We celebrated recently the birth of Savitri Bai Phule, the first woman teacher in India who revolutionized the Dalit-Bahujan masses all over the country. Savitri bai was born on January 3rd, 1831 in a Satara district of Maharastra. Her father Khandoji Navse Patil was an elderly village head. She got married to Joti Ba Phule who was just thirteen in 1840. Savitri Bai was just 9 years old during her marriage. Even when both of them have concerned parents who were respected in the community could not even think that it was important to impart education for their daughter. May be those days, it was important to get your daughter married at the 'right age even when she was not educated. Of course there were not many schools and it was not possible for the dalit backward community people to get education where untouchability and caste system was too much prevalent.
Her husband Joti Ba was a social revolutionary who had seen the treatment meted out to the lower caste people, farmers during his life time. He had faced lot of humiliation because he belonged to Mali caste but he knew that the fight against injustice cannot happen unless his people are educated and get rid of superstition and blind beliefs. The condition of women in our society was more pitiable. While the upper caste women were confined to their families, the illiteracy was highest among the poor backward community women. Phule knew well that without a strongly committed partner it would be difficult for him so spread his message. He might also have realized that if Savitri bai remained at home illiterate and uneducated, confined to only domestic work, it would make his tall claims to liberate women as hollow. He knew that the village women would associate with Savitri Bai more than him and therefore he decided to educate her.
The one thing we can learn from Phule is that the age old practices cannot be eliminated in a day or two. It is a process and we need to initiate it. Phule advocated English education that time because he knew that the same had opened door for the upper castes and they acquired power and position during the British government and therefore it was important for the Bahujan masses also to get English education and that is the only reason that he fully endorsed Christian missionary schools and lauded their services as he knew that the normal government schools were never allowing the low caste people.
The ideas that she developed with Joti Ba finally helped them open their first school for the backward community children on May 1st, 1847 but because of ignorance and deeply traditional pattern of society the Phule couple had to face a lot of resistance and opposition not only from the upper caste feudal people but from within the community which was in the grip of orthodoxy and conservatism. It is therefore important for Jotiba to get Savitribai educated first and developed her as an ideal teacher who could not only teach elementary education but also about rights of women and how they ensure a dignified space in the society. So, she was sent for training to a school and finally started their first school for girls 1st January 1848 in a place called Bhide Wada, Narayan Peth, Pune.
It need to be noted that Phule was the first person who talked about Bahujan and he absolutely secularized the movement by engaging in reform not only with in his own community but also engaging with Muslim women and promoting Fatima Sheikh, a Muslim woman for the teacher's job. Where have we got such revolutionary ideal people who not only start from their home but also initiate step to bring the other communities into the mainstream of change. The Phule couple embraced every one and narrow confines of castes never really attracted them even when both of them were oppressed and saw caste discrimination. They promoted and encouraged girls from various castes and communities and in their school nine girls belonging to different castes had enrolled themselves as students.
The movement for women's education grew up in the entire region and the couple had established five more schools by the year 1848. The British government acknowledged their work for promoting education among the women of the most marginalized communities and honored Savitri Bai Phule.
Both Jotiba and Savitribai were deeply concerned about the plight of widows in our society and initiated process for them. They started home for young widows and worked against the cruel practice of Sati. It was a revolutionary work as gender prejudices were deeply internalized with in the Dalit Bahujan communities too. Though both of them hailed from backward community yet their personal water resources were always opened for the Dalits who did not have access to them elsewhere.
The most important work which jolted the orthodoxy was their unquestioned support to pregnant widows. They gave hope to those who lost their lives in early age and knew well that child marriages resulted in child widowhood too. Phule couple's courageous effort to fight against all this helped people a lot particularly women who would prefer to die than live a life in humiliation and isolation after widowhood.
Phule realized that the Brahmins have befooled the poor in the name of God and hence warned his people not to fall prey to their tactics. He formed Satya Shodhak Samaj, a society which work for achieving the truth. Savitribai Phule took up the legacy by her husband with great passion and conviction.
Today when we all are speaking about women's right, it is time; we remember Savitri Bai Phule and her struggle. When we talk about men in our society, let us remember Joti Ba Phule and how he got his companion educated. All those who confine themselves in narrow vision must learn from the struggle of Phule couple. They did not confine themselves to mere rhetoric of anti-Brahmanism but created an alternative which was called Satya Shodhak Samaj. It means that in the absence of an alternative, we will not be able to build a society. Phule never depended on the government to do things but he started work and reforms. He was modernist to the core and hence promoted idea of modern scientific humanist education.
Savitri Bai Phule was a revolutionary and became victim of India's corrupt and dishonest casteist intellectual elite which tried to hide her achievements and struggle. The amount of work that both of them deserved a better mention in our text books in the colleges and Universities. Alas, our youngsters don't even know these struggles and then are unable to fight against the injustices which are a product of the corrupted social order which is anti-woman.
The birthday of a revolutionary need to be celebrated and cannot be observed in the negative sense. Today, we hold our head high and bow to her struggle for dignity and self-respect among women and the marginalized. We must uphold the values she stood for as how can youngsters can change the society. Today, all those who ask the government to change from Jantar mantar refuses to change them. Change has to come from within. Phule started the change from within and educated Savitribai first. Both of them went to the people, stood up against all odds and got brickbats and yet stood strong. For social activists they are remarkable idol of truthfulness and conviction. Indians need to learn a lot from Phule couple. For Indian men, Joti Ba is the real change maker who started charity from home standing with his wife in all odds and for Indian women, the battle must be learnt from Savitribai that the battle for women's dignity cannot come from hating men but changing the social system. Can anybody imagine today that a woman would lit the pyre of her husband in the 19th century which is not even possible today. Savitribai performed the last rite of Jotiba Phule as a true comrade.
Phule had realized the crookedness of the priestly class when they defined our duties and subjugated women. He emphasized on education which could liberate people from ignorance and superstition. That is why he focused in the emancipation of women and both the couple never thought that they can do it with 'plain' 'sloganeering' and ' jargon's' but with providing alternative mode of action and thoughts. This is a great lesson for all of us that rather than thinking others to change, it is time we initiate the process with in our-self and start our own work after all charity should begin at home first. Let us strengthen the Satyashodhak movement by Jotiba Phule to realize his dream of an enlightened India free from the bondage of caste system and where women enjoy fullest freedom of their choice. Let us salute Savitribai Phule for her remarkable work which has inspired millions of people world over.
Vidya Bhushan Rawat
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