File photo of Gail Omvedt. | Credit: Twitter/@Prksh_Ambedkar
File photo of Gail Omvedt. | Credit: Twitter/@Prksh_Ambedkar
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The outpouring of emotion on social media after the demise of Professor Gail Omvedt showed how some of her work and achievements have even reached the non-academic arena. “Gail Omvedt” remained on national trend for hours on the day of her demise. The immediate question is why someone like Omvedt has always been celebrated but an author such as the Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy, who wrote the introduction to one of the editions of Annihilation of Caste, got pushback from the people whose story she told.

The difference is allyship versus appropriation.

What made Gail Omvedt so special and why did other activists and authors never get such traction from the masses, especially from the subalterns and the Dalit-Bahujan public sphere?

In this context, I propose that we investigate the two towering and popular personalities — Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy. Both associated themselves with people’s movements and have written and talked extensively. It perplexes me that both of them were, and still are, questioned by the classes of people whom they claim to represent or whose story they tell.


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Medha Patkar’s Narmada Bachao Andolan campaign

Medha Patkar led a movement for the resettlement of evictees of Narmada Dam. She is an anti-big dam activist and has received global recognition and awards for her work. Her claim to fame is that she fought for the rights of the Adivasis (Scheduled Tribes) of the Narmada Valley. She is one of the most celebrated activists in India and abroad, and has got ample space on corporate media platforms.

Though it might not be her fault, or might not have been deliberate, it’s a matter of fact that Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) has failed to produce any notable Adivasi leader. She entered the group of the Narmada Dam evacuees at a later stage. The affected people were already agitating there. Movement for resettlement of displaced and evacuees did not start with the advent of the NBA.

This might not be Patkar’s plan, but for some or other reason, the Adivasi leadership was invisiblised by the media and also by authors like Arundhati Roy, who wrote a long essay and a book supporting the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Like Patkar, Roy has also been getting ample space in corporate media despite being vociferously against the big corporate and present development paradigms.

Omvedt raised the issue of appropriation and allyship way back in 1999. She asked the question of the invisiblisation of Adivasi leaders in Narmada Bachao Andolan. She cited a poem by activist Waharu Sonavane, which summarises some of her concerns:

We did not go on to the stage,

Neither were we called.

We were shown our places,

told to sit.

But they, sitting on the stage,

went on telling us of our sorrows,

our sorrows remained ours,

they never became theirs.

Later, Waharu asked a scathing question to Sanjay Sanghvi of the NBA: “Why is it that there is no top-ranking Adivasi leadership in the NBA?” Sanjay had only this to say, “But all our village leaders are adivasis.”


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Arundhati Roy’s edition of Annihilation of Caste

Similar questions were asked when Roy and S. Anand published the Annotated Critical Edition of Annihilation of Caste. The Annihilation of Caste by Dr B.R. Ambedkar was already quite a popular text. It was actually a speech, which was supposed to be delivered at a conference of Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal in Lahore, but the organisers became uncomfortable after seeing the written speech. The speech was never delivered and Dr Ambedkar later got this published in 1936. Roy wrote a long introduction, almost three times the size of the original, dedicating a substantial part to the Gandhi-Ambedkar debate, which even had a separate title. This was a complete contradiction to the essence of the Annihilation of Caste which has nothing to do with Gandhi or Ambedkar.

Ambedkarite authors and activists opposed the way Dr Ambedkar’s text was appropriated and produced a book titled ‘Hatred in the Belly: Politics behind the appropriation of Dr Ambedkar’s writings.’ In the preface of the book, the editors, Anu Ramdas and Kuffir argue that “Ms Roy’s introduction and S. Anand’s attempt to make a ‘scholarly’ intervention on Ambedkar’s personal and textual legacy exemplifies the symptomatic supremacist attitudes of the ruling class Indians. It could at best be seen as being afflicted by an unexamined saviour syndrome and at worst, as a display of casual racism.”

One may argue that the Ambedkarites, or for that matter the Dalits or the Bahujans, are in no way the only custodians of Dr Ambedkar’s writings, and anyone and everyone has the “right” to write on this topic. But to make a claim that she or he will take Annihilation of Caste to the new readers certainly sounds ludicrous, as Annihilation of Caste is one of the most popular texts and it is freely available on the internet and that too with annotations. Hundreds of Dalit and Bahujan publishers have reproduced this book and they made it available in almost all Indian languages.


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Gail Omvedt’s approach

I would argue that the critique of Patkar and Roy may sound too harsh and prejudiced but this tells us about the difference between allyship and appropriation. This debate tells us about the mistakes many well-intentioned people make while partnering with a movement or a cause. Patkar and Roy, in this case, tell us how not to carry out such partnerships. I am not privy to their thought process or motives but they were under the constant gaze of some of the subaltern groups for whatever they did while aligning themselves with their cause. Their anti-dam rhetoric always sounded anti-farmer. Their opposition to big dams has some merits but they never provided an answer to the question of how drought-prone areas will get water for irrigation. Pitching these farmers against the dam evacuees was a strategy used by the governments, and Patkar and Roy never provided an answer to this problem. I would even like to ask them why a section of Indian and global elites and big NGOs always sided with them, and why they got the limelight in the corporate-controlled media.

This brings us to the role Omvedt played in social movements, and why such allegations could never be hurled at her. Perhaps the reason is that despite being a celebrity author and academician, she never grabbed the mic. She was always there but as a comrade, not a hero. She was a theoretician and an activist at the same time but never hogged the limelight. She got her share of attention but nobody complained that she took it away from someone else. We need to study her texts, which are dense at times, but more importantly, we should study her methods and methodologies to know how an organic intellectual appears.

The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. Views are personal.

[Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Omvedt raised the issue of appropriation and allyship in 2009. It has been updated to reflect that the source dated back to 1999. A reference to Medha Parkar having won the Ramon Magsaysay award has also been removed.]

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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