In June 1873 Jotirao Phule wrote Gulamgiri, a scathing critique of the Brahmanical texts and the Shetji–Bhatji complex that had enslaved the minds and bodies of Shudras and Ati-shudras. A few months later, on 24 September, a conference was organised where Phule proposed to form a common platform devoted to the cause of the downtrodden masses. After a serious deliberation, the conference culminated to found an organisation that would revolutionise the Maharashtrian society for decades to come—the Satyshodhak Samaj (the Truthseekers’ Society).
The society constituted individuals from backward and the “untouchable” castes and a few from other religions. Its members were mostly first-generation professionals, clerks and farmers who had managed to get out of poverty and caste-based vocations. Savitribai Phule, Krishnarao Bhalekar, Narayan Meghaji Lokhande, Bhau Kondaji Patil, Jaya Karadi Lingu, Gyanba Krishnaji Sasane and Raju Babaji Vanjari were some of the prominent earlier satyashodhaks.
Although the Samaj was founded with aspirations to form an alternative to the exploitative Brahmanical religion, it did not limit itself to the religious and spiritual domain. The rejection of the Brahmanical religion was accompanied with impartment of modern education to the marginalised—the young and old. The objective was to awaken the self-respect of the lower castes and develop a sense of fellowship amongst them to create a joint front against Brahmanism and feudalism.
Attack on Religion
Phule identified the Vedas and Puranas as the main cause of mental slavery of the Shudras and Ati-shudras. This belief was corroborated through the readings of Kabir’s texts. Tukaram Pinjan, an associate of Phule, notes in Amhi Pahilele Phule that Dnyangiri baba, a Kabirpanthi sadhu, would read Kabir’s Braj texts in Marathi to a gathering at Phule’s place. Satyashodhak Samaj infused the principles of equality in Kabir’s and Abrahamic texts with rituals inspired from the folk religion.
One of the central functions of the Samaj was to perform rituals, such as marriages and death ceremonies, without the Brahmin priests. In satyashodhak marriages, the idea of a Brahmin chanting obscure Sanskrit mantras was replaced with the bride and groom themselves singing verses composed by Phule in plain Marathi. The couple would resolve to follow the truth, to be faithful to each other and to spread knowledge amongst their communities, the underprivileged and the disabled. The groom would take a vow to fight for the rights of women.
Emancipation through Education
The Samaj criticised the then elites who had monopoly over the education—both the British who only catered to the modern education of the higher classes and the traditional elites who prohibited women, Shudras and Ati-shudras from gaining knowledge.
Phule with the help of his associates had established primary schools for the marginalised in the 1850s. The Samaj took this mission forward to create a cohort of rational individuals from the lower castes who could lead their communities.
The Samaj used different tactics to further the cause of education in marginalised communities. It announced scholarships for poor students who could not continue education due to lack of funds. It also distributed prizes among sincere students to encourage them to study further.
As the branches of Samaj spread out in different areas, night schools were started for the working class adults. Samajians sought to create articulate and rational individuals who could further the interests of the downtrodden. The annual report of the Samaj also mentions a scholarship offered to a Shudra scholar to write a book on comparative study of agricultural techniques and solutions to improve the condition of the native farmers.
Peasants and workers’ struggles
Although the satyashodhak philosophy lacked class analysis in the modern sense, it was aware of the economic oppression and sensitive towards the peasants’ and labourers’ cause. On the ground the satyashodhaks had worked amongst construction workers, agricultural labour and the newly emerged class of mill workers. Newspapers such as Deenbandhu and Shetkaryancha Kaivari started by the satyashodhaks gave voice to the oppressed class.
Around 1885 in the Junnar area, the Samaj organised one of the largest and longest lasting strikes mobilising thousands of individuals from peasant and artisan castes. The peasants refused to till lands of the Brahmin landlords and boycotted the service of Brahmin priests. Artisans refused to provide services to Brahmins.
The movement spread across Konkan and Ghat areas, at some places lasting as long as three years. Govind Bhau Patil, in his memoir notes, “The Brahmins brought down their religious fees from 20 rupees to 8 aanas and the landlords rented lands at twenty times less rates.”
Mumbai had a strong presence of satyashodhaks in the form of Swami Ramayya Ayyavaru, Jaya Karadi Lingu and Narayan Meghaji Lokhande. They would invite Phule and organise his speeches at various places. In 1880, Lokhande established the first labour organisation—the Bombay Mill Hands’ Association—with the help of his associates. Through speeches, pamphlets and articles, the satyashodhaks talked about the rights of the mill workers who mostly hailed from the marginalised castes.
Lokhande mobilised support of the workers and lobbied for their demands. As a result, benefits such as weekly leave on Sundays, half an hour lunch break and timely disbursal of payments were given to the workers. As Phule’s biographer Dhananjay Keer rightly points out, the Indian labour movement in its early stages was an offshoot of the satyashodhak movement.
After the death of Savitribai and Lokhande in 1897, the movement was dispersed and lost its momentum. It was only after a decade that the Samaj was revived with the help of patrons like Shahu Maharaj.
In 1911, the first such satyashodhak conference was held under the chairmanship of Ramayya Ayyavaru where the principles of Satyashodhak Samaj were formalised. The second-generation satyashodhaks like Bhaskarrao Jadhav, Mukundrao Patil and Dinkarrao Javalkar rejuvenated the movement in rural Maharashtra adopting new methods of propaganda.
Finding speeches and traditional kirtans ineffective to reach the common masses, the satyashodhaks adopted the folk theatre form called tamashas. The traditional formats of songs, plays and dialogues were used to propagate the satyashodhak ideology that praised modern education and mocked sacred books and religious Brahmanical traditions. The satyashodhak jalsas gained a wide appeal in the rural masses preparing a ground for socio-economic revolt in the Deccan area.
The Samaj, from a modest beginning as an organisation soon developed into a movement consolidating interests of the lower castes. Like any other movement, it had its ups and downs. However, the movement was not just successful in mobilising the bahujans but also gave rise to a generation of intellectuals from the marginalised castes whose ideas still serve as a guiding light to progressive and anti-caste politics.
Sonali Kale is a postgraduate student at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.