The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 16, 2002

A source of insipiration for Dalit intellectuals
D.R. Chaudhry

Selected writing of Jotirao Phule.
Edited by G.P. Deshpande. Left Word Books, New Delhi, Pages XII+248. Rs 450

Selected writing of Jotirao Phule.JOTIRAO Phule can legitimately be called the father of the Dalit consciousness and upsurge in India. He is the worthy predecessor of Ramaswamy Naicker and Dr B.R. Ambedkar and a source of inspiration for Dalit intellectuals.

His writings have not been available to non-Marathi speakers. Left Word books has rendered a signal service by bringing out a selection of Phule’s writings in English. This is the first selection of Phule’s most important prose writings in English and hence a landmark in making the thunderous beginning of Dalit resurgence available to those who do not know Marathi. The selection carries a highly perceptive introduction by a well-known playwright and critic in Marathi.

Gulamgiri (Slavery) and Shetkaryacha Asud (Cultivator’s Whipcord) constitute the centre of Phule’s thought and both have been included in this section in their entirety. The selection also includes Phule’s deposition before the Hunter Commission on Education, his radical views on "Infant Marriage and Enforced Widowhood", his valiant defence of Pandita Ramabai’s conversion to Christianity and some other important writings.


Phule belonged to the mali (gardener) caste, one of the shudra castes in Maharashtra. He established the first school in India for shudra girls in 1948, followed by another school for girls of all castes in 1851. He was moved by the plight of babies discarded by the high caste widows and set up an orphanage for them. He was the first thinker and crusader to systematically raise the gender question and campaigned for widow remarriage. He stood for equal rights for women.

Phule was the first Dalit intellectual who stood for total rejection and destruction of Brahmanism. He rejects Brahmanical history and his approach has been fashioned as an alternate historiography to understand Indian history from the shudra angle by subsequent Dalit intellectuals.

In his seminal work Gulamgiri (Slavery), Phule describes Aryans as conquerors that subjugated the aborigines with force. Then the Brahmins perpetuated their hegemony by composing several texts, which they claimed to be ordained by the divine power. In this text and several others, Phule follows the Socratarian method of dialogue. He rejects the origin of four varnas as depicted in the Rig Veda and the Manusmriti. He finds the formulation totally unscientific, irrational and illogical. He finds Brahma extremely untrustworthy, obstinate, shrewd, audacious and ruthless. He characterises Parashuram, a cult figure in Brahmanical mythology, as a bully and a barbarous villain. He dismisses Shankaracharya, another idol in Brahmanical thought, as a treacherous scholar with a twisted and distorted intellect. Phule is an iconoclast par excellence. He describes the Brahmins as "pen-wielding butchers." In his Memorial addressed to the Hunter Education Commission, Phule pleaded for making primary education till the age of 12 compulsory for all. His suggestion was not accepted and he charged Hunter Commission with total ignorance of the state of shudras and atishudras.

Phule’s text "Cultivator’s Whipcord" is a powerful indictment of Brahmins for befooling and fleecing numerous castes engaged in farming. He is pained at the spectacle of government departments being dominated by Brahmins and White officers engrossed in luxury. Dalits suffer on account of their ignorance and Brahmins flourish because of their access to education. He finds Buddhism as the only religion that can liberate the abject farmer from the artificial religion of Arya Brahmins. Phule is convinced that the contradiction between the Dalits and the Brahmins can never be resolved and the only way to salvation for the oppressed lies in total rejection of the Brahmanical ideology. He is not against Brahmins per se and makes a distinction between Brahmins and Brahmanism.

Sarvajanik Satya Dharma Pustak (The Book of True Faith) is Phule’s last testament. He expects people to treat religion as a thought process to argue in terms of right and wrong and places causality at the centre of man’s actions. Man’s predicament is to be understood in terms of cause and effect and here he comes very near to Buddhism. He attacks idol-worship and pleads for monotheism.

Jotirao Phule is one of the giants to attack the inhuman and irrational core of Brahmanical ideology. He is often acidic and acerbic in tone but his arguments are persuasive and rational. The humanist core of his personality and his worldview transcends all caste divisions. As a charismatic figure, he is a source of inspiration for all those who sympathise with the Dalit worldview. The selection under review is a must read for those who are interested in knowing the genesis and flowering of Dalit consciousness in India.