Every year, 5th of September is celebrated as Teacher’s Day to mark the birth anniversary of Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the second President of Independent India. However, in recent times we have come to understand that celebrating Teacher’s Day in the admiration of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan is essentially problematic as he was a staunch supporter of casteism and the power structures which facilitated such social discrimination, such as Brahminism and the Varna system. Popularly deemed as an ‘educationist’, Dr. Radhakrishnan was contradictingly parochial in his thoughts. He encouraged the idea that women and men have different domains of work, where the former must adhere to misogynistic societal expectations of motherhood and family life.
However, we must not forget that the majority of the country will continue celebrating Teacher’s Day in the name of Dr. Radhakrishnan. Hence, as activists, writers and journalists, we must try and highlight the contributions of educators from marginalised communities—Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi and Muslim—who due to their social position and the overwhelming political powerplay that idolises upper-caste, upper-class men and their work, could not find equal or adequate recognition or representation within the national platforms.
1. Jyotirao Phule
Jyotiba Phule, fearlessly fought against the dominant ideologies of powerful people and advocated for the education of women and Dalits for social emancipation. He put his knowledge into use and along with his wife Savitribai, started the first school for girls on January 1st, 1848 at Bhide’s Wada in Pune. In 1873, he founded the Satya Shodhak Samaj (Society of Seekers of Truth) for social reform with anti-caste virtues, and the intent for a gender equal society.
2. Savitribai Phule
Savitribai Phule was the first female teacher and headmistress of the first girls’ school that was set up by the joint interests and vigour of Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule. Both Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule faced multiple challenges from upper caste people, often in the form of physical violence. Later, they started a school at Usman Sheikh’s Wada in Pune, where Savitribai along with the first Muslim woman teacher in India, Fatima Sheikh taught people from the marginalised communities.
3. Fatima Sheikh
Fatima Sheikh was regarded as the first Muslim woman teacher in India. What sets Fatima apart from the others, is the fact that she not only joined the anti-caste project against brahmanism, but she was also fighting against the orthodoxies of her own religious leaders. She claimed that Islam does not necessarily prohibit girls’ education and hence, she kept fighting for a gender equal and educated, casteless society. She not only was an educationist, but her activism made her a revolutionary.
4. Ram Dayal Munda
Ram Dayal Munda was an educationist who dedicated his life to empower the adivasi population in India. For him, the survival of adivasis depended on their culture and its flourishment; ‘Nachi se Banchi or Dance to Survive,’ he would say. He was awarded the Padma Shri in the year 2010 for his exceptional contribution in the field of art, as he attempted at preserving the tribal way of life, culture and languages throughout his entire life. He represented the demands of adivasi people on various international platforms.
5. Begum Hamida Habibullah
Begum Hamida Habibullah, with her mother-in-law established the Talimgah-e-Niswan, which aimed at offering affordable education for the marginalised sections of society. In 1975, she was appointed as the President of Awadh Education Society in Awadh Degree College, which was the first degree college for women in Lucknow. She made a mark both as a Minister in the state of UP as well as a Rajya Sabha member as she held positions in Social and Harijan Welfare, National Integration and several other ministries.
6. Dr. BR Ambedkar
Although a jurist by profession, Dr. Ambedkar advocated for the right to education of marginalised people. In 1928, Dr. Ambedkar constituted the Depressed Classes Educational Society. In 1945, he founded the Lok Shaikshik Samaj to ensure that marginalised people got higher education. At the All India Depressed Classes Women’s Conference held in Nagpur, his speech discussed the importance of education for Dalit women, in the presence of 25000 women from Shudra and Dalit caste groups.
This list is not exhaustive but a mere attempt to highlight the works of a few leaders from marginalised communities.