Skip to main content

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

Comments

TRENDING

North Gujarat gram panchayat bars villagers from dealing with Muslim hawkers, traders

By Our Representative  A gram panchayat in North Gujarat has barred its residents not to buy anything from Muslim traders and hawkers. An order of the Waghasan group gram panchayat of Tharad taluka of Banaskantha district dated June 30 states that the decision has been taken in the wake of beheading of a Hindu tailor after he posted a derogatory writeup on Prophet Mohammad in Udaipur. The gram panchayat resolution says, anyone seen buying or selling any commodity from a Muslim hawker or trader would be fined Rs 5,100. Bringing this to light, Mujahid Nafees, convener, Minority Coordination Committee, in a letter to Gujarat chief minister Bhupendra Patel, says, the state government should take legal action against the panchayat chief who has signed the “unjust” order. The letter says, the act of the sarpanch and other signatories is a violation of rule of law of the state and threat to peace, pointing out, the move is in violation of Article 15 of the Constitution, which says that none

Technocratic globalism, tyranny? Health Ministry warned: bill to 'enslave' Indians

Sandeep Pandey, Tushar Gandhi By Rosamma Thomas*  Union of Concerned Citizens, a group comprising Magsaysay Award winner Prof Sandeep Pandey, human rights activist Tushar Gandhi, former judge of the Bombay High Court BG Kolse Patil, pediatrician Dr Jacob Puliyel and several renowned Indian citizens have written to the Union Health Minister cautioning him against tabling the draft Public Health Bill in the Monsoon Session of Parliament. “The Public Health (Prevention, Control And Management Of Epidemics, Bio-Terrorism And Disasters) Bill, 2017 and a Prospective Bill of 2022 as discussed in news articles, is straightforwardly violative of Fundamental Rights of the citizens of India and therefore, Ultra Vires of the Indian Constitution. It contravenes several International Treaties and Conventions including the Nuremberg Treaty of 1947 which was enacted to ensure that no country would repeat such inhuman medical atrocities on fellow human beings”, the 12-page letter reads. “Strangely, t

Unlike Soviet Union, Russia is no friend to India: Ukrainian scholar tells 'Indian friends'

Counterview Desk In an open letter to "dear Indian friends", Anastasia Piliavsky, born in Odessa, Ukraine, studied at Boston and Oxford Universities (on a Rhodes Scholarship), and now teaches at King’s College, London, has said that she faces "deep moral dilemma", personally and professionally, over the "astonishingly unified Indian response to the war in Ukraine." Based on her interaction with a "number of thoughtful and caring Indian friends", in this letter, she says, she is "reeling at the ubiquitous silence at, justifications of or outright support for Putin’s terror, which now prevails in India, at the ubiquitous #IStandWithPutin and #istandwithrussia hashtags." She insists, India must understand, "Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is no friend to India. Soviet leaders, beginning with (the Ukrainian) Nikita Khrushchev – who declared hindi rusi bhai bhai – built up deep political and cultural exchange with India." Text : I

'Drop all falsed charges': 150 citizens demand early release of AltNews co-founder

Counterview Desk  About 150 concerned citizens have demanded the release of Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of the fact-checkng newsportal AltNews, arrested over a 2018 tweet which allegedly hurt religious sentiments, even as booking for criminal conspiracy and having received foreign funds in violation of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). Denied bail last weekend and sent to 14-day judicial custody, the concerned citizens, in a statement, regretted that while the Delhi High Court issued notice to the Delhi police on a petition filed on behalf of Zubair challenging the legality and propriety of his police remand and the seizure of his electronic devices, the “frivolous case” continues. Excerpts: The illegal arrest of Mr. Mohammed Zubair happened on June 27, 2022, by the Delhi Police for allegedly hurting religious sentiments and promoting enmity over a tweet from 2018. The IPC Sections included 153(a) (Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race,

Chennai residents 'suffering': Faulty design, implementation of storm water project

By NS Venkataraman*  The Greater Chennai Corporation is now implementing storm water drainage project in 559 roads, covering a distance of 1033 kilometres, which cost around Rs 4,070 crore. For this massive project, which is targeted to be completed between April and September this year, huge loan has been availed from World Bank, Asian Development Bank and others. Several technocrats have pointed out that the project has been designed with outdated technology and quality of the implementation is so poor that the residents have been put to great hardships. As part of the project, digging of the road has been done to around 5 to 6 feet deep and width of around 4 to 5 feet. The drains are being constructed using steel reinforced cement concrete with two walls on either side with provisions for manhole, chute etc. This has been done in front of several houses leaving little space between the gate of the house and that of the drainage structure. As the work has been going on for mor

Prime Minister's 'affordable' housing policy fails to help Gujarat slum dwellers: Study

By Rajiv Shah  A new study on the implementation of one of the major policy initiatives for the urban poor by the Narendra Modi government after it came to power, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY), has said that in Gujarat, which happens to be the Prime Minister’s home state, has quoted state officials as “confirming” that no progress towards tenure regularization, a key requirement for providing housing to the state’s slum dwellers. Stating that this particularly true of smaller town, the study, carried out by the non-profit Homes in the City (HIC), which is based in Bhuj, district headquarter of Kutch that saw a devastating earthquake in 2001, says, the failure to provide affordable housing is there despite the fact that there has been “significant demand” in all the 83 out of 153 Gujarat municipalities studied by experts involved in the study. According to the study, out f a total of 1.41 lakh demands for housing under the Beneficiary Led Construction (BLC) category, 94,232 (66.7%)

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

'Contractor-official nexus led to RTI activist's murder': Fact-finding team seeks probe

Courtyard inside of PWD office where Ranjeet Soni was killed Counterview Desk  A fact-finding team* visited Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh (MP) on June 19, 2022 to meet with the family of Ranjeet Soni, who was shot dead on June 2, 2022 inside the premises of the PWD office in Vidisha. The objective was to gather information about the circumstances surrounding the death of Ranjeet Soni and his work on exposing corruption through the use of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. A report prepared by the team members says that Ranjeet had been extensively using the RTI Act to access information from the government, and upon receiving documents showing misuse of public funds or corruption, he was filing complaints to various authorities including the Lokyukta, Publi Works Department (PWD) and the Chief Minister’s Office. It notes, Ranjeet used to work as a contractor and often undertook government works in collaboration with other contractors, including those being investigated for his murder. A f

Electricity Bill: Centre's reform measures contain 'carrot and stick package' for states

Counterview Desk  The Peoples’ Commission on Public Sector and Public Services (PCPSPS), claiming to be a network of eminent academics, jurists, erstwhile administrators, trade unionists and social activists, seeking consultations with stakeholders with those who are against the government’s decision to monetise, disinvest and privatise public assets/enterprises, has said that the proposed Electricity (Amendment) Bill-2022 will have far-reaching impacts on the finances of states. Insisting that the proposed Bill would lead to “assault on India’s federal structure”, in a statement, it says, it would weaken the finances of states’ power distribution companies, have adverse impact on utility employees, cripple the states' finances, impose a heavy cost burden on the smaller subsidized consumers (especially farmers), and benefit only corporate business houses. “States cannot afford to ignore the far-reaching implications of the Bill on their economy, finances, agricultural and industria

'Highly abnormal': AltNews journo's arrest suggests 'deterioration in media freedom'

By Bharat Dogra*  Leading media organizations have come out in strong support of recently arrested journalist Mohammed Zubair. These organizations include, among others, the Editors Guild of India, the Press Club of India, the Delhi Union of Journalists and DIGIPUB, a platform for several important digital media organizations. All these organizations have condemned the recent arrest of the noted journalist and demanded his immediate release. While leading human rights organizations and political parties have also made somewhat similar statements, the strong support of media organizations is particularly important as the effort of the authorities has been to try to present the arrested journalist as someone who has been indulging in irresponsible journalism.  In such a situation the support of those media organizations who are familiar with his work and who are most capable of judging the quality of his work is very important. In this context it is important that some media organization