Remembering Mahatma Jyotirao Phule

The good and the less known; here’s the wonderful legacy left behind by the revolutionary figure.


In 2010, Maharashtra’s then Minister of Public Works Department Chhagan Bhujbal handed ‘Gulamgiri’ a book written by Mahatma Jyotirao Phule to former US President Barack Obama. The dedication section of the book read:

“To the good people of the United States as a token of admiration for their sublime, disinterested and self-sacrificing devotion in the cause of Negro Slavery; and with an earnest desire, that my countrymen may take their noble example as their guide in the emancipation of their Sudra Brethern from the trammels of Brahmin thralldom.”

Obama was surprised to see an Indian author pay tribute to the US civil movement in 1873 and sadly so are many Indians even today.

Although nearly every Indian studiously uses the prefix ‘Mahatma’ before the social reformer’s name, who died on November 28, 1890, few people know about the events and factors that led to the bestowal of such a title.

Phule’s family originally belonged to the Mali community that constituted one of the Shudra castes in Maharashtra. As such, Phule was treated like a lower-caste by people around him which influenced his future efforts to bring about the development of lower-caste communities. Following his community’s customs, Phule was also married to a girl of his father’s choosing, at the age of 13.

However, the influential moments that led to his social endeavours occurred in 1848. That year, Phule resolved to challenge the caste-system and social restrictions following a wedding ceremony of his Brahmin friend in 1848 wherein the bridegroom’s relatives insulted and abused Phule for participating in an upper-caste ceremony.

Again in 1848, he read ‘The Right of Man’ by Thomas Paine that inspired Phule to focus on women’s education and not just lower-caste men. Accordingly, he taught his wife Savitribai how to read and write in the same year. The couple went on to establish the first indigenous girls-school in Pune. During this time, they also met Muslim teacher Fatima Sheikh who offered them residence and went on to work at Phules’ school. The trio were at the forefront of providing education to children of marginalised communities.

The Phules also opened two more schools for children from then untouchable castes like Mahar and Mang.

Other than education, Phule also worked for the empowerment of widows. Phule was deeply upset by an incident in 1863 when a Brahmin widow was sentenced to jail for killing her new-born baby that she had originally tried to abort. Moved by the incident, Phule along with his wife and dear friend Sadashiv Ballal Govande began an infanticide prevention centre. Soon pamphlets appeared all over Pune advertising the centre.

 “Widows, come here and deliver your baby safely and secretly. It is up to your discretion whether you want to keep the baby in the centre or take it with you. This orphanage will take care of the children [left behind]” read the pamphlets.

It must be understood that this was an age when women had little to no bodily autonomy. Female infanticide was common and the Phule couple themselves were married in their childhood. Other women were married to older men and became widows even before reaching their teenage years. Pained by this realisation, he decided to become an advocate of widow remarriage.

While striving to bring about these social changes, Phule also attacked the Vedas, the most fundamental texts of upper-caste Hindus as a “false consciousness.” He also openly called Rama in Ramayana a symbol of Aryan oppression.

Another little known information is that Phule introduced the Marathi word ‘Dalit’ – meaning broken or crushed – that was later popularised by Dalit Panthers.

He created the Satya Shodhak Samaj (Society of Seekers of Truth) that worked for the social rights and political access of women, Shudras, Dalits, and other under-privileged groups in Maharashtra in 1873. Individuals from any caste and class were invited to the organisation.

Another surprising fact about the social activist is that Phule worked as a merchant, cultivator and municipal contractor in 1882 – professions once unimaginable for his flower-selling family.

As a government contractor, he supplied building materials required for the construction of a dam on the Mula-Mutha river near Pune in the 1870s. Later in 1876, Phule became the Municipal Commissioner (council member) in Pune and served unelected until 1883.


Reading Dr. Ambedkar’s Who Were The Shudras
Demolition of caste system essential for the survival of democracy in India
Remembering Jyotiba Phule, on His 189th Birth Anniversary, April 11
Love-Letters like no other



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