The death of the social scientist Gail Omvedt (1941-2021) marks the passing of an era of activism combined with rigorous academics. Omvedt passed away on August 25 in her home in Kasegaon in Maharashtra’s Sangli district. She was 80 years old.
Hers was an extraordinary life. Born in Minneapolis in the United States, she chose India first as her academic and research home and later as her permanent home. She first came to India for research on her doctoral thesis on the ‘Non-Brahman Movement in Western India’, which was inspired by men like Mahatma Jyotiba Phule.
A social scientist, one of her primary areas of interest was on the writings and philosophies of Jyotiba Phule and Dr Ambedkar. She brought them to wide public consciousness especially in the 1970s when social activism was on the rise. In many ways she was the voice of the Dalit community at a time when their struggle had not yet received public validation.
Her work was almost all-encompassing, covering caste, class, gender, economics, tribal issues and socio-agricultural matters, especially with reference to rural women. Her publications were numerous. Among them were the following: Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non-Brahman Movement in Western India; Ambedkar: Towards and Enlightened India;Jyotirao Phule and the Ideology of Social Revolution in India; Dalit and the Democratic Revolution: Dr Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India;Understanding Caste: From Buddha to Ambedkar and Beyond ; We Will Smash This Prison: Indian Women in Struggle; Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals; and Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste. We Will Smash This Prison was a powerful recollection of her own involvement, along with Indutai Patankar, the veteran communist leader and her mother-in-law, in the movement for women’s rights in India.
Gail Omvedt and her husband, Bharat Patankar, formed the Shramik Mukti Dal in 1980 along with other activists as a means to organise farmers and peasants. The socio-political organisation incorporated communist thought along with the liberating principles propounded by Jyotiba Phule and Dr Ambedkar. Thus, they dealt with issues like water rights, caste oppression, the rights of those affected by infrastructure projects, and so on.
Never a shrinking violet, she was at the forefront of public protests, padayatras, rallies and conferences, addressing them in Marathi that was adequate enough to get her message across. Her foreign origins were never a deterrent either with her or with the authorities who treated her with kid gloves because of her intellectual fire and because of the support she had from the levels of society she wrote about.
About a decade ago, this correspondent was on an election tour with Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar in the Sangli region. Talk came up about the social movements of Maharashtra and inevitably Gail Omvedt’s name was mentioned. Pawar said he admired her strength, dedication and the way she had chosen to live in rural Maharashtra. He shook his head with admiration and said words to the effect of ‘formidable woman’ in Marathi. No doubt he, as a politician, and she, as an activist-academic, occupied different world views, but she was dedicated enough to draw his admiration and he was gracious enough to express it.
An original thinker who minced no words, she has left a void in the world of academic-activism. Fortunately, her thought and words are preserved in her writings.