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Gail Omvedt and the search of the utopian ‘Begumpura’

V Geetha writes: Having come of political age in 1960s US, she adopted India as her own country, writing and theorising on women’s and peasants’ movements, Dalit visions for a just society, Phule and Ambedkar, among other things

Written by V Geetha |
Updated: August 27, 2021 7:56:46 am
Dr Gail Omvedt (Twitter/Prakash Ambedkar)

A few weeks ago, on August 2, Gail Omvedt turned 80. A substantial portion of this worthy life was spent in India, the country she adopted as her own. Gail came of political age in the USA of the 1960s — the anti-war protests, the struggle for civil rights and the angry socialist feminism of those decades shaped her thought and left their deep imprint on her writings. And she wrote on a range of things — on feminism and women’s movements; the peasant question in post-independent India; Mahatma Phule, the Satyashodhak Samaj and the Non-Brahman movement in Maharashtra; Babasaheb Ambedkar and his vision for a universal, democratic politics; Dalit visions for the good and just society; Indian utopian thought; bhakti devotionalism in western India, especially the writings of Tukaram; Buddhism…

She wrote for an Indian as well as an international readership, moving with consummate ease between scholarly and popular journals, translating India for the world of left-leaning intellectuals of the US in the 1970s and 1980s, locating India’s agrarian economy, its discontents, class and caste dimensions within the broader rubric of Peasant Studies, and anchoring cultural revolt, and anti-caste thought within a universal politics of justice and liberation. She also brought into Indian debates to do with caste, class, gender, land, the environment and distributive justice arguments from Marxism, sociological thought on people’s movements, and histories of religion. She thus set up a fascinating and productive traffic between theories of progress, class struggle and the utopian future as these had emerged across the socialist world, and the histories of dissent and protest that obtained in the Indian context, and many of which had as much to do with anti-caste struggles as they did with workers’ resistance.

She learned as much from struggles on the ground, whether it was the Magowa left movement or the Indian women’s movements, or peasant struggles, and wrote and spoke from both locations — the library and the fields, her desk and the streets. Her lively debates with the Indian left in the late 1970s and with fellow feminists through the 1980s and 1990s are object lessons in principled civil argument.

Her early work on an emergent feminism in urban and rural India in the 1970s and 1980s remains unparalleled for its masterly combination of ethnographic detail and feminist theorising. She pointed to the ways in which lived realities, of social class and cultural caste framed women’s responses to the economy, conjugality and family, sexual choices … She reminded feminists that discussions to do with violence against women ought to go beyond mechanical Marxist interpretations as well as arguments drawn from the so-called “dialectic” of sex, and ought to take note of how social structures, especially caste and the family form in the Indian context, helped to normalise sexual and other forms of violence. She noted too the role played by the post-independent state in enabling a public culture of brutality, which then resonates in all spheres of life.

Her writings on caste were nuanced, and in all instances, whether writing of the non-Brahmin presence in early trade union struggles in Bombay, or of the peasantry in contemporary India, she sought to account for the resilience of caste identities, even as she pointed to the different ways in which they were undergirded by economic class. Her analysis was soundly materialist and while she granted the power and influence of ideology, did not dissociate it from the social contexts that nurtured it, and which, in turn, it served and strengthened.

Gail’s observations on peasant struggles in the 1980s and after, particularly her account of the Shetkari Sanghatana in Maharashtra proved provocative: She spoke of the peasantry as constituting a world of its own, which was being exploited by urban, industrial India. This led to a brilliant battle of ideas, which was fought out in the pages of the Economic and Political Weekly and which foregrounded the complex issues at stake. As important, the debate pointed to the need for social movements against caste and peasant movements for economic and social justice to be in continuous conversation with each other. Gail also made it clear that peasant movements ought to be viewed from the point of view of their female adherents and made a case for women farmers and their deep interest in evolving a sustainable agrarian economy. The ongoing peasant struggle as well as those of us who support it stand to learn a great deal from her work of the 1980s and 1990s, particularly with respect to the role played by women in agrarian production and their specific claims on equality and justice.

In her writings on social movements – in Rethinking Revolution – Gail insisted that we see the eruption of social movements, of women, peasants, environmentally beleaguered communities, anti-caste activists, and agrarian labourers as deeply linked in a temporal as well as normative sense. Rather than understand each of these in isolation, she suggested we see them as unfolding in a shared spatial universe, dominated by the same set of exploiting classes and castes.

Gail’s understanding of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s life and work, and the historical perspective she brought to her vision of Dalit struggles show us how these latter are to be viewed — as holding universal emancipatory potential that will liberate not only Dalits but all else from the thralldom of caste. Her Dalits and the Democratic Revolution, which brings together the stories of Dalit assertion across the country from the colonial period onwards pushes us to rethink our ideal of revolutionary change. Her subsequent work on the cultural core of anti-caste thought, Seeking Begumpura, and on Sant Tukaram, bear witness to her enduring interest in the rich inner worlds sustained by all those who fought caste and the Brahmin priesthood, and who evolved other and parallel worlds of spiritual vigour and creative energy.

Gail was an inspiring mentor for all of us who took to writing histories of anti-caste assertion. Her work on Mahatma Phule and the Satyashodhak Samaj was one of a kind, when it appeared, and set the tone for a rich body of evolving scholarship. For her part, she remained open to learning from scholarship in other parts of India and never failed to point to the country-wide presence of social dissent.

We will miss this wise and wonderful woman, and the ways in which she made her insightful reading of ideas, events and histories available to a wide public, combining rigour and engagement, argument and social affection.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 26, 2021 under the title ‘Searching for Begumpura’. The writer is a Chennai-based social historian and activist

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