Savitribai Phule’s role in pioneering girls’ education in India is legendary. But few know that she and her son sacrificed their lives while combating the bubonic plague epidemic in 1896-97 amid the intense caste discrimination.
The coronavirus pandemic has unleashed chaos across the globe since March 2020. With a new kind of COVID variant – Omicron knocking on India’s door, the corona cases seem to be increasing. However, in this chaos, there is one courageous tale that keeps us going.
As we try to recall, this is not the first time a pandemic has hit India. The Bubonic plague, also commonly known as the ‘Black Death’, has been historically one of the most destructive pandemics. The plague broke out in phases across the world, and for several hundred years, the cause of the plague was a mystery.
Between 1896-97, India was badly hit by the deadly disease. Estimates say that about 1,900 people succumbed to the disease every week throughout that one year. Considering all this and keeping the advanced technology in current time, we are in a much better place. Amid all this, a ray of hope was witnessed as we come to know about the story of India’s first female teacher and social reformer, Savitribai Phule and her son Dr Yashwantrao lost their lives serving plague patients.
In such a pandemic time where caste discrimination was a huge obstacle, Savitribai ensured that it would not come in the way to save the lives of the victims. She urged her adopted son Yashwantrao, a doctor, to start a clinic/hospital in Pune that would treat patients irrespective of their caste.
Dr Yashwant had started a clinic at Sasane Mala, Hadapsar, which was out of the city and free of infection. Savitribai took patients there, and Dr Yashwant treated them. There is an inspiring aspect to this tale. While treating patients, Savitribai was carrying a 10-year-old boy named Pandurang Babaji Gaikwad from Mundhwa to the clinic. After treatment, he beat the infection, but Savitribai got infected, leading to her death.
He got infected, too but survived the plague. In 1905, he went back to the army. However, he returned to Pune in 1905 when the second plague epidemic hit. The reason for his return was that the epidemic broke out on a larger scale for a second time. While treating patients, he caught the plague and eventually lost his life on October 13 1905.
It was reported that many doctors did not want to treat the patients based on their caste. However, the Phules did not even show a small bit of hesitation to save lives even though they knew the disease was fatal.
Savitribai Phule and the real feminism
Often regarded as the mother of Indian feminism, Savitribai was born on January 3, 1831, at Naigaon, Maharashtra. She was married to her husband, Jyotiba Phule, at the age of 9. The couple together transformed society by being the beacon of education and reform. Illiterate at the time of her wedding, Savitribai received her primary education from Jyotirao. In 1848, the couple opened the first school for girls in Bhide Wada, Maharashtra. They then went on to open many more schools.
Of course, they faced vehement opposition from the predominantly Brahmin society around them. By 1851, Savitribai and Jyotirao were running 3 different schools better than the government schools of that time regarding both curriculum and pedagogy. In fact, as word spread, the combined strength of girls studying in the couple’s schools surpassed the number of boys studying in government schools. Meanwhile, Savitribai had completed her teacher training programs and was probably the first headmistress of the country.
It has been noted that Savitribai used to often carry an extra sari to her school since people would hurl dirt, dung and verbal abuses at her as she walked to the schools. As the opposition against them strengthened, the couple moved out of Jyotirao’s father’s home. At their new residence, Savitribai met Fatima Sheikh, who would be the first Muslim teacher in India and a life-long companion of Savitribai.
Together, Savitribai and Fatima worked tirelessly to educate and uplift women and people from marginalized castes. They became and remain a beacon of hope and motivation for all of us who fight for more inclusivity, fair representation, and equality.