Gail Omvedt: American sociologist who “lived by his principles” among the poor of India | Global development

In the village of Kasegaon in rural western India of Maharashtra, huge crowds gathered for the August funeral of a U.S.-born white sociologist whom many locals considered one of their own. .

Most of the mourners were Dalits, who belong to the lowest caste of Indian society, previously considered “untouchable”.

Gail Omvedt, who made her home in Kasegaon for over 50 years and died there at the age of 80, was a prominent figure in the anti-caste and women’s rights movement. She defended the most marginalized in Indian society. As one scholar put it, she “really does[d] what feminists call prefigurative politics, that is to say live according to your principles ”.

Omvedt renounced her American citizenship in the 1980s. She wanted to live, marry and die among the people she fought for and wrote about.

“[She] left all his American socio-cultural privileges [to] working for Indian Dalits, ”says Somnath Waghmare, a Maharashtra-born filmmaker who worked closely with Omvedt while making a documentary about his life, which has yet to be released. “Indian Dalits love and respect her by [their] hearts.”

Waghmare says about 1,000 people attended Omvedt’s funeral. Her death garnered media attention in India and around the world, as academics and activists paid tribute to a unique sociologist in her field.

Gail Marie Omvedt was born on August 2, 1941 in Minnesota. Her doctorate in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley focused primarily on Savitribai Phule, known as the mother of Indian feminism, and her husband, Jyotirao Phule. The Phules, who came from Maharashtra, were among those leading the Indian anti-caste struggle and had dedicated their lives to what were known as the main non-Brahmin population.

Omvedt, who participated in anti-Vietnam War protests while living in the United States, moved to India in the 1970s and settled in Maharashtra, marrying into a family of freedom fighters. Her husband, Bharat Patankar, is the son of activists Indumati and Krantivir Babuji Patankar. Omvedt learned to speak perfectly Marathi, the local language, and also spoke Hindi.

Cynthia Stephen, Indian writer and poet, describes Omvedt’s intellectual heritage as unique and unprecedented. “It starts with her own journey growing up during the civil rights movement in the United States and then being inspired by her teacher to study popular anti-caste movements in India.

“But what is even more remarkable is how she was able to transcend her color, caste, class and educational privileges, virtually all of these perks, and blend in with the lives of the rural working classes, women and men. Dalits and Adivasis, identifying with them to a degree that even most Indians did not know, ”she said.

Gail Omvedt with her husband Bharat Patankar in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Photograph: handout

Bharat Patankar and Omvedt have worked on local and national causes and co-founded Shramik Mukti Dal, or Workers’ Liberation League, which started a mass social movement across India, highlighting the cause of farmers, villages affected by drought and communities displaced by dams. Omvedt has devoted most of its energy to gender and women’s movements. She was also a scholar in Buddhist philosophy.

Omvedt was also known for her work on BR Ambedkar, the social reformer and father of India’s post-independence constitution.

Stephen, who is also a gender and development policy researcher, said that Indian scholarship, “swayed both by Brahminic worldviews and the powerful influence of leftist ideologies, has for the most part completely ignored the work of all anti-caste and lower caste thinkers and writers. ”.

“It is thanks to the work of academics like Gail… Eleanor Zelliot and Rosalind O’Hanlon that this work has emerged and has become the academic limelight. The world therefore owes a debt to these women who brought the best of intellectual traditions, but also an anti-colonial perspective to the stock exchange and the intellectual outputs of the Dalit-Bahujan stock exchange in India, most of which have been largely ignored by the academy. Indian.

Omvedt has written more than a dozen books, including Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India, which, according to Stephen, “spans two centuries of debased caste struggle, right up to the last days of Dr. Ambedkar’s life and work ”.

“This is particularly important because it highlights the fact that the common people were very much at the forefront of the liberation struggle, not only from the British colonizers but also from the social, political and religious structures which exploited them. for generations and centuries, ”she says.

Paying tribute to Omvedt, Manisha Desai, head of sociology at the University of Connecticut, said: “Beyond her long-term and enduring commitment, which was unique in her work from a point of view she sought to understand the complexities of each group rather than seeing them as homogeneous entities in binary opposition to one another.

Omvedt has also influenced feminism in India and around the world, Desai says. “In India and internationally, Gail emphasized the importance of not only colonial but also pre-colonial gender hierarchies as reinterpreted by colonial capitalism, and later postcolonial and neoliberal capitalism; the failures of nationalist movements and the left to tackle gender justice; the importance of seeing the differences between women, even poor women, Dalit women were not undifferentiated; the importance of access to land for their material well-being; recognize the knowledge of women and draw inspiration from local cultural traditions of protest and struggle, ”she said.

The first All India Federation of Backward and Minority Community Employees (Bamcef) meeting in Nagpur in 1971
The first All India Federation of Backward and Minority Communities Employees (Bamcef) meeting in Nagpur in 1971, where Gail Omvedt was invited as the keynote speaker. The founders of Bamcef Kanshiram and DK Khaparde are in the background. Photograph: handout

Desai says Omvedt’s book Seeking Begumpura was particularly interesting – Begumpura refers to an Indian utopia for a place without pain.

“To devote your life to a people and their struggles in a country far from yours, be both humble and write theoretically sophisticated texts, truly practice what feminists call prefigurative politics, that is, live according to your principles, while working for the revolution, are remarkable qualities that few practice. It was an honor to have met her, ”Desai said.

Omvedt is survived by her husband, Bharat Patankar, her daughter Prachi, an American activist for feminism and global justice, and her granddaughter Niya.

Omvedt’s daughter said that since her childhood she has witnessed her mother’s deep dedication to creating bottom-up social movements among ordinary people – for anticast, feminist and leftist transformation.

“My earliest memories are sitting on her shoulders at marches and rallies in rural and indigenous areas of western India, and singing activist songs with other children,” says Prachi Patankar.

“The living traditions of Tukaram, Savitribai Phule, BR Ambedkar, it was our daily culture. My mother instilled in me the commitment to further the legacy of this political work – linking class and gender justice, caste justice and racial justice, all – to move it forward, wherever I am, throughout my life, towards the shared dream of Begumpura. . “

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