• Rediscovering Tarabai Shinde and Savitribai Phule

    Anita Bharti

    May 27, 2018

    Tarabai Shinde and Savitribai Phule / Image courtesy Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University and andhrajyothi.


    How many of us aware writers, social activists and agitators know about – and talk about – the 19th-century radical writer Tarabai Shinde and her 1882 book Stri Purush Tulna (A Comparison Between Women and Men, a booklet on the social situation of women that created quite a stir at that time)? Or, the most important social revolutionary leader of the 19th century, Savitribai Phule (1831 –1897), who was a pioneer in the field of girl-child education and faced plenty of problems but did not give up; and eventually despite all sorts of adverse circumstances, oppositions, prejudices and indifference, became the first woman teacher in India? Even after so many years since Independence, our Indian society and the upper-caste educated class, infected as it is by caste prejudices, is not ready even today to honour Savitribai Phule and the work of social reform that she did and thus include her in the list of prominent Indian social reformers. 

    The place Tarabai Shinde deserved in Indian feminist movement and the feminist philosophy undergirding that movement – like the other Indian and foreign feminist thinkers – was not granted to her. One wonders, what after all is the reason for this gross neglect of both Savitribai Phule and Tarabai Shinde. Could it be that since both belong to the Bahujan section, the casteist society has chosen to ignore them? It is well known that both Tarabai Shinde and Savitribai Phule came from Bahujan society. Hence, is it merely a coincidence that both of these figures are not part of the so-called mainstream history and movement because they are Bahujans or is it a well-calculated move, a historical, social and intellectual conspiracy? 

    With the awakening of their own sense of identity, a consciousness emerged among the dalits and Bahujans that made it possible for them to know their icon Savitribai Phule and for the last seven to eight years she has begun to feature prominently in the list of Indian radicals. In this context, it has become necessary for me to talk about this because for the last few years the dalit Women Movement has been celebrating her death anniversary on 10 March as the Indian Women’s Day and what is heartening to see is that today many dalit bahujan and women’s organizations too have begun to celebrate 10 March as Indian Women’s Day. This is the result of a common strength and common struggle. So is the concept of Bahujan literature (BL) – that is how I see it. I believe that with the emergence of BL, the debate being conducted by Dalit literature (DL) on various issues and questions will expand, the struggle will gain strength. DL has always considered those figures its friends, well-wishers and leaders who took a stand against caste and fought a committed battle against inequality, regardless of their community and caste background. 

    I also believe that the voice and expressions of oppressed identities have always been present in society in one form or the other, whether is folk literature, folk art or any other medium. Unfortunately, this casteist country that considers talent a quality acquired by birth has only sung praises of the talent of very few and selective castes. The voices of all the other identities were either drowned out or were forcefully stifled. Their voice was never allowed to become a prominent accent. Now the way the men and women from the dalit bahujan society are getting educated and, equipped with sharp ideological consciousness, are coming forward in the debates and tackling questions, it raises the hope that the time is not far when all oppressed and stifled identities will come together and, fighting against oppression, indignity, victimization heaped upon them, will rein in the vicious cycle of conspiracies that had pushed them to the margins. 

    Sometime ago, discussions around another stream of literature began to be called Bahujan literature. Now whether we call it BL or OBCL, we must openly and comprehensively debate it. While doing that, our attitude should be liberal. BL should not suffer the kind of opposition, resistance, dismissals and invectives that came in the way dalit and women’s literature. It is always better to have open discussions about an ideology and principles because it is only through debates and discussions that we can explore and investigate any ideology and principle and not via some ready-made guesswork or by simply ignoring it. If the principle is right, the discussion will proceed; and if not, it will come to a close on its own. 

    Initially DL and women’s literature too came under a lot of fire – sometimes for the content and sometimes for the form or craft. In fact, objections were raised against expressing bitter experiences related to caste- and gender-related tragedies of life. But both the identities rejected all allegations and doubts, and finally dug their heels in the field of literature. Now it is a different matter that within dalit literature and women’s literature, the dalit woman is struggling with those questions, prejudices and doubts that faced dalit literature and women’s literature in their struggle in the world of literature.

    An important question that BL will have to face is this: Since Bahujan society is not very weak economically and, in fact, many of its castes are rather strongly placed and enjoy considerable honour in society, and they do not face indignity like the dalits, then what was the need to begin a discourse on the existence of BL? I believe that today oppressed and repressed dalit identities are shaking off the long history of oppression, harassment, immense indifference and victimization and presenting strong resistance to the oppressive powers, and not only opposing it but also succeeding in giving its opposition a creative expression of an extremely high order. This creative expression is also giving birth to a mass consciousness in the oppressed, vicitimized and exploited society. In such a scenario, if people from Bahujan society becoming aware of their own identity through literature join the other repressed and victimized identities then there is nothing wrong in it; in fact, it is good. Bahujan society is a very big society. It is possible that today people who are considered “forward” in this Bahujan society will come forth but in the future the extremely backward and crushed identities will also succeed in putting forth their viewpoint. 

    There is an unlimited power in literature. Social and political movements too draw a lot of strength from literature. On the basis of this limitless power of literature, it is possible that one day dalit movement, women’s movement and other progressive and democratic movements and Bahujan movement, all will come together and, equipped with the consciousness of their identities, they will organize themselves into a single class against caste, gender and any other kind of inequality and discrimination. I could be just dreaming about the coming together of all sorts of identities but this dream may come true the day dalits, OBCs, Tribals, minorities, women and others all present a collective challenge to this casteist, brahmanical, feudal and capitalist patriarchy. This dream turning into reality looks all the more possible because of the emergence of the concept of Bahujan literature. But yes, Bahujan literature must deliberate deeply all its aspects, ideological, philosophical, political and religious.

    Anita Bharti is a dalit writer and activist.

    This is an excerpt from the chapter 'Sole Platform for the Tarabai Shindes and Savitribai Phules' by Anita Bharti in the book ' The Case for Bahujan Literature', published by Forward Press. Republished here with the permission from the publisher.

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