5th September, every year, was a remarkable day for all of us when we were in school. It was a day, when we expressed gratitude and paid tribute to our school teachers, staff members and headmasters who diligently used their knowledge and life experiences to educate us about the world. I fondly remember it as a day when we organised and performed plays, dance, music and various other art forms to display our growth as children. This year, due to the pandemic, school students across India will not be able to carry out these activities in person. However, online schooling, for those who can afford, might be a fair substitute for the same. In India, Teachers’ Day was first institutionalised in 1962, when Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the second President of Independent India, encouraged people to celebrate his birthday as ‘Teachers’ Day’ in our country. In his honour, and to appreciate the contribution of all our teachers, 5th of September every year remains a notable day, especially within educational institutions.
However, in recent times, as we look back and forth at our history and its significance in creating present day realities, the rationales behind commemorating such days have received significant attention. As pointed out by this Forward Press article, celebrating Teachers’ 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’ and appointed as the President of University Education Commission in 1948, Dr. Radhakrishnan was however, contradictingly parochial in his thoughts as he believed in gender roles and 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.
Actively engaging with this criticism is necessary. However, we must not forget that the majority of the country will continue celebrating Teachers’ Day in the name of Dr. Radhakrishnan. Hence, as activists, writers and journalists, we must try to interrupt and create alternative forms of content that highlight the contributions of teachers 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 for historiography, could not find equal or adequate recognition within the national platforms.
We begin by remembering the contributions of Jyotirao Phule—often perceived as the ‘great hero’ of Bahujans, for his relentless contribution towards their education—whose birth anniversary is proposed as a replacement for the Teachers’ Day that is celebrated on 5th September, every year. However, there are other sections of the society who propose January 3rd, the birthday of Savitribai Phule to replace 5th September, as Education Day or Teachers’ Day, since her contributions for the betterment of women and lower caste people were equally prodigious.
1. Jyotirao Phule
Tatyasaheb Jyotiba Phule, also known as Jyotirao Phule, was an educationist who worked for the upliftment of Dalits and Bahujans who were structurally and systematically excluded from receiving education for their caste positions in Indian society. Phule himself belonged to the Shudra background. However, his works and ideas shaped the lives of Dalits (Adi-Shudras)—a category of people who fell outside the varna system and were considered as ‘untouchables’ by upper castes.
Jyotirao Phule was born on 11th April, 1827 in Satara district of Maharashtra. His family belonged to the ‘Mali’ caste, which was considered as an inferior caste by the Brahmins. They were socially excluded and his family was poverty stricken. However, despite such circumstances, his father managed to send him to Scottish Mission’s High School in Poona (now Pune), where he completed his education by 1847. At the young age of 13, he was married to Savitribai—an equally prominent activist who fought for the education of women, Bahujans and Dalits.
A society that was hugely infested with brahmanism and patriarchy, Jyotiba Phule, fearlessly fought against the dominant ideologies of powerful people and advocated for the education of women and Dalits as essential for social emancipation. He put his knowledge into use, and along with Savitribai, started the first school for girls on January 1st, 1848 at Bhide Wada in Pune. Both of them later went on to establish other schools which specifically focused on educating women and other children from lower caste backgrounds. Along with these, he wanted to establish an alternative religion that would challenge the oppressive and casteist brahmanical ideas that were proposed by Hinduism. On 24th September, 1873, he founded the Satya Shodhak Samaj (Society of Seekers of Truth) meant 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. At a time when women in general, and lower caste people in particular, were targeted by oppressive brahmanical patriarchy, this Bahujan woman showed immense resilience to uphold ethics of equality for all.
Born on January 3rd, 1831, in Naigaon, near Pune, she was married to Jyotirao Phule at the mere age of 10, in 1840. The couple did not have a child by themselves, but they adopted Yashwantrao, who was born to a widowed Brahmin. Savitribai was very keen in learning and educating herself and impressed by her dedication, Jyotiba Phule taught her to read and write. Their passion as educationists as well as activists for social reform against gender and caste oppression, led to the formation of the first girls’ school in India.
However, the road to liberation was not easy as both Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule faced multiple challenges from upper caste people, often in the form of physical violence, as stones were pelted and dung was thrown at them and they were harassed on their way to their school. They were also evicted from their homes as the local, traditional Brahmin families felt threatened by their efforts at educating women and lower caste people. Despite such hardships as teachers, their determination towards creating a more educated and inclusive society continued to grow and 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.
Even today, educational welfare schemes such as midday meals are inspired from the works of Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule as they set examples as teachers who provided additional stipends for children to reduce dropout rates, and took care of their health and well-being, especially the children who suffered malnutrition.
3. Fatima Sheikh
Fatima Sheikh, often remembered as a compadre to Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule, was an influential reformer in her own individual way. Born on 9th January (speculated, year not specified), Fatima Sheikh was regarded as the first Muslim woman teacher in India. Fatima and Savitribai enrolled in the same institute to be trained as teachers, and later Fatima worked alongside the Phule couple set up the first girls’ school in Bhide Wada in Pune. Her sheer determination to encourage families to send their girl children to school was unparalleled. However, today, the lack of acknowledgement of her contribution often has sparked debates on social media as she is hardly seen to be celebrated or commemorated by our society.
Post the eviction of the Phule couple from Bhide Wada by upper caste goons, Fatima along with her brother Usman Sheikh provided them shelter and even started a school in the same building, despite having the knowledge of opposition that they might have to face in a conservative setting. Fatima and Savitribai, together also opened a native or indigenous library to be used as a resource for education.
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, in her own terms.
4. Ram Dayal Munda
Ram Dayal Munda was an educationist, scholar, writer, linguist, musician and a tribal rights activist who dedicated his life to empower the adivasi population in India. He was appointed as the Vice Chancellor of Ranchi University in 1985, and he was also a member of the upper house of Indian Parliament. 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 was born on 23rd August, 1939 in the tribal village of Diuri in Ranchi district, Jharkhand. After completing his M.A. in Anthropology from Ranchi University, he went abroad to complete his PhD on tribal languages from Chicago University. He briefly taught at University of Chicago and Minnesota and later returned to the Department of Tribal Regional Languages in Ranchi University.
In this article on R. D. Munda, Smita Gupta remembers,
‘For Dr. Munda, the central message of the conference was the urgent need to unite the diverse tribal communities from across the country for them to gain a voice in Delhi, as a starting point to controlling their own destinies — and their land, water and forests.’
Indeed, for Munda, the real emancipation of the adivasis rested in the idea of taking back their own power and voicing out their grievances and demands. To ensure this, Ram Dayal Munda helped in the cultural mobilisation of the adivasis by representing their demands on international platforms to influence active policy making at the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous People in Geneva and the U.N. Forum of Indigenous Issues in New York, as a senior official of the Indian Confederation of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (ICITP), an all India tribal-led and managed movement.
5. Begum Hamida Habibullah
Born on 20th November, 1916, Begum Hamida was a social activist, political reformer and an educator who had a massive impact on the lives of many underprivileged girls in India. Although she hailed from a comparatively privileged background, she turned her social advantages to work for the betterment of the society around her.
As an educator, she, along with her mother-in-law, Begum Inam Habibullah, established the Talimgah-e-Niswan, which aimed at offering affordable education for the marginalised sections of society. Later 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. As a politician, Begum Hamida Habibullah had made a mark both as a Minister in the state of UP (1971-73) as well as a Rajya Sabha member (1976-82) as she held positions in Social and Harijan Welfare, National Integration and Civil Defence and Tourism ministries.
This list is far from being exhaustive. There are many such educators, writers, activists and scholars whose contributions might not have been documented extensively, but they did create an impact on the minds of the people who were forcibly chained by powerful and dominating structures of oppression, be it caste, religion or gender. Dr. B R Ambedkar is one such name, when it comes to understanding the expanding horizons of education and the people who have the power to influence its progress.
Dr. Ambedkar, a jurist by profession, came under the influence of Mahatma Phule’s Satya Shodhak Samaj and the anti-caste movement associated with it. This helped him understand the unequal treatment of Dalits by upper caste people and he wrote various texts criticising the social order enforced by Brahmins and Hinduism. Even as a part of the Constituent Assembly, he advocated for the rights of the marginalised population and realised the intersectionalities within which people’s lives were embedded. This was evident especially during the All India Depressed Classes Women’s Conference held in Nagpur, where his speech discussed the importance of education for Dalit women, in the presence of 25000 women from Shudra and Dalit caste groups. His legacy, till date, stands as a source of inspiration for people across various marginalised communities.
In the present day context, when scholars and journalists, who stand up against state and social violence, are arrested, booked or threatened under discriminatory laws such as the UAPA, we need to continuously remember our heroes from history and their struggles to gather support and solidarity for the teachers of today who are facing similar kinds of brutalities.
This list is not exhaustive but a mere attempt to highlight the works of a few leaders from marginalised communities.