I’ve often fancied that behind every revolution lurks a gardener. Sixty years after flower-sellers took part in the storming of the Bastille in 1789, a young Indian man from a gardening caste—Jyotirao Phule, whose surname means ‘flower’—began his own lifelong assault on a social order far older and even more rank-conscious than the French ancien regime. His intent was to uproot the Brahminical order, and with it the caste system, which blocked access to education, jobs and a sense of self-worth for people of his background.
Phule was born around 1827, and lived on the outskirts of the city of Poona (now Pune), once the headquarters of the Maratha states that Shivaji had helped establish. His grandfather had been a mali, or gardener, in a royal compound, and his father farmed vegetables and flowers. Though as members of the mali caste the family was from the lowest, Shudra, order, they supplied the city’s elite, moving between the homes of the privileged castes and the fields and villages. That, I think, gave them a special insight into the advantages of privilege and the distribution of opportunity in their society. Phule grasped early on that Brahmins had reserved education for themselves, exploiting the ignorance of the ‘lesser’ castes and outcastes while mopping up the benefits of status.
“Education, and not any idea of nation or territory, was Phule’s swadeshi.”
In time, this young man’s frustration would become a critique, and then an agenda for change. He set up first a chain of schools for outcastes (today’s Dalits) and girls, and then a home for widows and orphans. His effort soon became a full-out polemical war against the Brahmins. Phule’s 19th-century experiments in schooling the unprivileged helped show what a more democratic access to education might look like, and his systemic analysis of the psychological politics of being poor, as well as his attention to the consequences of exploitation for individual lives, have a cutting timeliness in contemporary India.
Phule is often clubbed together, misleadingly, with other Indian nationalists. “He’s really an anti-nationalist,” contends the scholar and social scientist Gail Omvedt. “He’s warning his people to be wary of instructions that they should put aside all grumblings about the hierarchies and distinctions in the country and become united.” Education, and not any idea of nation or territory, “was his swadeshi”, or patriotism, Omvedt says.
Phule’s anti-Brahminism and democratic ideas about education had more in common with Christian missionary pedagogy, from which he had benefited directly. The irony of his story is that, if it were not for the usurping East India Company and the new order that it established in India, one of the 19th century’s great radical humanists—in any country—might have remained just another unknown vegetable supplier. Stories such as Phule’s complicate the idea of imperialism, according to novelist and activist Arundhati Roy.
“The British drained the wealth of a continent, impoverished it, and entrenched old values,” she says, “but they also opened doors for Phule, Ambedkar and others to enter the discourse and change it.”