Department of Humanities and Social Sciences

Indian Institute of Technology Ropar

HSS Seminar

Subaltern Movements and Historiography: the case of Phule in19th century Maharashtra


Dr. Rohini Mokashi Punekar

March 15, 2018 (Thursday) at  12:30 PM

Venue:  Lecture Hall  1


Administrative necessities propelled colonial studies of Indian history and culture during the late 18th century which resulted in translations of Sanskrit texts relating to law, language and literature. The translations of Vedic texts into various European languages towards the mid 19th century added considerable substantiation to emerging areas of comparative philology which proposed the hypothesis of the Aryan race together with a common ancestral language.

Amongst the 19th-century upper caste Indians the idea of a common Aryan ancestry, shared with the ruling British, was received with gratified pride. Debendranath Tagore, Keshab Chandra Sen, Aurobindo, Bankim Chatterjee, Tilak, Ranade, Dayanand Saraswati amongst many others attempted reconstructions of ancient Indian history within the hypothesis of the Aryan race. A solitary and radical exception to this cultural consensus was Jotiba Phule, the lower caste activist-leader and polemicist from Western India. Phule built upon popular protestant and missionary accounts of Hindu religion that derived from the translations of the Orientalists.However, unlike the work of the early orientalists which was sympathetic and appreciative of Hindu texts, the books on Hinduism by John Muir, John Wilson, James and Murray Mitchell amongst others questioned Hinduism’s cultural legitimacy. While Phule was in consonance with

this critique, belonging as he did to a marginalized Hindu caste, he offered fresh departures in his subversive use of the Aryan hypothesis to propose an alternative structure of Indian history and society. He constructed an idyllic pre-Aryan era where the indigenous population lived peacefully under the just rule of the beloved folk king Baliraja which the Aryans destroyed through their multiple invasions, thus giving birth to the hierarchy of caste oppression. In 1873 Phule published his most important work Gulamgiri (Slavery, in the author’s English translation) appropriating the Abolitionist movement in the US as a counterpoint to lower caste and subaltern activism. In this work he laid out a systematic repudiation of mythological texts, offering his own interpretation of the putative Aryan past. Gulamgiri formed the ideological basis of the political organization “Satyashodhak Samaj” that Phule began in the same year. The present paper hopes to trace the trajectory and the unlikely impact of Orientalist translations and scholarship on the radical non-brahman political movement of Western India under the leadership of Phule.

Brief Bio-sketch of the speaker

RohiniMokashi-Punekar is Professor in English and former Chair, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati. She is a translator and works on the interstices between literary history, political change and social interrogation. Besides several papers in books and journals, she is the author of On the Threshold: Songs of Chokhamela (Altamira Press 2005 and The Book Review Literary Trust 2002), Untouchable Saints: an Indian Phenomenon (Manohar 2005) which she co-edited with Eleanor Zelliot,and Vikram Seth: an Introduction (Cambridge University Press 2008). She is currently engaged in two translation projects. The first is an anthology of medieval Varkari poetry in translation, which will be published by Penguin in their Black Classics series. The second is a translation of Phule’s play Tritiya Ratna which is to be published by Orient Blackswan.