Maharashtra has a social, educational and cultural heritage to be proud of. These great saints, social reformers and educationists have given the agenda of social justice and educational development to the state.
Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule is a great social revolutionary couple in the country. Mahatma Gandhi has lauded Jotirao as the ‘real’ Mahatma while Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar revered him as his teacher. More than 150 years ago, Mahatma Phule, in this very city of Pune, has made extraordinary contributions to fields like education, annihilation of caste, equality between men and women, holistic development of agriculture and the peasantry, social organization of women, Dalits, Adivasi, Nomadic and Denotified tribes and other backward castes, need to create awareness to struggle for human rights. Pune is the site of his lifelong dedication and work.
I am very happy to see that a life size statue of his has been erected in this city of Pune and within the auspices of the University of Pune. He laid the foundation for the education of all girls and women and of education for the men and boys from the Bahujan community. He was the only visionary in the country who, 130 years ago, demanded that free primary education should be compulsory and universal. He had made this demand in writing to the Hunter Commission, set up by the British Government in 1882. The right to education act has finally been enacted in the country in 2010.
He started the first school for girls in Bhidewada, in Pune, in 1848. He opened the doors of education for boys from Bahujan communities at Ahilyashram. The regressive elements in the city opposed these moves but Savitribai-Jotirao and their associates remained steadfast. His father threw him out of the house, owing to the social opposition. Savitribai and Jotirao continued their mission for education while living in the house of Jotirao’s friend Usman Sheikh. His idealism and his passion were unmatched.
In the year 1855, he started an adult education campaign in his own home. In that age, widows were prohibited from remarrying, they had to undergo tonsure. He himself took initiative in organizing widow remarriages and enlightened the barber community against the practice of tonsure, organizing them for an anti-tonsure strike. He worked tirelessly, day and night, for the fulfillment of human rights. He opened up the well in his own house for ex-untouchable brethren.
By starting the practice of Satyashodhak marriages, he sought to put an end to dowry, extravagance and heavy expenditure in marriages. He encouraged and ensured Satyashodhak marriages which were simple and involved minimal costs. We are astonished even today, when we get to read that in the ‘mangalashtakas’ (ritual song which is sung while solemnizing the marriage, that includes the oaths taken by the bride and the groom) of the Satyashodhak marriage, the groom would vow to struggle for the human rights of women. Today women have taken giant leaps in many fields. A lot of credit for this, goes to the Phule couple.
In the book, ‘Shetkaryacha Asud’ published in 1883, he gave a conceptual framework for the holistic development of agriculture and the peasantry. He stressed that agricultural education and training, hybrid seeds, implements, crop pattern, allied occupations along with farming, planning of water supply should be done in the modern way and insisted that agricultural produce should be given minimum support prices based on production costs.
He established the Satyashodhak Samaj and strived for education, scientific temper, eradication of superstition, raising awareness and enlightenment of the masses. Narayan Meghaji Lokhande established the first labour union in Mumbai in 1880 taking inspiration from Phule and created the foundation of the labour movement.
The historical significance of the fact that he had 140 year ago, dedicated his book ‘Gulamgiri’ to the liberation movement of the blacks in America, has been acknowledged by Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela.
Mahatma Phule was a member of the Pune Municipality from 1876 to 1882. He was referred to as a state-appointed commissioner. He made immense contribution to the development of Pune city in that period. As the managing director of the Pune Commercial and Contracting Company, he constructed buildings, dams, tunnels, bridges, roads. He has also made immense contributions to the field of writing and publishing.
The entire country sees him as the sculptor of social justice. His life size image stands in the premises of the Indian Parliament and the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly. I am sure that this statue of his in the premises of the University of Pune will continue to serve as an inspirational guide for the work of learning-teaching and knowledge production that goes on here.