Pushpa Bhave was born in 1939 into a progressive middle-class family. Her grandfather had given up his inheritance and did not want anything to do with the deeply religious beliefs of his Hindu ancestors.
Bhave's father was a similar man. He was committed to education and encouraged his children to study, read and explore ideas. Bhave went to Elphinstone College in Mumbai and did her Masters in Marathi literature and then in Sanskrit from Deccan College, Pune. Subsequently, she specialized in linguistics.
As a student in Elphinstone College, Bhave became aware of the divide between the political aspirations of the upper classes and that of the masses. She also came under the influence of Sher Amar Sheikh, an activist and folk artist. This put her in touch with theatre artists with Leftist ideologies, who were part of the legendary Indian People's Theatre movement. The theatre movement - both stage and street - was extremely vibrant at that time.
It was her commitment to progressive values that made Bhave join the Samyukta Maharashtra movement in 1956. Spearheaded by S M Joshee, the movement aimed at lending voice to the aspirations of the peasants and working-class people of Maharashtra. In 1957, Bhave participated in the Goa Liberation Movement, aimed at liberating Goa from the colonial domination of Portugal.
In the early 1960s, Bhave focused on working with dalits (the lowest in the caste hierarchy), influenced greatly by Gandhian ideals of village reconstruction. Along with her colleagues, she organized a series of 15-day camps for rural girls in Pune. During the camps, they would read to the girls and make them conscious of their rights. Through this process of village reconstruction and empowerment of women, she gradually came to participate in the Dalit Panther movement.
This period of Bhave's work, from the 1960s to the 1970s indicates the growing radicalization of her political ideology: She had moved from the ideology of eliminating caste discrimination in the villages, to a position of endorsing the political aspirations of the Dalit Panther movement.
Bhave was even jailed for her commitment to the Dalit struggle when she led the group that wanted to rename Marathawada University as Ambedkar University. This transformation in her political ideology emerged out of her understanding of the prevailing caste discrimination in the country. It led to her working with Baba Adavav to organize the Hamal and Mapadi (head-loaders and sweepers) workers' movement.
Apart from the caste oppression factor, these workers were exploited financially. The women, mostly sweepers in granaries, for instance, were not paid wages. They were merely allowed to pick the grains that had fallen on the ground as their wages for sweeping the floor. Bhave's awareness of the struggles of these women also made her organize the women beedi workers of Nippani, who were exploited by the contractors.
Bhave also led protests against the devadasi (temple prostitutes) system. The ancient devadasi system is well embedded in the Hindu religious fabric. While working with the devadasis, Bhave challenged the feudal structure in society and challenged the criminal-politician nexus, which benefited from the system of selling women in the name of religion.
Bhave's understanding of politics further sharpened during the Emergency in 1975, when her home offered shelter to many underground political workers like Mrinal Gore and Pannala Sura. Like a sponge, she soaked in the thoughts and ideals of the political activists she gave shelter to, and gradually became an important member of the underground opposition to the Emergency.
This political training prepared Bhave for one of the most critical and fiercest battles of her life: Her campaign against the rightwing Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra. In 1990, Ramesh Kini, an ordinary citizen living in Bhave's neighborhood in Mumbai, was asked by his landlord to vacate his house. When Kini refused to vacate, the landlord was believed to have used his Shiv Sena connections to intimidate him. Kini refused to bow down, and was murdered. The local police, apparently influenced by the Shiv Sena, claimed that the post mortem report indicated it wasn't a murder.
However, Bhave rallied the entire neighborhood and forced a local doctor to conduct a second post mortem, which conclusively proved murder. Her case was so strong that Supreme Court lawyer Soli Sorabjee - who later was appointed Attorney General of India - represented Kini's family without any charge.
Although the Shiv Sena's influence is said to have prevented proper police investigation, the fact that Bhave, a lone woman, took on the political powers of the state inspired many others to follow her lead. Again, during the 1992 communal riots that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Bhave was at the forefront opposing the riots and challenging the power of rightwing forces. She used, as during the Kini case, the Gandhian principle of peaceful resistance.
Bhave was subjected to threats and intimidation, particularly during the riots. But she did not buckle. She immersed herself in investigating the Jalgaon and Parbani scandals, involving the enticement of young girls through blackmail and coercion by local politicians.
Bhave is also a trustee of the Social Gratitude Fund, which supports activists who do not wish to take funds from international agencies. Currently, she is a member of People's Forum for Peace and Justice, National Council (India) and the Joint Committee (India-Pakistan), all of which aim to establish cordial relationships between India and Pakistan.
The Social Gratitude Fund, in fact, was established through the contributions of the people of Maharashtra. Significant among them are film and stage actors Dr Shreeram Lagoo and Nilu Phule.
Besides establishing herself as a distinguished academic, Bhave has also been examining socio-political processes through the lens of gender. Her activism among women bearing the double burden of caste and gender brought about her feminist consciousness. This is reflected in her teaching and research. Currently she is campaigning to introduce a bill in Parliament to prevent the dedication of young girls and boys into any religious sect. She feels that only an adult person should have that choice, and parents cannot have the right to dedicate their children into their own religious ideals.
Bhave's idealism and tireless optimism have inspired many of her students - Medha Patkar, Santaram Pandare and Nikhil Wagle - to do their bit for the world. Through her five decades of advocacy, writings, and social and political activism she has made a major contribution to the development of grassroots democracy in the country.