Reclaiming Jyotirao and Savithribai Phule’s Legacy

Veena Poonacha


         Barath Ratna Amabedkar, Tattagat Guatam Buddha, Dr. Siddhart Kamble, Principal Dr. Amedkar College of Commerce and Economics, Shri V.M. Pradhan, Dr. Vibhuti Patel, Dr. Jranti Jejurkar,  Dr. Latifa Kadu, Prof. Lalitha Dhara,  and friends, this is indeed a moment of great honour to me that I have been asked to deliver the inaugural address of this important state-level seminar, entitled  Phules and Women’s Question, jointly organized by the Dr. Ambedkar College of Commerce and Economics and the Research Centre for Women’s Studies to commemorate the lives of two of the great luminaries of the 19th century social reform movement.


                   It is with considerable humility that I have agreed to address this seminar. The 19th Century was a period of radical social change. It was a moment in history that witnessed an extraordinary synergy of ideas and people. A moment, when outmoded values and beliefs that long held sway over the minds of the people, conflicted with a bold new vision of the future based on fairness, justice and equity.


The Legacy of Jyotirao and Savitribai


        Mahatma Jyoti Rao Phule and his life partner, Krantikari Savithribai Phule were the prime movers during this momentous period of history. Firmly aligning themselves on the side of the progressive forces, they challenged the existing inequalities of caste and gender. They were undoubtedly the most radical thinkers of the time. The torch they lit burns brightly through the numerous movements across the 19th and 20th centuries and permeates all struggles against caste and gender oppressions in modern India. As I pay my tribute to this great couple, I can only say that it is only right that the Ambedkar College of Commerce and the Research Centre for Women’s Studies should be jointly organizing this seminar as both these institutions are rooted in the ideology of social equity through education.   


     Jyotirao and Savitribai’s incisive criticism of the caste and gender inequity in the 19th century is relevant even today in the 21st century. For despite political freedom from colonial rule and the formulation of a truly democratic Constitution, Indian society has failed to break away from age-old socio-economic inequities. Gender and caste discriminations and inequalities are perpetuated through religion, culture and material deprivations of the masses. The Khairlanji incident in Maharashtra and the spate of honour killings across the country are testimonies of the deep-rooted caste-based divisions in Indian society. These incidents make apparent that such societies built on elite male power control (often violently) women’s sexual, reproductive and productive labour. Gender based oppression forms the foundation of caste/patriarchal societies. The rigid hierarchies and the consequent socio-economic disparities lead to divisive politics, as seen in the spate of civil unrests ranging from the Maoist protest to the more recent Gujjar protest in Rajasthan.


Their Contribution        


       Given this background of socio-political and economic discontent, I need not have to reiterate to this audience the continued importance and relevance of Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule’s ideas in the 21st Century. They were no armchair philosophers, but persons with courage of conviction. Their theorizing on caste and gender discriminations in India grew out of their personal experiences and intimate understanding of the lived realities of the people around them. It is from this location on the fringes of society, they understood the politics of socio-economic deprivations, cultural marginalization and the ideological rationale of such exclusions. In doing so they delineated the politics of knowledge generation, i.e., the process by which knowledge is manipulated to lend credence to the upper caste world view. It involves the trivialization of the knowledge and experiences of women and other subaltern groups particularly if such voices threaten the status quo.


        Jyoti Rao Phule’s subversive book on Gulam Giri and his testimonies before the education commission of 1882 indicate his incisive understanding of this process by which the power elite shore up their privileges. He saw the denial of education to women and the lower castes as measures adopted by the upper castes to ensure the subordination and control of these sections of society. Precisely for these reasons, Jyotirao Phule recommended the universalization of education and sought access for men and women from the peasant/marginalized communities to modern education. His concern, however, was not restricted to questions of access to education, but also to the content of education. He asked that education should be pragmatic and relevant to people’s lives. More importantly, it should inculcate that element of critical consciousness through which oppositional politics would emerge. He along with Savithribai wished to empower people with the knowledge of their rights so that they are able to challenge the existing social order.


      It is from this far reaching vision of education that Jyotirao and Savithribai schools for the Mahar Mang girls since 1848. To further promote the spirit of critical questioning and rational choices, Jyotirao Phule established the Satyashodak Samaj in 1873. Apart from questioning the ideological basis of subordination, this organization challenged the unearned privileges of the upper castes.  Jyotirao and Savitribai’s work through the Satya Sodhak Samaj indicates their understanding of the ways in which the upper castes excluded vast sections of the people from education. This denial kept the people dependent on elite patronage and prevented them challenging of the status quo.


    That Jyotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule faced hardships in pursuit of their commitment to the spread of education among women and men from oppressed communities are well-documented.

In essence, their ideas about an egalitarian society, represents the flowering of Maharashtra’s rich tradition of oppositional politics since the Middle Ages. The poet saints of Maharashtra had long questioned the ascribed status of the upper classes. But while the Bakti saints asserted equality in the eyes of God, Jyotirao and Savitribai succinctly pointed to the material and ideological basis for subordination. Their ideas are therefore of relevance today.

Women’s Studies as Critical Consciousness


      In this inaugural address, I wish to explore the ways by which we can preserve the legacy of these two great social reformers. As a counterpoint it may be argued that since there is no overt discrimination to education, their ideas are not relevant to the 21st century. This however is a flawed point of view since the vast majority of men and women from the subaltern groups continue to be denied education. Apart from the need to improve the access parameters of education, there is also the need to raise questions about the purpose of education. Is it merely to get students to meet the requirements of the job market? Or does education have a loftier role of bringing about social transformation?


          It is here the ideas of the Phules are of continued relevance. Education is important not just from a pragmatic goals of economic development, but also of raising critical consciousness so that the students are taught to question the prevailing inequalities and injustices. In my view Women’s Studies could generate that degree of critical consciousness that would make education vibrant. Insofar as Women’s Studies seeks to destabilize caste and patriarchal societies, it can carry forward the legacy of Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule: For they sought to overturned upper caste privileges in ways in which other social reformers did not.


         Their ideas are in consonance with the core values of Women’s Studies. Women’s Studies has the potential of transforming higher education at a point of time when equity in higher education is threatened through the introduction of self financed courses and by the rising cost of education.  These new trends in higher education reinforce the age-old privileges of the elite by placing access to higher education beyond the reach of the poor.

            But as I proceed with my main discussion on how Women’s Studies can raise critical consciousness, I wish to raise a pertinent question about why I did not hear of contribution of Jyotirao and Savitribai in my school and college days? The history books I was exposed to taught me about the contributions of Vivekanand, Mahatma Gandhi, Lokmanya Tilak and a few other upper caste social reformers. It did not (until the rise of Dalit Consciousness) in the 20th century focus on the work and writings of these two most radical visionaries of the 19th century. To find an answer to this question, I have to turn to Women’s Studies and other subaltern studies. These disciplines that examine social reality from the standpoint of the excluded, have pointed out the politics of knowledge generation as a tool of maintaining elite privileges. Dominant discourses, ignore women’s knowledge as well as that of the Dalit communities, particularly when these discourses ask uncomfortable questions.


Growth of Women’s Studies


        Women’s Studies is a product of the political upsurges of the 1970s and is an academic statement of the women’s liberation movement. It grew from the consciousness-raising sessions organized by the various autonomous women’s groups that sought to question/challenge the subordination of women and the gendered violence that women experienced. Within these consciousness raising sessions, attempts were made to establish non-hierarchical modes of communication and action.  


        The conceptualization and validation of women’s experiences within these groups and subsequently within the academia have generated some of the most scathing criticisms of mainstream theories. The criticism of ‘grand’ theories that arose from Women’s Studies scholarship demonstrated that the universal claims underlying mainstream theories were deceptive and based on false abstractions. Emphasizing the experiential basis of knowledge Women’s Studies theorizing is allied to political action. Paralleling Savitribai and Jyotrao Phule’s ideas of education, Women’s Studies scholarship breaks structures of power concentrations within the academia. It seeks to demystify knowledge, create inclusive spaces for women and question canonical texts/received wisdom that legitimizes the dominant world view. 


     As the academic arm of the women’s liberation movement, Women’s Studies scholarship is closely allied to socio political action.  Doing Women’s Studies requires that element of critical consciousness that would generate political action. The impetus for its growth is the realization that mainstream theories do not reflect the realities of women’s lives. Pointing to the power equation in the creation and propagation of knowledge, Women’s Studies scholarship helps to develop a more complete picture of social reality.


        Women’s Studies in the academia also seeks to break the academic isolation of University education and makes it a means of social transformation. Therefore “doing” Women’s Studies requires that we go beyond research and teaching to include extension or community outreach programmes. Women’s Studies requires a personal commitment to change and a conscious attempt to recognize and address some of the deeply embedded prejudices within each one of us. Recognizing the complex intersections of caste/class and gender identities in each one of us, Women’s Studies must enable us to address how these multiple identities are played out in our lives. 


        Over the years, women’s studies scholarship has also developed in increasingly complex trajectories. It has aimed at recovering women’s culture and critiqued masculine ideology of domination by pointing to the interconnections between women’s subordination and all forms of oppression/destruction includeing the environment and the arms race. This rich variety of feminist thought has percolated into art, culture, religion and literature to resonate in multiple voices. Women of colour and from developing countries pointed to the ways in which race, class and gender intersected in complex ways to modify their lives. These ideas have breached the private/public, mind/body, nature/culture divide in western theorizing. It indicates that the habit of thinking in hierarchical binary opposites was responsible for the ‘othering’ of women, races and ethnic minorities.


         In short, Women’s Studies scholarship has also questioned the previously held definitions of power/powerless, sexuality and fixed gender identities. The challenge to `grand’ theories has developed a rich understanding of the heterogeneity of human experiences. These ideas resonate with the core idea of the Phules.


      As I conclude I wish to once again reaffirm the legacy of Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule to education. Their ideas are at once pragmatic and forward looking. What they have emphasized is of education as a means of developing critical consciousness leading to political action. In my view, this can be realized today through Women’s Studies because it embodies the essential goals of freedom and equality that was central to the Indian social reform movement (particularly that of the Phules). It also critiques the dominant discourses that justifies caste and gender subordination and sees the interface between theorizing and action.