Mahatma Phule, whom Ambedkar considered his guru, wrote Gulamgiri — one of the first critiques of the caste system. This piece takes stock of its major argument and its significance. Written in Marathi, with an English preface, the text has been translated into English as Slavery.

Mahatma Jotiba Phule’s Gulamgiri is considered one of the first tracts against the caste system. Published in 1885, it critiques the institution of caste through a 16-part essay and four poetic compositions, and it is written in the form of a dialogue between Jotiba, and a character he calls Dhondiba.

Gulamgiri 1873

Author: Mahatma Jotiba Phule

Genre: Non-fiction

The main thrust of Mahatma Phule’s text is an inversion of the racial theory of caste. What is the racial theory of caste? According to this theory, a superior, foreign race invaded this land. They became what we know as Brahmins today. The lowly, indigenous people who were conquered became the shudras.

That Mahatma Phule gave credence to the racial theory of caste at all, is sometimes considered a limitation of the text. What must be noted however, as Gail Omvedt does in “Hinduism as Brahman Exploitation: Jotiba Phule”, Phule takes an already existing discourse, and he inverts its moral logic. He accepts the facticity of the theory. He says, yes Brahmins are a different race. Yes, they invaded and conquered us. But he upturns its moral logic and says the invaders were actually corrupt, cruel and depraved. Superior they were definitely not.

Gulamgiri is credited with anticipating modern ideas such aS the interconnectedness of economic & cultural subordination.

In order to make his point, Mahatma Phule takes it upon himself to destabilize certain Hindu myths. And he punctures them using logic. For instance, right at the beginning, he takes the story of the origin of the four castes from the Purushsukta hymn. According to this story, Brahmins were born from the head of Brahma, Kshatriyas from the arms, Vaishyas from the thighs and Shudras from the feet. Often peddled as a justification for the differential status enjoyed by different castes, this narrative is rendered absurd by Phule. He does this by posing a straightforward, but perhaps slightly provocative, question: Does this mean Brahma had four vaginas where he gave birth from?

What is even more extraordinary about the text is that it tries to wrest a legitimate cultural space for the practices and beliefs of shudras and atishudras. Phule does this by trying to situate these practices within narratives of a glorious historical and cultural legacy. One such example is the story he weaves around Bali Raja. As Omvedt explains, “The Puranic myth in which the Brahman boy Waman asks three boons of Bali and then steps on his chest to send him down to hell is taken by Phule as a story of deception and conquest by the invading Aryans.”

According to Mahatma Phule, you will only ever find those from the lower castes making a wish for Bali Raja on this day. Upper castes, he says, will in fact place a rice or dough statue of Bali on their doorstep, and they will kick it. Phule equates Bali with a Shudra king who was defeated by the “cruel” and “savage” Vaman. Omvedt also notes how this “had a strong resonance with popular culture, for in Maharashtra (as in other parts of South India…) Bali is indeed seen as a popular and ‘peasant’ king, and is remembered with the Marathi saying, ‘ida pida javo, Balica rajya yevo’ (let troubles and sorrows go and the kingdom of Bali come)”.

As Ambedkar was, Phule too is sometimes criticized for aligning his cause with the British, and not with the legitimized project of nation construction and the freedom struggle. Again, what must be remembered is that for someone like Phule, British advent and modern education was an event with emancipatory potential. (Dilip Chavan in Language Politics Under Colonialism: Caste, Class and Language).

In Section 14 of Gulamgiri, for example, he makes an urgent plea to his sisters and brothers to fight off the yoke of “inherited slavery” in the time period that the British are around. He says they are here today, but they may not be here tomorrow. He drives home the significance of their presence by suggesting that if the British hadn’t been around, Brahmins would have probably punished lower castes for “crimes” such as chanting Sanskrit shlokas.

Despite Phule’s skepticism about the veracity of ancient myths, he dipped into them in order to plot their narratives in a different way.

A better sense of this might be made by noting how Phule speaks of upper-caste “reformer Hindus” and the ideas of writer and political philosopher Thomas Paine. He says initially, he bought into the project of national independence as his “reformer Hindu” friends managed to convince him – quoting the likes of Thomas Paine – that it was unity among all castes of India that was needed to drive the British away. But when he read Paine himself, he realized that what the “reformer Hindus” really feared was the spread of Western education amongst lower castes who would then be in a position to question Hindu texts.

What must be noted however, is that Phule does not stop short of criticizing the British when he sees it fit. He expresses particular displeasure with certain British policies such as populating the education department with upper-castes and expecting Brahmin teachers to impart any real education to Shudra students. He says such teachers will not be fit to impart any real critical inquiry and will have their practices dictated by their holy books.

This questioning of Hindu texts is one of the solutions he offers to remedy the marginalization and oppression that the shudras and atishudras have to suffer. This is anticipated in earlier sections of the text where, Phule expresses his contempt for Dhondiba for considering such religious texts sacred.

While Gulamgiri is credited with anticipating modern ideas such as seeing the interconnectedness of economic and cultural subordination, what is extraordinary is its ability to speak to its audience. As Aparna Devare writes“Despite Phule’s skepticism about the veracity of ancient myths…he dips into them in order to plot their narratives in a different way. He does this by drawing on the popular folk customs and practices in his region (western India, or today’s Maharashtra).” And through that, he is able to expose the social relations that underpin such taken-for-granted accounts of the stories around us.

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