September 24, 2022 marked the 150th anniversary of Satyashodhak Samaj established in 1873 by Jotirao Phule, Savitribai Phule and their colleagues. The History Department of Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU) had organised an exhibition of historical documents produced by or related to the Satyashodhak Samaj to commemorate this occasion. It was displayed in the historical museum at the main building.
The exhibition was a part of a larger project undertaken by the department. The Satyashodhak spoke with Shraddha Kumbhojkar, Head of the History Department, SPPU about this exhibit. Below is an extract of the interview.
Gaurav Kalyani: Please give us a background about this exhibition and how it was conceived.
Shraddha Kumbhojkar: This exhibition is a small part of our larger project on contextualising Satyashodhak Samaj’s work. I had submitted a proposal to the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) back in 2016-17 for a project to understand how Satyashodhak Samaj employed contemporary print media technology for its enlightenment work. We received a grant for the same and I and my colleagues have been working on this project since then.
Kalyani: Can you tell us a bit more about the project and how and where you found the primary sources?
Kumbhojkar: As we can see in Europe during the Enlightenment period, the Gutenberg press played a vital role in the development and spread of the Protestant movement. Similarly, we wanted to see if and how Satyashodhak Samaj members used print media in their work.
My colleagues and I collected old and rare documents, articles and books from various libraries and archives. The prominent among them were the British Library in London, Mahatma Phule Samata Pratishthan Archive, and Wadia Library in Fergusson College, Pune. Along with them, Khardekar Library in Kolhapur which has some rare files of Dinbandhu newspaper, Mukundrao Patil Pratishthan in Ahmednagar, which has good collection of Dinmitra archives, and Shahu Vachanalay in Miraj, which houses a good collection of Prabodhankar Thackeray’s work were all very useful in providing the primary sources for our research.
Kalyani: What were you able to find out about their work?
Kumbhojkar: Though the project is still ongoing, we do have some preliminary inferences that can be drawn from these works and documents. Just like today we see with the use of digital technology, Satyashodhak Samaj members were keen to use the contemporary technology of printing press to spread their message among the Bahujan communities. Rashtraveer, a weekly newspaper from Belgaum, started by Satyashodhak Samaj in 1921, is still running today. Along with the print medium, they also effectively employed the medium of public performances in the form of jalsas.
Kalyani: What kind of changes do we see between the early and later phases of Satyashodhak Samaj?
Kumbhojkar: We see roughly two phases in which the Samaj was active. In the first phase, from its foundation till roughly the 1910s, we find members coming from more diverse caste and religious backgrounds and working to spread Phule’s philosophy as it is.
In the later phase, 1920s onwards, we see it turning into or merging into a non-Brahmin movement. There is also less diversity among members and leaders of the Samaj along the caste and religious line. A majority of them were coming from certain Hindu non-Brahmin (middle) castes but less from Dalit or other religious backgrounds than earlier.
This happened partly due to the rise of different educational societies established by various non-Brahmin castes during the period. Another notable difference we can see during the second phase is Satyashodhak Samaj members’ increased involvement in politics. For example, from 1920 onwards we see these newly educated non-Brahmins joining Congress, which was heavily dominated by upper-caste members until then. Later on, many of them also took part and played vital role in Cooperative Movement and Samyukta Maharashtra Movement.
Kalyani: What was Dr BR Ambedkar’s involvement with the later phase of the Satyashodhak movement?
Kumbhojkar: Although Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar wasn’t directly involved in the Satyashodhak Samaj’s work, he had cordial relations with various leaders of the movement. For instance, from the Dinmitra archive in Ahmednagar, we have an official correspondence from Dr Ambedkar in which he conveyed his support to Mukundrao Patil and offered to defend him in court in the controversial Kulkarni Lilamrut book publication case, if the need arose. So even though their movements ran parallel to one another, they supported each other’s work on various occasions and the Phule couple and their work were inspirational for both of them.
Kalyani: What will the final outcome of the project be like? Will it be digitised? Will it be publicly accessible and how?
Kumbhojkar: Most of the works that we have collected have already been digitised. We are planning to curate a small, maybe around 5%, of our total collection and put it out in an exhibition towards the end of this project. After we submit our report to the ICHR, we are also planning to create a bigger exhibit or republish certain works. There are many other ways and mediums in which we are thinking of doing the public outreach work in future; we haven’t decided yet, but whatever we plan to do, it will be publicly accessible for sure. One more thing that I would like to add is, as my area of expertise is pre-independence period, I was not able to do much work on the 20th century sources, especially 1920s onwards, so there is an immense opportunity and need for more research in the period from 1920s to post-independence.