Jyotirao Govindrao Phule (11 April 1827 – 28 November 1890) was an Indian activist, thinker, social reformer, writer and theologist from Maharashtra. He and his wife, Savitribai Phule, were pioneers of women’s education in India. His work extended to many fields including education, agriculture, caste system, women and widow upliftment and removal of untouchability. He is most known for his efforts to educate women and the lower castes as well as the masses. After educating his wife, he opened the first school for girls in India in August 1848.
In September 1873, Phule, along with his followers, formed the Satyashodhak Samaj (Society of Seekers of Truth) to attain equal rights for peasants and people from lower castes. Phule is regarded as an important figure of the Social Reform Movement in Maharashtra.
Jyotirao Govindrao Phule was born in the Satara district of Maharashtra to a family of the Mali caste. His father, Govindrao, was a vegetable vendor. Originally Phule’s family, who used the last name Gorhay, came from Katgun, a village in Khatav taluka, Satara District. His grandfather Shetiba Gorhay settled down in Pune. Since Phule’s father and two uncles served as florists under the last of the Peshwas, they came to be known as ‘Phules’.
His mother died when he was nine months old. After completing his primary education Phule had to leave school and help his father by working on the family’s farm. He was married at the age of 12. His intelligence was recognised by Muslim and Christian neighbours, who persuaded his father to allow Phule to attend the local Scottish Mission’s High School, which he completed in 1847. The turning point in his life was in 1848, when he was insulted by family members of his Brahmin friend, a bridegroom, for his participation in a marriage procession. Jotiba was suddenly facing the divide created by the caste system. Influenced byThomas Paine’s book Rights of Man (1791), Phule developed a keen sense of social justice. He argued that education of women and the “lower castes” was a vital priority in addressing social inequalities.
Phule believed in overthrowing the social system in which people had been deliberately made dependent on others, illiterate, ignorant and poor, with a view to exploiting them. To him blind faith eradication formed part of a broad socioeconomic transformation. This was his strategy for ending exploitation of human beings. Mere advice, education and alternative ways of living are not enough, unless the economic framework of exploitation comes to an end.
To this end, Jyotirao and his wife, Savitribai Phule, started the first school for girls in India in 1848, for which he was forced to leave his parental home. He championed widow remarriage and started a home for upper caste widows in 1854, as well as a home for new-born infants to prevent female infanticide. Phule tried to eliminate the stigma of social untouchability surrounding the lower castes by opening his house and the use of his water-well to the members of the lower castes.
The Indian society at Jyotiba’s time was deeply enmeshed in caste politics. His akhandas were based on the abhangs of Indian saint Tukaram(a Moray Shudra.) He did not like caste-based discrimination. He saw using Rama as a symbol of oppression stemming from the Aryan conquest.
Phule’s critique of the caste system began with his attack on the Vedas, the most fundamental texts of upper caste Hindus. He considered them to be idle fantasies and palpably absurd legends as well as a form of false consciousness.
He is credited with introducing the Marathi word dalit (broken, crushed) as a descriptor for those people who were outside the traditional varna system. The terminology was later popularised in the 1970s by the Dalit Panthers.
On 24 September 1873, Phule formed Satyashodhak Samaj (Society of Seekers of Truth), of which he was the first president and treasurer, to focus on rights of depressed classes. He opposed idolatry and denounced the castesystem. Satyashodhak Samaj campaigned for the spread of rational thinking and rejected the need for a priests. Savitribai became the head of the women’s section which included ninety female members. She worked as a school teacher for girls. After Phule’s death in 1890 his followers continued the Samaj campaign to the remotest parts of Maharashtra.. Shahu Maharaj, the ruler of Kolhapur lent moral support to Satyashodhak Samaj. In its new incarnation, it continued the efforts to remove what it considered to be superstition.
Apart from his role as a social activist, Phule was a businessman too. In 1882 memorial, he styled himself as Merchant, cultivator and Municipal Contractor.
For period of time, he worked as a contractor for the government and supplied building materials required for the construction of the first masonry dam in India at Khadakwasla near Pune in the 1870s.One of Phule’s businesses, established in 1863, was to supply metal-casting equipment.
Phule was appointed Commissioner ( Municipal Council Member) to the then Poona municipality in 1876 and served in this unelected position until 1882.
According to Keer, Phule was bestowed with the title of Mahatma on 11 May 1888 by another social reformer from Bombay, Vithalrao Krishnaji Vandekar.
Phule has been commemorated numerous times in Maharashtra as well as other parts of India. Universities (such as inJaipur), museums (Pune), vegetable markets (Pune, Mumbai) have been named after him.