The life of Savitribai, wife of Jotirao (or Jotiba, as he is fondly known in Marathi) Phule is a tale of great sacrifice and courage. Born on 3 January 1831 in a relatively well to do peasant family, Savitri grew to become the first woman from Maharashtra to contribute in revolutionizing ways of medieval thinking. Her life and work had many dimensions and continues more than a century after her death to inspire generations, not only of women but of dispossessed of all castes and communities.
The revolutionary significance of Jotirao Phule’s contribution is gradually unfolding and is getting its due recognition on the national scene of late. It is high time that Savitribai’s contribution to this great task also gets its due credit. Although inseparable in life and work, the husband and wife had their own distinctive contribution to make to the mission that they had undertaken.
Savitribai’s contribution cannot be gauged unless we understand the social background in which she was living. Pune, the city the Phules were living in, was a forte of the most reactionary regime in India of the time. It was rightly described as the ‘place of darkness’. The Peshwa’s rule in Pune was actually a despotic rule of the Brahmins and the last ruler, deposed by the East India Company, Bajirao II was an extremely corrupt, incompetent and debauched person. The memories of his rule were still fresh and the regressive social customs continued to be practiced. A progressive author described his rule saying, peasants were tortured no end. If they failed to pay taxes, their children were subjected to bathing in boiling oil or standing on scorching hot plates.
The condition of the untouchables was worse than animals. They were made to tie a broom behind their back to wipe out their shadow (!) and hang an earthen pot around the neck to spit in so that they did not pollute the streets that the Brahmins walked on.
All women, belonging to any caste, were treated as a source of sin. Manus’ dictat that being naturally stupid, women should not be educated because education would lead them to sinful ways, they would become rude to men and would ruin the happiness of the family. In short, ‘the woman is not fit for freedom’.
The Phules challenged all this, in both thought and action.
Savitribai’s Contribution to Education
The doors of education for shudras (lower castes) and atishudras (untoucahbles) were opened by the British government and missionaries in 1813. However, they in general faced stiff brahminical opposition and did not succeed much. However, Jotirao Phule benefited from these schools and could complete his course from the government and Scottish Mission School. Having experienced the importance of modern education himself, he decided to open a school for the ‘Mahars and Mangs’, the untouchable castes. He had already begun teaching his elderly cousin sister Saguna. The latter persuaded him to also teach Savitribai. These shudra women were the first educated women. They were trained to teach in schools and were given the task of teaching in the school for the untouchables.
Their attention then turned to women’s education. They began this school in 1848, in ‘Bhide Wada’, a Brahmin’s mansion in the citadel of the Brahmin community in Pune. Though only six girls enrolled their names, it was a significant beginning in the backdrop of the failure of the missionaries. They had to close the two schools that they had started in 1830 and 1833 due to stiff opposition of the orthodox and elite Brahmins.
Brahmin Attacks on Savitribai
Since there were no teachers to teach girls, it fell upon Savitribai to teach there. The school began fetching more and more girls to school, which enraged the Brahmins. They could not digest the fact that knowledge was now open, not only to the lower castes but to women as well. It was a blow to the very foundation of the ideology built upon the thoughts and rules codified by Manu. The Brahmins began harassing Savitribai on her way to school and back. She was not only verbally abused but was subjected to physical assaults. They threw stones and cow dung on her body. She had to carry an extra sari to change in school. Once, a goonda threatened to physically assault her. He got the shock of his lifetime when Savitribai slapped him hard in the face. It was a slap in the face of oppressive society itself.
Having failed in their machinations, the Brahmins began pressurizing Jotirao’s father. His father was actually instrumental in encouraging Jotirao’s education. However, due to social pressure of both Brahmins and his own Mali community he asked, with heavy heart, his son and daughter-in-law to leave the house. The revolutionary couple chose to leave the house and live in penury rather than give up the task that they had undertaken. The destitute couple was given help by a Muslim friend, Usman Shaikh. His sister Fatima along with Saguna joined Savitribai to teach in their schools. From 1848 to 1852, Phules had started sixteen schools in and around Pune for girls and lower caste children.
Shelter against Infanticide
Infanticide by Brahmin widows was a common sight in Pune. Since widow remarriage was prohibited, many of the young widows fell prey to the men of the house, relatives or neighbors. Many of them ended their lives to avoid shame. Once Jotirao saw a young girl trying to jump into the river running through the city and persuaded her to go with him. She was a pregnant Brahmin widow called Kashibai. Savitribai looked after her and she gave birth to a son. He was named Yashwant and under Phules’ care and love he became a doctor! The old childless couple adopted him and made him their son.
There were numerous women like Kashibai in Pune and Maharashtra. To help such unfortunate women, Savitribai and Jotirao founded on January 28, 1853 a ‘House for Shelter against Infanticide’. Usman Shaikh offered his place for it. Phule pasted advertisements all over Pune asking “widows having unfortunately and in ignorance become pregnant to come secretly to their House and deliver their babies.” One can imagine the courage they required to dare the society they were living in.
The Brahmins did try to strike. Enraged by the Phules’ revolutionary work they sent two mercenaries, who were actually untouchables themselves, to murder them. Unperturbed by the sudden appearance of the murderers at night, Phule offered his life if it would bring education and freedom to their lot. The would-be murderers became his followers and one of them learnt to read and write and eventually even wrote a book!
End of Revolutionary Lives
Jotirao Phule had patiently and untiringly spent more than forty years in public life educating the uneducated. Their work spread beyond philanthropy. Their life was a challenge to the existing structure based on exploitation and social inequality. The untouchables were deprived of drinking water in Pune. Phule threw open in 1868 his private water tank for them. The peasants were reeling under heavy taxes under British rule. Phule raised his voice against this injustice. A long famine struck the farming community from 1860, resulting in large scale migrations. Thousands died or were famished by hunger. The Phules scoured the drought-hit villages and opened in 1877 a shelter for the drought-hit peasants near Pune, in which more than two thousand children were fed and looked after.
All this hardship took a toll on Jotiba’s life. He suffered a stroke of paralysis in 1888 and breathed his last on November 28, 1890. Savitribai had joined Jotiba when she was just a nine year old girl. It fell upon her to continue that great revolutionary legacy alone, which was not bereft of ordeals. She continued the work of the Satyashodhak Samaj founded by Jotirao. Pune witnessed in 1897 an unprecedented epidemic of plague. Her son Yashwant, who was a doctor now, treated those patients day and night. Savitribai herself joined his efforts. One day she carried on her shoulder an untouchable boy who had fallen victim to the epidemic and she herself was struck by it. She too breathed her last on March 10, 1897. Joti in Marathi, as in Sanskrit Jyoti, means ‘flame’. Savitri had identified herself with that meaning and both these revolutionary figures have since stood for agni which burns injustice and for light that dispels darkness.