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Gail Omvedt: An extraordinary scholar who researched on Phule-Ambedkarite tradition

Gail Omvedt with Vidya Bhushan Rawat, Bharat Patankar
By Vidya Bhushan Rawat* 
Gail Omvedt is no more. She passed away on August 25, 2021 in Kasegaon. On August 18, I went to see her along with my dear friend Rahul Nirmal. Her condition was deteriorating and her partner Bharat Patankar was doing everything to serve her at their ancestral house in Kasegaon, Maharasthra, where Gail and Bharat decided to live and work for the people.
Gail is known for her extraordinary documentation of the Ambedkar-Phule movement in Maharashtra. Her work on Maharashtra’s Bahujan poets and Sufis which she translated from Marathi into English shows her commitment to the cause of the Ambedkar-Phule ideology.
Some of her important works are ‘Cultural Revolt in Colonial Society: Non-Brahmin Movement in Western India 1873-1930’, ‘Dalit & Democratic Revolution’, ‘Dalit Vision’, ‘Understanding Caste from Buddha to Ambedkar and Beyond’, ‘Songs of Tukoba’, ‘Seeking Begumpura’, ‘Untouchable Saints’, and ‘Jyoti Rao Phule and Ideology of Social Revolt in India’.
She was not an arms chair scholar but would meet people as well as work with Bharat Patankar, who works on water rights of the Konkan region, which is remarkable.
Gail was born on August 2, 1941 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States. Her ‘affair’ with India started since 1963-64 when she visited the country. She was impressed by Dalit as well anti-caste movement. Her PhD work too ensured that she visited the country again in 1970-71.
She got married to Bharat Patankar in 1976 and became an Indian citizen in 1983. Despite her wide-ranging engagement with academia, invitation for lectures in universities and elsewhere, it was Kasegaon which was her first love.
I came to know about Gail through her work that I found at Dr Mulk Raj Anand's place in the early 1990s. I was actually staying at his place in Delhi where I got access to extremely important work of literature, particularly that of the Dalit Bahujan movement. I had no understanding of it in the beginning, but my major interaction with Gail started around the year 2004.
I had been writing, blogging and working and she got attracted to my writings and work about manual scavenging communities in Uttar Pradesh. She was very keen to develop an organisational partnership and spoke to many people about 'consciousness raising' work that we were planning to do together in the form of bringing out publications, videos and personal stories via oral and other mediums.
Whenever she would come to Delhi, she would write to me to come over to South Extension. She was keen on people like me, who have worked on the ground, to be brought to work with academia. In fact, when she was working with the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), she said that people like me and Chandra Pradhan Prasad, who has been contributing through their writings and work, must be associated with research work in various universities. For her, this kind of fieldwork was extremely important to promote new ideas.
When she became part of the Balijan cultural movement, she wanted me to be part of it and I joined it because I felt her presence was enough to motivate all of us. Of course, there were many issues which she herself was uncomfortable with, but she was courageous and categorical whenever she spoke.
At a Balijan meet in Nagpur, when all were discussing our work together, an issue came as to who could be a member of the Balijan movement. Prof Kancha Illaiah was chairing up the session. Some of our friends from Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh spoke of 'exclusivism' of Dalit, OBC, minorities, Kabirpanthis, etc. making it virtually impossible for anybody else to be a member. The formulation was clearly identity-based as many people wanted to mention clearly that no 'outsider' can be a member of the movement.
Gail was upset about it. She said that if such criteria became part of it, it would be difficult for her to be a party to such a movement. In fact, in an interaction, I said she was more Indian than me as she came to India in 1963-64 while I was born in four years later.
I wanted to interview her many a time but somehow it could not happen because of her busy schedule and her own research work. Also, as we had been speaking regularly, I realised, perhaps, she was not comfortable with it. One day, I had planned to interview her when she was in Delhi and we met on the rooftop of the Indian Social Institute.
I took some of her snaps but the interview could not happen. After that when I visited Pune two years back, I thought, along with Bharat Pataknar, I would interview her, but she was not well.
I have been deeply influenced by Gail's work, particularly her work on Dalit Bahujan Saints and their humanism. Perhaps that kind of work was not done before, particularly the translation of their Marathi poetry into English. For a non-Marathi speaking person to know about the Saints and poets from Maharashtra, she became the reason to read their work. She shared with me many of her writings.
For me the most important thing was acknowledging my work and encouraging me to write and bringing documents of oral traditions, particularly Saints like Kabir, Ravidas, and others. She was keen on encouraging young ideologues and build up a network of such writers, filmmakers, activists who can bringing consciousness among the fellow citizens.
Her work spoke for her even when she would not allow herself to be in the front, a thing very different than other academics who are known more for their 'visibility' and not through their 'work'. The amount of work Gail has produced is not merely extraordinary but inspiring, especially considering that a person who may not have born here, may not belong to a particular caste or communities, yet shares the passion as a humanist. In fact, she never showed any sign of arrogance.
Gail would often speak to me about Bharat Patankar's work related to water conservation as well as people who constructed small dams, which suggested that water right does not mean right to access to drinking water, but also rights of the farmers to have water for their crops.
Her critique of Arundhati Roy's works upset many people. Many people felt that she was 'deliberately' critiquing 'Marxism' and was soft on the Christian Church, but these arguments are complete overreactions. Gail's works are too big to be reduced to a one-liner. Her ‘Dalit Vision’ is the need of the hour. All the Dalit Bahujan saints actually spoke of humanism, love and compassion.
In a commentary published in the ‘Economic and Political Weekly’ (EPW) titled “Capitalism, Globalisation, Dalits and Adivasis”, she explains:
“To ask Dalits, women and others to simply ‘fight globalisation’ at the cost of taking up real democratic demands, without carrying out a real analysis and understanding of how to deal with the situation they find themselves in, is a recipe for disaster. It may also be a recipe for keeping the leadership of any movement concentrated among a male, upper caste elite as well as one for becoming politically irrelevant. What is needed is an alternative not only to the present system, but also to the left and ecological challenges to it. (EPW, November 19, 2005).
She was keen that Ambedkarites should work with other marginalised communities, especially manual scavenging communities. It is my work with the community in Ghazipur around 2004 that got her in touch with me. She once asked me to find what do the Valmiki community people think of Saint Raviadas, whether they celebrate his Jayanti or not.
Her critique of Arundhati Roy's works upset many. Others felt that she was deliberately critiquing Marxism and was soft on Christian Church
For me, her work was not merely in writing books. She was also keen to build a team of young writers, activists, thinkers, social action people who can bring stories from the ground, document oral traditions, and bring various communities together. Her understanding of movements and acknowledging their diversity is the key for our generation.
Over the years, she was getting involved in the Balijan movement and other such movements dedicated to the Phule-Ambedkar ideology. Fact of the matter is, Gail was not merely an academic but worked along with Bharat Patankar and other friends to build Shramik Mukti Dal, Stree Mukti Sangharsh and Shetkari Mahili Aghadi. Clarity of her views on women’s rights and autonomy are best reflected in in an interview with noted writer-translator Meena Kandaswamy, where Gail says:
“Caste can only survive if women’s sexuality is controlled! To keep the jati identity you have to keep marriages within the jati. In Marathi it’s said roti-beti-vyavahar, ‘exchange of bread and girls’, has to be within the caste. For that to happen, girls have to be guarded and married off when they’re pre-puberty, so there’s no danger to the caste. The man is not polluted if he has sex with anyone, because the semen goes out; the woman is polluted because she takes it in. (This is the way many anthropologists analyze it). So — Manu says, ‘Women when young must be under control of their father, when adults under control of their husbands, when old under control of their sons, women must never be independent’.”
To another question, Gail was clear about the issue of land and property rights for women when she said:
“Ambedkar’s words, ‘educate, agitate, organize’ – still hold good for all of us. And women should fight for their land rights; the only reason they don’t have these rights is that the whole system is so patriarchal that only men are viewed as heirs of names, property, and land. This is part of caste-patriarchal oppression and we have to fight together to end it.”
When the Unique Identity (UID)  process was started by the government under UPA in August 2011, she advised us to sign petition against it as “this is getting to be too much intrusiveness. PAN cards are enough, why the need for UID?”, she asked.
She was a dedicated to the ideals of Satyashodhak Samaj established by Jyotiba Phule in 1873 and questioned the census procedures and demanded caste to be included in it. That was the time when we all were demanding caste must be part of the census. She termed the current model of development as unsustainable.
She would participate in group discussions and did not hesitate to disagree and speak up strongly on the issues which she felt were wrongly mentioned. When some Ambedkarites were criticising VT Raj Shekar, editor, of “Dalit Voice”, she wanted them to know the history of the person and then react:
“I would not call VTR a lunatic. He sometimes takes extreme positions which I also don't like, but he is a very nice person. You young people should have some concern for heritage. VTR ran Dalit Voice for years, and it was for years the only organ in which Dalits could really find a voice. Argue against him, but do it nicely. In fact that is also a Buddhist message. ‘Engaged Buddhism’ means that. ‘Right speech’ does not mean we only talk sweetly like the Dalai Lama. We may sometimes need to talk harshly to have an effect on our enemies.”
Actually, in today’s social media world when our ‘intellectualism’ has confined to ‘twitter’ and where people are not even aware of the intellectual history of the movement, Gail’s words are actually full of wisdom. It is sad many young activists know little about the rich cultural and literary heritage of the Ambedkarite-Phule movement in India as most of them have confined them to political parties and rhetoric.
Gail’s contribution to the Dalit Bahujan movement in India in terms of strengthening it through documenting the historical oral traditions, which often get neglected, will always show young activists and academics to work on the ground. At a time when most of the Ambedkarite academics do not move beyond their drawing rooms, she worked with people which resulted in each of her work as landmark.
Nobody would have written the history of the non-Brahmin movement in Maharastra with such power and grit unless there was a conviction. Her horizon was definitely wider than many of her contemporaries who focussed more on critiquing Brahmanism but did little to bring out the glorious Bhakti traditions of Bahujan Samaj.
Her writings and articles will always be considered among the best researched pieces on Ambedkarism, Dalit Bahujan movement and Untouchable Saints. She only strengthened the values set up by her predecessor in the Ambedkarite writings from the United States, Eleanor Zelliot. Gail’s work showed that if you are really committed to the cause, it does not matter where you are born and who you are.
---
*Human rights defender

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