Bharat Ek Khoj

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Mahatma Phule
(Episode 45)

Nehru opines that caste, which was meant to develop individuality and freedom had become a monstrous degradation, the opposite of what it was meant to be. With the spread of English education and administration, there was evidence of a large number of depressed classes and untouchables. Dalit was a new designation applying to a number of castes at the bottom of the scale. The untouchable engaged in scavenging or unclean work. There were staunch reformers like Jyotirao Phule and their organizations like 'Satya Shodh Sangstha'. Established in 1848, which tried to spread education among the depressed classes and untouchable to give a new sense of respectability to the lowest hierarchies of society.

We see Phule, a fledgling reformer, attempting to get his message of self-purification across to a like-minded body and recalling the travails of a Shudra (member of the lowest caste) in a marriage reception. When his dream of a school for Shudhra children comes true, he exhorts them to take up education in all earnest and his wife Savitri helps in teaching the girls. Hoodlums sprinkle cow-dung on Savitri and Phule is accused of violating divine texts by the orthodox. Phule is thrown out of his home, but he bravely utilizes his residence to continue teaching Sudhras. His movement gathers momentum, but hired killers threaten Phule with physical assault. Without losing composure, Phule declares that Savitri would carry on teaching even the daughters of these very assassins. They are taken aback by his gesture.

Savitri meets a homeless Brahmin widow who become pregnant after being seduced by her own kin. Phule magnanimously provides refuge as her plight could be anybody's regardless of caste. He starts a refugee home for such women and dissuades barbers from ignominiously shaving heads of widows. In 1873, Phule's new book Ghulamgiri (The Practice of Slavery) against exploitation by the upper castes creates social furore. Like Rammohun's 'Brahmo Samaj', there is reformist 'Prarthana Samaj' in Maharashtra, but the practicing preachers like Govind Ranade are not averse to surreptitiously having a second marriage with a pre-puberty girl! A mortally ill Brahmin, Vishnu Shastry Chiplankar, declines to be treated by a lower-caste physician sent by Phule. Ironically, the same doctor has to provide a death certificate for cremation.

The India, as preached by Phule, lives in its villages where people lead an undignified life. Phuli dies in 1890, but his message does not fing favour even in the National Congress until 1932, when Gandhi favours passing such a resolution in the Yarvada Congress session.

Nehru points out that casteism had let loose inequity and oppression by the Brahmins on the lower castes and needed urgent redressing through the spread of education.