Gail Omvedt: A scholar dedicated to Phule Ambedkar ideology

Amalendu Upadhyaya
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Gail Omvedt is no more. She passed away today i.e. 25th August, 202

1 in Kasegaon. On August 18th, I went to see her along with my dear friend Rahul Nirmal. Her condition was deteriorating and her partner Mr 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 Maharastra’s Bahujan poets and Sufis which she translated from Marathi into English shows her commitment to the cause of Ambedkar Phule ideology.  Some of her extremely 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, Jyoti Rao Phule and ideology of social revolt in India

She was not an armchair scholar but would meet people as well as work with Bharat Patankar who work on water rights of the Konkan region is remarkable.

Gail was born on August 2nd, 1941 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States. Her ‘affairs’ with India started in 1963-64 when she visited the country. She was impressed by the Dalit movement as well anti-caste movement. Her PhD work too ensured that she visit 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, an invitation for lectures in universities and elsewhere, it was Kasegaon who 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 writing and work about the 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 the publication, videos, personal stories, 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 be brought to work with academia. In fact, when she was working with IGNOU, she said that people like myself, 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 but I would say, she has been courageous and categorical whenever she spoke things. 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 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 it clearly that no ‘outsider’ can be a member of the movement. Gail was upset about it. She said that if such criteria become part of it then 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 four years later.

I wanted to interview her many times but somehow it could not happen because of her busy schedule, her own research work too. Also, as we have 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 at the rooftop of the Indian Social Institute. I took some snaps of her but the interview could not happen. After that when I visited Pune two years back, I had thought along with Bharat ji, I would interview her but she was not well at that time.  Frankly speaking, it was a very difficult interview that I did with Mr Bharat Patankar because Gail was sitting along with him virtually standstill and unresponsive.

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 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 was her acknowledging my work and encouraging me to write and bring document the oral traditions particularly the 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 be bringing consciousness among fellow citizens.

Her work spoke for her even when she would not allow her to be in the front, a thing very different from other academics here 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 too. That a person who may not have been born here, may not belong to a particular caste or community but share the passion as a humanist. That to work for the uplift of a community or society, you need committed ideology even when you may not be born in a particular community. She never showed any sign of arrogance to ‘speak’ or ‘lead’ the communities which a majority of those working in the communities have become. What I like about her was that she completely enjoys her work and has never boasted about it.

Her critique of Arundhati Roy’s work upset many people. I had actually questioned her on this but that was the time when Gail spoke to me about Bharat Patankar Ji’s work related to water conservation as well as people 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. Many people felt that she was ‘deliberately’ critiquing ‘Marxism’ and soft on the Christian church but these arguments are complete overreactions and perhaps those people read her from one angle. Gail’s work is too big to be reduced to such 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

Economic and Political Weekly titled Capitalism, globalisation, Dalits and Adivasis, she explains emphatically, “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, 19th November 2005).

She was keen that Ambedkarite should work with other marginalised communities such as 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 does the Balmiki community think of Saint Raviadas? Whether they celebrate his Jayanti or not.

For me, her work was not merely in writing books but she was also keen to build up 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 the movement and acknowledging its diversity is the key for our generation. Important for her to restart building these linkages and India need that humanist vision more than ever.

Over the years, she was getting involved in the Balijan movement and other such movements dedicated to the Phule-Ambedkar ideology. The 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 Mahila Aghadi.  The clarity of her views on women’s rights and autonomy are best reflected in In an interview with noted writer, translator Meena Kandaswamy,  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 the 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 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 was dedicated to the ideals of Satyashodhak Samaj established by Jyotiba Phule in 1873 and was part of the Balijan Cultural Movement and questioned the census procedures and demanded caste 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 Ambedkarite were criticising V T 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 been 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. This is sad that most of the youngsters active in these spaces 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 the time, when most Ambedkarite academics do not move beyond their drawing rooms, she worked with people which resulted in each of her works as a landmark. Nobody would have written the history of the Non-Brahmin Movement in Maharastra with that 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, the 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. It is important what do you do and what have you done so far.

Gail Omvedt has liberated herself from the pains that come with old age-related issues. Her husband Bharat Patankar remained with her till the end taking care of her. They were an ideal couple on the lines of Satyashodhak traditions. She may not be here physically but Gail Omvedt’s incredible journey to India through her work will always make her alive in the heart of scholars and activists particularly those keen to understand Phule Ambedkari traditions and socio-cultural movement in Maharashtra.


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