Mahatma Jyotirao Phule: Reformer far ahead of his time
Born on April 11, 1827 in Pune, Maharashtra, Jyotirao Govindrao Phule was born in a family that belonged to the lower rung of the social ladder. The men of the Phule family served as florists and were even commissioned by then ruler Peshwa Baji Rao II due to which the family adopted the surname Phule. Jyotirao’s father, Govindrao, was a farmer and flower-vendor in Poona and his mother Chimnabai passed away when he was young.
Phule was a bright student at primary school, where he learned the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. It was not common for children from the Mali community to study beyond a certain point. So, Phule was taken out of school and began working with his father at their farm. Soon after, a neighbour convinced Phule’s father to let him complete his education. In 1841, Phule was enrolled at the Scottish Missionary High School, where he completed education.
Phule was married to Savitribai in 1840 when they were both in their teens. In 1848, he attended the wedding of one his friends from an upper caste. When relatives of the bridegroom insulted Phule over his social background, he left the venue, vowing to challenge the ills of the caste system.
Phule was influenced by Thomas Paine’s book titled The Rights of Man and believed that the only solution to combat the social evils was the enlightenment of women and members of the lower castes. In 1848, he taught his wife how to read and write, after which the couple opened the first indigenously run school for girls in Pune where they both taught. The school welcomed girls from diverse sections, religions and socio-economic backgrounds — to come and study.
Phule and his wife were ostracised. The couple was, however, welcomed by their friend Usman Sheikh at the latter’s home from where the girls’ school operated. By 1852, the Phules had established three schools but all of them had shut by 1858 due to the shortage of funds after the Revolt of 1857.
Phule vehemently opposed child-marriage and supported widow remarriage. In 1863, he, along with his friend and wife, opened an infanticide prevention centre where pregnant widows could safely give birth and care for infants. They ran the centre until the mid-1880s.
Phule was also a merchant, author as well as a municipal council member. In 1863, one of his businesses was to supply metal-casting equipment to construction sites. He was appointed commissioner to the Poona municipality and served in the position until 1883.
He was also a reputed author. His well known books include Gulamgiri (Slavery) and Shetkarayacha Aasud (Cultivator’s Whipcord).
Dhananjay Keer, the author of Phule’s biography, said that the title of Mahatma was bestowed on Phule by fellow reformer from Bombay, Vithalrao Krishnaji Vandekar.
In 1888, Phule suffered a stroke which left him paralysed. Although he passed away on November 20, 1890, he and his work continue to inspire several of the country’s youth even today.