On Mahatma Phule’s 132nd death anniversary today, we remember the matchless social reformer who strived for casteless society and peasant rights
Mahatma Jyotiba Govindrao Phule (April 11, 1827-November 28, 1890) will ever live in our hearts for his great deeds to emancipate the downtrodden through education and social reforms! It was a tough time indeed when he took up the cudgel to empower people from weaker sections of society, in particular women, with the help of his wife Savitribai Phule, by imparting education to them. Braving all odds, challenges and hardships, he stood up firmly against brute injustice being meted out to SCs, STs, OBCs and other marginalised sections who also suffered the trauma of untouchability.
A towering personality with very few parallels in human history, Mahatma Phule used education and social reforms as the most powerful tools to champion and spread the cause of social justice, equality and women empowerment, and emerged as a rare source of hope for countless downtrodden people, who were being brutalised on the basis of their caste. His commitment to serve and uplift the downtrodden in a selfless manner was so inspiring and appealing to the people that they hailed him as Mahatma—a great soul!
What inspires me immensely is the determination of Mahatma Phule to stand up against tormentors of the downtrodden. The 19th century was a tough time in our history. It was also the time when a lot of social churning was going on. Born on April 11, 1827, in a simple of family of ‘Maali’ caste in Satara, Maharashtra, he was disturbed over the rampant evils of caste-based discrimination. His father Govindrao was a vegetable vendor at Pune. Influenced by Thomas Paine’s book The Rights of Man, Mahatma Phule believed that the only solution to combat social evils in all their forms and magnitude was the enlightenment of women and members of the lower castes.
He strongly opposed the idea of caste-based domination in the society and struggled for the rights of peasants and other low-caste people. As the saying goes, charity begins at home, he first educated his wife Savitribai Phule. They started the first school for girls in 1848 in Pune at Tatyasaheb Bhide’s residence. Savitribai Phule is fondly regarded as the first woman teacher of our country. It was a new dawn, which infused a new kind of hope among SCs, STs and OBCs whose children in general and girls in particular did not have easy access to education.
There are many takeaways for us from the life of Mahatma Phule, which are so relevant today as we are collectively striving to build a new India—resilient, inclusive and Atma Nirbhar. The idea of new India veers around the empowerment of all, including women. Mahatma Phule worked and made tireless efforts for social equality, women’s empowerment and boosting education for SCs, STs and OBCs. The vision of Mahatma Phule is amply reflected even in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations, which are so candidly articulated in the global resolve to end poverty, hunger, ensuring good health and well-being, quality education and gender equality among other things.
India, under the visionary leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modiji, is today following the path of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas Aur Sabka Vishwas as envisioned by Mahatma Phule and his wife Savitribai Phule. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs is implementing Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana- National Urban Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NULM) to reduce poverty and vulnerability of urban poor households on a sustainable basis. Since 2014-15, till June 30, 2022, over 12.02 lakh urban poor have been imparted skill training to enhance their employability, out of which more than 6.42 lakh skill trained have been placed under self- or wage employment.
Similarly, Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM) is actively organising rural poor women into self-help groups (SHGs) and helping them come out of abject poverty. As on June 30, 2022, about 8.39 crore rural poor women have been mobilised into more than 76.94 lakh SHGs. Over Rs 30,160 crore loans have been sanctioned to over 133,995 accounts under Stand-Up India Scheme to the aspiring SC, ST and women entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship will ensure they become rich from poor. Under no circumstances we should allow downtrodden to become poorer. It is one of the reasons that the governments of the Centre and the state are working wholesomely to ensure that no one is left behind.
However, we need to note that total implementation of affirmative and welfare measures should be at the heart of our collective efforts to build a new India. For example, there is a provision of reservation for SCs, OBCs, EBCs, and STs. It should be implemented in totality across the country. Similarly, every possible effort should be made to check dropouts from schools, since the majority of them are from weaker sections of society. According to the Unified District Information System for Education Plus (UDISE +), the dropout rate among primary students went up from 0.8 per cent in 2020-21 to 1.45 per cent in 2021-22. At the secondary level (Class IX to X), the dropout was 14.6 per cent. Though an improvement from 16.1 per cent in 2019-20, lakhs of students do not continue their education further. As a result, our gross enrolment ratio in higher education remains less than 30 per cent.
Given the prevalence of malnutrition among poor children, they should be provided with nutritious diet along with quality education. It will be nice if there are model schools for them. Governments are doing a commendable job in empowering the poor among us but other stakeholders should also come forward and act as eyes and ears for affirmative policies and welfare schemes meant for the downtrodden. Only then the dream of social equality and justice will be realized. The ideals with which Mahatma Phule formed Satyashodhak Samaj, Society of Truth Seekers, to champion the cause of equal rights for the people from exploited castes and communities are reflected in the spirit of equality, justice, fraternity and liberty, also the key pillars of our democracy.
It is gladdening indeed that several states have initiated a number of measures to check dropout at primary and higher secondary levels. For example, the Government of Haryana has introduced the process of mainstreaming the students who were found to be out of school. We must adopt a multipronged strategy to equip SC, ST and OBC students with special skills as well so that their income goes up. Making the poor rich is more important than the rich getting richer. Special focus must be laid on holistic empowerment of women and extremely backwards communities (EBCs) among downtrodden. Atrocities against them despite education are a grave issue. New set of social inequalities have cropped up. Women should get their share in Parliament and state legislatures as well.
Mahatma Jyotiba Phule—who brilliantly articulated his thoughts and ideas in his writings such as Gulamgiri (Slavery) and Shetkarayacha Aasud (Cultivator’s Whipcord)—left for his heavenly abode on November 28, 1890, but his ideals and vision of life will ever be relevant for us. It was indeed one of the toughest periods we survived as a nation, though we paid a heavy price for the acts of caste-based exclusion and discrimination. Pioneering efforts of a great soul, Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, laid the foundation of an inclusive, tolerant and compassionate India, which we are today. As a mark of real tribute to him, let us resolve during Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav celebration to build an inclusive and vibrant India by following the footprints of Mahatma Jyotiba Phule.
(The author is Governor, Haryana. The views expressed are personal)