Obituary

Long Live Comrade Gail

A tribute to Gail Omvedt, a white American sociologist who left Dalits in mourning.

By , a New York City-based Indian writer and journalist.
Gail Omvedt stands in a doorway
American sociologist Gail Omvedt stands in the doorway of the Bibi Ka Maqbara monument in Aurangabad, India, during a trip with her husband to attend a national rally against caste atrocities in 2014. Bharat Patankar

Gail Omvedt, an 80-year-old Minneapolis-born sociologist, died in Kasegaon, a sleepy village town in the Indian state of Maharashtra, in late August.

Chants of “Long Live Comrade Gail” and “Red Salute to Gail Omvedt” (a popular leftist slogan in India) permeated the air as her funeral procession slowly made its way from the modest single-story home she shared with her husband, activist and human rights advocate Bharat Patankar, to the open field where her last rites were conducted. The ceremony took place in accordance with Buddhist rites and rituals, the practice Omvedt had adopted in the 1970s soon after she moved to India from the University of California, Berkeley.

Close to 700 men and women, most of them Dalit—those who occupy the lowest level of India’s caste system—attended the ceremony. To unsuspecting onlookers, a crowd of formerly “untouchable,” “lower-caste” Indian men and women chanting, singing, and mourning an octogenarian white American woman might seem odd. But for those in the know, it was only a fraction of the love, gratitude, and respect the Dalit community in India and the United States felt for their beloved “Gail.”

Gail Omvedt, an 80-year-old Minneapolis-born sociologist, died in Kasegaon, a sleepy village town in the Indian state of Maharashtra, in late August.

Chants of “Long Live Comrade Gail” and “Red Salute to Gail Omvedt” (a popular leftist slogan in India) permeated the air as her funeral procession slowly made its way from the modest single-story home she shared with her husband, activist and human rights advocate Bharat Patankar, to the open field where her last rites were conducted. The ceremony took place in accordance with Buddhist rites and rituals, the practice Omvedt had adopted in the 1970s soon after she moved to India from the University of California, Berkeley.

Close to 700 men and women, most of them Dalit—those who occupy the lowest level of India’s caste system—attended the ceremony. To unsuspecting onlookers, a crowd of formerly “untouchable,” “lower-caste” Indian men and women chanting, singing, and mourning an octogenarian white American woman might seem odd. But for those in the know, it was only a fraction of the love, gratitude, and respect the Dalit community in India and the United States felt for their beloved “Gail.”

When Omvedt first visited India on a Fulbright scholarship in 1963, she was already organizing student protests against the Vietnam War and had participated in the burgeoning civil rights movement in the United States. An academic and cultural interest in India was not particularly uncommon in that era, with the intersecting hippie trail that ran through the country and parts of neighboring Nepal, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s India visit in 1959 and his subsequent interest in its nonviolent struggle for independence against the British, and the heavily publicized trip by the Beatles a few years later.

But Omvedt wasn’t simply interested in the notion of a flagrantly spiritual, tidily sanitized, and mostly Hindu India. She studied at Carleton College, Minnesota, under the tutelage of Eleanor Zelliot, who was among the earliest American academics to study the enforced divisions in Indian society from the marginalized perspective. Omvedt wanted to learn about something that was pointedly and deliberately kept under wraps at that time: caste.

When Omvedt—and Zelliot before her—arrived on the scene, Indian sociology and academia were overrun by nationalist academics who mostly ignored caste and framed an “orientalist, Hindu idea of India as if that was the actual history of India,” in the words of acclaimed professor Surinder S. Jodhka in a recent online tribute to Omvedt.

Although Omvedt’s early work focused on the ongoing women’s rights movement in India, it was mostly her work on Jyotirao “Jyotiba” Phule, a caste revolutionary from the 1800s who along with his wife, Savitribai, established the first formal school for girls in India, and B.R. Ambedkar, the Dalit-born founding father of India’s modern anti-caste movement and the architect of the country’s constitution, that gained her notoriety.

Her work brought into sharp focus the intersections of caste hierarchy, class, gender, land ownership and accessibility, and the environment all at the same time—a remarkable achievement for an academic in the late 1970s and 1980s, when the concept of intersectionality was still on the distant margins of mainstream Western academia.

In that era, almost all Indian-born academics were “upper” caste due to deeply entrenched systemic caste discrimination that effectively barred Dalits from higher academia. Most of these academics thus viewed caste as a consensual system rather than one of forced submission and discrimination by birth. As a result, that view erroneously and dangerously came to be the generally accepted understanding of India around the world: a country with deep class and gender issues but where caste either didn’t exist or didn’t make much of a difference.

Omvedt challenged these caste-based and hierarchal ideas—not just by directly and incisively calling them out in her work but also by bringing her organizational skills to the front lines of several peasant, feminist, anti-caste, trade union, and worker struggles in India.

In the 1980s, along with her husband, who was from a “lower-caste” peasant family, and her mother-in-law, Indian independence revolutionary Indumati Patankar, Omvedt co-founded Shramik Mukti Dal, a sociopolitical organization that supported displaced Indigenous people and farmers and addressed caste, environmental, water, and drought issues.

Although she traveled nationally and internationally for work, Omvedt and Patankar decided to make the village town of Kasegaon their home so they could be close to those whose movements they helped organize and ensure their daughter, Prachi Patankar, now a well-known anti-caste activist based in the United States, received a primary education in the Marathi language and fully understood the specific kind of graded inequality Dalits suffered.

“Gail did not sit in an ivory tower,” said Shailaja Paik, an associate professor of history, women’s gender studies, and sexuality at the University of Cincinnati and one of the handful of Dalit academics in the United States. “She spent time learning from the lives and experiences of the people she was writing about. When I was a student, there were few people writing about Indian history with a Dalit perspective. Her work is influential and revolutionary.”

Omvedt’s decades-long engagement and friendships with Dalits, other “lower-caste” Indians, Adivasis (the self-chosen name for Indian Indigenous people), working-class people, and farmers combined with her razor-sharp acumen and sparkling moral clarity made her a prominent and effective champion of Dalit and Adivasi rights. Yet she made a point to center the leadership on those whose rights she was advocating for, a rarity in the celebrity-studded activist milieu of 1980s and 1990s India.

In the early 2000s, for instance, Omvedt famously wrote an open letter to Booker award-winning author Arundhati Roy, questioning Roy’s criticism of the so-called “big dams”—a group of hydroelectricity and irrigation dams, which at the time were commissioned to be built on India’s Narmada River and threatened to displace a population of the local Adivasi people—as part of Roy’s advocacy work with the Narmada Bachao Andolan activist movement in India.

“Gail did not sit in an ivory tower. She spent time learning from the lives and experiences of the people she was writing about.”

Citing what was an extremely unpopular opinion at the time, Omvedt questioned why there was no Adivasi leadership spearheading the movement, given they were the ones being displaced, and argued the farmers in those areas needed the dams for agriculture.

Her fierce advocacy for Dalits and other marginalized people led Omvedt to be sidelined in Indian academia for decades. Chinnaiah Jangam, an associate professor in history at Canada’s Carleton University, noted that as recently as the 1990s, anti-caste literature by Omvedt and others was only accessible through underground Dalit networks in India, and as a Dalit student, he’d struggled to find material that could validate his lived experience of caste oppression.

For many Dalit academics, students, and writers, Omvedt’s radical transparency and anti-caste perspective became something of a refuge in the otherwise invalidating, oppressive, and silence-inducing culture of Indian academia.

To this day, weeks after her death, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube continue to brim with stories about her unassuming presence and approachable manner—and how she rarely pulled rank or talked down to the multitude of Dalit, Adivasi, and other “lower-caste” and marginalized students who crammed her lecture halls and seminar rooms for decades.

Fluent in English, Hindi, and Marathi, Omvedt’s whiteness almost paled next her anti-caste crusade for justice as many “untouchable” Dalits, often humiliated and discriminated by our fellow brown-skinned “upper-caste” Indians, can attest—myself included. While writing my book Coming Out as Dalit, Omvedt’s work sustained and nourished my own vision, giving me the unflinching courage to stand by my ideas and the academic support to draw from my personal history of oppression for a nonfiction account.

Since launching her canonical theory on anti-caste movements in India in the 1960s, it seems the world has finally caught up with the ideas Omvedt has been advocating for decades. As Hindu fundamentalist forces threaten to overtake the civil discourse not just in India but also here in the United States, attempting to intimidate Dalit and radical scholars into silence, Omvedt’s work is more relevant than ever and deserves the global recognition long denied to her.

While Dalits around the world continue to mourn her absence, Omvedt left us with Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals, her last book, which contains a vision of an egalitarian, anti-caste utopia conceived of by 15th- and 19th-century Dalit writers. In the spirit of holding on to hope, as difficult as that might currently seem, that vision is something none of us can stop striving for.

Yashica Dutt is a New York City-based Indian writer and journalist and the author of Coming Out as Dalit. Twitter: @YashicaDutt

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