Mahatma Jotiba Phoolay
Founder of the Satya Shodhak Samaj(V. R. Shinde, Poona).
The current vanishing year witnesseth the 47th Anniversary of the death of a great man which is being celebrated at present by the masses all over the Maharashtra. The canonization of Jotiba as Mahatma is a recent and the still incomplete development. All real movements take their rise from the masses and are eventually cognized by the so-called classes not until they are compelled by circumstances. The one remarkable fact which is disclosed by the present celebrations is that the magic name of Jotiba has been now fast awakening the native democracy of Maharashtra, the real substratum of which is safely imbedded in its masses and has been throughout history defying all the machinations and exploitations of the uppermost classes. If Jotiba is not yet recognized as a Great Man, it is not his fault but rather the undiscovered faults of the modern ideals of greatness themselves. Modern Greatness at any rate in India is too much based on the slippery ground of either literacy or political merits or rather pretensions. Whereas in Medieval India a Sanskrit knowing controversialist carried the day and claimed the lead of public opinion and devotion. In Modern India, an English knowing or preferable an England returned pleader, doctor or professor catches the public ear and poses as a great man. The greatness of Jotiba has nothing to do with any such pretenses. Nay, it is his greatness alone which is destined one day to clarify our notions of greatness and public lead and to take its rightful place in the national gallery. (ध. 35)
Jotiba Phoolay was born in Poona in 1827 A.D. It is a pity that the exact date or even the month is yet unknown. Hence the centenary was celebrated in 1927 about the 27th November which was the date of his death in 1890 and not of his birth. He was born of humble and illiterate parents of the Mali i. e. gardener caste. His father was an expert garland maker by appointment to the last Peshwa at Poona and was rather in fair circumstances. At the age of seven Jotiba was sent to a Vernacular School, where he made very fair progress. In four years he completed his first four standards. Through the worst harrows of Peshawai, Supremacy of the Brahman was still unchallenged in his day. The unusually fast progress of a Shudra boy in a school awakened the jealousy of the Brahman clerk of his father and with the help of other busy bodies he succeeded in a persuading the old man that the scholastic education was unsuitable to his son, who was therefore, transferred from the school room to his father’s garden. For the next seven years, he was somehow or other, kept away from school when a Mahomedan friend of his father and one Mr. Legit, a European, strongly advised him to put again the rather smart looking boy to the school. In another period of six or seven years, Jotiba finished English education in a secondary school which was in those days when there were on regular High Schools or Colleges, the most unusual career for a non-Brahmin boy. Though the young Jotiba gave up his regular study in a school at the age of twenty-one, he kept up his love for books, especially on history and criticism, throughout his life. He had several Brahman youths of progressive thought and budding aspirations at his school-fellows who remained his life-long friends and co-workers in his later public activities. Though the young Jotiba’s natural constitution was not very robust, he developed a love for physical exercise and even the manly games, then in vogue.
One Lahuji Vastad, a Mang (untouchable) by caste, was keeping up a gymnasium where athletic sports, as well as use of arms were taught. Jotiba proved an enthusiastic pupil of Lahuji and his giddy youth even entertained some vague revolutionary ideas against the British Government which were however, soon to be corrected, by the later experiences of another tyranny nearer than at home. Jotiba’s loyal pupilage under an untouchable master also developed in him, an unswerving sympathy for the depressed classes for the cause of which he fearlessly advocated to the end of his life.
At this stage, followed an event which gave a rude turn to the career of Jotiba. A Brahman friend had invited Jotiba to join a marriage procession of his relation. Jotiba’s walking along with the company of Brahmans could not be tolerated by the orthodox section and a certain bully came up to Jotiba and most rudely insulted him by compelling him to leave the company and to walk behind a proper distance. Jotiba at once left the company, came home and brooded over the insult. His old father warned him never to aspire equality with the Brahmans who were the veritable earthly gods and he also related several heat-rending incidents of his experience to show, how such thoughtless aspirations on the part of even respectable Non-Brahmans of higher castes were ruthlessly punished under the Peshwa’s rule. The old man even congratulated his son on his returning home safely after such an adventure. This however, opened the eyes of Jotiba who then, took up the most invulnerable vow of rising straight against this time-honoured tyranny of certain section over the rest of his country.
The Public Activities
Of Jotiba began at the tender age of twenty-one as a result of the aforesaid insult. Had he taken the insult personally, he might have started a school for the boys of his mali caste or those of Non-Brahmans. But Jotiba’s mentality was neither sectional nor communal. It was against general injustice and bullyism. The first thing he did was to start a school for girls of all classes in Budhawar Peth of the most orthodox City of Poona in the year 1848. He was not a non-co-operator. He sought the co-operation of all progressive and just soul of whatever creed or caste, sex or colour. He shrewdly saw that to rise against the injustice of man in general, it was necessary to stand for woman, who after all, holds the destiny of mankind. But he soon saw that the untouchable classes in India were as harshly trampled upon as women in general and so he at once started the first school for the Depressed classes, boys, as well as girls in India. Both these institutions were so successfully conducted that they could not fail to catch the sympathy of Government and other liberal hearted foreigners, as much as to create a huge sensation and even opposition from his own people. Jotiba had to face the difficulty of finding out teachers for his girls’ school. So he taught and prepared his own wife for the task. This was too much for the orthodox and mischievous Brahmans. They succeeded in plying upon the credulity of the father of Jotiba so much so that he soon turned out of his house both Jotiba and his wife, who felt all the more free to pursue their work of love. Government at the advice of the then Director of Public Instruction held a durbar and public honoured Jotiba by presenting him with a precious Shawl worth Rs. 200. Jotiba did not confine his sympathy to women and untouchables alone. He saw through the wrongs done to the fallen women who were mostly from Brahman widows and of other so-called higher classes. For in India, higher the class of man lower is the real status of his wife, sister or even mother. The sympathetic vision of this hero of the Masses widened rapidly as his experience in public work grew. He saw that practically the whole of Indian humanity who were responsible for any really productive work, were for all times, crushed under the heels of the unproductive upper men. He began to fearlessly advocate the cause of the toiling agriculturists and manual labourers both in private factories and in the Government Public Works Department. In his tirades he did not spare the British Government in general or the particular local bureaucrat, or the Brahman demagogue or the wire pulling capitalist marwari or even an Indian Maharaja for that matter. In his untutored zeal in setting right the public wrongs, he could not distinguish politics from social reform and Social service from private acts of individual redress and kindness. He knew no party much less pacts. He opposed a municipal resolution to offer a costly address to a Governor. He ran to stand security for Mr. B. G. Tilak the very leader of his social opponents and persecutors when he was in travails of a political law suit. Such was the stuff of which Mahatma Phoolay was made and yet, he is now, even condemned, almost unheard, as a mere Brahman hater.