 in Satara district of Maharashtra province. She belonged to the maali caste, as is understandable from the name phule that owes its origin to phul that literally translates into ‘flower’ in English language. As was prevalent during those days, she was married at an early age of 9 to Jyotirao Phule, who went on to lead the social reform movement in the early phases of 19th century. They adopted a child and named him Yashwant who later served as a medicine practitioner and subsequently died while serving plague patients.

Savitribai, apart from being a wife, mother and daughter was also an ideal schoolteacher. Jyotirao Phule had the vision to educate his wife and the power to ignore the deep-seated inertia for women’s education and development. Savitribai qualified the teachers training examination in 1848 from Ahmednagar in Maharashtra. Soon after that, she formally joined the schools started by her husband Jyotirao Phule. She supported him in his literary and social pursuits. 

She was a courageous lady who taught women, especially those coming from socially and economically deprived segments of the society. Her interest in reading, studying and teaching was the hallmark of her work and personality. She was an institution builder who initiated and sustained schools in Dalit neighborhoods and ensured that education reached those who were traditionally excluded from access to sources of knowledge. The couple is rightly credited with training of first generation of Dalit leadership in Maharashtra. 

Amongst her many achievements one which need a strong mention is that she organized a barber’s strike against shaving the heads of widows and fought for widow remarriage and in 1853, started a shelter for pregnant widows. In 1852, Savitribai led and initiated the Mahila Seva Mandal to create awareness among women of their social status and rights. After the death of her husband, she assumed the presidential role of Satya Shodhak Samaj initiated by her late husband to work in the sphere of social justice and empowerment of the downtrodden through education and awareness.

Savitribai often communicated through her poems. In 1854, she published the collection of her poems that emphasized on the eternal significance of education. The following is a stanza from one of her legendary poems called Go, Get Education that aptly captures her vision and imagination for the weak and the downtrodden.

Go, Get Education

Be self-reliant, be industrious

Work—gather wisdom and riches,

All gets lost without knowledge

We become animal without wisdom,

Sit idle no more, go, get education

End misery of the oppressed and forsaken,

You´ve got a golden chance to learn

So learn and break the chains of caste.

On March 10, 1897, she died while she was nursing a plague-affected child.

Braj Ranjan Mani, a noted scholar of subaltern studies from Indian Institutes of Advance studies writes, “Savitribai Phule struggled and suffered with her revolutionary husband in an equal measure, but remains obscured due to casteist and sexist negligence. Apart from her identity as Jyotirao Phule’s wife, she is little known even in academia. Modern India’s first woman teacher, a radical exponent of mass and female education, a champion of women’s liberation, a pioneer of engaged poetry, a courageous mass leader who took on the forces of caste and patriarchy certainly had her independent identity and contribution. It is indeed a measure of the ruthlessness of elite-controlled knowledge-production that a figure as important as Savitribai Phule fails to find any mention in the history of modern India.”

Time is appropriate to contemplate upon the contributions of Savitribai who dedicated her life for the cause of upliftment of the Dalit women especially through education. Unfortunately, Dalit women did not figure either in women studies or caste studies in the academic paraphernalia. Through the medium of this piece we appeal to our scholars, thinkers, policy makers and academics to spare a thought about the really subjugated halves and evolve a consensus on a pragmatic and practical way forward towards the actualization of the goals envisioned by Savitribai Phule. 

The authors work with the India Foundation – A New Delhi based think tank. Views expressed by the authors are strictly personal

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