When your morning messages and updates have only one person in their sharing, then it can be safely assumed that person was central to many people’s lives and interests. It is rare to find such acceptance across the board. Gail Omvedt, an American-born Indian scholar, prolific writer, public intellectual, researcher, activist, and founder of socio-political movements, is one of those.
Gail Omvedt passed away on 25 August 2021 at 10 am at her village in Kasegaon, Sangli, Maharashtra at the ripe age of 80. Omvedt was born on 2 August 1941 in Minneapolis. She attended Carleton College and went to University of California, Berkeley for her doctorate. She was one of the first among American scholars who truly spent time with the oppressed people trying to unearth their archives for an international audience that was otherwise only fed a Brahminical, elitist point of view.
Omvedt first came to India in 1963 and then came back again to research on her PhD dissertation in 1970. Her dissertation “Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non-Brahman Movement in Western India, 1873-1930” was submitted in 1973, which was eventually published as a book with emphatic appreciation from social justice movements in India.
The era of 1960s and ’70s saw the emergence of peace movements in the West. The new culture of finding soul and freeing it from the trap of consumerism and imperialism was trying to find solutions elsewhere, to find a true meaning of life. The East became a hub of a new generation of activists fighting against war, nuclear arms, ethnic and colour violence, with the touch of Communist struggle. The university and college campuses in America did not budge down and dared to face the might of the empire, its police and capital.
This approach of delving into other cultures and learning from them brought the famous hippy culture. When the Western world was trying to learn various traditions from India and grasping the mostly Brahminical approach of the Indic past, there were honourable exceptions who chose to study the real, ideal, and people’s India as opposed to the privileged castes’ India.
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Making India her home
Gail, as she was fondly called by her friends and colleagues in India and abroad, took up a teaching position in San Diego after submitting her PhD dissertation, but the distance between her home and her loving country, India, was becoming impractical. She finally chose to settle in India in 1978 and eventually married a Shudra caste activist, Marxist, Phuleite Dr Bharat Patankar. Omvedt relinquished her American citizenship to become Indian in 1983.
Gail was a household name of the Dalit and worker rights activists of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. I grew up listening to her and another American scholar Eleanor Zelliot’s names. One could notice a white woman speaking fluent Marathi and addressing rallies, seminars, conferences, while also vociferously publishing seminal texts and offering public commentaries in newspapers, magazines, while at the same time theorising movements for the academic world. A polyglot thinker, Gail offered the required assurance to the anti-caste, workers’, environment, and women’s rights movements.
Like most activists, my father knew her and marvelled at her work. They had mutual interest in BAMCEF (the All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation), workers’ movements, and the power of literature and cultural movements. They would bump into each other at BAMCEF conventions.
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Vast body of research, anti-caste writings
The list of books authored by Gail is vast. She poignantly wrote about the social movements against caste, workers’ and peasant movements, and religion. She also authored books on the most important thinkers of the anti-caste world — Phule and Ambedkar — alongside a list of anthologies that combine archival research, ethnographic observations, journalistic reportage, biographical notes, and intellectual history.
For mainstream publishers in India, texts on Dalits were mostly guided and published by Gail. Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India and Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India profiled Ambedkar. Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste offered an anti-caste substance to the Buddhist revival and contrasting flavours with Brahminism that opposed the open, liberal, and universal social view of Buddhism. Her contribution to India’s feminism and the women’s movement is vital. We Shall Smash This Prison: Indian Women in Struggle was a landmark in that she assessed the variants of feminist movements.
Gail’s most famous text in recent times was Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals that literally subverted the elite paganism of the Indian crybabies over the European Renaissance. Putting aside these conventional tropes, Gail aptly put the modernist revival at the hands of Dalit and Shudra intellectuals — Chokhamela, Janabia, Ravidas, Kabir, Tukaram, who existed prior to or during the famous European modernity. This text shook me from inside. A spark ran throughout the body as I started devouring it.
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‘Our Gail’, a trusted friend
Gail’s writings were lucid and accessible. She wrote on a topic in a crisp and concise way. Her books are indispensable for students and the public to know more about India and its past. Almost taking the responsibility of filling the gap, Gail produced a scholarship in English. Her vast list of Dalit and Shudra caste collaborators, comrades and network of movements and their leaders is proof that Gail was a trusted friend. Along with her husband, she co-founded Shramik Mukti Dal (Workers Liberation Party) and remained a regular invitee and advisor to various movements across the board.
Whenever the Dalit movement was faced with challenges posed by Brahminical actors or foreign individuals, Gail was prompt to respond to and offer the nuanced perspective of Dalit response. During the famous World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, Gail was holding the fort strong to push back against the misguided apprehensions of the Indian government.
A recipient of several awards, fellowships, and professorships at national and international institutes, Gail Omvedt was the most influential American ambassador to India. She became an ideal for Western scholars on how to write, intellectualise, and reach scholarship into the masses. She could be seen on the streets leading a movement as easily as she would teach in classrooms or advise international bodies.
Omvedt represents a generation of scholarship and activism that combined diverse ideologies to fight out oppression. One could embrace Buddha, Phule, Ambedkar, Shahu, Marx and still not break each other’s head. Looking back, it seems like a delicious combination. Today’s generation will have to work very hard to develop a similar blend.
Gail is survived by her husband Bharat Patankar, daughter Prachi, son-in-law Teju, and granddaughter. She is immortalised in our memories. The community will not forget the grateful contribution of an unrelated, distant foreigner becoming “our Gail.”
Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters and an associate at Harvard University, is currently in Tuscany, Italy. He tweets @surajyengde. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)