Women and LGBTQI+ groups in several cities organised a National March to protest against the CAA-NRC-NPR on Savitribai Phule’s 189th birth anniversary.
- Sonal Kellogg
As the fight to preserve India’s Constitution rages on, with students at the forefront bravely taking on the Central government and opposing the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), protesters are seeking inspiration from a woman leader from rural Maharashtra, who fought against huge odds for the rights of the oppressed and women’s empowerment, 120 years ago.
Women and LGBTQI+ groups in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad and Ranchi are organising a National March to protest against the CAA-NRC-NPR on Savitribai Phule’s 189th birth anniversary on Friday, drawing strength from this brave, path-breaking woman who was centuries ahead of her time.
Savitribai Phule is much better known as an educator. She was one of the first Indian women who taught Dalit, Tribal and OBC women. She was also the first Indian headmistress of a girls’ school which she set up with her husband Jyotiba Phule. It was amazing that she was educated at all as she was from the Mali community, an Other Backward Caste (OBC), and this was a time when only the Brahmins were allowed to get an education. Savitribai’ first teacher was Jyotiba Phule, often called the father of social reform in India, who also faced a lot of opposition while getting an education.
The couple worked in many areas to uplift the backward castes, both OBCs and Dalits. They also educated Adivasis and Muslims. Though Savitribai is primarily known as an educator, she worked tirelessly to uplift women and save them from sexual exploitation. She fought against misogyny and patriarchy, and became an inspiration for a whole generation of women leaders who fought for gender justice in Maharashtra – Dr Anandi Bai Gopal Joshi, Pandita Ramabai, Tarabai Shinde, Ramabai Ranade and many others.
In the mid-1800s, there was a case of a widow who was arrested for killing her child born outside a marital relationship that she may have been forced into. Savitribai had heard of this incident and several other similar ones – widows were often sexually exploited but they were defenseless against such exploitation. They were disgraced and faced societal wrath if they got pregnant. To address this issue, Savitribai, along with Jyotiba, set up a home for the welfare of widows and their children to ensure that they were safe and not further exploited. Savitribai proved to be a caring and loving mother to the widows and their children.
In the 1860s, Savitribai also organised and led a boycott by barbers against the practice of shaving the heads of widows. She fought against many Brahminical and patriarchal norms, and along with her husband, was a trailblazer in many areas.
On December 25, 1873 the couple organised the wedding of a young widower with the daughter of a woman who was a close friend of Savitribai’s, without a Brahman priest. Though there was some opposition to the wedding, it was held.
Savitribai also wrote poetry and became probably the first published Marathi woman writer when her Kavya Phule, an anthology of poetry, was published in 1854. In her writings, she encouraged the OBCs and Dalits to get educated so that they could live a life of dignity and equality. She was among the first to understand the importance of the English language as a vehicle to emancipate the lower castes. In one of her Marathi poems, she urges her fellow beings to “Awake, arise and educate, Smash traditions-liberate.” In another Marathi poem the title of which translates to ‘Go, Get Education’, she says, “Sit idle no more, go, get education, end misery of the oppressed and forsaken. You’ve got a golden chance to learn, so learn and break the chains of caste.”
Jyotiba Phule started the Satyashodhak Samaj on September 24, 1873 as a socio-spiritual movement and Savitribai actively supported it. Phule was convinced that the existing reform movements within Hinduism – the Brahmo Samaj, the Prarthana Samaj and the Arya Samaj – continued to be the preserve of Brahminism and ritualism. The objective of the Satyashodhak Samaj was to redeem the OBCs and Dalits from the influence of brahminical scriptures, teach them their rights and liberate them from religious and mental slavery.
On Jyotiba Phule’s death on November 28, 1890, Savitribai showed the strength of her character when she lit her husband’s pyre, making it one of the rare instances when a wife lit the funeral pyre of her husband in India. Savitribai also took over Satyashodak Samaj after Phule’s death, and presided over the meeting in 1893 of the samaj, in Saswad in Maharashtra.
The Phules adopted Yashwant, the son of a Brahman widow in 1874 and again challenged caste boundaries as they often did. Together, they set up 52 boarding schools for the welfare of orphaned children, worked in famine relief, set up a night school for workers and peasants and also opened up their household water tank to the Dalits, which was strongly opposed by their own community.
Savitribai edited and published a collection of Jyotiba’s speeches in 1856 and published another of her poetry collections Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar in 1891.
In the famine in Maharashtra in 1896, Savitribai worked tirelessly and also successfully lobbied with the government to take up relief measures. In 1897, when a plague epidemic swept Pune, Savitribai engaged in relief work and unfortunately, contacted the plague which resulted in her death on March 10, 1897. Her son Yashwant officiated at her funeral.
Savitribai started the feminism struggle for Indian women when the word wasn’t even known. She overcame the disadvantages of caste, class and gender to ensure a better future not just for women but also for all oppressed castes of her times. A truly amazing personality, Savitri is a fitting model for people of all genders to take their inspiration from even in 2020.
Sonal Kellogg is an author, writer and food enthusiast currently based in Ahmedabad.