When Jyotirao Phule embarked with his partner, Savitribai, on their journey to promote radical reform, he had already smashed the social shackles that came with being the son of a greengrocer and the grandson of a gardener in orthodox Pune. This was a boy who received a rudimentary education in Marathi, found himself married before 13 to a bride of 8, and who then resumed his education in a Christian mission school at the insistence of a Muslim neighbour. While “correct” behaviour would have been to quietly keep stock of pulses and vegetables, he digested Thomas Paine’s The Age Of Reason and charted a course of his own, asking all those inconvenient questions that reason sparks in sensible people.
Jyotirao must have been an unusual man at the time for transmitting the ideas he absorbed to his wife. They were just on either side of 20 when they set up an institution for girls in 1848, dismissing conservative melodrama against female education as “idiotic beliefs”. That was revolutionary enough, but this thinker who drew inspiration from George Washington and dedicated his most important book—Gulamgiri (1873)—to “the good people of the United States” for eliminating slavery, then went on to establish a school for “untouchables”. This in a city where, till recently, the Peshwas had commanded the “lowborn” to move around with brooms tied to their waists so that the ritual defilement they brought into town could also be brushed away after every polluting step.
The Peshwas—hereditary ministers—had woven a great deal of princely myth around their high-born persons at the cost of their original middle-caste royal patrons, the descendants of the Maratha king Shivaji. Jyotirao dusted up in the dialect of the poor (which was thought crude) the tales of Shivaji’s valour, casting him as a protector of peasants and upholder of the rights of the weak. His irate respondents reacted with the more enduring construction of Shivaji as a protector of sacred cows. Jyotirao didn’t care. When the Brahmins claimed that they were high because they were born from Brahma’s mouth, Jyotirao asked if the creator also menstruated from that general area, before deploying Darwin to demolish his scandalized interlocutors. Because Jyotirao was a man, and a fairly influential man with access to the British, it was Savitribai who often faced physical retaliation for their work. This came in the form of being pelted with dung while she walked to their controversial schools, for example. She remained undaunted. In a village outside Pune, an untouchable girl got pregnant with her upper-caste lover. Lynching was proposed—the boy for disgracing his family’s honour and the girl for being disgrace itself—when Savitribai appeared. “I came to know about their murderous plan,” she wrote to her husband, “(and) rushed to the spot and scared (the mob) away, pointing out the grave consequences of killing the lovers under the British law.”
Naturally, many grumbled that with his tributes to the West, Jyotirao was an unpatriotic lackey. As it happened, he cheerfully exasperated the British too. In 1888 they extended to Jyotirao the honour of an invitation to dine with the Duke of Connaught. Jyotirao accepted, only to horrify his Victorian friends by arriving in peasant’s garb, with a torn shawl his chief accessory. He proceeded to lecture Queen Victoria’s grandson that he must not mistake his dinner companions as representative of India—it was the voiceless poor who were the soul of the land. On another occasion, when the Poona municipality sought to demonstrate loyalty to the governor of Bombay through a 1,000-rupee present, Jyotirao alone among 32 members opposed the idea, insisting that the money be spent on something more worthwhile than fanning the already inflated vanity of an Englishman: education.
He was upset with the colonial tendency to privilege Indian elites even in Western schooling. What “contribution”, he asked, “have these (elites) made to the great work of regenerating their fellowmen? How have they begun to act upon the masses? Have any of them formed classes at their own homes or elsewhere, for the instruction of their less fortunate or less wise countrymen? Or have they kept their knowledge to themselves, as a personal gift, not to be soiled by contact with the ignorant vulgar? Have they in any way shown themselves anxious to advance the general interests and repay the philanthropy with patriotism? Upon what grounds is it asserted that the best way to advance the moral and intellectual welfare of the people is to raise the standard of instruction among the higher classes? A glorious argument this for aristocracy, were it only tenable!”
When Jyotirao died, many thought the nuisance had finally withdrawn to the grave. Savitribai, however, continued to irritate the elders, breaching convention yet again by not only appearing at her dead husband’s cremation, but by also lighting the pyre. She died seven years later in the great plague of 1897, but many remembered her across western India and beyond on her birth anniversary last week through the rousing anthem she left: May all our sorrows and plight disappear/Let the Brahmin not come in our way/With this war cry, awaken!/Strive for education/Overthrow the slavery of tradition/Arise to get education.
Medium Rare is a weekly column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore. He tweets at @UnamPillai.