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Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Pune: Scholar-activist behind seminal work on Phule, caste, dead

Throughout her life, she and Patankar worked to alleviate the conditions of the marginalised and the exploited, including tribals, Dalits, peasants, labourers and women, setting up the Shramik Mukti Dal in the '80s.

Written by Anuradha Mascarenhas , Partha Sarathi Biswas | Pune |
Updated: August 26, 2021 6:55:42 am
Dr Gail Omvedt had studied sociology and got her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, during the restive 1970s.

ONE of India’s foremost caste scholars, as well as noted author and activist, Dr Gail Omvedt passed away Wednesday after a brief illness at her residence in Kasegaon in Maharashtra’s Sangli. The 81-year-old who was born in Minnesota in the US but made India her home had authored books on Dalit politics, women’s struggles and anti-caste movements and co-founded the Shramik Mukti Dal with her husband, activist Bharat Patankar.

In 2000, addressing the fourth Dr Ambedkar Memorial Annual Lecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Omvedt had called the leader “India’s most significant figure” as it assessed “the past millennium” and laid out ” hopes and visions for the new one”. “Ambedkar’s vision of a new social order can be summed up in the way in which he so often did, with the great slogan of the French Revolution, ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’. I would change the final term to ‘community’ because I think it captures for our gender-concerned times the real meaning of the final term. Liberty, equality and community are the three most important components of a human vision for the new millennium,” Omvedt had said.

Throughout her life, she and Patankar worked to alleviate the conditions of the marginalised and the exploited, including tribals, Dalits, peasants, labourers and women, setting up the Shramik Mukti Dal in the ’80s.

Omvedt had studied sociology and got her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, during the restive 1970s. Deeply involved in student movements, including anti-war protests against the Vietnam War, she developed resistance to all forms of exploitation at this time. She came to India for research as part of her doctoral thesis on non-Brahmin movements in western India, and met here the famous Maharashtrian freedom fighter and social activist, Indumati Patankar, whose son Bharat she would later marry. She took Indian citizenship in 1983.

As part of her work, Omvedt travelled extensively across Maharashtra, interacting closely with people across caste and class barriers. “Back in those days, she took the effort to come to India and learn Marathi. Leaving behind a life of luxury in the US she spent her whole life in Kasegaon, which proves her dedication to the cause,” says Communist leader Ajit Abhyankar.

Omvedt’s thesis went on to become a seminal guide for other researchers on anti-Brahmin movements in western India, initiated by the revolutionary efforts of Jyotiba Phule in the 19th century. Abhyankar asserts it was Omvedt who first studied the political implication of Phule’s Satyashodhak Samaj, which led to new research in it. “The assertion of the political identity of the movement was of immense help to the Left movement in the state,” he says.

Alongside working with women in Sangli and Satara, her scholarship saw her rising to the board of many research institutes and universities like Savitribai Phule Pune University, the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies and Indira Gandhi National Open University. In recent years, she was associated with the United Nations Development Programme as a consultant on various issues.

“Gail’s close association with grassroots movements of rural women farmers, forest dwellers and women-headed households, and her involvement in the newly-formed women’s rights movement during late 1970s, were captured in her engaging and inspiring first-person account, We Shall Smash this Prison! Indian Women in Struggle (1980). During 1970s, 1980s and 1990s we worked together for several padyatras, rallies, national conferences, gatherings in rural and tribal areas, travelled to attend a conference in Nandurbar, shared rooms in seminars and conferences, which gave us opportunity to engage in lively discussions on the political economy of caste-class-ethnic issues determining women’s predicaments, property rights of tribal and rural women, need for rural-urban solidarity and support…,” says Dr Vibhuti Patel, vice-president, Indian Association for Women’s Studies, and a veteran feminist.

In a statement, the Dalit Intellectual Collective called Omvedt “one of modern India’s most original thinkers”. “She did not let feminists forget that caste and class must be spoken of along with gender at all times.”

Omvedt is survived by husband Patankar, daughter Prachi and her husband Tejaswi, and grand-daughter Nia. Her last rites will be performed Thursday, on the Krantiveer Bapuji Patankar Sanstha campus.

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