On the Passing of Gail Omvedt: An Eternal Force Against Caste and Patriarchy

“Caste mode of production is based on the exploitation through caste relations of production and gender relations of production. Surplus generation process in this mode of production goes through a graded hierarchy, pumping up the surplus to the state and the castes that are at the highest position in the hierarchy,” said Dr. Gail Omvedt at a workshop on ‘Integrational mobility among Scheduled Castes in Bihar’ held at the Anugrah Narayan Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna, in May 2018.

Researcher, author and one of the salient intellectual voices of the Bahujan movement, Gail Omvedt passed away on August 25. She was 81. An American-born Indian scholar, an academician par excellence, a prominent sociologist and a tireless human rights activist, she was actively involved in myriad movements related to the anti-caste cause, women’s movements, the environment, farmers and the right of the displaced.

Born in Minneapolis in the US state of Minnesota, Omvedt went to Carleton College and then pursued her doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley. While studying at college in the US, Omvedt took an active part in the anti-war movement. She first came to India in 1963 and then in the 1970 as a PhD student to study caste, social movements and Jyotirao Phule’s movement in Maharashtra.

She wrote her thesis on ‘Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non Brahman Movement in Western India, 1873-1930’. Moved by the agonising casteism in the country, she decided to settle in a village named Kasegaon in Maharashtra to toil for the emancipation of the productive-oppressed castes. Among her many achievements and responsibilities, Omvedt was the head of the Phule-Ambedkar Chair at Pune University’s department of sociology, and a professor at the Institute of Asian Studies, Copenhagen. Her work at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi is paramount.

Also read: India Will Remember Gail Omvedt Forever

Óne of Omvedt’s most imperative works are her translations of Jyotiba Phule’s works. In the chapter ‘Phule’ in her book Seeking Begumpura, Omvedt writes,

“Phule, however, was quick to stress that the bureaucracy has two faces: it is both British and Brahman. The aishya aarami or ‘lazy and indolent’ white bureaucrats were described as dependent on the lower-level dhurt arya bhat or ‘cunning Aryan Brahman’ black bureaucrats, who found ample field for exploitation, weaving a web of power that ranges from bureaucracy to village-level services, from religion to the courts. In the end, then, in Phule’s view British rule had only consolidated brahmanic power. ‘Indolence’ yielded ground to energetic ‘cunning’ in fashioning the exploitation of the sudra-ati-sudra peasantry.”

Omvedt’s association with freedom fighter, activist, and prominent social worker Indumati Patankar made Omvedt come face-to-face with the trials and tribulations of Indian women against patriarchy. In the inaugural lecture on feminist discourse organised by the Department of Sociology, Savitribai Phule Pune University, Omvedt had vocalised,

“These shades are not only related to the various theories but also realities of women’s exploitation related to the caste, class, race, gender, community and religion-based exploitation. Though the central question is related to gender, it exists in real life intertwined with these other forms of exploitations.”

A believer of mass feminism and abolition of gender exploitation, an advanced thinker and a compassionate reformer, Omvedt believed in the

“rights of women on natural resources like water, wind, sun, forests and sound waves to have ecologically sustainable, renewable-based and decentralised production processes…equitable water rights for organic agriculture…Experimenting for a new kind of commune homes initiated by women.”

Omvedt married Bharat Patankar, the son of Indumati Patankar, and an unequivocal follower of B.R. Ambedkar and Phule, and an activist across multiple domains. Referring to this, Omvedt, in her UC Berkeley introduction, writes that she married into a Bahujan peasant farming family in western India. The respective peasant family falls in the Shudra community as per the caste order.

An Indian citizen since 1983, she and her husband Bharat Patankar founded the Shramik Mukti Dal in 1980 to fight the challenges before the caste-oppressed, farmers and those displaced and affected due to the construction of dams.

While taking casteism to a global level, which had been hitherto wilfully sidelined by the oppressor castes, Omvedt created mass awareness. From tracing the history of the anti-caste movement from Kabir and Ravidas to Ambedkar and Periyar, Omvedt amalgamated umpteen ideas for the umbrella cause of the anti-caste discourse.

An active member of BAMCEF (All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation), she was a white woman who could speak flawless Marathi, who would address seminars and conferences, encourage cultural and literary movements, write pioneering critiques in newspapers, and work at the grassroots for Bahujans, workers, the environment and women’s rights. From documenting the history of intellectuals to doing on-ground journalism to researching archives, Omvedt excelled at it all.

Also read: Gail Omvedt on the Indian Feminist Movement and the Challenges It Faces

Omvedt believed that mobility and caste are antithetical, and that the casteist system makes it impossible for the majority of the labouring castes to have socio-economic mobility. Throughout her prolific writing career, she authored over two dozen books, including Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals, Jotirao Phule and the Ideology of Social Revolution in India, We Will Smash This Prison!: Indian Women in Struggle, Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India, Violence Against Women, New Movements and New Theories in India, Reinventing Revolution: New Social Movements and the Socialist Tradition in India, Dalit Visions: The Anti-caste Movement and the Construction on an Indian Identity, Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste.

These books encompass a colossal range of issues, from anti-caste history to gender to political economy. They are necessary reads to comprehend the concerns of SCs, STs and OBCs – who have been hitherto exploited and traumatised by the oppressor castes.

Dr. Gail Omvedt’s death then, is not only individual, but is rather, a loss to the world; to anti-caste, feminist, farmer rights and labor discourses, and to the few hopes we still hold onto when it comes to humanity. Still, her works shall forever continue to elucidate and enlighten the causes that concern the oppressed; causes that have been ruthlessly created by the oppressors.

Ankita Apurva was born with a pen and a sickle.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty