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In Savitribai’s name: Dalit-Bahujan struggle for renaming Pune University

In Savitribai’s name: Dalit-Bahujan struggle for renaming Pune University

upendra sonpimple


Upendra Sonpimple

upendra sonpimplePune University made a major headway for Dalit Bahujan politics through its association with the name of Savitribai Phule – a symbol and source of inspiration for many Dalit-Bahujans in Maharashtra.

Renaming universities in the name of social revolutionaries has been an ongoing phenomenon, though not without struggle. It was in 1994 when, after a period of 16 years of struggle by Dalits in Maharashtra, the “Marathwada University” was renamed as “Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar University”.

Subsequently, Kolhapur University was renamed as Shivaji Maharaj University, the Nanded University as Yashvant Rao Chavan University and most recently Pune University was renamed as Savitribai Phule Pune University, in 2014.

The renaming of universities in the name of social revolutionaries like Mahatma Jotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Chatrapati Shahu Maharaj and Babasaheb Ambedkar has a unique meaning for Dalit-Bahujans for they assert their identity through their leaders. The marginalized communities consider these historical figures as heroes who embody the spirit of their ongoing struggle against unjust systems of discrimination, like the monster of caste in India.

Contemporary politics in Maharashtra has been hijacked by Hindu ideologues (BJP/RSS) and pseudo-secular forces (like NCP) who further the brahminical ideology under the dominance of Brahmins and Marathas.The Dalit-Bahujan politics, however, has been an assertive challenge to the Brahminical hegemony in the politics of Maharashtra. In the initial phase i.e., in the 1990s, it was the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) that started the movement for renaming Pune University as Shahu Maharaj Pune University. Though it did not succeed and was distorted by the dominant politics of Maharashtra, it proved to be a foundational step towards the beginning of a Bahujan discourse, initiated by a political organization. As a result, today we can see that the discourse is spreading further in Maharashtra’s politics and the renaming of Pune University stands as a good example to illustrate the relevance of Bahujan politics in the state.

Cultural mobilization to establish icons

The importance of symbolization of self-respect has been crucial for Dalit politics in Maharashtra and this has also taken over Bahujan politics. This event of renaming Pune University as Savitribai Phule University will be marked in golden words in Dalit history. It is not just the OBCs who have raised this issue but all the Dalit-Bahujan political parties came together after a long time in Maharashtra’s history. Leaders from all the minor political parties came together to voice their united demand. In fact, this was not only a demand to change the name of an educational institution but it was also about relocating their aspirations in a renewed struggle.

I think that it should be considered as resistance from the oppressed whose symbols have been colonized by the dominant groups. And these are symbols that stand for rights and social justice. This is cultural resistance where Shudras and Dalits aspire to assert and establish their cultural icons in the field of education. Savitribai Phule is a cultural symbol and her stories are popular in the community and everyday social life of the Dalit-Bahujan. This is cultural capital for Shudra and Ati-Shudra castes. But this culture does not get equal importance compared to other dominant cultures and this disappointment has led the Dalit-Bahujan resistance to situate their symbols in the public sphere for recognition and to demand respect for the community through such cultural mobilization.

The unique aspect of the Savitribai Phule Pune University Movement is that the various Shudra castes such as Mali (Gardener), Teli, Kunbi, Dhangar etc., along with Dalit-Buddhist organizations joined this struggle. The movement was dominated by the Mali (Gardener) caste in the initial stages but later it merged with many Dalit and other lower caste community organizations. This unique mobilizing of support for this resistance movement provided a challenge to the current Maratha politics. It was a surprise to see how the Mali caste directed its efforts towards securing their icons before they got co-opted by the other Hindu forces.

This movement is marked especially as exclusive Bahujan politics where neither the BJP nor the Congress ever entered the movement. This struggle included more than 200 organizations – the major organizations taking part were: Pune Vidyapeeth Namkaran Samiti, Akhil Bhartiya Mahatma Phule Samata Parishad, Akhil Bhartiya Mali Mahasangh, OBC Sangharsh Samiti, Republican Party of India (Raja Dhale and Yogendra Kawade), Rashtriya Samaj Paksha and so on. These are not mere political organizations but those which also follow the ideology of Phule, Shahu and Ambedkar and have been active in the anti-caste movement in Maharashtra.

Savitribai as symbol

Savitribai became the first lady teacher in India following the dreams of Mahatma Jotiba Phule. The OBC Sangharsh Samiti launched campaigns that said:

 “Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule is our mother of education and her revolutionary path liberates our samaj from inequality. Where we did not have the right of education, she gave us education and empowered our community. She died to save the people from dying.”

They also protested against the reservation given to Marathas by the previous Maharashtra government. They rejected this decision of the government where they clearly stated that the Marathas are not poor but instead an oppressor caste in Maharashtra.

Their facebook page has a cover image saying Bahujan Hitay, Bahujan Sukhay and the purpose of the organization states that, “All the OBC castes from Maharashtra have united to oppose the Maratha Caste and their inclusion in the OBC list. An agitation is going on for the above purpose. We will fight for our rights”.

savitribai phule pune university

Savitribai Phule Pune University, after renaming

The emergence of the Mali caste as a political entity in Maharashtra, the Dalit-Bahujan mobilization for electrical politics in the election of legislative assembly of Maharashtra 2014- all this has been influential in this particular demand and has resulted in the success of this movement. Chagan Bhujbal, who is the president of the Akhil Bhartiya Mahtama Phule Samata Parishad and was Minister of Public Works & Special Assistance Department in Maharshtra, had raised this demand with other Mali Community social organizations. He was opposed by the Congress and NCP leaders who were in power in the Legislative Assembly with BJP-Shiv Sena forming the opposition. In Maharashtra politics the Maratha castes are the most dominant and other Shudra castes within the OBC (other Backward Classes) mostly find their demands neglected. So the OBC demand for Savitribai Phule University was delayed by the Chief Minister and Home Minister of Maharashtra till the Akhil Bhartiya Mali Mahasangh added it in their conferences at Pune.

The political rise of the Mali community

It is the first time that the Mali community had come up with its assertive identity politics. This has different meanings in the context of social problems and issues they face but in politics they are starting to use symbols like Phule, Shahu, Ambedkar; using greetings like Jai Jyoti Jai Bhim. This greeting is to pay homage to Jotiba Phule and Bhimrao Ambedkar for their struggle for Bahujan emancipation. These two revolutionary icons are considered to be the fathers of Modern India as they both worked for the emancipation of Shudras (lower caste OBC) and Ati-Shudras (Untouchables).

This caste group had almost disappeared from the political sphere as they remained as mere puppets of the dominant Maratha caste groups and did not take any assertive political action since a long time. Their social problems revolved around their middle class identity where they were satisfied with a share in agriculture and maintained a culture of silence on the socio-political environment. The first phase of rejection of the demand to rename Pune University was an example of Maratha dominance that broke their – the Mali castes’ – silence and gave them confidence to assert their identity.

Meanwhile, the Maratha caste has continuously projected its dominance through self-proclamation by building monuments for their own upper caste heroes- Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Railway station and International airport, Lokamanya Tilak Nagar, Rani Laxmibai Nagar and Savarkar Nagar, Rajiv Gandhi Park, Gandhi Park, Nehru Nagar and so on. These are popular places with upper caste names given by the upper caste politicians in Maharashtra.

There exist a number of examples of how power is exercised on other marginalized communities with almost no opposition from those who watch that happen. It is however different with the Mali community. They consider themselves politically marginalized and their idols have always been worshiped by the other marginalized communities also. But with changing circumstances and the dominant groups becoming more greedy for unnecessary demands like reservations for Marathas, while the Mali community’s are rejected. The Maratha dominance makes political parties like Congress, Rashtravadi Congress (NCP) and BJP and Shiv Sena easily accept their demands.

obc dharna against maratha reservations

OBC Aarakshan Bachao Samiti’s dharna against Maratha reservations, in April

This movement for renaming the Pune University is not a demand for developing a vote bank out of the Mali community. It should be seen as an assertion against their repression at the hands of the dominant Marathas.This agitation, as well as the one against the demand for Maratha Reservations, rose out of the lived realities of a marginalized community like the Mali caste who were unable to raise their voice for a long period of time. Such movements become issues of all Bahujan, where the demands like renaming a university are not just demands of the Mali community but also of Dalits and other lower castes and tribes like NT, DNT who are also equal participants in these movements.

Rampant criticism and the outcomes of this movement

The renaming of Pune University in Savitribai’s name also received rampant criticism. One could observe it both in print media, social media etc. The campaigns against the renaming movement largely were observed on Facebook and on news websites. Some of the comments were:

 “Came to know that a resolution has been passed in Senate for changing the name ‘University of Pune’ to ‘Dnyanjyoti Savitribai Phule University’. I wish to condemn such decisions. Any desired name be given to a new University but change of name of a reputed University is just not acceptable” ~ Comment on the Facebook page, ‘Uni Pune should remain Uni Pune’

“The University of Pune Senate and few other people are pressurizing the government to change its name. The new proposed name of university of pune is “Dnyanjyoti Savitribai Phule Vidyapeeth”. Though we respect Savitribai Phule and her contributions to the field of women education, but renaming the university is now showing a way of respect. University of Pune has a strong brand internationally and with so many amount of already passed out students its to late. The word Pune already gives respect to everyone attached to Pune. Politicians please do not change the name let it be as it is.” ~ Online petition titled ‘Do Not Rename “University of Pune”‘, with over 9700 signatories.

 These are some of the comments among many one could observe on social media, made by people of all ages- elderly, youth and women’s groups.

This Namantaran Movement is very different from the Marathwada one but it has a unique significance for Shudra and Untouchable castes in Maharashtra. For Dalit-Bahujan it is not enough to stick with the ideologies of political parties, their demands for self-respect which helps them in their emancipation should be secured. In a political democracy this can be made possible as in instances where Dalit political icons are asserted and hence present a challenge to the dominant politics of the upper castes.

For Dalit-Bahujan their heroes provide an ideology of equality and humanization. The OBC organizations denounce the brahminical notions of dominance which inform Maratha politics are blamed and not the Marathas themselves. Dalit-Bahujan heroes stand against brahminical notions and not with the Maratha caste. Their heroes are warriors who bring radical change against dominant ideology, who create aspirations for freedom. These symbols are meant to project democratic ideals in a society dominated by upper castes who do not provide any space for the marginalized sections. This movement is looked at as identity assertion through symbols of liberation aspiring to create a democratic space in the social-political environment.

These developments can be interpreted as the political mobilization of OBC castes for electoral politics where there is no single unit but a scattered coming together of small organizations. This has already been observed in UP where it led to huge successes under one umbrella politics with the Bahujan Samaj Party. But for Maharashtra politics this can be a beginning of Bahujan politics leading to the unity of all Dalit-Bahujan organizations.



Upendra Sonpimple, from Nagpur, is a student of M.A. Social Work in Rural Development (2013-2015) at Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

Pictures courtesy: the net.

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