Practice Question – Write short notes with a sociological perspective: Jyotirao Phule as an agrarian radical. (UPSC 2015)
Approach – Introduction, Explain Phule’s understanding of Indian agrarian structure and peasant society, List the solutions he sought for agrarian problems, Conclusion.
Jyotirao Govindrao Phule, also known as Mahatma Jyotirao Phule was a social worker, activist, teacher, and writer, regarded as one of our country’s most important anti-caste figures. Along with his wife, Savitribai Phule, he is most well-known for his contributions towards the education of women and oppressed castes. Jyotiba Phule (1827-1890) initiated social change in nineteenth century India especially in Maharashtra through his philosophy. The nineteenth century was an era of social criticism and transformation that focused on nationalism, caste and gender. All major questions taken up by the reformers were connected with women’s issues such as female infanticide, child marriage, ban on women’s education, Sati, tonsuring of widows, ban on widow remarriage etc. At the same time, reformers concentrated more on reforming the social institutions of family & marriage with special emphasis on the status & rights of women. Jyotiba took up the issue of gender and caste. He revolted against the unjust caste-system under which millions of people had suffered for centuries. His revolt against the caste system integrated social and religious reform with equality. He emerged as the unchanged leader of the depressed classes in Maharashtra and was recognized as a leader of downtrodden class in allover India. He was influenced by American thinker Thomas Paine’s ideas of Rights of Man.
PHULE’S PHILOSOPHY AND SOCIAL REFFORM MOVEMENT
In Phule’s thought, dharma and caste are at the Centre. Phule rarely uses the term Hindu or Hinduism, but he refers to Brahmanism instead. In his view Hinduism originates in
the smritis. He was convinced that these books (smritis) were part of the brahmanical attempt at creating those texts that would rationalize and perpetuate their domination. As the
brahminical position claimed the chaturvarna system to be god-given and eternal. Phule rejected this pseudo-religion along with the text that upheld the chaturvarna. Therefore, he
argued for its complete rejection and reconstruction. He sought to create dichotomous conceptions of the Hindu social structure.25 For Phule, Brahmanism was historical and it
has been constructed over time. Since it was the ideology of oppression and dominance, It has to be opposed and ultimately smashed. There was nothirìg sacred or divine about it as
it pretends as if it is itself as divinely ordained. It was necessary to oppose the system as a whole. He also attacks the avatarakalpana. It is also a way of dissolving the apparent
contradiction between polytheistic ritual practice and monotheistic metaphysical positions.
19th Century was a period of social problems like Varna system, mythology, caste-system, ignorance about human rights etc. In oppressed castes great-grandparents and grand-parents did their community work which involved hard menial labour. They were not permitted social mobility other permissible for them. They were not even aware of their rights; illiteracy was very high in the society. Jyotiba shows the light of hope, to free from these problems of society. He revolted against the unjust caste-system and upheld the cause of education of women and lower castes. He started primary education and higher education and fought for their rights. Thus, he ushered in primary education as a tool in perceiving the work of the oppressed castes as dignified labour that was exploited by society.
In 1873, he established the Satyashodak Samaj, with the foundational principles being that all human beings are equal. Membership was open to all regardless of their background, and the society set out with various social reform movements, with the main aim being the upliftment of those most backward in society and spreading rational thinking. One of the many examples of the reforms the society introduced was the Satyashodak marriage system, which consisted of alternative marriage rituals and lines which were more progressive and equal.
Gail Omvedt argues, “System of Manu treats women as shudras or dasa irrespective of their caste and Varna”. Phule’s notion of women was totally different from that of Manu as
he considered women as shudratrishudra. That included Brahmin women. Phule himself adopted the son of a Brahmin widow as his own son. The practical social reform efforts
involved in aiding the traditional Brahmanic women and sudratisudhra. Gail Omvedt pointed out that Phule did not use the common word “manus” (human being), but insists on using
‘stree-purush’, thus emphasizing gender differentiation, while pleading for equal and common human rights for women and men. Phule was convinced that the family and marriage system must be reformed altogether. He does not do so as a liberal paternalistically concerned for the uplift of some lower order of being, but as a radical philosopher, he was aware of a revolution in social relations has to be brought about between Brahmin and non-Brahmin. He realized based on the conditions, untouchables were seen not as a group unique within
India but as the most oppressed section of the masses, but he saw them as a part original community of the peasants.
Phule was mainly concerned about the marriage system of those days. He attacked the customs and practices such as child marriage, marriage between young girl and old man, polygamy, objection to remarriage of women, prostitution, harassment of widows, etc, He advised Shudra peasants not to have more than one wife and not to marry their young children. He had given serious thought to the institution of marriage and had devised a simple and modern contract type ritual for the marriage ceremony of the members of Satya Shodhak Siimaj (Truth Seeking Society).
AGRARIAN RADICALISM OF PHULE
In caste and social terms, Phule was concerned about the status of Shudras, untouchables and women in Indian society, while in economic terms he was interested in peasantry and its problems. The high caste nationalists viewed industrialisation as the only solution to the economic problem of India. Phule on the other hand had talked from the point of view of improving agriculture since he perceived Indian economy primarily as the agricultural economy. He observed that Indian agriculture was going through a crisis situation and identified the following factors as causes for the crisis :-
The size of the population dependent on agriculture had increased. Earlier at least one person from a farmer’s family was employed in the army or administration of the Indian states. Farmers who owned a small piece of land used to make their living on fruits, flowers, fodder, grass and wood from nearby forest. The new government had started the department of forests which covered all hills, valleys, waste lands and grazing grounds thereby making the life of the farmers who used to depend upon them difficult. British officers had increased the rate of land tax even though the income of the farmer had declined. Farmers were being exploited by the money-lenders and Brahmin officers of the revenue and irrigation departments and from the judiciary. Due to severe poverty and declining conditions of the lands, farmers could not come out of the problem of indebtedness. In these cases the lands were
transferred to the money-lenders.
On the basis of his in-depth knowledge of the rural economy and the agriculture sector, Phule suggested certain solutions to these problems. The first and the most important solution to the problem of the poverty of the farmers which Phule suggested was construction of bunds, tanks and dams so that sufficient water was made available to the farm. He wanted the government to take up schemes such as soil conservation, animal breeding and teaching of modern techniques of farming, holding exhibitions of agriculture annually etc. He
pointed out that unless agriculture was made profitable, the agricultural banks which were talked about in those days would not succeed. He asked the government to reduce the burden of taxes on farmers in order to make agriculture profitable.
Phule who was looking from the view point of farmers and lower castes could see another type of drain of wealth i.e. from rural sector to urban sector, from peasant economy to the Brahmin domain. It should be pointed out that Phule did not make any class differentiation within the peasantry.
DALIT REFORM MOVEMENT OF PHULE
Mahatama Jyotirao Phule (1827-1890) belonged to OBC caste Mali. Influenced by the wave of reform movements, he developed a strong resistance to upper caste oppression and worked amongst the poor, uneducated untouchables and women. He founded the Satyashodhak Samaj in 1875. He started by establishing schools for untouchable boys and girls in Pune where he belonged. As a social reformer he had a vision that if education is imparted to poor untouchables it will propound rationality to fight the priestly caste. He saw education as a major
source of social change and argued that knowledge, education and science are weapons of advancement in the hands of poor. He recognized that untouchables are more oppressed than lower castes but called for their unity as for him they together constituted the exploited masses of India. He felt it a necessity that shudras and Ati-shudra need to think on their own and to recognize caste as source of slavery.
By 1920s and 1930s several mobilisations of peasants, dalits and women started to grow under varying leadership and ideologies. On Phule’s formulation of Shudra and Ati-shudra, anti-caste, anti-brahman and anti-Hindu ideology struggles started to grow by lower sections of the society. The non-brahman movement in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu as Omvedt explains, as well as the dalit movements in other states such as Punjab, Karnataka and UP, all highlighted Phule’s ideology about Aryan conquest and brahman exploitation on the basis of religion.
People called Phule a revolutionary, because of his uncompromising attack on the injustice of the old society. When he stressed about participatory development, he clearly emphasized economic development of peasants, shudras and women, but other reformers concentrated more on reforming the social institutions of family and marriage with special emphasis on
the status and rights of women. He emphasized more on classless/casteless society. Inspired by his ideology, Several Parties, organizations, dalit intellectuals started working. They have
to push forward Phule’s revolutionary ideology. Although many political parties emerged for this cause, they did not make qualitative difference. But all these parties are striving to get political power and giving moral and political strength to scheduled castes/tribes/minorities and OBCs and encouraging dalits to become leaders. To sum up, Mahatma Jyotirao Phule was a revolutionary social reformer.