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Explained: The legacy of Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule

Mahatma Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule stand out as an extraordinary couple in the social and educational history of India. They spearheaded path-breaking work towards female education and empowerment, and towards ending caste- and gender-based discrimination.

Written by Ruchika Goswamy , Edited by Explained Desk | Pune |
Updated: March 8, 2022 7:26:38 am
Ajit Pawar, Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari, Shivaji, BJP, Congress, Shiv sena, NCP, Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Indian express, Indian express news, Mumbai latest newsMahatma Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule

Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari has recently received flak for his remarks on the social reformist couple Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule. In a video said to have been taken during the inauguration of Savitribai Phule’s statue at the Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU) two weeks ago, the Governor can be seen purportedly commenting on the child marriage of the activists.

“Savitribai was married off at the age of 10 and her husband was 13 years old at that time. Now think about it, what must girls and boys be thinking after getting married,” Koshyari is purportedly heard saying in the video.

The Governor’s remarks were met with outrage, with Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar seeking to draw the Prime Minister’s attention to them when he visited the state on Sunday to inaugurate the Pune Metro.

Who were the Phules?

Mahatma Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule stand out as an extraordinary couple in the social and educational history of India. They spearheaded path-breaking work towards female education and empowerment, and towards ending caste- and gender-based discrimination.

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In 1840, at a time when child marriages were common, Savitri at the age of ten was married to Jyotirao, who was thirteen years old at the time. The couple later in life strove to oppose child marriage and also organised widow remarriages.

The Phules’ endeavours and legacy

Jyotirao, the revolutionary that he was, observed the lack of opportunities for education for young girls and women. He started to educate his wife at home and trained her to become a teacher.

Together, by 1848, the Phules started a school for girls, Shudras and Ati-Shudras in Poona. The historic work was started by Jyotirao when he was just 21 years old, ably supported by his 18-year-old wife.

In 1853, Jyotirao-Savitribai opened a care centre for pregnant widows to have safe deliveries and to end the practice of infanticide owing to social norms. The Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha (Home for the Prevention of Infanticide) started in their own house at 395, Ganj Peth, Pune.

Jyotirao and Savitri did not have biological children, and adopted the child of a widow. Yashwantrao grew up to be a doctor, rendering his services in the 1897 Bubonic plague.

The Satyashodhak Samaj (The Truth-Seeker’s Society) was established on September 24, 1873 by Jyotirao-Savitribai and other like-minded people. The Samaj advocated for social changes that went against prevalent traditions, including economical weddings, inter-caste marriages, eradication of child marriages, and widow remarriage.

The Phules also had far-sighted goals — popularising female education, establishing an institutional structure of schools in India, and to have a society where women worked in tandem with men.

The backlash to Koshyari’s remarks

Ajit Pawar, hitting back at the Governor, said the Phules “laid the foundation of girls’ education”.

“In recent times, a lot of things have taken place in the state. I want to bring to the notice of the prime minister that unnecessary statements are coming from those holding important posts. These statements are not acceptable to Maharashtra… Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule laid the foundation of girls education in the country from the city. We all have to take forward their rich legacy of reforms. We should carry it forward by not keeping any animosity about anyone and bringing politics into development,” said Pawar.

State Congress president Nana Patole too said Koshyari had the state’s icons. “Maharashtra worships these idols and will never tolerate their insult and the Governor should apologise for making such insulting remarks,” Patole said.

Hari Narke, who heads the Mahatma Phule chair at Savitribai Phule Pune University, condemned the Governor’s remark. “At that time, child marriages were taking place all over India. Even the marriage of Koshyari’s grandparents would have been held like this. He doesn’t seem to realise that he was talking about something serious and was not doing stand-up comedy,” Narke said.

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