Mahatma Jotirao Phule

I picked up a book about Mahatma Jotirao Phule (Caste, Conflict and Ideology: Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Low Caste Protest in Nineteenth-Century Western India) to learn more about education in India pre-Independence. At the end, I learned also about a social reformer who, despite significant material challenges, social resistance, and, at times, weak ideas, began to change how a major portion of Indian society looked at themselves and their destiny. I praise the author Rosalind O’Hanlon for taking up this neglected and important topic and learning Marathi to investigate primary sources. Her wise and adroit manuevering through the delicate and substantive differences between ideologies, communities, and power structures seeks to dissemble false conflations. She expounds their differences while noting their at times coalition in terms of joint protest.

Jyotirao Phule lived during the British Raj in the city of Pune in Maharastra. He received a modest education at missionary schools. He then founded and ran schools for members of the scheduled castes and women who had been denied an education based on social prohibition. His wider role was of a founder of a reformist association. He also served as a spokesman for another association petitioning the British Government for representation in a congress to make their needs plain to the British administration. Previously, Brahmins had monopolized such posts based on their social and religious standing. Phule welcomed British rule as a way to unhinge Brahmanic control over India, but saw the new system was, on the whole, perpetuating the same inequalities as before.

One of the virtues of O’Hanlon’s book how she traces the origin of Phule’s ideas to Indian sources and missionary arguments. Missionaries had linked a Deist conception of God and Nature, the advances of Western science, and the deplorable condition of the majority of Indians under a stagnant and exclusionary religious order maintained by Brahmins. Though he did not convert, he used this linkage to create an alternative history and reinterpretation of major figures in India, such as Shivaji, to emphasize how the contemporary order was primarily a mental oppression by the few who had monopolized learning and religion. One of the weaknesses of Phule’s argument was his unclear reinterpretation of religion. Though Brahmins used this as a basis of authority and some analysis and refutation was needed, I think that he could have stuck to his reformist agenda based upon shared interests of the oppressed rather than wade into a religious debate. If Buddha had called for the abolition of caste more than two thousand years ago, Phule’s ideas about religion and caste had no luck when drawn into this contentious sphere.

O’Hanlon’s book makes you wonder and ask for a book connecting Mahatma Phule’s work with Mahatma Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s during India’s Independence movement. I think a work like this needs to be in English, given that these conflicts are an every present reality of contemporary India.