Gail Omvedt: The Voice of the Dalits
THE death of sociologist Gail Omvedt on August 25 at her home in Kasegaon in the Sangli district of Maharashtra marks the end of an era of activism combined with academic rigor. She was 80 years old.
Hers was an extraordinary life. Born in Minneapolis, USA, she first chose India as her academic and research home, then as her permanent home after her marriage to Dr Bharat Patankar. She became an Indian citizen in 1983. She came to India to research her doctoral thesis on the “Non-Brahmin Movement in West India”, drawing inspiration from Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and other social reformers.
One of his main areas of interest was the writings and philosophies of Jyotiba Phule and Dr BR Ambedkar. She brought them into public awareness in the 1970s, when social activism was on the rise. In many ways, she was the voice of the Dalit community at a time when her struggle had yet to receive public validation.
Dalit activists who attended the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, compared caste discrimination to racial discrimination. They had argued that both viewed discriminated groups as inferior. Gail Omvedt had supported the position of the militants.
She openly criticized religious scriptures for similarly demeaning a section of society. In an open letter in 2000 to Bangaru Laxman, then chairman of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was published in The Hindu, she declared her position on the Rig Veda: “As for the Vedas, these are awesome books, especially the Rg Veda. I can only say this from the translations, but I am glad that the ban on women and shudras reading them has been lifted, and that good translations by women and the shudras themselves are available. But take them as something holy? Read them for yourself! Most of the hymns are for success in war, cattle rustling, love, etc. They celebrate the conquest; the hymns about Indra and Vrtra sound strangely as if the Aryans were responsible for destroying the dams built by the inhabitants of the Indus Valley; although archaeologists tell us that there is no evidence of direct destruction by the “Aryan invasion”, the Rg Veda gives evidence of the enmity between the Aryans and those they called dasyus, panis and others.
Her works were almost global, spanning caste, class, gender, economy, tribal issues, and socio-agricultural issues, especially as it relates to rural women. She has many publications to her credit. These included Cultural revolt in a colonial society: the non-Brahmin movement in Western India (2011); Ambedkar: towards an enlightened India (2008); “Jotirao Phule and the ideology of the social revolution in India” (Economic and political weekly, September 1971); Dalit and the Democratic Revolution: Dr Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India (1994); Understanding caste: from Buddha to Ambedkar and beyond (2012); We will break this prison: Indian women in struggle (1980); In search of Begumpura: the social vision of anticast intellectuals (2009); and Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Castes (2003). We’re gonna break this prison was a powerful memory of her own involvement, along with Indutai Patankar, the veteran communist leader and her stepmother, in the women’s rights movement in India.
Shramik Mukti Dal
Gail Omvedt and Bharat Patankar, along with other social activists, formed the Shramik Mukti Dal in 1980 to organize farmers and peasants. The socio-political organization incorporated communist thought as well as the liberating principles proposed by Jyotiba Phule and Ambedkar. They dealt with issues such as water rights, caste oppression and the rights of those affected by infrastructure projects.
Her beliefs gave her energy and drive, and with a personality that was far from a shrinking violet, she was at the forefront of public demonstrations, padayatras, rallies and conferences, addressing in adequate Marathi to get your message across. Her foreign origins were never a deterrent neither to her nor to the authorities who treated her with gloves because of her intellectual fire and because of the support she had from strata of society about which she wrote.
Gail Omvedt’s Wikipedia biography says that she “studied at Carleton College, Minnesota, and UC Berkeley, where she received her doctorate in sociology in 1973.… In the years leading up to her death, she was working as a sociologist consultant on gender, environment and rural development. , for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Oxfam Novib (NOVIB) and others. She has been a consultant for United Nations agencies and NGOs, was Dr Ambedkar Professor at NISWASS [National Institute of Social Work and Social Sciences] in Orissa [now Odisha], Professor of Sociology at the University of Pune, as Visiting Asian Professor at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Copenhagen, and as Principal Researcher at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. She has been a visiting professor and coordinator at the School of Social Justice at the University of Pune and a member of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla. Gail Omvedt was a former Professor of the Dr BR Ambedkar Chair in Social Change and Development at IGNOU.
About ten years ago, this correspondent accompanied the leader of the Nationalist Congress Party Sharad Pawar on his electoral tour in Sangli. The conversation turned to Maharashtra’s social movements, and inevitably, Gail Omvedt’s name was mentioned. Pawar said he admired her strength, her dedication and the way she chose to live in the countryside of Maharashtra. He shook his head in admiration and used a Marathi expression meaning “wonderful woman” or words to that effect. He, as a politician, and she, as an activist scholar, had different worldviews, but she was dedicated enough to gain his admiration and he was kind enough to express it.
Problem of large dams
Inevitably, there were clashes and disagreements. A complete and unabashed individual thought, she incorporated many perspectives to encompass her beliefs and principles.
In 1999, Narmada Bachao Andolan was at its lowest, but he received an instant boost with the publication of writer Arundhati Roy’s essay “The Greatest Common Good”. The hard-hitting test exposed the negative impact of large dams. Gail Omvedt had a different opinion and did not hesitate to express it. She wrote an open letter titled “Large Dams in India: Necessities or Threats?” to Arundhati Roy in July 1999, speaking in the crisp, pragmatic style that makes all of his writing so readable.
The letter read: “Dear Arundhati, I am sorry to have to write you a critical letter. I really liked ‘The God of Little Things’. I also appreciated your intervention on the nuclear issue. I was impressed when I read on Indian Express that you had decided to pay royalties to the Dalit Sahitya Academy. However, when it comes to the issue of ‘big dams’, I can understand the urgency you feel for the people of the valley and the victims of misguided development projects everywhere, but I have the impression that you miss a lot of things. There are important questions not only concerning the afflicted of the dams but also the afflicted drought, the problems of water for agriculture and democracy in popular movements.
“Are you so convinced that the thousands of dams built since independence have been an absolute evil? Or that the goal should not be to restructure and improve them rather than abandon them? Or that the struggle should not be to unite all rural people aspiring to a life of prosperity and success in the modern world – plagued by drought and dams – rather than simply taking up the cause of opposition to change? ”
Without entering into the rights and wrongs of the great dams and unfazed by all the legitimate adulation that Arundhati Roy’s essay was receiving, Gail Omvedt publicly expressed her point of view. The letter brought out the essence of her.
Public intellectual and original thinker who has not mince words, Gail Omvedt has left a void in academia and activism. Fortunately, his thought and his words are preserved in his writings. Gail Omvedt is survived by her husband, daughter and granddaughter.