January 11, 2015

Some Lessons from the Ideas & Work Of Savitribai & Jyotirao Phule

Archana Prasad

AS the democratic organisations celebrate the birth anniversary of Savitribai Phule, the dalits of the country face important and stiff challenges for their survival in the contemporary times. The weakening of the social welfare system has led to a social counter revolution led by the conservative rightwing forces and made dalits in particular socially and economically vulnerable. The idea that the neo-liberal State will be a limited State that does not interfere in societal affairs has strengthened social institutions that have given a new fillip to forces of social conservatism. Second, the question of dalit dignity and survival has been reopened by the aggressive Hindutva mobilisation of dalits. This is no doubt an important step to expand the social basis of Sangh Parivar politics, but the brahmanical vision of the parivar ensures that the Hinduisation and reconversion of dalits will only further integrate them into an oppressive system. Seen in the context of these attacks, the contemporary relevance of the work and ideas of Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule needs to be re-emphasised. SOCIAL RELATIONS AND OPPRESSION It is well known that Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule started several initiatives for social transformation at a time well before the early nationalists took up the social reform as a campaign strategy. One of the main focus of their interventions was the challenge that they posed to patriarchal and brahmanical relations especially in terms of combating untouchability and illiteracy. To this end, the life and struggle of Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule signified one of the first attempts to challenge well established and powerful social structures. For Jyotiba Phule, social and economic power was located in brahminical social structures and practices. The society was divided into two: the brahmins and the shudra-atishudras. It is interesting to note that both shudras and atishudras are generic terms for those who provide service and the ‘untouchables’ respectively. Hence oppression, exploitation and social discrimination define the shudra and atishudra castes. In this sense, all women are considered shudras by Jyotirao Phule, since they are oppressed and also provide service. In this sense, patriarchy is seen as independent of caste in the work and thought of Phule. In the same vein, the brahmanical order signifies a dominant system, ideology and set of institutions that unleash the process of exploitation. This polar analysis helps to interpret the relationship between caste and its material reality in the life and work of Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule. For example in her poem entitled ‘So Says Manu’ Savitribai Phule writes: The Manusmriti to the Brahmin tells, Do not your energy be wasted in agriculture, Those born as shudras, All these shudras, Are paying in this life, For the sins of their past, Thus they create a society based on inequality, This being an inhuman ploy, Of these cunning beings (Savitribai Phule, Kavya Phule, 1934) The poem above clearly identifies those who work and those who do not do any physical work. This difference between the labouring class and the others is crucial to Phule’s understanding of caste. Further its legacy is slightly different from the understanding of the mainstream dalit movement, whose main focus is on discrimination by birth. In contrast, it is the communist led anti-caste struggles which formed the foundation of working class unity in the early twentieth century. Hence, the Phule understanding of the relationship between caste and its material reality is far closer to the practice of the communist led movements rather than the dalit identity movements today. SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION AND PATRIARCHY Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule are best known for their work amongst stree-shudra-atishudra. Like Jyotirao Phule, perhaps there is no other social activist and thinker who have been so sensitive to the problems of women in the 19th century. As is well known, Savitribai Phule got married at the age of nine and was educated to become a school teacher through the encouragement and support of her husband. It is significant that the first school started by them in 1848 was for girls from all castes, thus challenging the orthodox forces who argued against the education of women. In the beginning, the school had only two students but by the end of the year it housed 40 girls. Within the first few years, five more schools were opened. Education was seen as a way of challenging established social traditions and as the first step for challenging established social structures. Thus, through her poems, Savitribai Phule exalted girls to study and challenge brahmanical traditions. At a second level, the writings of Jyotiba Phule challenged marital practices of his times. Intervening in the debate on the appropriate age for marriage, Jyotiba Phule demanded that boys less than 19 years and girls less than 11 years should not be allowed to get married. This would save young girls from being exploited within their marriages. At the same time, Phule also took up the cause of widow remarriage and improving the lot of widows. In his letter to the government, he pointed out that young girls got married to old men and when these men died their lives were ruined through age old customs. He therefore wanted the custom of shaving of heads of girls after widowhood to be stopped. To this end a strike of barbers was also organised in order to stop this practice. In this sense, Savitribai and Jyotirao became important advocates for bringing about policy reforms and combating age old traditions which oppressed women. It is therefore not surprising that the focus of Phule’s initiative was not only the State but also fundamental reform in the society itself. To this end, the ideas and work of Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule are once again different from mainstream dalit identity movements that largely concentrate on State as a means of bringing about social revolution. In this sense, once again the work and ideas of Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule resonated with the aim of communist led movements to bring about a consciousness change in order to build an egalitarian society. FIGHT THE HINDUTVA APPROPRIATION OF LEGACY The 2009 Prerna, the magazine of the Hindu Maha Sangathana, celebrated the work of Savitribai Phule calling her a ‘Hindu Woman’. This categorisation is designed to incorporate the potentially revolutionary ideas of these ideologues within the fold of Hindutva. This is understandable considering Sangh Parivar is attempting to expand its social basis and incorporate adivasis and dalits as ‘original Hindu inhabitants’. Hence it is not surprising that reconversions to Hinduism have been called a natural process by the leaders of the parivar. In this situation, the appropriation of the legacy of Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule by the Sangh Parivar is a misrepresentation of their ideas. There was no harsher critique of brahmanical Hinduism than Jyotirao Phule. His main work critiqued the Vedic texts in which the brahmins sourced their power and control. The critique of caste society was also located in this critique of a Vedic society. The writings tried to restore the self image and dignity of the dalits and end the monopoly of the brahmins over knowledge and its production. To this end, education and the production of knowledge was an attempt to reduce this power of the brahmins. This aim is in stark contrast to the aims of the Sangh Parivar to incorporate the dalits in a manner that integrates them into an exploitative caste system. This is evident in the policies of most BJP ruled states like Gujarat which have consistently followed policies that support middle and higher castes. Thus the legacy of Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule is being misrepresented by both identity based dalit movements as well as the forces of Hindutva. This attempt has to be fought by highlighting the inter-relationships between caste and class on the one hand and social transformation on the other hand. Such an interpretation of the Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule can only be done by the Left and democratic movements which are committed to the same ideal. Hence there is an imperative need to understand and propagate this legacy in order to counter the growing rightwing politics within the country.