India Must Return to Jyotiba Phule’s Ideas as Parties Abandon Caste Justice

A sincere engagement with Jyotiba Phule’s thoughts may help the opposition re-organise their political ideas.

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India Must Return to Jyotiba Phule’s Ideas as Parties Abandon Caste Justice
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The recent victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in four major states has re-established the domination of the right-wing political ideology. The growing agrarian crisis, cases of caste atrocities or the rising economic problems of the middle classes have failed to motivate the people to vote against the incumbent BJP regimes.

Such apathy is visible in the context of the Uttar Pradesh (UP) Assembly elections. The state had witnessed powerful protests by grieving farmers and it was assumed that the depressed farmer groups, especially Jats and Gujjars, will desert the BJP in Western Uttar Pradesh and would support the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) alliance. Instead, the result showed that only in certain constituencies, the farmer groups backed with the Opposition and in the majority of the constituencies, the BJP has retained its hold over the agrarian communities.

The farmers’ protest has surely offered an impressive challenge to the political establishment. However, its political impact was limited. The secular-progressive alliance lacked the political imagination and constructive strategies to contest against the BJP.

Importantly, it failed to utilise the foundational ideological tools required to challenge the hegemonic Hindutva ideology in the cultural and social sphere.

Instead, the farmers’ movement remained infatuated with the demand for the removal of the government’s controversial laws and neglected other crucial agrarian and social problems. The movement lost its grace and confidence as soon the Prime Minister strategically decided to repeal the three farm laws. The BJP then went on to mobilise the farming communities by usurping the intra-caste ruptures and by broadening the communal divide.


Rattling the Conventional Ruling Elites

The Hindutva ideology is an improvised and sophisticated version of traditional Brahminical domination. It cunningly legitimises the rule of social elites over Dalit-Bahujan masses. However, such advancement of the right-wing political class can be stalled. A sincere engagement with Mahatma Jyotiba Phule’s revolutionary thoughts may help the depressed opposition parties re-organise their political ideas.

Phule’s oeuvre focuses on fundamental socio-economic issues, problems afflicting the agrarian communities, the emancipation of the socially marginalised castes and the liberation of vulnerable women from the patriarchal clutch. The reintroduction of these concerns in the democratic discourse may push the conventional ruling elites into a defensive mode and may ignite a new politics of social justice.

Pune Under the Peshwa Regime

Mahatma Phule offers philosophical tools to understand social oppression, economic injustice and gender inequalities. Pune’s society in that period was governed under the coercive Peshwa regime and was known for its brutal diktats against the lower castes. The women, farming castes and the untouchables were overtly exploited by the priestly castes and state authorities.

Inspired by the new wave of modernity and ideas of human rights, Phule sought to bring radical transformation to society. He realised that social and economic problems are interlinked and can be solved by building a revolutionary consciousness amongst the suffering masses. He suggested that access to education will bring the oppressed communities closer to revolutionary knowledge and may give impetus to social transformation.

In Shetakarachye Asud, Phule demonstrated that for the deepening poverty and excessive marginalisation of the agrarian castes, the crude nexus between Sahukars (moneylenders) and the Brahmin bureaucratic elites was responsible. The conventional caste system denies the right to education and knowledge to the Shudras, which leads them to believe in irrational rituals, superstitions and the superiority of the priestly class. Further, illiteracy and poverty handicap them from making bold claims for justice.

The Brahmin-Bhat elites exploit Shudras’ religious sentiments and loot their earnings, which often results in the loss of their land, rendering them landless labourers. The British regime ignored the conditions of the Kunbi farmers but offered excessive financial support to the Brahmins.

How Women and Dalit-Bahujan Were Relegated to Slavery

Phule witnessed that farmers suffer perpetually as they are shackled under a systematic exploitative mechanism of irresponsible state and corrupt social elites. He suggested a radical transformation of conventional social rules and class order as the system protects the economic power and social status of the Brahminical elites. The Shudra, ‘Ati-Shudra’ (untouchables) and women are relegated to perpetual slavery.

Because the socially marginalised people were denied the right to education, they fail to cultivate proper knowledge to understand their precarious conditions, and hence fail to contest it for a better change.

Phule placed women’s issues at the top of his social agenda. His approach was radical as he decided to demolish the social rules and customs that have enslaved women under Brahmanical patriarchy. On 11 April 1827, Phule organised a strike of barbers to boycott the scariest custom among Brahmins – that of shaving the head of the widows. The widows were alienated from public life and treated as a bad omen. He fiercely contested the priestly castes on the issues of widow remarriage, promoted inter-caste marriage and opened Ashrams for the widow-mothers and orphaned children.

Mahatma Phule’s contribution to women’s education is exemplary. Denouncing the diktats of the social elites, Phule and Savitribai (the first teacher of modern India) in August 1948 started schools in Pune that helped girls not only from general social classes, but also those who were deemed ‘untouchables’. This was a radical blow to Brahminical social rules and customs.

Phule was a modernist. He scrutinised socio-religious and economic order by raising ethical issues. He condemned the ruling classes for their criminal negligence of the precarious conditions under which the farming class, women and ‘untouchables’ had been surviving.

The Return of the 'Baliraj'

He imagined the return of Baliraj – the ideal regime – where agrarian communities would be prosperous and social relationships will be arranged without terrible hierarchies and inequalities. He hoped that with the power of knowledge, women, Shudras and the untouchables will generate revolutionary consciousness and will upend the Brahminical citadel without fear.

He also knew that the collective power of the Shudra-Atishudras (Bahujan-Dalit) will be necessary for the end of the corrupt priesthood and to make religion a sphere of humanity and truth.

Dalit-Bahujan Masses Need to be Reminded of Phule's Principles 

Today, it is clear that certain sections within the Dalit-Bahujan mass passively operate under the hegemonic control of the Hindutva ideology. They need to be inspired to build a unified democratic assertion of the oppressed and marginalised people. Though many of these people have received a formal education, they lack social consciousness and ethical values. Further, Dalit-Bahujan political parties have also failed to escape the conventional caste compartments, and have instead reproduced the social ruptures into the political sphere. In Uttar Pradesh, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party use separate social engineering methods to exploit caste stratifications and achieve electoral victories.

Though in the recent elections, the SP-RLD alliance in Uttar Pradesh mobilised Muslims and the troubled farmers considerably well, it has failed to engage with other deprived communities, especially Dalits. Also, it has not effectively mainstreamed the problems of poor farmers and landless labourers. Unfortunately, today, there is no movement to liberate vulnerable women from the patriarchal social clutch. The ‘social justice’-based parties have not offered a conscious rebuttal to the BJP’s strategies.


Reinventing the Movement

Radical aspects of Phule’s social politics are thus forgotten by the contemporary political class, especially parties that often vouch to represent the interests of the Dalit-Bahujan class. They offer no commitment towards fighting the ills of caste divisions or working towards demolishing the Brahminical system. Instead, their cultural strategies and political alliances often legitimise the domination of the ruling elites.

Without building a serious political agenda for the emancipation of the oppressed communities, any other strategy will only result in the strengthening of the existing social order and class hierarchies.

Reading Jyotiba Phule’s radical social thoughts in such depressing times shall inspire the struggles of many. It will help us reinvent ideological rigour and values of social commitment, and lead us to build an Indian society based on the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.

(Dr. Harish S Wankhede teaches at Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi. He writes on identity politics, Dalit questions, Hindi cinema and the new media. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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