Mumbai: Jyotiba Phule (1827-1890) was a social reformer and pioneer of women’s education in Maharashtra. Phule and his wife Savitribai challenged the caste system and mobilized the lower castes. The range of his social activism and reforms spanned the oppressive Hindu caste system, education, agriculture, and women’s emancipation.

Phule challenged the very economic model of exploitation that sustained the Hindu caste system, which ensured the oppression of the lower castes and women, and denied several backward castes the right to social equality and education.

Along with his wife, Jyotiba Phule set up India’s first school for girls in 1848. Phule also championed marriage of widows and challenged the exploitative agriculture revenue system.

In 1873 Phule formed Satyashodhak Samaj to enlighten people on rational thinking and social reforms. Phule, who belonged to the so-called backward caste of mali (gardener), is credited with coining the word Dalit denoting the extreme lower castes of India.

Phule and his wife are inspirations for several leaders and politicians who have championed the cause of social mobility for the lower castes. B.R. Ambedkar was inspired by Phule’s work.

Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has recommended Bharat Ratnas for Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule.