By Prabhat Kishore
India is the land where women have a glorious place in the society and were treated as Devi. But lateron many exploitative systems and customs developed and their position deteriorated day by day. They faced discrimination at every step. Many social reformers devoted their lives to fighting against the prevalent exploitative practices and prominent among them was the Kranti-jyoti Savitri Bai Phule, a feminist and social reformer, who fought for women’s empowerment and education in India.
Born on January 3, 1831 in the of village Naigaon in the Satara district of Maharashtra, Savitri Bai Phule is considered one of the foremost pioneers of the feminist movement in India. Savitri herself was a victim of child marriage and was married to a 13-year old boy Jyoti Rao Phule, when she was just 9-years old. She was illiterate at the time of marriage and was educated by her husband at home along with working at their farm. She later enrolled herself in teacher training programmes and after completion of her training Savitri Bai became first Indian female teacher and headmistress.
Savitri Bai started the first ever school for girls in the country in 1848 at Bhide Wada, Pune. By 1851 Savitri Bai Phule had set up 3 schools and was a teacher of 150 students. Together with her husband, she had opened 18 schools in the country. She and her husband set up schools for Dalits and depressed caste women as well. The Phule couple encouraged women to attend school by offering them a stipend. Phule’s method of teaching was so popular that the number of girls enrolled in their school outnumbered the boys in government schools.
Savitri Bai travelled to school carrying a spare sari, as she was often assaulted with dung, stone and vulgar abuses by the local conservative minded people. Fortunately her husband was one of the pillars of support to her in her journey to spread awareness about the importance of women‘s education and uplift the status of women in India. The couple was even forced to leave their home as educating girls was a highly unthinkable act at that time. However such threats could not deter them from their mission of social upliftment.
Women’s education was not the only motto Savitri wanted Indians to take up. She also fought against the social injustices of the time such as child marriage, Sati Pratha and still prevalent caste system and was one of the advocates for women’s right in the country.
She opened a well for untouchables at her residence in a defiant act against the caste system and also started a care centre for pregnant rape-victims called Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha. She set up a Mahila Seva Mandal where women would gather and raise awareness about women’s rights. She was the head of the women wing of Satya Shodhak Samaj, the society set up by her husband for the mission of education, social rights and political access to the underprivileged sections.
Apart from being a pioneer of Indian feminism, Savitri Bai was a plague warrior. In 1897 a third pandemic of bubonic plague appeared worldwide in the vicinity of Nalasopara. She helped many people by opening a clinic with her adopted son Yashwant. In course of service she came in physical contact with a patient infected with the plague. As a result she also contracted the plague, which became the reason of her sudden demise on March 10, 1897.
Savitri Bai was also a hard-hitting radical writer and poet who questioned Brahminical hegemony. She published “Kavya Phule” in 1854 and “Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar” in 1892. She wrote a poem entitled “Go, Get Education” in which she appealed to the oppressed section of the society to free themselves by getting education.
Savitri Bai was a feminist and humanist. She dedicated her whole life for the betterment and upliftment of the society. Her contribution to the past, present and future of the country is immeasurable. Being India’s first female teacher , her birthday should have been celebrated as “National Teacher’s Day” or “National Education Day”, but unfortunately such events were shadowed by political heavyweights. Savitri Bai Phule is one of those eminent personalities whose memory illuminates the path of our nation. Nation honours her on her birth day as well as death anniversary with hope that her actions & thoughts will guide our path for years to come.
(The Author is a technocrat and educationist)