Remembering Jyotirao Phule, an Indian hero

He managed to convincingly put forward an alternative history through the lens of the Dalit-Bahujan community.

 |  5-minute read |   12-04-2016
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"Let others go where they will. We will follow the path of Jyotiba. We may or may not take Marx with us but we will certainly not abandon Jyotiba's philosophy."

- BR Ambedkar

At a time when umpteen atrocities are carried out against the downtrodden sections of our society with brazen impunity, Jyotirao Phule's philosophy of deep compassion and solidarity remains of extreme significance.

April 11 happens to be the birth anniversary of this forgotten hero who can be rightly termed as the ideological-political founder of anti-caste movement in India. His tireless crusade against the pernicious stranglehold of Brahminism over the lives of the Shudraatishudra continues to have a profound relevance in our complex modern lives.

Also read - Why we must remember Babasaheb Ambedkar

By not simply reading him as a historical figure just for the sake of the past, a concerted effort should be made to revive his egalitarian ideals of self-respect, dignity and most importantly equality in our polarised society.

Phule was a multidimensional personality who had a radical, progressive take on practically all the social elements of our life. As his biographer Rosalind O' Hanlon would put it - we can analyse his philosophy through various vantage points, namely - as a Dalit activist, a Maratha patriot, a militant feminist, a union organiser or even as a proto communist.

dr-babasaheb-ambedka_041216115410.jpg Dr BR Ambedkar.

Phule, in more cases than one, was remarkably prescient in his thoughts about social issues. Almost a century before Kimberley Crenshaw coined the term "intersectionality", Phule had seen the dynamics between caste, class, patriarchy and authoritarian rule which divides the society into two opposing camps.

For him, the onslaught of majoritarian domination was winning the battle because of their ascriptive social hierarchy whereas the lower castes were deprived of the same along with a gross lack of education which had been historically prohibited for them. In this context, Phule has been a pioneering social reformer and a political ideologue who worked for the emancipation of all who were at the receiving end of this subjugation.

Also read - Ambedkar, Gandhi and campaign of untouchables

One of the long lasting legacies of Phule's thoughts is his systematic deconstruction and reconstruction of history. He managed to convincingly put forward an alternative history through the lens of the Dalit-Bahujan community in general. For instance, by giving a systematic symbiotic and historically materialist reasoning for the emergence of caste, he was one of the first ideologues to dismiss the then hitherto dominant notion of it being a social institution that has existed since time immemorial.

One of Phule's central ideas in his social movements was to construct a robust regional identity among the low castes of Maharashtra. The idea being that along with the realisation of individual freedom, one should make sure that it concomitantly strengthens your entire community sans the principles of Brahminism.

For Phule, there is a difference between Brahminims and Brahmins as he feels that the former is what needs to be collectively resisted. He unravels this domination with a poignant rationale that focuses on the basis of power being knowledge, or a hegemonic control over education in a broader sense. This was exactly what Max Weber had to say when he states that the Brahminic priestly power is based on knowledge.

Also read - Why does India not care for a Dalit's life?

Phule, along with being a radical ideologue is also a classic polemicist who knows how to deal deftly deal with the reactionary elements of his society. Without falling in the trap of ad hominem attacks, he moves one step further by showcasing his communicative skills to mobilise the low castes. Generating solidarity among an otherwise disparate group of people is one of his greatest achievements. Being fully mindfully of the mass illiteracy of his society, Phule took a positive recourse to symbols and metaphors through widespread usage of it in popular plays, dramas, prose and poetry to reach as many people as was possible.

A diologic and not a bland monologue was his way of going forward. As Braj Ranjan Mani would say, "Most ingenious was his attempt to link the subversive reading of the past with symbols and stories from the contemporary local milieu". A normal tendency in the present day context is to ridicule these "ignorant" masses. In this case, he urges people to respect their overall intellect and interact with them in what Kancha Ilaiah would call "the production based communicative language".

Also read - Burning Manusmriti, anything Sangh doesn't agree with is anti-national

Staying true to his egalitarian virtue of equality, he can be called a master when it comes to reconciliation of virtually intractable issues. He used to provide practical, logical solutions to the issues between employers-employee, rural-urban, local-central, Brahminical patriarchy - feminsim (Uma Chakravarti ) and most importantly between community and nation. His use of hermeneutics, the interplay of modernity in "inner" cultural lives and a peculiar historiography play a crucial role in unlocking the conundrums of this vexed conjunction of community and nation.

There is certainly a need to make more sense of not just these ideas but many more like the interplay of religion and morality and the role education plays in reshaping our fluid modern identities. His thoughts ultimately contribute immensely to that one question which has remained a bone of contention between politicians, civil society activists, bureaucrats and our political society at large which is - should social reform precede political reform?

That remains the moot point. His legacy begets taking him out from the oblivion largely considered as inconsequential to help shape our hugely unstable and chaotic lives.


Suraj Kumar Thube Suraj Kumar Thube

The writer has done his MA in political science with a special interest in Indian democracy and Indian political thought. He also likes listening to Hindustani Classical music and watching football.

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