Shetkaryaca Asud (The Whipcord of the Cultivators)


“Without education wisdom was lost; without wisdom morals were lost; without morals development was lost; without development wealth was lost; without wealth the Shudras were ruined; so much has happened through lack of education” – says the Introduction to Shetkaryaca Asud, a book by Jotirao Phule, published in Marathi in 1881. This is an English translation by Gail Omvedt (scholar, sociologist and activist) and Bharat Patankar (writer and activist).

Phule was a social reformer who fought against untouchability and the exploitation of landless labourers. He was born on April 11, 1827, in Khatgun villiage in Maharashtra’s Satara district, and belonged to the Mali community – now officially listed as an Other Backward Class in Maharashtra. He founded the Satyashodhak Samaj, the ‘Truthseekers society’, in 1875.

This is one of Phule’s three books – the others are Gulamgiri or Slavery and Sarvajanik Satya Dharm Pustak or the Book of the Universal Religion of Truth.

In Shetkaryaca Asud, Phule writes about the ritualistic and bureaucratic mechanisms developed by Brahmins and the colonial bureaucracy to oppress the Shudra peasantry, how ‘Arya Brahmans’ migrated from Iran, and the condition of farmers and agriculture. He mainly refers to three cultivator caste groups – Malis, Kunbis and Dhangars (each of these is now listed as an OBC). And he makes recommendations to the colonial government.

In Chapter 1 of five chapters, the author explores the social and economic exploitation of Shudra farmers by the ‘Bhat Brahmans’ through their ‘crafty’ religious rituals. Spanning menstruation, marriage, death and various other events, these rituals divert the farmers’ resources towards the ‘Brahmans’ and their attention away from their own impoverishment. Phule writes: “The farmers who have been kept ignorant for generations are so much exploited of their time and wealth by the Bhat-Brahmans that they have no vigor left to send their small children to school.”

Phule discusses the role of the colonial government in allowing the Shudras to be impoverished in Chapter 2. The colonial administrators, he writes, do not know the condition of the farmers, and most government departments are dominated by Brahmins. They are looted with “no bread to fill their stomachs or clothes to cover their bodies.” Previously, farmers with little land could obtain subsistence – such as fruits, leaves and wood – from nearby hills and forests. “However, the European administrators of our ‘mai-bap’ government, in their comprehensive British wisdom, set up for the first time a gigantic Forest Department. Since they have included all the mountains, hills, peaks, glens, dales and all the uncultivated lands and pastures as ‘forest’, this Forest Department has risen to such a pinnacle of power that the poor helpless paralyzed farmers have an inch of ground left on earth for their goats to even inhale the wind of the fields.”

Chapter 3 covers the arrival of the ‘Arya Brahmans’ – originally from Iran – in India, and the condition of the Shudra peasants at the time. Phule traces the roots of the oppressive caste system to their arrival. He writes about how the colonial government heavily taxes farmers to pay salaries and pensions to their employees. The force with which their wealth is extracted pushes the farmers into indebtedness. Phule observes: “…for all these reasons farmers have to make toilsome efforts even to meet the expenses for their cultivation. Then they go to Marwaris and take loans for meeting the land revenue charges. Do the indolent besotted and purity-engrossed Bhat government employees who have been selected to make a detailed enquiry ever find the time to think of this? Here, in so many Sabhas filled with so many great names, the officious government native employees proclaim that ‘the farmers have become indebted because they spend extravagantly on marriages.’...If the mind of the government is truly agitated about our ruined farmers, why don’t they completely stop this accumulation of billions by the English moneylenders? Wouldn’t it be better to do that and see if the farmer can find a foothold?”

Drawing on his own experiences as a member of the Mali caste, in Chapter 4 Phule discusses “the ruined and pitiable state of the toiling ignorant farmers who labour night and day on the land.” They are denied education; and the few that migrate to bigger cities end up doing casual labour due to this. He describes the Shudra women: “The woman who goes out, after cleaning up all the mess in the house, and works alongside the men throughout the day to complete the work in the field, wears a woven cotton sari and blouse, a small silver bracelet on her arm and if this is not available a tin bracelet, a mangalsutra of one to one and a half measures of gold around her neck, jingling tiny rings on her toes, tobacco tooth powder smeared on her mouth, kajal on her eyes and kumkum spread all over her forehead; she will be extremely fortunate to have anything else for beautifying herself.”

Chapter 5 contains Phule’s recommendations to the colonial government to alleviate the suffering of the Shudra farmers. On education, he says: “In order to make the children of the Shudra farmers truly educated, teachers of their own caste should be appointed, who can themselves demonstrate how to use the plough, weeding and sowing instruments, and laws should make it compulsory to send their children to school. For the first few years the examination given to them should be simple, giving them as incentive the degree equivalent to those of the Brahmans’ children…Without such controls, no relish for education will develop among the Shudras.” Further, he writes, “the children of the Shudra villagers who show their merit by passing examinations in using the plough, weeding and sowing instruments along with the Marathi sixth standard should be given the headmanship rights in the village. When our compassionate government makes such laws, thousands of farmers will gladly send their children to school in the competition to win headman rights. And, once there are such educated and meritorious Patils in every village, all the cunning Bhat-Kulkarnis in the rural areas will not be able to entice the ignorant farmers into mutual quarrels…” He also urges the colonial government to build as many tanks and ponds as possible, so water is easy to access, and asks them to check the overemployment Brahmins in government posts.

Focus by Neeti Prakash.


Jotirao Phule; translated by Gail Omvedt and Bharat Patankar


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