Wednesday, December 1

Gail Omvedt: American Sociologist Who ‘Lived By Her Principles’ Among Poor Indians | Global development

In the village of Kasegaon, in India’s rural western Maharashtra region, large crowds turned out in August for the funeral of an American-born white sociologist whom many locals saw as one of their own.

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

Gail Omvedt, who had made Kasegaon her home for more than 50 years and died there in the 1980s, was a prominent figure in the movement against caste and women’s rights. He defended the most marginalized in Indian society. As one scholar put it, she “really practices[d] what feminists call prefigurative politics, that is, living according to your principles ”.

Omvedt renounced his American citizenship in the 1980s. He wanted to live, marry, and die among the people he fought for and wrote about.

“[She] He left all his US sociocultural privilege. [to] working for the Indian Dalits, ”says Somnath Waghmare, a Maharashtra-born filmmaker who worked closely with Omvedt while making a documentary about her life, which has yet to be released. “Dalit Indians love and respect her for [their] hearts. “

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

Gail Marie Omvedt was born on August 2, 1941 in Minnesota. Her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, 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 struggle against the castes and had dedicated their lives to what was known as the main non-Brahmin population.

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

Cynthia Stephen, an Indian writer and poet, describes Omvedt’s intellectual legacy as unique and incomparable. “He begins with his own journey growing up during the civil rights movement in the United States and then was inspired by his teacher to study popular anti-caste movements in India.

“But what is even more remarkable is how he was able to transcend his color, caste, class and educational privilege, practically discard all these advantages and mix with the lives of the rural working classes, women and Dalits and Adivasis, identifying with them. to a degree that even most Indians did not, ”he says.

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

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

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

Stephen, who is also a gender and development policy researcher, said that Indian scholarship, “a slave both to Brahminical worldviews and to the powerful influence of leftist ideologies, largely ignored the work of all thinkers and thinkers entirely. writers against castes and lower castes “. ”.

“It was thanks to the work of scholars like Gail… Eleanor Zelliot and Rosalind O’Hanlon that these works saw the light and became the center of academic attention. So the world owes a debt to these women who brought the best of intellectual traditions, but also an anti-colonial perspective to the scholarship and intellectual results of the Dalit-Bahujan Fellowship in India, most of whom were largely ignored. measured by the Indian academy. “

Omvedt wrote more than a dozen books, most notably Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India, which, Stephen says, “spanned two centuries of low caste struggle, up to the last days of Dr. Life and work of Ambedkar ”.

“This is of particular importance as it highlights the fact that ordinary 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, ”he says.

Paying tribute to Omvedt, Manisha Desai, director of sociology at the University of Connecticut, says: “Beyond her enduring and long-term commitment, what was unique about her work from today’s point of view is how little she focused on issues of individual identities and how much he sought to understand the complexities of each group rather than seeing them as homogeneous entities in binary opposition to each other. “

Omvedt also influenced feminism in India and around the world, Desai says. “In India and internationally, Gail highlighted the importance of not only colonial but also pre-colonial gender hierarchies, as they were reinterpreted by colonial capitalism and later by post-colonial and neoliberal capitalism; the failures of nationalist and left movements in addressing gender justice; the importance of seeing the differences between women, even among poor women, Dalit women were not undifferentiated; the importance of access to land for their material well-being; recognizing the knowledge of women and drawing on local cultural traditions of protest and struggle, ”she says.

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

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

“Dedicating your life to a people and fighting in a land far from yours, being both humble and writing theoretically sophisticated texts, truly practicing what feminists call prefigurative politics, that is, living according to your principles, while working for the revolution, are remarkable qualities that few practice. It was an honor to have met her, ”says Desai.

Omvedt is survived by her husband, Bharat Patankar, her daughter Prachi, who is a US-based global justice and feminist activist, and her granddaughter Niya.

Omvedt’s daughter said that since she was a child, she witnessed her mother’s deep dedication to building bottom-up social movements among ordinary people, for anti-caste, feminist and left-wing transformation.

“My earliest memories are of sitting on his shoulders during 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, this was our daily culture. My mother instilled in me the commitment to carry forward the legacy of this political work, linking class and gender justice, caste and racial justice, everything, to carry this forward, wherever I am, throughout my life. , towards the shared dream of Begumpura. . “

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