Jotirao Phule: The Mahatma who identified with the exploited farmer

In 1882, Jotirao Phule began touring the rural areas outside Pune, getting to know firsthand the plight of the kunbi cultivators, addressing large gatherings and organizing a boycott of Brahmins and moneylenders. The speeches that he wrote for these gatherings later became ‘Cultivator’s Whipcord’

If Mahatma Jotirao Phule were alive today, he would wholeheartedly support the farmers’ protest and tell the Supreme Court, hearing the petitions challenging the validity of reservations for Marathas, “Well, all Marathi-speaking people from Mahars to Brahmans are known as Marathas. It is not possible to locate anybody’s caste if only the term Maratha is used.” That was Phule’s reply when a Maratha-kunbi introduced himself as a Maratha.

Phule’s Cultivator’s Whipcord talks about the plight of the Maratha-kunbis (or simply kunbis) – the Shudra peasants – exploited by the Brahmin colonial bureaucracy, which the British collectors, magistrates and judges cocooned in their airy offices and bungalows couldn’t care less about. This is a compilation of lectures he gave in 1882-1883 to gatherings of farmers in the rural areas outside Pune. Cultivator’s Whipcord comprises five chapters. The Din Bandhu newspaper agreed to serialize the chapters but stopped after publishing the first two that focused on how the Brahmins exploited the Shudra farming community using both age-old scripture-granted privileges and their recently-occupied positions in the colonial bureaucracy. The editor, Narayan Meghaji Lokhande, refused to publish the remaining three chapters on account of them being severely critical of the British government’s policy with regard to the cultivators. Lokhande feared inviting the wrath of the government on the newspaper – so reminiscent of the lack of press freedom today! These three chapters remained unpublished in Phule’s lifetime.

The ongoing months-long farmers’ protests on the borders of Delhi and the outpouring of the support for them both from within the city and elsewhere makes it easier for us to visualize what led Phule to intervene on behalf of the oppressed cultivators. A decade before writing the Cultivator’s Whipcord series he had published Gulamgiri (Slavery), a scathing attack on the Brahmins and their scriptures, and founded the Satyashodak Samaj to reform religion and educate and uplift the Shudras and the Atishudras. 

In the intervening period, he had become an efficient and successful contractor, supplying building material for construction projects of the British government – the Khadakwasla dam, the Yerwada bridge and the tunnel at Katraj ghat on the Pune-Satara road – and employing hundreds of labourers. He was also appointed a member of Pune Municipal Corporation. All the members were appointed by the British government. When a proposal was made to spend huge sums of money to decorate the city for the visit of then Viceroy Lord Lytton, of the 36 members of the corporation he was only one to oppose it. Phule, who along with wife Savitiribai, had by then already set up a number of schools for the Shudras, Atishudras and girls, said that the money would be better spent on educating poor citizens.

Even amid his commercial endeavours, Phule always prioritized the mission of the Satyashodhak Samaj, be it opening a night school for the labourers who worked in the construction projects or looking for opportunities to widen the reach of the Samaj. Phule, who belonged to the mali caste, was himself an agriculturist. He owned land outside Pune and had built a channel from the Khadakwasla dam to irrigate the area. The other farmers of the area though were not convinced of the benefits of irrigation. They even suspected that it was a government ploy to seize their land. But Phule proved them wrong by growing fruits and vegetables and sugarcane the year round and making good profits. He also launched a company to take the fruits and vegetables to Bombay for sale. So Phule knew from experience that agriculture had the potential to better the lot of the farmers but an exploitative system, overseen by Brahmins and overlooked by the British, was instead pauperizing them. 

The peasants’ plight

In 1882, Phule and other activists of the Satyashodak Samaj began touring the rural areas outside Pune, getting to know firsthand the plight of the kunbi cultivators, addressing large gatherings and organizing a boycott of Brahmins and moneylenders. The speeches that he wrote for these gatherings later became Cultivator’s Whipcord. He wrote about how the Brahmins would use every ritual to deprive the cultivators of their hard-earned savings. “The Arya Bhats and Brahmans do not admit Shudra farmers’ children in their Sanskrit schools, but in their Prakrit Marathi schools they admit these children, and over and above their own monthly salaries, extract food on every full moon and moonless night, grain on many festival days, and even take a fourth from what the children bring to school; and teach them only the basic letters, arithmetic … Never giving them sufficient knowledge even to keep accounts of expenses at home. So how would they enter into the mamledar’s offices and become even clerks?”

Jotirao Phule; Farmers protest in Ghazipur, on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border]

Under the British land revenue system, the role of the kunbi patil, who had the traditional inherited headship of the village, had diminished and the kulkarni, the Brahmin village accountant, had become the local revenue office’s go-to person. Phule wrote about the Brahmin kulkarnis and moneylenders colluding with the Brahmins who dominated the colonial bureaucracy to sow enmities between farmers and make sure that redressal ate into a chunk of farmers’ savings. By the time the case reached the British officers, magistrates and judges, the Brahmins would manipulate the documents in favour of whichever party offered them the higher bribe. The British employees also would not make an effort to understand the condition of the farmers. All this would push the farmer deeper and deeper into debt and despair. Meanwhile, “some over-enthusiastic native servants … have spread the rumour that ‘farmers are debt-ridden because they spend uncontrollably on marriage ceremonies,’” writes Phule.

Cultivator’s Whipcord contains heart-rending depictions of the grossly unjust situation the farmers found themselves in. Phule writes: “One day a farmer was walking towards this village from the Collector’s tent in the breezy mangrove beside the river, striding in anger and grinding his teeth. He seemed about forty and a little demoralized. … After reaching home around two in the afternoon, he went to the kitchen and taking a sheet off the peg, he spread it on the ground and with a rolled up blanket under his head, lay down to sleep, thinking of his meeting with the Collector – ‘He was still busy with his breakfast and tea, and he did not listen to the truth that I was telling them, and did not allow me to pay my instalment later.’ He could not sleep, and putting his hands on his chest, as if a little crazed, he started talking to himself thus: ‘Unlike other villagers, I have not warmed the hands of the bhat servants and so they have spoken to the white officer and doubled my tax, and in the same year the rain was indifferent and my fields and gardens were burnt out, and then suddenly father died. There were a lot of expenses for the rituals …’”

If today, the three farm laws are implemented, similar scenes will play out in the villages – farmers approaching the sub-divisional magistrates and district collectors over disputes with purchasers with whom they have signed an agreement and returning home thoroughly demoralized because the laws have denied them recourse to courts. 

Phule talks about how the policies of the British government were sucking the farmers dry – excises “every six miles on to the road which the farmer took to sell the produce”, and the cordoning off of the forests, on which the farmers depended for “the wood of the forests and various edibles”, and the pastures on which their livestock grazed.

Proportional representation 

Phule doesn’t only point out the problems but also suggests solutions. He is effectively talking about reservation and representation in government offices when he writes, “Because the white employees are ill informed there is a disproportionate number of Bhat Brahmans appointed, and therefore they do not have to slave in the farms, and their women do not have to fill their bellies by frequenting the market with produce. Moreover, because the farmer is ignorant, the Bhat Brahmans benefit immensely from caste distinctions and hierarchies. Thus the Brahmans, employed in government jobs, and the mythologists, storytellers, teachers in schools strive day and night, using all their cunning, to prevent the breakdown of these distinctions and hierarchies. Therefore, until the farmers’ children become able enough to manage positions in government, not more than the proportionate number of Brahmans should be employed in government jobs … It is only then that they (the Brahmans) will stop obstructing the education of the farmer … And when there are such educated and qualified patils in all villages, the cunning Bhat kulkarnis will not be able to make the farmers fight amongst themselves and file cases against each other, and that will benefit our governments immensely, since in a short time the farmer will be able to pay more tax than now, and the unjustifiable swellings in the police and justice departments can then be reduced.”

Also Read: Phules, Ambedkar and Du Bois: For a just world without caste or race

Today, agriculture is the primary source of income for 60 per cent of the population and contributes 20 per cent to India’s Gross Domestic Product. A chief rallying point of the protesting farmers is that the three new laws are designed to benefit a few capitalists while the government argues that with their intervention agriculture will be mechanized and become more efficient and profitable. But as Gail Omvedt writes in Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society, “Industrialization was not seen by Phule as a solution to Indian backwardness. In a primarily agricultural country, he felt, the remedy for mass poverty lay in a direct solution of the agrarian problem. Thus he urged extensive action by the government for the improvement of agriculture, including soil conservation; the construction of tanks, bunds and dams, scientific programmes of animal breeding; the specific education of peasants to create a class of instructors to teach modern techniques of agriculture in every village, and so on. This was consistent with his general opposition to ‘trickle-down’ theories of progress – that is, he did not feel that economic or educational benefits to a small section would eventually result in overall social progress.”

The fears of the protesting farmers today about the new laws throwing open agriculture to the market may not be so ill-founded. About 140 years ago, Phule wrote, “If there is timely rainfall and the farmer gets a reasonable crop, since the cowardly employees of our brave government have disallowed the use of firearms and other weapons to the farmer, he cannot protect his crop from the wild boar and pigs. Of the remaining crop, the Brahman, the Marwadi moneylenders, Gujarati traders and brokers from other castes keep an eye on the crop and grab whatever they can of it. Not only this, but even the Gujarati Brahman cooks in traders’ households have started claiming some amount of jaggery.”

References:

Phule, Jotirao. (2002). Selected Writings of Jotirao Phule, G.P. Deshpande (ed). New Delhi: LeftWord Books.

O’Hanlon, Rosalind. (2002). Caste, Conflict and Ideology: Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Low Caste Protest in Nineteenth-Century Western India. Ranikhet: Permanent Black.

Omvedt, Gail. (2011). Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non-Brahman Movement in Western India. New Delhi: Manohar.

Copy-editing: Amrish Herdenia


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