Opinion: Savitribai Phule and identity of backward castes in Maharashtra

Pune, Maharashtra, IndiaWritten By: Varun MaturkarUpdated: Jan 03, 2018, 09:39 AM IST

Alongside her husband Jyotirao Phule, Savitri Phule was quite vocal about the atrocities of the upper caste over the lower ones. Photograph:(

It is said that being a male is a matter of birth, being a man is a matter of age but being a gentleman is a matter of choice. Similarly for women: being a female is a matter of birth, being a woman is a matter of age but being a fine lady is a matter of choice. This notion was proved by none other than the Phule couple.

This British-era feminist was born on 3 January 1831, in Naigaon near Satara district of Maharashtra and was married to Jyotirao Phule a feminist man of that era at an early age of 9. She was a woman whose stature will remain unmatched with any of the modern twitter feminist. 

Mahatma Gandhi gave a speech in about 1920, appealing education for women; his point was that it would be more fruitful than teaching men. 70 years before Mahatma, there was a lady who was headmistress of not only one but three schools!

Jyotiba Phule or Mahatma Phule, as he is called commonly in Maharashtra, did an applauding job by teaching his wife how to read and write. Savitribai was later trained at Ms.Farhar's institution in Ahemadnagar and Ms.Mitchell's school in Pune. She became the first female teacher of the school started by Mahatma Phule in Bhide Wada, Pune. 

At that time there was a stereotype that education is meant just for boys of Brahmin caste. The orthodox used to say, teach a girl and then she will get hell for one birth. Savitribai used to tackle this insane rhetoric by saying, don't teach a girl she will get hell all the seven births.

Savitribai was so committed that by 1851 she had 150 female students in her 3 schools of which she was the headmistress. She also introduced the concept of stipends for sincere girls and the parents-teachers meet was done regularly.

Apart from being an excellent education reformer, Savitribai was an ardent social worker. Alongside her husband Jyotirao Phule, she was quite vocal about the atrocities of the upper caste over the lower ones. She spoke against the practice of tonsure and child marriage and supported the idea of widow marriage. 

The Phule couple started a centre called Balhatya Pratibandhak Gruha to serve as a facility for rape victims, especially the widowed ones. She also adopted a child named Yashwant who was a son of a Bramhin widower.

During the plague epidemic, she asked her son Yashwant, who was a doctor, to give free treatment to the poor. It is documented that Savitribai used to carry the patients on her back all the way to her son's clinic. Eventually, Savtribai succumbed to plague herself. 

The purpose of this piece isn't just to glorify the works of Savitribai Phule.

Yesterday, I went to Pune University campus and I was staring at the serious face of Savitribai on the statue. Even though I see Chanda Kocchar, Shikha Sharma, Sudha Murty, Sushma Swaraj, Mamata Banerjee as great achievers but I still felt a gloom on her face.

What happened at Koregaon Bhima was very shameful for Maharashtrians. Surely, incidents such as these would have pained the souls of Savitribai Phule, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Gopal Krishna Gokhle, Lokmanya Tilak and many more.  

I won't point a finger at either the right-wingers or the Dalits. Each of them must have played a part to instigate violence. What is undeniable though is the incident is a blot on the peaceful image of Maharashtra and disgrace on the struggle of Savitribai Phule.

Even after 70 years of Indian Independence, 36% of women still don't know how to read and write. Only 13.4% of Indian women have regular salaried jobs. 51.4% of women of SC backgrounds are still illiterate. 41% of rural women are illiterate too. Too few women are in politics and mostly imbibed in this stream through nepotism.

Along the lines of the ideology of Phule couple, the government should increase their spending on education. Savitribai used to give stipends to sincere girls, so government should give stipends to sincere girls whose parents are illiterate. Free sanitary napkins must be given to girls who can't afford it. We can see girls regularly topping all sorts of exams. We have Tina Dabi, a Dalit girl, who is UPSC topper. So the situation is not entirely hopeless, and I can feel a smile on Savitribai's face.


(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL).