Savitribai Phule: The Legacy Of Revolution That India Needs More Than Ever

Taking forward the Legacy of Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule

On March 10th 1897, Savitribai Phule breathed her last serving the plague victims in Pune. Born on 3rd January 1831, Savitribai sowed the seeds of the struggle against the Brahminical Patriarchy. What she left behind is a rich anti-caste and anti-oppressive (challenging dual patriarchy) feminist legacy for generations to come.

Savitribai emerged as the only woman leader among all social movements in the 19th century India who linked Patriarchy with Caste. While the 19th Century is considered as the epoch of Indian Renaissance and social reformers like Rammohan Roy, D. Saraswati, and Vivekananda are celebrated as its stalwarts, what remains undermined is that it was closely intertwined with the hegemonic Brahmanic Hinduism and self-strengthening cultural nationalism. On the other hand Savitribai countered the tendency to solely focus on higher social groups of Brahmins and allied castes. She struggled to uplift the conditions of women of all castes, thus bringing together the nuances of gender and caste for the first time in 19th C in her social movement. She was a revolutionary, very radical for her own times and therefore much ahead of her contemporaries.

Savitribai is the first female teacher of India. In 1848 Savitribai established the first school with her husband Jyotiba Phule for downtrodden girls in Pune. Savitribai faced harassment while going to the school from the upper castes who threw cow-dung on her, for entering a space which was highly upper caste male dominated. By endeavouring to teach the downtrodden and girls in a public space Savitribai was colliding head-on with structures of Brahminical Caste and Patriarchy. However, the currents of Brahmanic hegemony continue to influence the upper caste feminist movement, which largely ignores the contribution of Savitribai Phule in creating a discourse of gender equality and emancipation. In 1863 Savitribai established a home for mothers and their children born out of wedlock who were considered as “illegitimate” by the societal norms. She organised a Barber’s strike against the shaving of heads of Brahmin Widows in 1860s.

Close association of Savitribai and Fatima Sheikh represents the Unity of The Oppressed in the contemporary times merging the struggles of SC/ST/OBC/Religious Minorities. In 1855 Savitribai along with Jyotiba Phule, established a night school for workers and peasants. While the so called Left and Progressive forces have often drawn their Feminist icons from Western thinkers and upper caste elite society, Savitribai and Fatima Sheikh remain at the margins of their imagination of a revolutionary. However, Savitribai’s work manifests itself in the daily lives of the downtrodden and the marginalised and their idea of emancipation from Brahminism, Patriarchy and Feudalism. The Leftists, Gandhians and Progressives draw their inspiration from Gandhi’s ideas for the cause of untouchability, claiming Gandhi to be the first reformer who worked to uplift the Dalits. These forces have seldom mentioned the pioneering work of Savitribai and her husband Jyotiba Phule, who much before Gandhi, struggled for emancipation of the depressed classes. In 1849 Savitribai & Jyotiba were turned out of her in-laws’ home for teaching ‘untouchables’ and lower castes. The couple went ahead and opened the well of their new house to the ‘untouchables’, thus continuing the struggle even in their personal lives.

We are witnessing a time in history where the deficit of consensus on the ideas of Justice, Equality, Freedom is debated merely with the thoughts of popular and dominant icons like Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore, while the need of the hour is to revisit ideas of icons of the marginalised and establish a real and inclusive discourse on Justice, Equality, Freedom from below. The idea of Nation, Nationhood, Citizenship, Equality, Social Justice and Freedom should not be limited to only one person, one party and one section of the society. Rather, the discourse should be open to all sections of the society and be inclusive in character by accommodating dissenting voices, the way in which Savitribai marched along hand in hand with Fatima Sheikh, women of all castes, oppressed castes, barbers, workers and peasants.

Courtesy: Pamhplet issued on the eve of death anniversary of Savitribai Phule, by the Birsa-Phule-Ambedkar Students’ Association(BAPSA) in JNU.