No public figure in 19th-century Maharashtra is as little or as partially known or understood as Savitri Phule. Even in her native Maharashtra, she is identified mostly as Mahatma Phule’s wife and, at best, the first native teacher of girls. But Savitribai had several facets to her persona. She was a trailblazer and a social activist who raised issues pertaining to caste and gender through her writing and speeches, as well as through direct intervention. Savitribai is considered the first modern, radical Marathi poet. In fact, her first book of poems Kavya Phule was published in 1854, much before any of Mahatma Phule’s works could see the light of day. All this happened at a time when women were neither seen nor heard in public, much less published!
Who was Savitribai? To answer this question, we need to unearth the different facets of this iconic figure. We need to trace the life of Savitri Jotirao Phule against the backdrop of 19th-century Maharashtra.
The Public Savitri
Savitri was born in the village of Naigaon, near Pune, Maharashtra, on 3 January 1831 as the eldest child to Khandoji Nevshe Patil, who belonged to the Shudra community. It was a time when women across castes, were not, and for that matter not meant to be, educated. Young Savitri’s situation was no different. She did chores in and around the house and helped her father in the fields.
When Savitri was 9, she was married to 13-year-old Jotirao Phule, a resident of Pune. Jotirao belonged to the Mali caste, which was also part of the Shudra varna. The Shudras were traditionally peasants, gardeners, or self-employed artisans such as weavers, potters, etc, and were considered “low caste” in the brahmanical caste hierarchy of Hindu society. This community was not expected to receive education but be subservient to the three varnas above them, namely the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas and the Vaishyas. Despite the odds stacked against him, Jotirao was exposed to English education, thanks to his enlightened aunt Sagunabai, a child widow, who brought him up when his own mother died in her infancy.
She encouraged Jotirao to study and even had him admitted to a missionary school. Being a bright, sensitive boy, the young Jotirao not only did well academically but also started reflecting critically about the lived reality of the vast majority of the rural masses, of which he was a part. His missionary education gave him easy access to Western literature and enabled him to develop egalitarian ideas. He read up on American democracy, French revolution and was struck by the logical reasoning in Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.
Maharashtra and its cultural capital Pune were also undergoing a transformation around the turn of the 19th century. Peshwa rule ended in 1818 and colonial rule began to consolidate itself. This gradually led to Western values of liberty, equality and fraternity gaining wide currency, which in turn paved the way for a renaissance that overtook every sphere of human thought and endeavour – be it literature, music, art or theatre. Phule, like other urban, young, educated men, rode this wave of modernity sweeping Maharashtra. This was also the beginning of a century of social-reform movement to humanize society.
It was against this background that Jotiba encouraged his young wife Savitri to read and write, and personally coached her and his aunt Sagunabai. After early education under her husband, Savitri took up formal education in Ahmednagar and went ahead to get a teacher’s training certificate from Pune. One of her classmates at the teacher’s training school and also a close friend was Fatima Sheikh.
Soon, the Phules started their first school for girls on 15 May 1848 at Bhide Wada in Pune. Savitri was its headmistress. Sagunabai and Fatima Sheikh were her colleagues. The school brought together girls of all castes under one roof. The first batch had 25 girls. In the same year, they also set up a school for untouchable girls. Clearly, they were throwing an open challenge to male Brahmins’ monopoly over learning and their exclusion of women and Untouchables from knowledge for centuries. They went on to start no less than 18 schools between 1848 and 1852.
Thus Savitribai, Sagunabai and Fatima made history as the first native teachers of women anywhere in India. What was amazing was that all of them hailed from marginalized groups – the former two by caste while the latter by religion. Fatima was the sister of Usman Sheikh, who was a close friend and confidant of Jotiba Phule.
This throwing open of the gates of learning to women, and those from the “low castes” at that, was a highly provocative act and it was unacceptable to the upper-caste orthodoxy. The latter instigated Jotirao’s father Govindrao against his son. Govindrao, under pressure, issued an ultimatum to Jotirao that he would have to choose between continuing with the school and living in his house. Savitri and Jotirao were both disturbed by this ultimatum but with heavy hearts they walked away from their father’s home empty-handed. They chose the larger society’s interest over their personal comfort. It was Usman Sheikh who offered shelter and the material means to the Phules to restart their life.
As Savitri walked to school daily, the villagers would pelt stones and throw dung at her. She would stop by and politely tell them, “My brothers, I am doing the noble job of educating your sisters. The cow dung and stones that you are pelting on me are not a deterrent but rather an inspiration for me. It is as if you are showering petals on me. While I vow to serve my sisters, I also pray, ‘May God bless you.’”
One day, on her way back from school, a well-built ruffian stood in front of her and threatened her saying that if she did not stop educating the Mahars and Mangs, she would have to pay a heavy prize. People gathered to watch this drama but none came forward to her rescue. Savitribai remained unfazed and slapped the man hard. The stunned man ran away and so did the onlookers. This news spread like wildfire in Pune and such incidents did not recur.
The Phule couple had to face stiff opposition for their radical educational activities. While the English-speaking upper-caste reformers campaigned for limited education for women to enable them to be better wives and companions to the newly educated class of men and better mothers to their children, Phule, in sharp contrast, wanted the women of India to receive education that would empower them to fight against their exploitation and oppression and realize their human potential.
Savitri was Jotirao Phule’s first and most important ally in the fulfilment of his vision and mission.
After opening a number of schools, the Phules turned their attention to other social evils. Child marriage was the norm in society, particularly among the “upper” castes and often, young girls, who were married off to old men, became child widows. The tradition of treating a widow as a ritually impure, social outcaste, non-person who existed on the margins of society was rigidly practised. The child widows, many of them virgins, were forced to part with their colourful saris, flowers in their hair, ornaments. They were made to wear white or saffron saris and their heads were tonsured. Everything possible was done to destroy their sexuality and desirability. Widowhood spelt the death of social and sexual desire but ironically increased their sexual vulnerability and exploitation by the males in the family. Being uneducated, they were defenceless against this exploitation and faced further disgrace if they happened to become pregnant as a result. This often left them with no choice but to take their own life, their infant’s life or both.
One such gruesome incident in Pune was that of a young Brahmin widow, Kashibai, who was sexually exploited and later became pregnant. In utter desperation, she threw the infant into a well. A police case was filed against her and she was sentenced to life in prison.
This incident brought home to the Phules the miserable condition of Brahmin child widows. In 1863, they opened their home to the pregnant child widows. They plastered the walls of the Brahmanwada (the Brahman locality) with posters inviting the widows to come to their home, deliver the child, stay back or leave, with or without the child. The widows suddenly had so many options where earlier they had only one – taking their own lives. Savitribai tended to the widows and children in her home personally. She was so touched by the plight of the child widows that she mobilized the barbers of Pune to refuse to tonsure them.
Savitri and Jotirao were childless. There was immense pressure on Jotirao to remarry in order to produce an heir but he would have none of it. His argument was: “What if I am responsible for the state of childlessness? In that case would you allow Savitri to remarry?” Instead, they chose to adopt a child. It so happened that once, in the year 1874, while taking a stroll in the dead of night on the banks of the River Mutha, Jotirao saw the figure of a woman, about to dive into the river to end her life. He ran and caught her. He learnt that she was a widow, six months pregnant and a victim of rape. Jotirao consoled her and took her home. Savitri accepted her with open arms. The woman delivered a male child who was named Yashwant. The Phules adopted Yashwant, made him their legal heir and educated him. Yashwant became a doctor. (According to another source, Yashwant’s mother was the sister of an acquaintance of Jotiba Phule. Her family members were harassing her because she was carrying a relative’s baby. Jotiba and Savitribai not only arranged for the delivery of the baby, Yashwant, but also adopted him.) The fact that the Phule couple exercised the highly unusual option of adopting a child showed a rare integrity of ideas and action. It also posed a challenge to conservative notions of caste, lineage, motherhood, paternity, etc.
The same brahmanical patriarchal system that put women in fetters also banished the so-called Untouchables to the margins of society where they led a sub-human existence. They could not cross the path of the upper castes or draw water from wells and lakes in the villages. The Phules, in another defiant act, threw open the well in their compound to the Untouchables in 1868. This was a brazen and bold step that shook up the caste status quo.
Savitri was a committed grass-roots worker and was on the move constantly, talking to the villagers in and around Pune, castigating them for their vices and motivating them to educate themselves and improve their lives. Her speeches on debt, inebriation and education as a tool of liberation are available in print and are a moving testimony to her passionate involvement with people.
The Phules firmly believed in inter-caste marriages as one of the means to break down the caste system. They personally supported people who came forward to enter inter-caste matrimony, sometimes with police assistance. They also got several widows remarried, braving terrible opposition.
Jotirao Phule had started dreaming of freeing people from brahmanical patriarchy and caste enslavement. To this end, he began to work on several fronts. He published the first challenging critique of the brahmanical religion, campaigned for mass education of women and the depressed castes and, most important of all, stressed the need for the oppressed people of India – stree, Shudra and Atishudra, as he termed them – to come together to smash slavery, assert their human rights and liberate themselves. It’s with this last goal in mind that he founded a society called the Satyashodhak Samaj as a socio-spiritual movement on 24 September 1873.
Savitri headed the women’s unit of the Satyashodhak Samaj. Weekly meetings were held in Pune where issues like mass education and widow remarriage were discussed. Entire families were its members. The Samaj took the lead in breaking the priestly hold over society by conducting marriages sans Brahmin priests or religious rituals. The couple would merely exchange vows where they would commit their lives to each other and to the welfare of society. This laid the foundation of civil marriages in India, both inter-caste and inter- religious.
The Samaj provided a platform for debates and discussions on caste and gender. Phule condemned the practice of a woman immolating herself on the funeral pyre of her husband and becoming a sati and wondered if man would return the gesture and become a sata if the situation was reversed!
In the 1870s, the Phules were actively involved in famine relief. They were instrumental in starting 52 boarding schools for the welfare of children orphaned in the famine.
Mahatma Phule passed away on 28 November 1890. Even at the funeral, Savitribai showed her gutsiness. A debate began: who should conduct the last rites – the adopted son or a blood relative? Savitri put an end to it by stepping forward to light the pyre! Her act of choosing to light her husband’s funeral pyre, which would even today be considered audacious, sent shock waves across the land! This one act speaks volumes for her self-confidence and independence.
Savitribai took over the Satyashodhak Samaj after the death of her husband. She presided over the meeting of the Samaj in 1893 in Saswad. In the famine of 1896, Savitribai worked ceaselessly, and brought pressure on the government to undertake relief measures. In 1897, an epidemic of plague swept Pune. Savitribai was once again engaged personally in the relief effort. Sadly, she caught the disease and died on 10 March 1897.
Savitri, the persona
Besides the public figure, there’s a private Savitri with many shades to her nature and personality. I have tried to piece together the fascinating persona of Savitri by looking at her creative writing.
Savitri published her first collection of poems, Kavya Phule in 1854, aged 23. It is reasonable to believe that she must have started penning them earlier, say when she was 20. Her poems are a diverse mix of the serious, the sensuous, the playful and the wishful. The woman that emerges is rational, modern, progressive, committed, confident and fun-loving. I have classified these descriptions into broad heads and tried to justify them by reproducing select verses from her work.
The revolutionary: Selected verses from the following poems mirror Savitri’s understanding of the social realities of her time. She castigates the exploitation inherent in the system. Her language is direct, sharp and unsparing whether it raises the caste or gender question.
So Says Manu
The social customs created thus are based on discrimination
This policy of the shrewd and devious is oh so inhuman!
Should they be called Humans?
The woman from dawn to dusk doth labour
The man lives off her toil, the freeloader
Even birds and beasts labour together
Should these idlers still be called humans?
The Butterfly and the Bud
He just shatters her beautiful form
And ravages her like a storm
Sucks her dry of all her nectar
Lifeless, wasted he discards her…
…Which flower bud? He conveniently asks
Forget the old and search anew is his task
Ways of the world deception and promiscuity
I am aghast! Says Savitri
The radical: Savitri seems to have modern sensibilities even by today’s standards. She comes through as a person who questions tradition, superstition and blind faith and pleads for all humans to live in harmony with each other and with nature. The following verses from her poems will back my claims.
Mother English (1)
Cast away the yoke of custom
Prise open the doors of tradition
A smooth round rock with a coat of oil and saffron
And lo, behold it becomes one of the Gods of the pantheon
Buffaloes and what not, such terrifying Gods
Yet people believe them to be their Lord …
… If rocks can answer prayers and grant them children
What’s the need for marriage between men and women?
Man and Nature
Let’s beautify human existence and make progress
Live and let live, get rid of all our fears and stress
Human beings and all of creation are but two sides of a coin
To preserve these priceless bounties let us our hands join
The romantic: Savitri had a romantic and sensuous streak that broke through centuries of conditioning and socialization and found bold expression through her poetry. Witness the wild passion that pours forth from her in the following poems.
Crazy Poetry and the Crazy Poet
(The angel) smiles demurely
Draws him to her coaxingly
And kisses him passionately
The Golden Champa
As Madan, his beloved Rati entices
So does the Champa stir the poet’s senses
… Gratifies the gaze, satiates the senses
Pleases the connoisseur and then perishes
The Jaee Flower
… Pure white, exuding intoxicating fragrance
Enraptures me with her exquisite radiance
Her sweet smile and demure gaze
Send my mind into a daze …
The visionary: Many of Savitri’s verses in Kavya Phule (1854) express ideas similar to those found in the pages of Gulamgiri (1873) authored by Jotiba Phule. To demonstrate this, I have chosen select verses from the former and juxtaposed it with select ideas from the latter.
On original inhabitants of our land
From Kavya Phule
Mother English 1
India belongs to none
Iranis, Europeans, Tartars or the Huns
The blood of the natives flows in its veins
Meaning of the word ‘Shudra’
The word “shudra” in truth, connoted a native
But the powerful victors made “shudra” an invective
The ultimate victors, over the Iranis and the Brahmins
Over the Brahmins and the British; the most radical were the natives
Wealthy were they, the original inhabitants
They were known by the name of “Indians”
Such heroic people were our ancestors, you see
And the descendants of such people are we
From Gulamgiri (Slavery)
… The Brahmins were not the aborigines of India. During some remote period of antiquity, probably more than 3000 years ago, the Aryan progenitors of the present Brahmin race descended upon the plains of Hindoo Koosh and other adjoining tracts …
… They were an offshoot of the Great Indo-European race from whom the Persians, Medes and other Iranian nations in Asia and the principal nations in Europe likewise are descended (pg. 27)
… Aryans, who came to India, not as simple emigrants with peaceful intentions of colonization, but as conquerors …
… The Aborigines whom the Aryans subjugated, or displaced, appear to have been a hardy and brave people from the determined front which they offered to these interlopers. Such opprobrious terms as Shudra (insignificant), Mahari (the great foe), Athyanj, Chandal, etc, which they designated them, undoubtedly show that originally they offered the greatest resistance in their power to their establishing themselves in this country, and hence the great aversion and hatred in which they are held … (p 27)
On prosperity of the kingdom of Bali
From Kavya Phule
A Hymn for King ‘Bali’
The kingdom of “Bali” was ruled by the holy demon-king
Bali was magnanimous, his subjects happy and never wanting
All were content in his kingdom; the three worlds sang his praises
In his self-existent lawful kingdom there were scientific discourses
Holy sacrificial fires were always burning; alms in gold were given aplenty
With bejewelled crowns adorning their heads, the royal couple presided over the charity
His wife, Vindhyawali, was by his side on every occasion
Let’s think of the ruling couple and sing their praises in unison
…O holy, virtuous soul, King Bali
People sing your praises daily
Every peasant as magnanimous as the great King Bali
And my village as prosperous as Kashyappur of Bali
From Gulamgiri (Slavery)
… but later on, one great champion of the downtrodden, the holiest of the holy, the great sage and lover of Truth, Baliraja, came into this world … (page 73)
… He (Baliraja) undertook the task of releasing his poor oppressed brethren from the bondage of slavery … And strove to establish the kingdom of God on earth … (page 74)
From Kavya Phule
The Malady of the Outcasts
For two thousand years have outcasts suffered this malady
Of bonded labour; driven by the landlords into slavery …
Farming is Divine
…They who toil in the fields are the outcasts
They produce the food on which feast the upper castes…
The Dependence of the Shudras
The outcasts and untouchables, hounded by ignorance
Gods, religion, rites and rituals, drained by their indigence…
From Gulamgiri (Slavery)
Since hundreds of years, the Shudras and the Atishudras have suffered innumerable tribulations and lived in wretched conditions under the yoke of the Brahman rule … (page 36)
… the Brahmans had reduced them to a pitiable state of ignorance by depriving them of all knowledge …
… they managed to convince the poor ignorant people that their slavery was justified even in the eyes of God … ( page 37)
… In order to keep a better hold on the people they devised that weird system of mythology, the ordination of caste and the code of cruel and inhuman laws….
… Their main objective in fabricating these falsehoods was to dupe the minds of the ignorant and to rivet firmly on them the chains of perpetual bondage and slavery … (page 30)
On Manu, Manuvad and Brahmin domination
From Kavya Phule
So Says Manu
Those who work in the fields and wield the plough
They are obtuse, says Manu
For the Brahmins it has been ordained indeed!
Says the Manusmriti, “Don’t toil in the field”…
Mother English 1
… The brahmanic religion with innumerable ruses
Exploits the “Shudras”, showers abuses …
The Dependence of the Shudras
… Wandering without work, the Brahmin hermits beg for alms
Order the “Shudras” to do free service as virtuous tasks…
From Gulamgiri (Slavery)
The highest rights, the highest privileges and gifts and everything that would make the life of the Brahmin easy, smooth-going and happy were specially inculcated (into the institution of caste) whereas the Shudras and the Atishudras were regarded with supreme hatred and contempt and the commonest rights of humanity were denied them … They are considered as mere chattels… (page 29)
… For generations past they (Shudras and the Atishudras) have borne these chains of slavery and bondage … The rigid Brahmin dominancy … cared only to fatten themselves on the sweat of his brow, without caring for his welfare or condition … (page 31)
On the British as saviours
From Kavya Phule
Mother English 1
The English rule has brought respite from caste-terror…
Here comes our English saviour
Mother English 2
Mother English ends their beastly existence
Grants human dignity to the “Shudras” with her able guidance
From Gulamgiri (Slavery)
It is the British who have liberated them (the Shudras and Atishudras) from the prisons of the Brahmins and showed them and their offspring these days of comfort. Had the British not been there, the Brahmans would have ground them to dust (page 44)
From the above juxtaposition of identical ideas from Savitri Phule’s Kavya Phule (1854) and Jotiba Phule’s Gulamgiri (1873) and we can draw these inferences.
- Savitribai was the original source of these ideas and Jotiba later developed her ideas and built upon them in his famous and path-breaking treatise, Gulamgiri
- Jotiba had developed these ideas in the 1850s and had shared them with Savitri, who absorbed and internalized them and brought them up in her own creative work.
Even if we assume the latter – that her husband Jotirao schooled her into these ideas – one cannot but admire what a fast learner she was and how well she had assimilated the lessons learnt. She sounds deeply convincing and convinced in her poems. One has to equally acknowledge and appreciate Jotiba for sharing and discussing his ideas with his young wife. She also seems to be the first person who had foreseen Jotiba’s role in the liberation of the exploited peoples. She categorically states so in her poem:
Dialogue at dawn
Jotiba is the sun on the Untouchables’ horizon
Risen so radiant beyond all comparison…
She hailed him as the messiah of the downtrodden. She made this proclamation at a time when his humanitarian work had barely begun. Given the context, she is heralding him and projecting his future role. The events that unfolded over the next 30 years proved her right.
The litterateur: Another collection of Savitri’s poems, Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar (The Ocean of Pure Gems), was published in 1891. It is a biography, in verse, of Mahatma Phule, as Jotirao came to be known, towards the end of his life. Jotiba had developed a devastating critique of the Brahmin interpretation of Maratha history in the ancient and medieval periods. Savitri’s biography was as much about the Maratha history as it was about her illustrious husband. Savitri also edited and published four of Jotiba’s speeches on Indian history. A few of her own speeches were published in 1892.
The Savitri-Jotiba relationship – Jovitri!!
Theirs was an unusual relationship, which was more like friendship. They were committed to one another and their social work. They had a harmonious, blissful and fulfilling relationship. This can be seen from the following poems reproduced below. Above all, they were equals in the relationship. Notice how she refers to her husband by name. This was truly revolutionary for her time.
Path to Domestic Bliss
Jotiba fills my life with joy
As nectar does a flower
I am blessed with a man renowned
My happiness knows no bounds….
Jotiba was her teacher and mentor. He not only made her literate but also created in her a strong desire for knowledge and social action. This is reflected in her poems.
Salutations to Jotiba
I salute Jotiba from the very depths of my being
He gives us the nectar of knowledge and hope, a new way of living
The great Joti calls out to the weak, the untouchable, the outcast
Gives us the gift of knowledge and resurrects us from our past
The Teachings of Jotiba
I pay my respects to Jotiba, my lord, so dear
His mellifluous words resonate in my ear
I serve the Mahar-Mang considered outcasts
Memories of my beloved Lord fill my heart …
… I reflect upon Jotiba’s words, see their reflection in my mind
They who serve with a philanthropic goal attain greatness amongst humankind
These are Jotiba’s teachings gleaned from experience
I, Savitri, cherish them in the deep recesses of my conscience.
Savitri’s three letters to Jotiba, written when she was away at her parents’ place, is also a rare and precious piece of literature as women rarely wrote letters in those days, let alone to their spouses. It was considered sacrilege, if not worse. Here too she addresses her husband by name. She discusses social issues with her husband in them. There is this sense of two friends and comrades sharing their public and personal life that comes through these letters. Their mutual love and trust is more than evident from them.
I reproduce one of these poignant letters.
29 August 1868
Naigaon, Peta Khandala
The embodiment of Truth, My Lord Jotiba,
Savitribai salutes you!
I received your letter. We are fine here. I will come by the fifth of next month. Do not worry on this count. Meanwhile a strange thing happened here. The story goes like this. One Ganesh, a Brahman, would go around villages, performing religious rites and telling people their fortunes. This was his bread and butter. Ganesh and a teenage girl named Sharja, who is from the Mahar (untouchable) community, fell in love. She was six months pregnant when people caught them and paraded them through the village, threatening to bump them off.
I came to know about their murderous plan. I rushed to the spot and scared them away, pointing out the grave consequences of killing the lovers under the British law. They changed their mind after listening to me.
Sadubhau angrily said that the wily Brahman boy and the untouchable girl should leave the village. Both the victims agreed to this. My intervention saved the couple, who gratefully fell at my feet and started crying. Somehow I consoled and pacified them. Now I am sending both of them to you.
What else to write?
Indeed, “Jovitri” are a truly modern couple even by the standards of the 21st century!
The Phule couple shared a very close and loving bond. They had mutual love, respect, loyalty, and commitment to each other and their common lifework.
Savitri was probably one of the first published women in modern India, and was able to develop her own voice and agency at a time when women of all classes were ruthlessly suppressed and lived a sub-human existence. She was actively supported and constantly encouraged in this endeavour by her husband and mentor Jotiba.
Savitri was a major figure of her time. An able and committed companion to her husband, she was a revolutionary leader in her own right. Despite tremendous obstacles, she rose to become a productive, inspiring and capable teacher, leader, thinker and writer.
Savitribai’s life is a lesson in rare courage and integrity. The historic handicaps of caste, class and gender in 19th-century Maharashtra could not restrain or subdue her indomitable spirit.
- Braj Ranjan Mani, Pamela Sardar, ed, A Forgotten Liberator: The Life and Struggle of Savitribai Phule, Mountain Peak, New Delhi, 2008
- Deshpande G. P., Selected Writings of Jotirao Phule, Left Word, 2002
- Hari Narke, Dnyanjyoti Savitribai Phule, Savitri Phule Memorial Lecture, NCERT, 2010.
- Hari Narke, ed, Sahitya ani Chalwal, Marathi, Maharashtra Government, 2006
- Lalitha Dhara, ed, Phules and Women’s Question, Dr Ambedkar College of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai, 2011.
- Lalitha Dhara, ed, Kavya Phule (English translation by Ujjwala Mhatre), Dr Ambedkar College of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai, 2012.
- M. G. Mali, Krantijyoti Savitribai Jyotirao Phule, Asha Prakashan, Gargoti, 1980.
- Dr M. G. Mali, Savitribai Phule-Samagra Vangamaya, Maharashtra Rajya Sahitya Sanskriti Mandal, Mumbai, 2006 (first edition: 1988).
- Dr K.P. Deshpande, Agniphule: Savitribai Phule Yanchi Kavita: Swaroop ani Samiksha, Nutan Prakashan, Pune, 1982.
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