The virtues of an egalitarian society are lauded by many but there are only a few such individuals who strive to live by their ideals in life and indeed work to achieve a goal that defines them and also benefits the entire society. Because society has forever been infested with ills and plagued by issues, the doctrine of social reform occupies centerstage whenever we talk of a just and equal society where each individual has access to the basic rights and privileges that validate their existence as a rightful member of civilised society. Indian society also has been governed by various prejudices and ills that sought to overmine the rights of some individuals while bestowing unnecessary privileges to some. Here are 15 such Indian social reformers who brought about such positive changes in society with their relentless efforts and dedicated works that their contributions can’t ever be forgotten-
Dr B. R. Ambedkar
Among the most of Indian social reformers is the person who has been so instrumental in shaping the country as one that can take pride in its values and ideals is B. R. Ambedkar. The architect of the Indian Constitution, Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar or Babasaheb Ambedkar, as he is widely known was forever rooting for reforms to dig out evils in the prevailing Indian polity and society.
Also a jurist and an economist, it’s only apt that a man so steeped in his vision of an egalitarian society rose to become independent India’s first law and justice minister. Having been born as a Dalit, Ambedkar knew full well of the oppression that this marginalised group of people were subjected to even in a seemingly civlised society. Regarded as untouchables, the Dalits were one of the most overlooked classes of people, who were subjected to being assigned menial jobs while being completely devoid of their political and social rights. It was Babasaheb Ambedkar who raised his voice against such injustice and oppression and advocated for reforms to be forged that would uphold the social freedom and political rights of these underprivileged people. He was so assertive n his demands that he continues to be the symbol of revolt against all forms of oppression even more than six decades after his death.
A social activist who is best known for her initiation of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Medha Patkar has been actively associated with various social issues all her life. Be it political and economic issues or social upliftment of tribals and dalits or labourers and women, Patkar’s understanding and concern for socially backward classes and sections stemmed from her upbringing. Born to parents who were active in the Indian independence movement as well as in bringing about reforms in society, Patkar had been forever sensitive to issues that concern the society at large.
The Narmada Bachao Andolan of which Patkar was the founding member was a revolt of sorts against multiple dam projects that had threatened to displace thousands of people, mostly marginalised and tribal folks in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat. The NBA was essentially a struggle for justice of the people who was affected by the displacement as well as a movement that urged efforts to save the Narmada river from further human interference. This notable name among the Indian social reformers has also been equally involved with various mass struggles across the country that aimed at ending discrimination and inequality and bring about justice and security to the masses.
Gopal Ganesh Agarkar
Gopal Ganesh Agarkar remains among the lesser known of Indian social reformers even when he was actively associated in bringing about betterment for the marginalised sections of society. Be it his support of widow remarriage and his advocacy for women emancipation or his campaign against the evils of untouchability and the caste system, Agarkar encouraged radical social reforms as the means to build an equal and egalitarian society. He was also supporter of causes as propagating women education and liberation and bringing about reforms in society by encouraging rational thinking.
Baba Amte is an Indian social reformer who is known for his untiring efforts in bringing about betterment of people who have been afflicted by leprosy. For someone who was born into an affluent family and had a qualms- free childhood himself, Baba Amte was surprisingly empathetic of people who enjoyed lower societal and economic status than him.
A trained lawyer, Amte became actively involved in the Indian struggle for independence and it was around that time that he became aware of the acute stigma that leprosy victims in the society were subjected to. It was the belief that leprosy was a highly contagious disease that made society shun such people and Baba Amte worked devotedly to dispel such notions and make better treatment and rehabilitation more accessible to such patients. He also founded three ashrams and a hospital exclusively dedicated to the welfare and treatment of people with leprosy. Not only that, Baba Amte was also actively associated with the Narmada Bachao Andolan and worked untiringly to raise public awareness about the importance of ecological balance and wildlife preservation and such other issues.
Acharya Vinoba Bhave
Acharya Vinoba Bhave is one of the well known Indian social reformers who was the propagator of the Bhoodan movement which has been a land donation movement. His social reforms centered around his spiritual beliefs and was manifested through the Sarvodaya movement- a movement that was dedicated to bring about welfare for all. His belief and concern regarding the upliftment of women led him to establish a number of ashrams dedicated to the cause of the underlined female population in the country.
Gopal Hari Deshmukh
An activist and social reformer, Gopal Hari Deshmukh promoted the emancipation and liberation of women and opposed practices such as polygamy, the evils of the dowry and the caste system, child marriage while propagating reforms like widow remarriage and even positive changes in the religious doctrines that had long been dominating society. The pioneer of reformism in India, Deshmukh’s concern for the underprivileged masses earned him the title of Lokhitwadi.
Another of the Indian social reformers who was a spiritual leader, Narayana Guru dwelt on his own experiences as an individual born in the lower strata of society to lead a movement against caste based discrimination that was so rampantly prevalent in society. He wanted to bring about social equality for which purpose he introduced a slew of measures. His disillusion with the prevalent injustice led Narayana Guru to establish a school where he sought to provide free education to all children, irrespective of their caste and social standing. He led several agitations of the lower castes against the injustice propagated by untouchability and as the forerunner of the social renaissance in Kerala consecrated numerous temples even when it was then only a privilege exclusive to the Brahmins.
Another of the Indian social reformers who attempted to do away with the inequality perpetuated by the caste system and the evils of the practice of untouchability was Jyotirao Phule. Jotiba Phule, as he was known, was the founder of the Satyashodhak Samaj that aimed to make basic rights accessible to people of also the lower strata of society. He was actively involved in working forward for reforms that would bring betterment for the oppressed people in society and he sough to do that with education. His thrust on the importance of education for the lower class people and also for women as well as his advocacy of women’s rights makes him an activist who wanted to bring about all round emancipation of the society plagued by various social ills.
Phule had also been an ardent supporter of widow remarriage and worked to ensure that pregnant Brahmin widows were taken well care of. From establishing orphanages to opening schools, from working to make sure that every individual in society has access to facilities that satisfy their basic needs and interests to encouraging rational thinking and denouncing the caste system, all through his life Phule strived to build a classless and just society free of oppression and steeped in ideals of humanity and equality.
Widely regarded as the Mother of Indian Feminism, Savitribai Phule was a social reformer and activist who strived to goad Indian society on the path of development along with her husband Jyotirao Phule. Educated by Jyotirao after she had been married at a very young age, Savitribai herself began to champion the cause of women education and is believed to be the first female teacher in the country. Apart from being an educationist, Savitribai was also a philanthropist who played an important role in Maharashtra’s social reform movement. Not only did she advocate the recognition of the rights of women, she also worked to abolish the caste based discrimination and unfair treatment of people and sought to bring about equality in society.
Mahadev Govind Ranade
A visionary among the Indian social reformers was Mahadev Govind Ranade who founded the Social Conference Movement and the Widow Marriage Association as institutions that would help him bring about reforms in certain aspects of the prevailing societal practices. A staunch denouncer of child marriage and the purdah system, Ranade also advocated widow remarriage and female education. He was also against such dictates that required widows to shave their heads or the unnecessary costs incurred in marriages and other social functions, as well as the caste restrictions that were largely imposed on traveling out of the country. He also spoke out against the prevailing superstitions and illogical blind faiths of those times.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy
As the founder of the socio- religious reform movement Brahmo Samaj, Raja Ram Mohan Roy established himself as one of the Indian social reformers who dedicated his entire life to working for bringing about equality and justice in the society. He is particularly known for his efforts to eliminate such evil and inhuman practices as sati and polygamy as well as child marriage while demanding that women should also be entitled to inherit property. His belief that it was education only that could help raise awareness and abolish all injustice was so deep rooted that he himself established a number of schools and colleges to further the purpose. The father of the Indian Renaissance, Raja Ram Mohan Roy indeed attempted to reform the then society and make it one that would be more egalitarian, rational and ethical.
Among the well known of the Indian social reformers is also Dayananad Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj that was a reform movement of the Vedic dharma. Apart from his attempt at religious reform, Saraswati was also as concerned about bringing in social reforms. Among his major contributions are the advocacy of equal rights for women and their right to education as well as the education of children. He was also against child marriage and the division of society on the basis of caste and gender. He also spoke out against superstitions and denounced various religious practices like animal sacrifice and undue offerings to priests and in temples.
Keshub Chandra Sen
A member of the Brahmo Samaj and the founder of the Indian Reform Association, Keshub Chandra Sen was another of the eminent Indian social reformers who is known for his efforts at bringing about women emancipation. He was an active supporter of the right to education for women and supported widow remarriage while denouncing child marriage.
An epitome of humanity and a Roman catholic nun who made charity and selflessness her life motto, Yogoslavia born Mother Teresa was a social reformer who might not have been Indian by birth but set about bringing in social reform into the country through her humanitarian work .
Born to Albanian parents as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, Mother Teresa was stirred by misery and despair at a young age. Her missionary work brought her to India in 1929 and she was even more appalled by the sorry plight of the abandoned and destitutes here.
As the founding figure of The Missionaries of Charity which was aimed at serving the cause of the underprivileged, Mother Teresa rendered social service of an unprecedented magnitude. Another of her foundations was Nirmal Hriday which dedicatedly worked for the welfare of the dying destitutes, lepers and drug addicts.
Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, years later after she attained Indian citizenship in 1951. For the woman whose life was spent serving the ‘poorest of the poor’, The Nobel Peace Prize was indeed a “recognition of [her] work in bringing help to suffering humanity” alongside her claim to a couple more prestigious awards including the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize (1971) and the Magsaysay Award among others.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar
A reformer and philanthropist, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar remains one among those Indian social reformers who witnessed first hand the discrimination against the marginalised sections of society and therefore sought to work to initiate reforms for the same. A prominent supporter of widow remarriage, Vidyasagar wanted to uplift the societal status of women in general by bringing about positive changes within the society’s prevailing state of affairs. He harboured a powerful voice against the many oppression of women that were such a regularity in the society of those times and also advocated the right of education for females which was not deemed to be a basic human right by society at that time. An extension of his advocacy of the rights and the just treatment of women folk was his staunch opposition to the practice of polygamy. Vidyasagar also was equally empathetic to the cause of the poor and the destitutes and did everything in his capacity to bring them out of misery.