Dr. Gail Omvedt was an American-born, Indian sociologist and a human rights activist. She was a prominent writer and has published various books on different subjects like the anti-caste movement, Dalit politics, and women’s struggle in India. Remembering her, a special discussion was held by the Center for Human Dignity and Development (CHDD), IMPRI Impact, and Policy Research Institute. The discussion was organized under #WebPolicyTalk series #InMemoriam. A special discussion, Remembering Dr. Gail Omvedt: Taking a Perspective of ‘Land, Caste, Class & Gender’ to the Global Audience.
The discussion had an esteemed panel of eminent professors and scholars consisting of Prof Vibhuti Patel, Eminent Gender Economist, and Feminist, Former Professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, acting as a moderator for the session, Dr. Bharat Patankar, Leading Activist, Shramik Mukti Dal, Peasant Movement, South Maharashtra, Architect, Equitable Water Distribution Movement, Maharashtra, Prof Manisha Desai, Department Head, Sociology; Professor of Sociology and Asian and Asian American Studies, University of Connecticut, USA and
Prof Surinder S. Jodhka, Professor of Sociology, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, Prof Arvinder A. Ansari, Professor, Department of Sociology, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, Prof R. Indira, Scholar-in-Residence, Centre for Women’s Studies, Bangalore University, Bengaluru, Former Professor of Sociology, University of Mysore, Dr. Ajay Gudavarthy, Associate Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, Dr. Umakant, Independent Scholar, New Delhi.
Background of Dr. Gail
Prof Vibhuti Patel started the discussion by expressing her personal experience while working with Dr. Gail Omvedt on various subjects like exploitation of women in households and rights of workers. She also appreciated her scholarly way, her joyful way of living, and the importance of discipline in her life. She talked about her contribution to the fields of women’s rights and way of living. Further, she elucidated upon her academic interests and her success in the same field.
Motivations and Goals
Then the stage was taken by Dr. Bharat Patankar, who was not only her companion in life but also in her goals and work. He started his talk with the description of her first book, her Ph.D. Thesis, which was deeply influenced by Jyotiba Phule. He highlighted her inspiration and explained her way of work in the field of land and agriculture. He then showcased her determination towards “social democracy and the abolition of caste exploitation and its annihilation”.
He highlighted her opinion on women’s exploitation, and her goal of eradicating it from every aspect of the life of a woman, eradicating it would be a step towards a more favorable and equal society. He proposed his thoughts on the discussion and said “this topic should also include water in it” as it impacts lives on various basics. At last, he expressed his experiences as an activist and a practical theorist. She was very enthusiastic about going to difficult areas, where living without basic life amenities would have been exceedingly difficult, but she was so determined she never spoke a word about the discomfort.
Prof Manisha Desai expressed her condolences and talked about her first encounter with Gail Omvedt through reading her work on the condition of women in western India. She further talked about Dr. Gail’s global impact on various subjects, like transnational feminism, and how the brilliant works of Dr. Gail influenced it as an academic discourse. Rather than the impact of the works of Dr. Gail on academicians, her works lit the fire of various intellectual questions in their minds, which lead to the development of different theories and ideas.
She also talked about the similarity in the works of Dr. Gail compared with the significant works of the subject “Black Feminism”. Similar ideas and influences were found, according to her. She talked about subaltern feminism and the ideas which Dr. Gail brought in the subject is incomparable, how she brought conceptions of land and caste or various ecological issues.
Prof Surinder S. Jodhka expressed his joy at Dr. Gail being celebrated on various platforms, and went ahead and put his opinion of being more alive in a different manner. He talked about the conception of India that is being created today, which is in the minds of everyone. He went beyond Dr. Gail’s experience in India and spoke about her youth, her experiences as an activist during the 70s, and how it influenced her way of life.
He brought the method of her arguments and works, which are not only significant but notable changes, in the preview of understanding caste in the nation. He presented his opinion on her works as a sociologist and acknowledged her fluency in the subject matter. He talked about some of the essentials for a peaceful and equal utopian society, on which Dr. Gail worked.
Dr. Gail’s Work
Prof Arvinder A. Ansari talked about Jyotiba Phule and his analysis of caste existence and exploitation and talked about Dr. Gail’s idea of creating a utopian city of Begumpura, the city without sorrow, caste, class, without an existing urban structure. She highlighted the ability of Dr. Gail in bringing essential questions for creating a fair society. Her ability to question the status quo was something that made her brilliant in academia.
Not only this but her ability to bring the different conception from the thin threads of the society which is hidden in the private most of the time was brought to light by her. She highlighted how she has a profound influence on women of India and how it has not only strengthened their opinion and enlightened them but also worked and became their idol.
Dr. Gail’s Approach to Life
Prof R. Indira firstly spoke about the experience of meeting Dr. Gail in person. She was0 not only a talented writer but also a passionate academician. She initiated various theories in the subject and also highlighted them and brought them to life by working for their better. She treated her writings not only as theories but as a way of life. She goes on to suggest that the way she led her life is the ultimate way for a social scientist to live. The questions which she brought are not only relevant for Dalit or women-based movements but every start of every movement.
She talked about her love for the local language and how it bridges a connection between the actual stakeholders, it doesn’t detach them. At last, she suggested a simple and humane approach to living life and working for the better just like she did and liked, rather than contesting the fear of activism that has been created in the nation.
Her Work from a Political Scientist’s Perspective
Dr. Ajay Gudavarthy brought his observation as a political scientist regarding the works of Dr. Gail. As a political theorist, she was imminent, not only did she propose various ideas but also proved them right in real life by her experiences. He highlighted that her opinions on Ambedkar are very much right and her works have been up to a certain extent influenced by Marx.
He emphasized that she was an exceptionally good political theorist, and talked more about reconstruction, unlike any theorist. She also pointed out the difference in the ideas of Marxists, about the global south. He talked about the support of the Bahujan community towards Dr. Gail. He believes her theories stand out because they were based on her experiences, which were not from a global perspective but at a local level she has done a tremendous job while bridging the gap between theory and real life.
Involvement with the Bahujan Community
Dr. Umakant, answering the first question, mentioned how and why Dr. Gail was so popular among the Bahujan community. It was how she was connected; she was so reachable and accessible, which made her one of the favorites of the Bahujan community. He went on and underscored her works as a facilitator of the Bahujan community and the great legacy which was established, being out of the Bahujan community.
According to him, she views every theory or idea with a Bahujan lens. She presents a different opinion about caste, which was different from various famous perspectives. He explained her as a person, who has no difference between words and deeds. He was much impressed by the multi-subject level approach in her works and present it from a different, comprehensive perspective.
After each speaker comprehensively presented their perspective, the floor was open to a discussion where Prof Jodhka concluded his perspective and recommended continuing this discussion. At last Prof. Nagmani Rao, talked about her experience working with Dr. Gail at remarkably close levels, rather she highlights her debates on several topics with Dr. Gail. She talked about her day-to-day experience being an activist, what difficulties they face, and what joys they achieved, all along with Dr. Gail. In the end, the discussion ended with a general vote of thanks, while remembering Dr. Gail Omvedt.
Acknowledgment: Ayush Aggarwal is a Research Intern at IMPRI