Savitribai Phule: Her contribution to the social transformation

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Sumeet Mhaskar

 The restrictions imposed by Manusmriti to take education have been removed. The knowledge givers, the British, have arrived. So take the knowledge. Such an opportunity had not arrived in thousand years. – Savitribai Phule, “Wake Up for Education.” 1884

In 1818, the British defeated the military forces of the Maratha Empire. In the battle of Bhima Koregaon, the role of 500 Mahars is by now widely known. This event is also important for the democratisation of education for women (Brahmin to Dalits), & Shudra (OBC) & Dalit men.

Jotirao Phule (1827-1890) attended an indigenous common vernacular school. He continued his education after his marriage to Savitribai in 1840. In 1847, he completed his secondary education at the Scottish mission’s English school. Jotirao shared his knowledge with Savitribai. Since girls couldn’t access the indigenous schools such private learning arrangements were essential for their educational aspirations. Savitribai later availed new teacher training opportunities offered by missionary women. After passing an entrance examination, Savitribai entered the third grade of the teacher training institution established by Margaret Mitchell, of the Scottish mission, which she attended from 1845 to 1847. Savitribai studied for a couple of months with Cynthia Farrar, of the American mission, in Ahmednagar. This education enabled her, at the age of 17, to become a headmistress and teacher in a pioneering girls’ school project.

The initial school, set up in 1848, was short-lived. Jotirao & Savitribai Phule faced personal repercussions for challenging the caste & gender restrictions in education. In 1849, they were forced to move out of Jotirao’s paternal household, in response to community pressure.

In July 1851 Phules were able to make a new effort. Financially supported by Thomas Erskine Perry, at the time chief justice in Bombay, they established three long-lasting schools, in which Savitribai co-taught with her colleague Fatima Sheikh, until she fell ill in 1856.

Savitribai faced hostilities, including physical violence. A British judicial commissioner reported that when he came to Poona in 1851 to inspect the “first girls’ school established in that city”, he found it “in an upper room with the doors shut”, for fear of persecution.

In 1852, Savitribai Phule founded the Mahila Seva Mandal, a women’s rights organisation. One year later, this was followed by an institution supporting upper-caste widows.

In contrast to contemporary missionary “female schools” ran by Cynthia Farrar, the 3 “native girls’ schools” offered a remarkably non-gendered curriculum. “Needlework” – a symbol of female domestic skill and industry – only occupied a marginal position in their curriculum. The girls’ schools’ attendance was unusually high, and the girls were reported to “love the Schools and literally run to them with alacrity and joy.”

The short-lived school of 1848 has been called “the country’s first girls’ school.” This, it was not. However, it was the Bombay Presidency’s earliest recorded modern school for girls set up ‘not’ by missionaries, or European-led associations ‘but by Indians’.

Originally, Jotirao had intended to provide schooling for girls of all castes together. After the first unsuccessful effort, however, the girls’ schools and the schools for “children from the atishudra communities”, i.e. the Untouchables, had to be pursued separately.

Phule established the Society for the Promotion of the Education of Mahar-Mangs (1853). Lahoo Mang and Ranga Mahar promoted the schools among their caste fellows.

In her speech on “vidyadaan”, or “knowledge donation”, Savitribai Phule explored the dialogical nature of teaching-learning processes, in which the learner was not a passive recipient, but an active agent.

Education, for Savitribai was not a top- down paternalistic project to “uplift” subalterns. Emphasising the interrelation of knowledge donation, & knowledge appropriation, she placed a high responsibility on shudra-atishudra communities to pursue learning and self-improvement. Savitribai argued both teachers and learners could realise their human potential. The acquisition of knowledge was a force to tame the “animalistic tendencies” within human beings. She also argued that education would enable individuals to overcome the confines of caste identity. It would also enable the Shudras to leave behind her “Shudraness”, and finally create a more humane society, beyond caste.

A public examination conducted in 1852 by the British colonial state noted that the progress of girl students in the school started by Savitribai and Jotirao Phule was “far greater than that made in any of our Boys’ Schools during the same period”.

In 1855, the Dnyanodaya newspaper published an essay by Muktabai Salve, a 14-year old girl from the Mang caste, and a student in Phule’s “low-caste” school. Muktabai’s essay is a powerful testimony of the anti-caste movement’s questioning of traditional authority.

Muktabai draws a vivid picture of the suffering of the Untouchables under the last Peshwa, Bajirao II, & highlights the changes under British rule. She emphasised aid given to the Mahar-Mang schools, in which she received her education. This essay is considered to be the first modern public expression of a Dalit woman. The text by Muktabai was not only printed, but she also read it to visitors to the schools, at Jotirao Phule’s request.

This short piece relies on the research paper Sumeet had jointly written with Jana Tschrenev.  The title of the paper is “Wake up for education: colonialism, social transformation, and the beginnings of the anti-caste movement in India”.


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