Krantijyoti Savitribai Jotirao Phule: Liberating Women and Lower Castes

Kiran Agawane

19th century Maharashtra was
dominated by Brahmanical ideology and dominance of upper caste over social,
cultural, economic and political facets. The oppressed and deprived sections of
the society could not find their space in the Hindu social system, which
resulted into the lack of assertion against their deprivation, and elimination
of basic human rights. Many anti-social practices were not only prevailed but
they found their sanctity from the Hindu social structure and dominant class of
this system. Rationality and reason which is considered as values necessary for
making ‘thinking individual’ was lacking in this system. In such conditions,
raising voice against these anti-social practices, and working immensely for
empowerment and assertion of deprived sections was really an intricate
responsibility. Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule accepted this challenge,
confronted against oppressive social system, and believed ‘education’ as a tool
to empower the deprived.

Savitribai Jotirao Phule (3 January 1831-10 March 1897) is considered as first
Indian female teacher, revolutionary poet, social reformer who worked for women
and lower castes. She is an inspiration of movement for the liberation of these
sections from oppressive social system. She successfully confronted against
many evil social practices, and worked for establishment of ideals based on
rationality and human reason such as truth, equality and humanity. She promoted
gender equality and considered women equally with men. She recognized
self-respect of women and their basic rights. It was almost impossible to start
schools for girls and lower castes in the place like Pune which was highly
dominated by Brahmanical ideology in the mid nineteenth century. Mahatma Phule
challenged this dominance and started educating girls and lower castes. His
encouragement to Savitribai Phule, his wife instilled confidence in her to
contribute to his struggle. Savitribai actively participated in the struggles
waged by Mahatma Phule’s mission. She became the leader of the movement after
Jotiba’s demise. In order to recognize the significance of contribution of
Savitribai Phule it is essential to know social, cultural, religious and
political conditions of Maharashtra,
especially of Pune, in the 19th century.

System and Patriarchy: Defining features of the 19th century Maharashtra
19th century Maharashtra was not much different from the rest of India. The
basic features of Hindu society were as prevalent here as anywhere else. As
Ambedkar argues, the Hindu social system is characterized by the caste system
and male dominance. Graded hierarchy created by caste system contributed to the
social inequality and inhuman condition of lower castes who could never find
any place in the social structure. Being at the bottom of the hierarchy the
lower castes remained deprived of social, cultural, religious and political
privileges. They were denied some basic rights which they were entitled to as
being human beings. The violation of basic rights of lower caste, however,
received sanction from the religious authorities who used religious texts and
social system based on this ideology as the source of their dominance.
Brahmanical authority and monopoly over reading and interpreting religious
texts immensely contributed in the deprivation and oppression of the
‘unprivileged’ castes. Along with the caste system, prevalence of male
dominance and patriarchy in the social system reflects the irrational behaviour
of society towards women. The individual autonomy of women had never been
recognized. The close association between caste and gender was very much
visible in the social system. The condition of women was affected dually by
patriarchy and caste system. These two practices were impediments in the making
of egalitarian society as visualized by Phule.

one of the most socially, culturally and, politically influential places of Maharashtra, was deeply characterized by these two
Phule attempted complete elimination of irrational social practices. As Gail
Omvedt argued that “Any culture rests upon a class society and the dominance of
a particular class. In
Hindu culture and the caste system rested upon Brahmanism; hence Phule linked
his thought with a movement of opposition to the Brahman elite.”
Mahatma Phule did not set a limited objective of reforming the Hindu social
structure but to eliminate anti-social practices and rituals which
discriminated a community which is socially unprivileged. He wanted to empower
them, thus they could fight for their rights. Through education, they could
‘think’ about oppressive nature of Hindu social system, and confront the system
which promotes social inequality. Phule thought that getting education would
make the so-called lower castes capable enough to realize their marginalization
and the need to struggle for their rights without depending upon any one
individual. This was a truly revolutionary thought at the time which inspired
Savitribai. She was determined to educate women so that they too could stand
for their rights.

is important to understand that the place and period is important to analyze
the significance of the social movement. The locale in which Mahatma Phule
started his movement was Pune which was socially, culturally and politically
dominated by Brahmanical ideology. This Brahmanical ideology and the system it
has created sustained itself on complete deprivation and subjugation of women
in the society as well as the people from the lower castes. The patriarchy did
not even spare the women from upper caste. The society in Phule’s period was
suffering from a ‘slavery’ of all aspects of life including social, economic,
political and cultural.

as a tool of Emancipation and Empowerment for Women and Lower Caste:
Phule and Savitribai Phule always considered ‘education’ as best possible way
to improve the life of socially oppressed. Education is significant technique
of social awareness and social revolution. Thus, they always strived for
providing education to these classes of the society. The Hindu social system
denied right to education to women as well as lower castes on the grounds that
they were not ‘competent’ enough to take education. The upper castes had this
right as they were regarded as most competent. Education was a privilege only
available to upper caste males. According to Phule, this deprivation of
education was a strategy of upper castes/ dominant classes in the society to
keep unprivileged classes vulnerable and marginalized. It resulted into the
maintenance of their dominance in social structure and dependence of the
‘vulnerable’ class on them for survival. Hence, the denial of right to
education to women and lower castes made them more ‘vulnerable’ and
‘marginalized’.  This denial also led to
the refutation of right to knowledge and spread of information. The upper
castes’ monopoly over knowledge system and interpretation of religious texts
led to the maintenance of their authority over Hindu social structure. Due to
this the lower castes and women couldn’t recognize their oppression which also
helped the maintenance of such oppressive system.

Phule and Savitribai Phule were the first social reformers in India who
recognized the essentiality of ‘education’ for any reform movement and thus,
they had given utmost importance to it. In fact they recognized that it is
necessary to provide education to women first for the progress of the society
and its transformation. Therefore, they established the first women school in Maharashtra in 1948 at Bhide Wada which is located at
Budhwar Peth. They also started a school for lower caste women in Pune at
Maharwada. M. G. Mali, who wrote immensely on Mahatma Phule and Savitribai
Phule, considered the movement started by them as the first declaration of
women equality in India.[2]

emphasizing importance of education, Mahatma Phule said:

            “विद्येविना मति गेली, मतिविना नीती गेली
            नीतिविना गति गेली, गतीविना वित्त गेले
            वित्तविना शूद्र खचले, इतके अनर्थ एका अविद्येने केले |”

It clearly explains the importance of education.
Education is significant for human progress. Without education, lower castes
will always remain oppressed and deprived. Denial of education is responsible
for degradation of society. Phule did not have a limited purpose to make people
literate. They wanted to create informed citizens and leaders of social reform
through education. Mahatma Phule expressed his views for women education, lower
caste education, vocational education, restructuring curriculum, agricultural
education, technical education, teachers’ training, etc. Unfortunately, his
ideas on education did not get acknowledgement in India.[3]
Both husband and wife believed that the education can change circumstances.
Such views on education are still considered as radical.

contribution can also be recognized by looking at his opposition to Macaulay’s
Downward Filtration Theory of Education. He challenged this theory. According
to this theory, it would be more suitable to provide higher education to higher
classes than to give elementary education to the masses.[4]
Mahatma Phule did not believe in this theory and argued against it. He argued
that some selected upper castes elites could not provide education to
unprivileged masses as they are not interested in this cause. In fact, Phule
argued they are more interested in maintaining their hegemony and dominance in
the society. Thus, he demanded that maximum amount of revenue collected by
British government from Indian people should be spent on education, and more
importance should be given to the education for women.

Phule as an inspiration for Women and Lower Castes Movement:
mentioned earlier, the autonomy of women was restricted in the Hindu social
structure. Being reduced to ‘slaves’ in the society, the women and lower castes
had lost their existence, and most of the time they were unaware about their
non-existence in the social structure. This prolonged condition of ‘slavery’
actually reduced women and lower castes into nothing but mere bodies with no
consciousness. Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule precisely realized this
limitation in the process of empowerment of these sections. Hence, they
emphasized the need for the ‘consciousness’ and ‘awareness’ among the lower
castes and women about their situations in the society, and their continuous marginalization
and deprivation in the hands of dominant upper castes. For the purpose of
creating consciousness Phule promoted and utilized ‘education’ as means to
achieve the empowerment. They believed that education alone can bring
capabilities among the women and lower castes and make them realize their
marginalization. This realization will inspire them to agitate for their
rights. In fact, Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule were the first to focus on
education to remove social inequalities, untouchability, marginalization,
deprivation and anti-social practices.

Phule argued that it is important to recruit teachers from lower castes for
teaching lower castes students for their educational progress. At the same
time, educating lower castes is not enough. It is important to solve their
basic needs like food, heath, clothes, etc. At the same time, teachers should
be trained.

Phule articulated his views and concerns in his ‘Sarvajanik Satya Dharma’;
it was in fact a declaration of fundamental principles of democratic revolution
in this country. Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule’s contribution to the
empowerment of women and lower caste is immense and noteworthy because their
mission of educating the unprivileged classes was difficult due to the
domination of conservative ideology. Their objective of establishing a society
based on ideal principles of truth, equality, and humanity was difficult to
attain in such conservative milieu. In such situation, devoting a life
educating deprived classes amids confronting dominant classes and their
ideology was truly difficult objective. However, both of them strived hard to
achieve this objective and paved the way for the future movements.

Phule as a Revolutionary Poet:
Phule was also a poet whose literature is considered as literature of
oppressed. It is a literature of social awareness. It was a declaration of
liberation of women and lower castes from age old slavery. It helped to create
consciousness of the oppressed and unprivileged. It is a literature against the
dominance of orthodox religious texts and rituals. It is a literature which is
based on certain ideals such as truth, equality, justice, liberty etc. Her
important works includes Kavya Phule [Anthology of poetry] (1854), Bavankashi
Subodh Ratnakar
[Anthology of poetry], Matushri Savitribai Phulenchi
Bhashane Va Gaani
[Collection of Savitribai Phule’s speeches and songs]
(1891), Jotibanchi Bhashane Vol. 1 to 4 [Collection of Mahatma Phule’s
speeches, edited by Savitribai Phule], her speeches at various places as
president of Satya Shodhak Parishad, and letters written to Mahatma

emphasizing importance of Savitribai Phule’s literature, M. G. Mali argued that
her poetry collection is a history of social revolution in India.[5]
Her works reflected situation of society at that time. It was the literature
which challenged established Marathi literature of that time where voices of
suppressed and unprivileged classes couldn’t find any space. Her literature
reflected sufferings and consciousness of the oppressed sections at that time.
The specificity of her writings is that she used the language of masses in her
literature. Due to this, masses easily comprehended this literature.

Phule and Savitribai Phule’s thoughts and practical contributions in the field
of education are significant for the realization of ideals of truth, equality,
justice, humanity in Indian society and polity. They were the pioneers in the
field. Unfortunately, the thoughts and contributions did not get proper
attention due to prevalent Brahmanical biases in the academia. Nevertheless,
their works have played significant and relevant role in the empowerment and
consciousness of the lower castes and women in modern India.

was impossible to think about a woman from backward caste becoming a teacher in
a society driven by anti-social traditions and rituals. Savitribai Phule
eloquently supported Mahatma Phule in his mission against caste system and
discrimination based on it. After the demise of Mahatma Phule, Savitribai Phule
proficiently carried forward his mission of Satya Shodhak Samaj. She is
recognized by the people not only as a wife of Mahatma Phule but also as the
main leader and activist of the Samaj. She handled the Samaj and
other institutions and their programmes from 1890 to 1897. In short, Savitribai
Phule’s contribution as the first Indian woman teacher, first educationist,
researcher and first thinker in education field is gigantic and astonishing.

Phule and Savitribai Phule significantly contributed to the process of progress
of deprived sections of society. Their views and ideals of truth, equality and
humanity are important in the development of the Indian society. However, the
success of their efforts depends on the current status of the groups for which
they spent their life. It is important to examine the status of women and lower
castes in the contemporary Indian society. Is the dominance and hegemony of
Brahmanical ideology in the society still prevailing? Are women and lower
castes empowered enough? Are they asserting their rights? Why injustices and
atrocities are still going on against them? Is our society really based on the
principles of truth, equality and humanity? Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule
relentlessly worked for empowerment of women and lower castes without any
intention of getting recognized for their work. It is, thus, our responsibility
to promote their ideas and thoughts, and carry forward their task of empowering
weaker and oppressed groups of the society.

Deshpande, G. P. (ed.) Selected Writings
of Jotirao Phule
. New Delhi:
Leftword, 2002.
Deshpande, Sushma. Vhay, Mee Savitribai.
Pune: Nilkanth Prakashan, 2006.
Gavaskar, Mahesh. “Colonialism within
Colonialism: Phule’s Critique of Brahmin Power.” In Dalits in Modern India:
Vision and Values
, edited by S. M. Michael, 91-107. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2011.
Keer, Dhananjay. Mahatma Jotirao Phule:
Aamachya Samajkrantiche Janak
. Mumbai: Popular Publication, 1968.
M. G. Krantijyoti Savitribai Jotirao Phule. Thane: Majestic Publishing
House, 2002.
____. Savitribai Phule Samagra Wangmaya.
Mumbai: Maharashtra Rajya Sahitya Ani Sankriti
Mandal, 2011.
____. Savitribai Phule: Kaal Ani
. Mumbai: Maharashtra Rajya
Sahitya Ani Sankriti Mandal, 2006.
Mani, Braj Ranjan and Pamela Sardar. A
Forgotten Liberator: The Life and Struggle of Savitribai Phule
. New Delhi: Mountain
Peak, 2008.
Manohar, Yashwant. Mee Savitri! Nagpur: Yugsakshi
Publication, 2006.
O’Hanlon, Rosalind. Caste, Conflict and
Ideology: Mahatma Phule and Low Caste Protest in Nineteenth Century Western India
. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Omvedt, G. “Jotirao Phule and the Ideology
of Social Revolution in India.”
Economic and Political Weekly 6, no. 37 (1971): 1969-1979.
Dalits and Democratic Revolution: Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in
Colonial India.
New Delhi:
Sage Publications, 1994.


[1] Gail Omvedt,
“Jotirao Phule and the Ideology of Social Revolution in India,” Economic
and Political Weekly
6, no. 37(1971): 1969.
[2] M. G. Mali. Krantijyoti
Savitribai Phule
. (Thane: Majestic Publishing House, 2012), 31.
[3] Ibid., 69.
[4] R. N. Sharma and R. K.
Sharma. History of Education in India. (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and
[5] M. G. Mali. Krantijyoti
Savitribai Phule
. (Thane: Majestic Publishing House, 2012), 82.
Author is doing his Ph.D from JNU and teaches political science at Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi

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