Jyotiba Phule was born on April 11, 1827. He along with his wife, Savitribai Phule are known as the Pioneers of Women's Education in India. Articulation of structured Caste Oppressions and Denials also came to the fore with the sharp intellectual activism of the Phules.
“Lack of education lead to lack of wisdom,
Which leads to lack of morals,
Which leads to lack of progress,
Which leads to lack of money,
Which leads to the oppression of the lower classes,
See what state of the society one lack of education can cause!”
..Most people do not realize that society can practise tyranny and oppression against an individual in a far greater degree than a Government can. The means and scope that are open to society for oppression are more extensive than those that are open to Government; also they are far more effective. What punishment in the penal code is comparable in its magnitude and its severity to excommunication? Who has greater courage—the Social Reformer who challenges society and invites upon himself excommunication or the political prisoner who challenges Government and incurs sentence of a few months or a few years imprisonment?
(Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah, Address delivered by Dr Ambedkar on the 101st birthday celebration of M G Ranade, 18th January, 1943)
Understanding or rereading a historical figure, whose life and times have impacted generations of scholars and activists, who has been subjected to praise as well scrutiny by the best brains of our times, becomes a challenging task. One gets a feeling that whatever has to be said has already been said and perhaps there is not much novelty left. An added challenge comes when you are face to face with scholars/activists who could be considered experts on the issue having done more detailed and thorough work on the subject.
Today when I begin my presentation I find myself in a similar quandary.
Would it be a repetition of what the earlier scholar just said? Or a glimpse of what the coming activist is going to present? And to avoid the possible monotony of any such ensuing discussion – where all of us would be doing 'kadam tal' (a lexicon used in NCC parades) around similar arguments and similar insights and would be lamenting in similar voices, I have decided to flag off few queries which have been bothering my mind since quite some time. It is possible that it would be considered rather blasphemous to raise such questions, or maybe they will be considered so mundane that participants can just exchange smiles about their content. Anyway, whatever might be the outcome I would like to raise them with a sincere hope that they would possibly generate a conversation.
1. 1848 happens to be a year of historic importance for the exploited and oppressed of the world, as it was the year when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels – young German revolutionaries – published 'The Communist Manifesto’. "Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!" still reverberates around the world.
For all those radicals and revolutionaries – individuals, formations, organisations – who yearn for a fundamental social transformation in this part of the earth, 1848 has an added significance. It was this year when another young man – Jyotiba Phule along with his wife Savitribai and a family friend/fellow traveller Fatima Sheikh – opened the first school for the socially discriminated and historically despised 'untouchable' community's girls in Pune. And things were never the same for the Shudras-Atishudras and women.
Today when we look back at the more than four decade journey of this young man, who was given the honorific 'Mahatma' in the presence of thousands of people, a few years before he breathed his last in 1890, we are amazed to learn the expanse of his vision and the tremendous innovativeness and creativity which was exhibited in his actions. Miles ahead of his own contemporaries, he had the courage to raise his finger at the pressing problems of his time and had no qualms in attacking internal asymmetries of our society and no illusion about the 'great traditions'. There was no hiatus between what he spoke and what he practised in his personal as well as his social-political life.
Apart from teaching his wife Savitribai – who became a close comrade of the work he had initiated and later metamorphosed into a writer as well as an independent activist ( a rarity in those days), or opening the doors of his own house for those considered lowest among the low, or coming to the defence of the scholar-activist Pandita Ramabai about her right to convert when she embraced Christianity and had to singlehandedly face the conservative onslaught , one comes across many instances in his life, which are worth emulating in today's times.
In fact when the moments of crisis came, he had the courage to question and challenge the wrong understanding of his own colleagues. For instance, in his devastating critique of another comrade Bhalerao, when he attacked the important monograph 'Stree-Pusush Tulana' by Tarabai Shinde ( who herself was a product of the Satyashodhak movement) as it raised questions of gender equality and patriarchal oppression. Or the manner in which he went ahead with the publication of 'Cultivators whipcord’ independently when his colleague in the movement – Lokhande (another legendary figure who was a pioneer in building the first union of workers in Bombay named 'Bombay Millhands Association) along with others found it too radical to be given space in the organisation's publication after just two instalments.
Modern India cannot be imagined without the path breaking contributions of Phule and other social reformers/ revolutionaries who came after him, who fought against heavy odds to convince the people about challenging existing social practices and questioning old modes of thinking and exposing millennial old oppressions which had religious sanctions and encouraging them to look beyond.
In his introduction to ‘Selected Writings of Jotirao Phule’ G.P Deshpande tells us
‘Phule’s canvas was broad, his sweep majestic. He identified and theorised the most important questions of his time – religion, Varna System, ritualism, language, literature, British rule, mythology, gender question, conditions of production in agriculture, the lot of peasantry etc….Was Phule then a social reformer ? The answer will be ‘no’. A social reformer is a liberal humanist. Phule was more of a revolutionary. He had a complete system of ideas, and was amongst the early thinkers to have identified, in a manner of speaking, classes in Indian society. He analysed the dvaivarnik structure of Indian society, and identified the shudra/atishudras as the leading agency of a social revolution.’ [i]
2. It has been exactly 125 years since Mahatma Jyotiba Phule died. (28th November 1890).
If one goes by the mainstream media one learns that barring some stray programmes not many celebrations/programmes were held in his commemoration. Was it unintentional or inadvertent? Or part of fatigue being experienced by people active in transformatory (revolutionary) movements?
And the lack of action on the part of the state, should it be interpreted as a rather crude manifestation of identity politics – when great leaders, especially those belonging to the oppressed communities have been reduced to becoming 'Heroes' only of their respective castes/communities. And in such an 'identity loaded’ ambience perhaps Phule – who was born into the numerically not very strong Mali (gardener) caste, did not have much chance to be 'remembered' by the wider populace. Or should it be considered part of deliberate silencing of all such voices whose agenda is found to be inconvenient or subversive by the ruling classes?
Anyway, the apparent amnesia around his name does not reduce the importance of the path breaking work he did. It was an interesting coincidence that Phule’s anniversary was around the same time that the august parliament of the country was holding a special two day session focussing on 'Constitution day' and acknowledging the seminal role played by Dr Ambedkar in its making. History bears witness to the fact that Dr Ambedkar had called Phule the 'Greatest Shudra' and openly admitted that Buddha, Kabir and Phule constituted the triumvirate which was the source of his inspiration. People who are always in search of silver linings can also say that the august parliament was in this way indirectly appreciating the historic contribution made by Jyotiba Phule as well.
Modern India, cannot be imagined without the path breaking contributions of Phule and other social reformers/ revolutionaries who came after him, who fought against heavy odds to convince the people about challenging existing social practices and questioning old modes of thinking and exposing millennial old oppressions which had religious sanctions and encouraging them to look beyond.”
Silence around Phule and year long celebrations around Ambedkar can be considered two sides of the same coin – tactics that the ruling elite use with ease.
Whether you celebrate Ambedkar or maintain a silence about Phule, one thing can be easily discerned – that the ruling classes are not bothered about the real concerns of Phule, Ambedkar or other social revolutionaries. Perhaps they do not want people to remember that both Phule and Ambedkar had raised destabilising questions about nation, nationalism, culture, and challenged the 'tremendous fascination among the elite of their times about our great civilisation'. One of their key posers which still rings true, which focuses on our caste ridden society – based on privileges for a few and disabilities for the broader masses – suggests the near impossibility of the emergence of 'a nation' from amongst its midst.
The ruling elite are more keen to carve out a 'suitable' Ambedkar or a 'convenient' Phule to further their agenda. The present ruling dispensation at the centre led by the BJP – part of the broader Hindutva family – especially seems to be only too eager to lay claim over his legacy. They want people to forget the fact that when Ambedkar was alive they had been in the forefront to oppose him on every count.
Any student of the politics of the oppressed would vouch that there comes a time when the many, or most of the leaders of the exploited and oppressed can no more be ignored by the dominant forces in any society. In fact, we have been witness to a similar process which unfolded in the USA where a very sanitised image of Martin Luther King, has been made popular. Instead of the King who opposed the Vietnam War, looked at capitalism as the source of all evil, who struggled for workers’ rights, we have before us an image of King which seems more amenable to the ruling classes there.
There is an interesting commonality on how ruling classes try to co-opt/appropriate images of leaders of the oppressed. It is a three step process: First, they try to ignore them ; second, when this tactic fails they grudgingly acknowledge them ; third, they try to carve out a 'suitable' revolutionary for their own 'use'. They are adept at what a scholar describes as a deliberate process of ‘mythologising the (great) wo/men and marginalising their meanings.’
3. It is really easy to blame the cunning of the ruling classes for this state of affairs – which in fact can create lot of heat but does not throw any light on the matter. The most difficult part of the whole exercise is first of all to see how we – who claim to be the radical inheritors of their legacy – let it happen and second, whether there are any elements in the world view of these greats themselves which have made their 'appropriation’ easier.
It is possible that few amongst us would 'appreciate' the fact that the ‘powers that be’ talk about these greats, organise celebrations around them, are keen to publish their collected works or even ready to make them part of curriculum. It may also give them satisfaction that they claim to be walking in their footsteps or fulfilling their dreams. But in fact, one should be wary of all such claims and should look at the hiatus between what they claim and what is the actual situation on the ground.
Should not this question really bother us, that is, how the official incorporation of these greats could be done so easily or how these revolutionaries – which were of a different kind and who could have been part of our arsenal in our fight against inequality and discriminations of various kinds today – seem to be 'sitting cosily' with our adversaries.
Coming back to the original focus, the question remains as to why and how the radical agenda of Phule which had a very broad canvas could not be taken further with the same vigour, zeal and focus, and how it metamorphosed first into the non-Brahmin movement and later got submerged easily into the national movement.
Dr Ambedkar offers an explanation while discussing Justice M G Ranade, who was a contemporary of Phule.
The decline of Social Reform was quite natural. The odium of Social Reform was too great. The appeal of political power too alluring. The result was that social reform found fewer and fewer adherents. In course of time the platform of the Social Reform Conference was deserted, and men flocked to the Indian National Congress. The politicians triumphed over the Social Reformers. I am sure that nobody will now allow that their triumph was a matter for pride. It is certainly a matter of sorrow. Ranade may not have been altogether on the winning side, but he was not on the wrong side and certainly never on the side of the wrong as some of his opponents were[ii].
While it seems apt in the case of Justice Ranade, one definitely needs to go deeper to understand the later metamorphosis of the Phulevian movement.
4. History bears witness to the fact that Jawalkar, (1902-1932) a leading champion of the non-Brahmin movement – who was no less a radical – had called Gandhi a 'Satyashodhak' when the non-Brahmin movement decided to 'merge' itself with the national movement.
Was it just part of political expediency or did he really believe that Gandhi who called himself a sanatani (orthodox) Hindu and firmly believed in Varnashram Dharma was really taking forward Phule's mission.? And this despite the fact that by the time this stream had joined the Congress it was very clear that it was careful enough to sideline all those issues pertaining to the internal asymmetries of Indian society, scuttle all such attempts which challenge them – which were the 'key concerns of the Satyashodhak movement – under the grand slogan of ‘fighting the British’. In fact, Phule had rather prophesied this state of affairs when he had raised very important questions about the nature of the Congress party which was founded in 1885.
There cannot be a 'nation' worth the name until and unless all the people of the land of King Bali – such as Shudras and Ati-shudras, Bhils (tribals) and fishermen etc, become truly educated, and are able to think independently for themselves and are uniformly unified and emotionally integrated. If a tiny section of the population like the upstart Aryan Brahmins alone were to found the 'National Congress' who will take any notice of it ?[iii]
A critical look at Gandhi is important because it was in this period that the mixing of religion with politics gained a new legitimacy, despite his avowed respect for all religions. Under his leadership the task of reforming Hinduism was brushed aside and Ambedkar, a consistent modernist and a relentless critic of Hinduism, was pushed to the wall.
Looking back it becomes clear the side-lining of voices of internal reform in Indian society had started during Phule's time itself.
In its early stirrings, Lokmanya Tilak, who happened to be a key leader of the Congress movement then, had vehemently led the Conservative reaction against all those concerns which Phule stood for. It is widely known how it was because of Tilak's insistence – or should we say threat – that the Pandal holding the Social Conference would be burnt down, and the tradition of holding the Social Conference after the Congress Conference – which was initiated by the likes of Ranade etc. was discontinued. His opposition to the Sarda Act is also known, where he opposed any British intervention in deciding the age at which girl can be married.
To say the least, it is rather baffling that the other face of Tilak's work – where he firmly opposed the spread of education among girls, where he opposed moves by social reformers/revolutionaries which challenged age old traditions/customs of Indian society or where he exhibited clear cut Brahminical bias, has not received the attention that it deserves.
Whether you celebrate Ambedkar or maintain a silence about Phule, one thing can be easily discerned – that the ruling classes are not bothered about the real concerns of Phule, Ambedkar or other social revolutionaries. Perhaps they do not want people to remember that both Phule and Ambedkar had raised destabilising questions about nation, nationalism, culture, and challenged the 'tremendous fascination among the elite of their times about our great civilisation
In a voluminous work titled 'Foundations of Tilak's Nationalism' – Parimala Rao who has based her work mainly on 'The Mahratta' the newspaper brought out by Tilak – raises many important questions, which exhibit a great hiatus between his image and reality. Two of the questions which she raises in the Introductory chapter ‘Encountering the Myth' are worth quoting here :
Why did Tilak's 25 year long anti-peasant struggle fail to enter the pages of history while his token no-tax campaign in ryotwari areas has been extolled ? Why is his 40 yearlong effort to stop women and non-Brahmin from receiving education is pushed under the carpet ?'[iv]
In fact, Tilak's ideological opposition to Phule went to the extent that the newspapers which he brought out then – namely 'Kesari' and 'Mahratta' – did not even publish the news about his death in 1890. He even preferred to gloss over the fact that when young Tilak and Agarkar were jailed for the first time, it was Phule who had organised a public felicitation programme for both of them when they were released in1881.
Ranging from the Left on the one hand to the other end of the spectrum, Tilak's image as a 'militant' face of the nationalist movement as opposed to the 'moderates' has been glorified, but his ideas and actions which clearly present an anti-dalit, anti-women, anti-Muslim bias and a voice which is consistently against social reform, has never come under the scanner.
5. Coming back to the on-going debate a very valid question at this juncture could be why does one want to 'excavate' old history? It can be said that it is better to let bygones be bygones.
The fact is that many questions regarding one of the most tumultuous periods in India's history still linger on and we are yet to reach any definitive conclusion about them.
For example, one is always amazed by the pioneering work which broke new grounds on the road to emancipation for the broad masses of the country done by the social revolutionaries, in this part of Western India, but always baffled by the simultaneous/ staggered emergence of reactionary/status quoist movements which also became a 'light house of a different kind' to the right-wingers elsewhere.
As an aside one may note that the leading ideologue of the Islamist Right – Maulana Maududi, whose influence extends to the wider Muslim world, also had his beginning in this region . Maulana Maududi who founded the Jamaat-e-Islami, was born in Aurangabad and had his initial forays into social-political life here only. As rightly said Abul Ala Maududi is to 'Political Islam' what Karl Marx was to Communism.
Perhaps this query regarding the not so silent emergence of social revolutionary and social reactionary trends from the same part of Western India can be further probed if we revisit this period.
We need to revisit it not only to scrutinise the image of Lokmanya and how skilfully the grand agenda of social transformation put forward by Phule was side-lined (which helps us understand the resistance to social change encountered by Phule) but also to revisit nationalist movement post-Tilak which could not make a radical rupture with the overwhelming Hindu discourse – despite the fact that two of its senior-most leaders, Gandhi as well as Nehru were die hard seculars.
Revisiting Tilak is important in order to understand the genesis of Hindutva Right today because under the name of opposing the Britishers he inadvertently helped strengthen status quoist forces in Indian society and helped to further a very regressive social agenda. In fact his imaginary vis-a-vis the Hindu Nation or his mobilising a Hindu constituency through the organisation of festivals or his extolling of the Manusmriti in 'Gita Rahsya' (his critique of the Bhagwad Gita which he penned down during his prison days), or the fact that a section of the Hindu Right took inspiration from him has largely remained unaddressed.
While the triumvirate of Savarkar, Hedgewar and Golwalkar is rightly pointed out for their 'leading role' in Hindutva politics, we should not forget two things: one, that the 'pioneers' of Hindutva also claimed Tilak's legacy. Dr Munje, who was one of the founders of RSS and a key leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, was considered a staunch Tilakite and dissociated himself from the Congress after the death of Tilak as he was not convinced about the idea of secularism as proposed by Gandhi and supposedly abhorred his politics of non-violence.
An added complexity about the unfolding situation is the wide acceptance of an illusion packaged as truth which veers around what people call ‘Purogami Maharashtra'- Progressive Maharashtra.
You mention assassination of activists, scholars – who were working within the bounds of the Constitution, you mention ascendance of Hindutva rightwingers in all their ferocity today, or their growing 'normalisation' in the society, you mention the rise in Dalit atrocities or the growing legitimacy of caste councils and all such talk can bounce back upon you by calling them ‘aberrations’ and the 'great tradition of Phule-Ambedkar' would be invoked to blunt your argument. (Perhaps it can be reminded here that Com Govind Pansare, who was assassinated by Sanatan Sanstha terrorists had rightly called upon people to come out of this illusion.)
6. Looking back is important also to revisit the controversy which is often raked up to denigrate Phule's contribution which veers around his approach towards British rule. And disturbingly, the traditional Left which upholds Karl Marx's dialectical assessment of the British rule where he talks about its 'crimes' as well as its 'causing a social revolution', also seems to follow the same track.
A representative sample of the Left's criticism of Phule can be had from G P Deshpande's introduction to 'Selected Works of Jyotirao Phule'. (We should not forget how in the same Introduction Deshpande praises Phule in glowing terms, a glimpse of it can be seen in section 1) which is basically a masterly translation of Phule's selected writings in English. Deshpande writes
Phule did not see imperialism dialectically. He did not see that the British ruling classes were not kind to the lower classes in Britain. The British legal system, in which he had invested his faith, was no less exploitative and unjust when it had to deal with the British peasantry and the working class. His enthusiasm for British rule made him sceptical of even the shudra/atishudra uprisings against British rule in his own time, for instance the uprising led by Umaji Naik. It also prevented him from seeing the material basis of what he would brand as 'Brahman' nationalism….Phule did not see, for instance, the significance of Vasudev Phadke, a brahman, working with the ramoshis. The result was that Phule and his comrades and followers ended up taking softer and softer positions on British imperialism and ultimately lost ground to the nationalist movement.[v]
Perhaps a more nuanced understanding of Phule's more than four decade old social-political journey – which should include his exposure of the British government's policies from time to time or his assessment of the Congress Party's then brand of nationalism, or his envisioning an alternate conception of nationalism – is in order to put things in proper perspective.
And before coming to discuss Phule, it is also important to comprehend what Marx meant by 'social revolution' in India. Could it be limited merely to what he called '..brutal interference of the British tax-gatherer and the British soldier, as to the working of English steam and English free trade’ or something deeper. Marx was definitely explicit regarding these changes:
"All the civil wars, invasions, revolutions, conquests, famines, strangely complex, rapid, and destructive as the successive action in Hindostan may appear, did not go deeper than its surface. England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing. This loss of his old world, with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Hindoo, and separates Hindostan, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history. …..
..We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow."[vi]
The impact of the British rule on the Indian society could be better understood if one takes a look at the then existing society. In his speech 'Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah' Dr Ambekdar has described the situation present then when Ranade – a contemporary of Phule – came on the scene.
"Is there any society in the world which has unapproachable,, unshadowables, and unseeables? Is there any society which has got a population of Criminal Tribes? Is there a society in which there exist today primitive people, who live in jungles, who do not know even to clothe themselves? How many do they count in numbers? Is it a matter of hundreds, is it a matter of thousands? I wish they numbered a paltry few. The tragedy is that they have to be counted in millions, millions of Untouchables, millions of Criminal Tribes, millions of Primitive Tribes!! One wonders whether the Hindu civilization is civilization, or infamy.
…Tilak's image as a 'militant' face of the nationalist movement as opposed to the 'moderates' has been glorified, but his ideas and actions which clearly present an anti-dalit, anti-women, anti-Muslim bias and a voice which is consistently against social reform, has never come under the scanner.
The rule by the Peshwas which essentially practised Manusmriti was more vicious especially for all those who did not belong to the Chitpavan Brahman caste (the caste to which Peshwa belonged). Forget right to education or right to wear clothes according to one's own choice, it even prohibited them from using the greeting 'Namaskar'. The lowly of the low then – namely the 'untouchables' – had to carry an earthen pot in their neck so that their spit does not spoil the street, their entry to the city was limited to few hours only as it was feared that their shadow may fall on the Brahmins and 'pollute' them.
In such a background colonialism was not simply a change from one set of rulers to others, it involved a move from one kind of society to a qualitatively different one. Colonial rule definitely meant strengthening the mechanisms of colonial exploitation but it did try to superimpose minimum capitalist relations on the old order. The prevalent social norms subordinated individual to the institution of caste. The daily life of the Hindus was regulated by the religious texts. Colonialism prepared the ground to 'break asunder' these relations. It was under this regime that India encountered Modernity for the first time, albeit the attempts to curb/limit its spread in very many ways.
The differential experience of the change in rule vis-a-vis Brahmins and the rest could be easily understood. And it was not for nothing that Phule 'welcomed' the defeat of the Peshwas in the war of 1857 (variously described as 'war of independence' or 'sepoy mutiny' etc) and said that if Britishers would have lost 'Peshwa rule would have returned'. The issue of millennia old social-cultural oppression and denial of basic civic rights to a large section of people had finally triumphed over the issue of gaining of political rights by 'outsiders'. For the lowly among the low what was the difference in material as well as social life if you were oppressed under an 'insider' called Peshwa which denied them every sort of human right, versus an 'outsider' called the British, which for its own reasons granted limited civil rights to them.
As an aside one may note how for the Brahmin elite viewed the end of Peshwa rule (1st January,1818) in the final battle against the British at Koregaon and ushered us into the colonial regime, but how the same event was interpreted entirely differently by the Atishudras. Battle of Koregaon has a deep significance to Mahars and other Dalits in India, who remember it every January 1 as a mark of their triumph against the dehumanising rule of the Peshwas and as the first step in their on-going struggle against caste-based oppression. When Dr Ambedkar was alive he use to visit Koregaon (very near to Pune) yearly on 1st January to remember the heroic role played by dalit soldiers. It is said that on New Year's Day in 1818, about 500 soldiers of the East India Company's Bombay Native Infantry regiment led by Colonel FF Staunton waded across the Bhima river and, at Bhima Koregaon, routed a superior force of 25,000 well-equipped soldiers of the Peshwa[vii]Another important point which normally gets missed is how Phule 'looked' at nation and nationalism or how he thought about the transfer of power.
If in the worldview of the traditional elite, which was the fulcrum around which nascent emergence of 'nationalism' could be traced, it basically meant 'transfer of power' in their hands, for Phule
.[‘]nation was a democratic society. The birth of a nation required the growth of a civil society, the celebration of citizenship, and the beginning of the process of empowerment of the marginalised.'[viii]
Phule was wary of the basic postulates of these nascent nationalists who talked of reviving ancient glory or the merits of the classical caste system and envisaged a future which would replicate a social system where everybody will faithfully adhere to their respective caste duty.
In 'Shetkaryacha Asusd' (Cultivators Whipcord) he writes :
..If the Brahmans really wish to unite the people of this country and take the nation ahead, then first they must drown their cruel religion, which is customary amongst both the victors ( Brahmans) and the vanquished ( shudras), and they publicly and clearly, must cease using any artifice in their relationship with the shudras, who have been demeaned by that religion, and trample on inequality and the Vedanta opinion, and till a true unity is established, there will be no progress in this country.[ix]
His forthrightness in criticising the Congress and emphasising his radical social agenda was no exception. When Justice Ranade invited him for the plenary session of the Conference of Marathi authors in 1885, he not only expressed his inability but also underlined that he sees no point in participating in such Conferences as they would not benefit downtrodden masses. [x].
All great revolutionaries of yesteryear are judged on the anvil of time.
It is part of the on-going evaluation, summation of work of earlier revolutionaries, movements .
Buddha – the great social revolutionary – and Anand, his very close comrade, popularly known as his disciple, present perhaps one of the earliest examples in written history, when Buddha's exclusion of women from Viharas became a talking point. It was only because of Anand's insistence that they were included and we were saved from critical references about the position of women in Buddha's thinking.
Kabir, the radical Saint, who with his uncompromising attack on religious hypocrisies of his times, still inspires young generations, but it does not overshadow his negative opinion about women.
We very well know how the Jacobins – which formed part of the revolutionary political movement that had been the most famous political club of the French Revolution – were/are strongly criticised for their patriarchal views.
And thus whether we like it or not, neither Phule, nor Marx, not even Bhagat Singh or Ambedkar- can save themselves from scrutiny by later day followers, critiques.
If the Left movement in the country which has made tremendous sacrifices for the benefit of the people, can be (rightly) criticised for its failure to integrate the social, cultural question in its overall vision of transformation – which has proved to be an important reason for its stagnation, the ambiguity of the later day social revolutionary camp vis-a-vis state power and search for its origins should also be considered part of this ongoing process of review and reflection.
8. The times in which we are passing through are challenging ones.
Times when unbridled forces of neoliberalism coupled with forces of Communal fascism are playing havoc with the lives of the people.
Times when all such forces who are fighting for equity, democracy, secularism are finding themselves on the defensive.
And in such an ambience Phule's teachings – his words and actions – the way he looked at challenges in his own times, definitely provide a window of opportunity.
As GPD states, Phule was a 'system builder' and he understood the then existing situation in a 'dwaivarnik' fashion, a binary in his own words. Is it possible for us to fashion a 'new binary' of our times.
Phule's social- cultural work, – which has been rightly termed as 'Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society' – which anticipates not only the work of the Rightwing – may be the Hindutva or the Islamist types – but the work undertaken during anti-colonial struggles, is another important arena worth emulation.
Interestingly this Phulevian agenda which was later taken forward by Ambedkar and other social revolutionaries has largely been dropped/forgotten by people/formations claiming allegiance to their legacy and it has been swiftly taken over by the right. It has been well documented how forces like RSS/Jamaat-e-Islami or other status quoist or reactionary organisations have been very clear about their ‘exclusivist’ agenda which they tried to bolster through intervention in culture in a strategic manner.
Phule's critique of religion and caste and his daring to stand apart and get counted, his approach towards question of gender, his interest in agriculture, education, his proposal to the British government for prohibition, his flair for writing literature – there are many many aspects of his life and struggles which need further study and contemplation and perhaps emulation.
9. The manner in which the later day social revolutionary movement developed and the way the Left responded then to it has created rather an unusual situation which can be said to be typical to India. Another manifestation of what scholars term as 'Indian Exceptionalism'.
Instead of a convergence of the Phule-Ambedkarian movement with the Left on the broader agenda of social transformation – which involves attack not only on Capitalism but Brahminism/ Mullahism, Patriarchy and related issues of deprivation and hierarchy – we witness them being posited as being in adversarial relation.
Yes, there was definitely a time during the anti-colonial struggle that a possibility existed that both these streams would come together (e.g. Jawalkar, who was one of the key figures who helped revive Phule's project of emancipation albeit in a different form, had a very positive opinion about the developments in the then Socialist Russia , even Ambedkar had talked of 'fighting Brahminism and Capitalism together) but the Left's intransigence and adamant and mechanical understanding of Marxism became a stumbling block in the path of emergence of a broader alliance.
And looking at the hiatus which has developed between both the streams, the ruling classes have also tried to widen the chasm, so what we witness is a section of those claiming to be carrying forward the legacy of Phule-Ambedkar getting cosy with formations, forces which are essentially communal, Brahminical and have no qualms in keeping themselves aloof from any alliance with various streams of the left.
This growing chasm needs to be bridged if the radical agenda of social revolutionary movement has to reach its fruition and the Left has to fight its growing irrelevance and marginalisation in the Indian polity.
The situation as it exists before us today is such that neither the stream(s) owning allegiance to Marx seem to be on the ascendance nor those formations who are keen to take forward the agenda of social revolutionaries are gaining new grounds and the combined onslaught of neoliberalism and communal fascism – which is inimical to voices of democracy, secularism, equity, harmony – has created new grounds for their coming together.
As mentioned in the beginning young Marx – who with his Communist Manifesto (1848) – became a voice of the exploited and the oppressed the world over- died in 1883 whereas Young Jyotiba – who started with the first public intervention by opening a school for Shudra-Atishudra girls way back in 1848 – died in 1890.
Today, more than 125 years after their demise, when a real possibility exists for the coming together of both these streams, the question arises of whether they will be able to take the benefit of it or not ?