Veteran social activist, scholar, rationalist, and a stalwart of Marathi literature and theatre Pushpa Bhave passed away late on Friday night. She was 81.
Known for her tremendous contribution to social movements in Maharashtra over six decades, including the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement that led to the formation of the state, Bhave, who spent her last days in a wheelchair after her legs were amputated following aggravated diabetes, succumbed to her prolonged illness. She was cremated on Saturday morning. She is survived by her octogenarian husband Anant Bhave.
Remembered as frank and fearless, Bhave, a professor of Marathi and Sanskrit, was fondly called Pushpa Bai, by her students and on the field, where she participated and led several social movements, including agitations against the Emergency in 1975, protests against inflation alongside prominent women socialist leaders like Mrinal Gore and Ahilya Rangnekar.
Bhave backed movements like Dalit Panthers, Andhashradda Nirmulan, Hamaal Panchayat and women’s rights movements like Devdasi Mukti across the country. She is remembered for standing up to the Shiv Sena that was at the time led by its supremo Bal Thackeray, in connection with the Ramesh Kini murder in 1996, throwing her weight behind his widow Sheela, who lived in Bhave’s neighbourhood in Dadar.
Journalist Yuvraj Mohite, who worked alongside Bhave in several social movements across the state, said, “Raj Thackeray was at the centre of the Ramesh Kini case and the Shiv Sena was in power. At a time when no one dared to stand up to the Shiv Sena, Pushpa Bai was fearless. The case was highly politicised, uncharitable comments were made about her too, but she was relentless. She stood by Sheela Kini and without any political backing or press conferences she took the case up to the CBI because she was determined to get justice. But she commanded such respect that Raj Thackeray, who was named in the case, never uttered an offensive word about her,” Mohite said.
Her courage that had inspired many earned her the moniker ‘the Iron lady of Mumbai’.
“Had she lived longer she would have said ‘let’s go to Hathras’. Let’s speak to the activists there. We must go,” said Mohite, an activist of the Rashtriya Seva Dal, who said with such incidents across the country, Bhave’s leadership would have been the guiding light for young activists.
Seated in a wheelchair, Bhave, had addressed an audience in January 2019 at an event organised to welcome author Nayantara Sahgal in response to the revoking of her invitation to inaugurate the 92nd Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan. At the programme titled ‘Let us unite’, Bhave said that controlling and censoring the arts was a sign of fascism. Addressing the audience, she had said a secular democracy was the vision of the founding architects of India and by “stuffing” us all into one religious identity secularism was under threat, and non-Hindus were being “portrayed as enemies” or attackers.
“She was an atheist,” said veteran journalist Bharatkumar Raut, who was also her student at the Ramnarain Ruia College where she taught for 27 years. “I remember vividly that she had taught us Sundar Patre that was about the letters (freedom fighter) Sane Guruji wrote to his niece from jail. The way she taught us brought Sane Guruji to life. She taught us not only the text but also the philosophy behind it. Even the way she taught us Nava Shipai, a poem by Keshavsut, left an impression on our hearts. She was very friendly with her students,” said Raut.
She had joined the Janata Dal briefly, Raut said, but she soon realised that politics was not her calling.
Bhave symbolised the tenacious Marathi middle-class and the simplicity it cherished that was replete in a neighbourhood like Dadar.
Dalit writer and activist Arjun Dangle, a founding member of Dalit Panthers, said, “Her contribution as Marathi literary and theatre critic was tremendous. She was a voracious reader and an intellectual but she was not the very serious kind. Whenever we met, she would love to talk.
Her simplicity was a part of her charm. She would mostly be wearing an off-white saree.”
He said young women were easily drawn to her as she was an inspiration and a guide to them and she, too, treated them with extreme care and warmth. “Her contribution to women’s rights movements will always be remembered. It has never been easy for women to become leaders but she was fearless and formidable,” he said.
“After Mrinal tai (Gore), it was Pushpa Bai who we all looked up to as an example of women’s leadership. With her, we may have lost the last woman leader of that heft,” said Mohite.
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