She was modern India’s first woman teacher, a believer in the education of masses and especially women, a courageous leader who took on forces of patriarchy and caste and questioned exploitation and injustice at every step. Yet, modern India still knows very little about Savitribai Phule whose birthday falls on January 3, apart from her identity as the wife of the activist and social reformer Jyotirao Phule.
A champion of social justice and equal rights for both men and women, Phule not only started India’s first school for educating women but also actively fought against social evils like child marriage and Sati. A strong advocate of anti-caste ideology, she also fought against the subjugation of Muslims and Dalits. Many would, however, be surprised to know that practices initiated by Savitribai during her lifetime still continue to be used by governments and institutions today.
A case in point being the attendance allowance scheme initiated by the reformer in her schools to discourage children from dropping out that the Maharashtra Government has also been using since 1992. Teaching the children from the Dalit community, Phule noticed the trend of children dropping out due to poverty and disinterest in the subjects taught.
To address this problem, Savitribai – who herself did not take any remuneration from the school – started giving a salary to students. To ensure students stayed interested in what was being taught, Phule also planned a new syllabus, geared towards skill education, that she thought the students would enjoy learning.
Maharashtra government has been implementing a similar attendance allowance scheme, under which it pays students anywhere between one rupee per day and a maximum of ₹220, are paid to parents of girls studying in standard one to standard four, for having an attendance of more than 75% of working days. During 2012-13, about 4.52 lakh girls benefited from the scheme, according to news reports.
Recognising the need for creating job opportunities among India’s growing youth demographic, the Indian government has also been placing an increased emphasis on skill education, devising programmes to provide vocational education to students, just like Phule did in the 1800s.
To involve parents from the Dalit Bahujan community in the process of their children’s education, Phule also initiated regular parent-teacher meetings in her school and events like fairs and pilgrimages and caste panchayats in the community. Involving parents in their child’s education has been one of the mainstays of the current Delhi government, that has also been organising mass parent-teacher meetings and reading fairs and melas in all Delhi government schools – much like Phule did more than a century ago.
Phule’s influence hasn’t been limited to the field of education alone. Teaming up with her husband, the champion of caste equality also established the Satyshodhak way of marriage, that requires the groom to take an oath pledging the wife not only gets an education, but also equal rights in the marriage. The mangalashtak (the Mantras chanted at the time of the wedding) were to be sung by the bride and the bridegroom themselves, and these were in the form of pledges made by the bride and the groom to each other. This was the beginning of the first inter-caste marriage in the country – a practice that was legalised in the country more than 50 years ago.
Recognising her contributions more than a century later after her death, Maharashtra government renamed the University of Pune as the “Savitribai Phule University of Pune” in 2015. But as many have pointed out, more still needs to be done to give the radical social reformer her rightful place in the annals of Indian history.