Champion of equality: Remembering Gail Omvedt’s legacy of scholarly activism

Published : Aug 25, 2023 08:19 IST - 9 MINS READ

Today, August 25, 2023, marks the second death anniversary of Gail Omvedt.

Today, August 25, 2023, marks the second death anniversary of Gail Omvedt. | Photo Credit: Leah Thomas

Omvedt devoted herself to the struggles of Dalit-Bahujans, farmers, and women in India. Today marks her second death anniversary.

When was it that I first heard of Gail Omvedt? It must have been sometime during the mid-1980s. She was an international scholar, I was told by a professor, and lived barely 20 km from our college, in Kasegaon, a nondescript village along the Pune-Bangalore highway that snaked through some of the most spectacular countryside in southern Maharashtra.

To the west rose the heaped summits of the Sahyadris, their salubrious table-tops crowned by the colonial-era hill stations of Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani, and on the east lay the low and strikingly bare Mahadeo range that sank gradually into the vast, drought-prone tracts of the Deccan plateau.

The land was rugged and blessed with a revolutionary spirit reinforced by a fundamental value in peasant society and culture. Children grew up listening to stories of Satara’s liberation from the British in 1942 through an armed peasant revolt—Prati Sarkar or the parallel government movement—that only people over 50 recall now.

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My generation, born in the 1960s, grew up amid the rich sugarcane fields that dotted the fertile river valleys and came to regard the network of cooperatives, together with dams and canals, as the symbol of all that was progressive, pleasant, and tranquil in our land.

Gail had quit the United States to settle here. “I was born in Minneapolis, went to Carleton College, and came out to Berkeley only after my first year in India, in 1963-64, returning to India in 1970-71 to do my PhD dissertation and then to finally ‘settle’ there in 1978,” she wrote in her curriculum vitae for the UC Berkeley website.

Gail was married into what she described as “a middle caste (Bahujan) rich peasant farming family” and became an Indian citizen in 1983. Since then, she lived in Kasegaon with her husband, Dr Bharat Patankar, a medical doctor-turned-social activist, and other members of an Indian joint family.

The Patankar family had played a pivotal role in the ‘Prati Sarkar’ and continued to associate actively with the State’s progressive movements. However, tragedy struck after Independence. Bharat’s father, Babuji, who was a key leader in the parallel government movement, went missing under mysterious circumstances in 1952. His body was never found. The initial years after Independence saw a series of killings of leftist leaders in the region as a ruling class comprising wealthy Marathas and a few other backward castes or OBCs rose to power.

Gail Omvedt with her husband Bharat Patankar at the Koyna backwaters in the Sahyadri Range, part of the Western Ghats

Gail Omvedt with her husband Bharat Patankar at the Koyna backwaters in the Sahyadri Range, part of the Western Ghats | Photo Credit: Anosh Malekar

Bharat’s mother, Indutai, was a freedom fighter of indomitable spirit. She had left her natal home at the age of 16 and made her way to join the Prati Sarkar movement. She continued the struggles both on the home and social fronts until her death at the age of 91 in 2017.

It was befitting in so many ways that Gail became part of the family. Her dissertation was on “Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non-Brahman Movement in Western India, 1873-1930”, and her academic writings included research papers and journalistic articles on class, caste, and gender issues.

Writing about the Satara Prati Sarkar in The Indian Nation in 1942, a collection of essays edited by Gyanendra Pandey, she pointed out that the revolt was not only against the British, but “in essence a revolt at both cultural and economic levels against feudal caste domination…. The theme of the peasant resurgence in Satara was the equalitarian and rationalistic ideology of [Mahatma Jotiba] Phule: that the caste system was not divinely ordained but a historical human creation that had to be destroyed; science, equality and education were the themes of the modern age.”

Soon, Gail immersed herself in the social movements pioneered by her mother-in-law and husband in southern Maharashtra, which included struggles of the Dalit-Bahujans, farmers, and women, and what came to be known as environmental activism.

In the semi-arid eastern plains of Satara and Sangli districts, recurring drought continued to vacate entire villages every other year, while in the Koyna river valley, around 10,000 families were dislocated thrice: in the 1950s, paving way for a rubble-concrete dam across the river; in 1967, after a devastating earthquake that rocked the region; and in the mid-1980s, due to declaration of a tiger reserve.

Gail and Bharat founded and actively led the struggles for rehabilitation of those displaced by dams and other upcoming projects, while also demanding an equitable share of natural resources to arrest migrations from the drought-affected areas. Their left-wing Shramik Mukti Dal, which tapped into the larger socioeconomic narrative about the rich getting richer and ordinary people having less and less, provided rare hope amid the unbridled greed and the craze to bulldoze fellow humans in the collective quest for ‘development’.

In the initial years, she tried to combine living in India and teaching in the US but when that did not work, she quit and settled in India. “I have taken something of the ‘great years’ of the 60s from Berkeley to India and vice versa!” she recalled. Gail continued with her research, writing, teaching and activism across India until the time came for her to move on from this earth, on the evening of August 24, 2021.

“I’ve had a variety of occupations, which might be described as ‘upscale unorganised sector’ jobs,” she wrote while referring to her three-year position as senior fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. Typically, Gail described it as “a prestigious place” that afforded her “the advantage” of not having “to be there very much of the time”.

But as one obituary mentioned, she “was that rare scholar who could virtually lock herself up in a room for three months and work on the manuscript of Seeking Begumpura and also go to the fields in the rain, walk muddy roads, and lead movements”.

I first met Gail in 1990 in Karad, the nearest town to Kasegaon, as a rookie journalist and recall being told that she did not like giving interviews. It did not stop me from pestering her through phone calls and later, emails. She always responded patiently and on the rare occasion even granted the request for publishing her writings.

The liberalisation of the 1990s had by now swept across the Satara landscape, changing the filigree of its socioeconomic and natural ecosystem forever. More dams and canals were coming up, along with expansion of roads and highways and wildlife reserves—much disliked by the rugged peasants who would rather work the land than migrate to big cities.

Gail’s writing had peaked—Reinventing Revolution: New Social Movements in India (1993), Gender and Technology: Emerging Asian Visions (1994), Dalit Visions: the Anticaste Movement and Indian Cultural Identity (1994) to mention only a few, proved timely contribution to Indian and international scholarships. There were other writings, too, in academic journals, mainstream and independent media. Her work, as she herself described it, “fell in between ‘expert scholarship’ and ‘activist journalism’”.

Bharat would list three of her books as “trendsetters”: Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society…, Reinventing Revolution…, and the more recent, Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste. He would also mention We Shall Smash This Prison: Indian Women in Struggle as “a unique contribution” that was based on her lived experiences with rural women. Gail’s Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India has been translated the most and appreciated the world over as pathbreaking scholarship.

Gail Omvedt and Bharat Patankar along with activists from the Shramik Mukti Dal in 2018 

Gail Omvedt and Bharat Patankar along with activists from the Shramik Mukti Dal in 2018  | Photo Credit: Anosh Malekar

I remember her intervening during a lengthy conversation between Bharat and me to suggest I read her translation from Marathi of Vasant Moon’s hard-hitting and engrossing biography, Growing Up Untouchable: A Dalit Autobiography, and Songs of Tukoba, which she and Bharat had translated together.

By now she had been accepted as a kind of ‘mother figure’ by the Dalit-Bahujans, the women, and other toiling masses of Maharashtra, as also the nation. Her scholarship inspired awe, both on Indian and foreign campuses. But there was trouble brewing on the home front, as predicted by Gail way back in the late 1980s.

Writing about the Prati Sarkar, she had observed that “an anti-imperialist, anti-feudal struggle can lead to a new bourgeois domination, if it is not carried forward under working-class leadership. The bourgeoisie can lead such struggles (in reformist, half-hearted ways) or it can take advantage of such struggles…. This is basically what happened with the Prati Sarkar.”

The end of British rule led to the rise of a new capitalist farmer class in the Satara region, who claimed leadership of the historical struggles but cleverly continued to exploit the toiling masses. Their accumulation of power and capital laid the foundations of seemingly progressive and modern institutions like sugar, dairy, banking, and credit cooperatives, besides educational societies. But goondaism, alcoholism, exploitation, and suppression of the rural poor continued to rise in the region. And so did religious nationalism. “They are, perhaps, a byproduct of rich farmer rule in the same way that alcohol is a byproduct of the sugar factories,” Gail wrote in 1988.

It was in February 2015 that I visited Kasegaon. Govind Pansare, a communist leader from nearby Kolhapur, had been shot near his home and died four days later. Narendra Dabholkar, a rationalist, was killed in a similar manner in Pune in August 2013. Bharat, too, had received several anonymous letters warning him to abandon his activism. The hatred had spilled over into their personal life, “Who is Patankar? His wife is a foreigner?” a threatening letter said.

Their ancestral home, a modest stone-brick structure in the old quarter of the village, had since been under the constant vigil of armed police guards. Gail was in poor health and hardly spoke a few words. But she would accompany Bharat on his daily outings, whether it was to meet the Koyna dam oustees or the drought-affected in Atpadi. They remained undaunted by the constant threats as I saw during several of our tours in the hinterlands.

Gail Omvedt and Bharat Patankar at Shramik Mukti Dal meeting

Gail Omvedt and Bharat Patankar at Shramik Mukti Dal meeting | Photo Credit: Anosh Malekar

Bharat and Gail remained oblivious of the world around them. They were still madly in love with each other. He remained captivated by her blue eyes and she couldn’t suppress a smile when he sang songs of the 1950s and 1960s from films such as Pyasa, Awara or Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam’ They also loved Tukoba’s devotional songs —“Good you made me Kunbi, else I would have died of hypocrisy. You have done well, O God, Tuka dances and falls at your feet.”

During her last hours, Gail was surrounded by loved ones, from her family and the movement, at their Kasegaon home. They bid her farewell, singing her favourite revolutionary songs in Marathi, Hindi, and English. “Le mashaale chal pade hain, log mere gaon ke…” (the people of my village are marching forward with the torch; the people of my village will be victorious in dispelling the darkness…), they sang in unison.

As the last line in Remembering Gail Omvedt and Her Legacy, a tribute volume published by friends and admirers on her first death anniversary, bid her farewell—“Rest in Begumpura, Gail!” It’s been another year since you left us.

Anosh Malekar is an independent journalist based in Pune.

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