A Scholar Activist, an Activist Scholar
Surinder S Jodhka
I met Gail Omvedt in 1990, at the Centre for Social Studies (CSS), Surat, where I had joined as a faculty member, my first ever job. Omvedt had been a visiting fellow at the CSS for a few months, working on her book on the “new” social movements.
I had known her for a long time before that only through her writings. She had already published quite extensively, in Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) and elsewhere, and had some well-circulated books, after her PhD in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1970s. Some of these writings had also begun to appear as part of the required readings in courses of sociology and political science in Indian universities.
However, Omvedt was not a member of the faculty, in any academic institution in India or in the West, and was mostly seen as a marginal voice by the professional establishment, even though her publications were hard to ignore. She was perhaps also considered as an “outsider” because of the kind of perspective that she brought, which was very different from how the disciplines of social sciences had come to engage with subjects like caste and class, and later gen- der, environment and agrarian politics, topics that were very much her central concerns. Occasionally, her arguments
perhaps also upset established wisdom and challenged the conventions of main- stream academic disciplines of the 1980s. I still remember how one of our teachers during my master’s course felt compelled to ask us to read her paper on a topic we were discussing in class, but was perhaps also uncomfortable enough by her arguments to add cautionary footnote that he was not really persuaded by her arguments and they were not really relevant for a proper understanding of the subject.
Gail Omvedt, the Scholar
Omvedt was very clearly a different kind of scholar. When I met her in Surat, she had already become an Indian citizen though, as mentioned above, she had continued to remain outside the institutional context of the university teaching departments and research organisations. How- ever, for me, and for many others of my generation, this was not particularly relevant.
To us, Omvedt was primarily a social science researcher, who was doing an interesting and different kind of work. In some ways, many of us wanted to be like her, constantly engaging with the political questions of our times. She wrote on a range of contentious subjects and they evoked popular discussions. Her work touched on aspects of caste, marginalities, environment, gender and agrarian politics and represented a new kind of sociology and social science of India, which was emerging during the 1980s, in India and outside it.
She also theorised their intersections, without using the jargon of French philosophy or referring to the emerging stalwarts of “culture studies” in the United States (US). She, in fact, found enough theoretical resources in the writings of Jyotirao Phule and B R Ambedkar.
Interestingly, despite her serious and pioneering engagement with social science research, Omvedt did not present herself as a haughty academic. She rarely spoke about her writings and her on- going work during the informal chats we had at the CSS tea-time get-togethers or during inter-personal conversations.
It took just a couple of days for me to feel at ease with her, to ask her questions, seek her opinions and occasionally also express my disagreements with some of her positions. For Omvedt, engaging with younger scholars like me in a completely unassuming and accessible manner was not merely a personal or professional trait but perhaps also an expression of her larger politics.
As mentioned above, Omvedt represented something special to many students of my generation to come into the social sciences, because she symbolised a new kind of politics of social change. Her work also epitomised a politics of hope, a vision that had emerged from the protest movements of the 1970s. She had been a part of the anti-Vietnam War protests in the US and had witnessed how such movements could bring about significant social and political shifts.
By the 1980s, references to the anti-war protests had begun to appear even in the social sciences text- books, particularly those of sociology. The New Social Movements (NMS) that came up in the Western countries during the 1970s and 1980s around questions of race, gender and sexuality were the offshoots of the anti-war struggles in the US that had begun to spread globally.
In some instances, they had also questioned the prevailing wisdoms and theories of the “social.” One such challenge, for example, had been raised by young women of the sociology department of the London School of Economics. Inspired by the emerging criticism of mainstream American sociology, they had famously organised a novel protest against the visiting academic stalwart from the US, Talcott Parsons and his functionalist conceptualisation of family and “gender roles,” which naturalised women’s sub- ordination by attributing to them “affective roles” and conceptualising the institution of family as a tension-management system. Parsonian functionalism could never recover from these denouncements and had to be always discussed thereafter in sociology classrooms with reference to its conservative moorings.
As V Geetha (2021) tells us, Omvedt was 22 years old when she first visited India in 1963. She stayed back for a year, perhaps influenced by one of her teachers, Eleanor Zelliot, who had herself been a pioneer of Dalit studies. Omvedt came back again in 1971 to work for her dissertation on the non-Brahmin movement of Phule as a part of her graduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
Her doctoral dissertation went on to become one of the early studies of the backward caste social movements. She was soon ready with her first scholarly paper, which appeared in EPW with the title “Jotirao Phule and the Ideology of Social Revolution in India” (Omvedt 1971). Her dissertation too was published as a book in 1976, first by a Bombay-based organisation, the Scientific Socialist Education Trust and titled, Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non-Brahman Movement in Western India, 1873–1930. The book was republished by Manohar Publishers in 2011 and continues to be in circulation.
The core argument of her dissertation was around the class and caste effects of British colonial rule and how caste was be- ing reproduced and simultaneously recon- figured through colonial policies. With her focus on Maharashtra during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, she argued that colonial education and their policies had helped the Brahmin elites to move into the emerging occupations of influence in the colonial bureaucracy.
However, the non- Brahmins or Untouchables could not experience such mobilities and mostly remained on the margins. To put it differently, caste, for her, was not simply about ritual hierarchies but also a political process, about privileges and marginalities, and intersect- ed actively with class. It was for this reason that Phule’s movement was a “cultural revolt” and not simply a plea for “social re- form.” As she argued in her EPW paper:
Omvedt’s sociology and scholarship on caste was distinctive in a number of different ways. First, in the context of the disciplinary practices of sociology in the US of her time, it was extremely rare for a graduate student of her discipline to go out and study a society like India. The sociologists studied their own social contexts. The far- off countries of the developing world, the “other cultures,” were studied by social anthropologists. Her work was also different
for methodological reasons. Sociologists, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, rarely used historical methods. Their disciplinary tradition was to undertake surveys, interviews and observations, with which they generally studied the empirical context, using what was available empirically. Omvedt studied caste using a historical method.
As discussed above, she also approached caste differently. The reality of caste was more than the structures of Hindu ritual life, explained in the ancient texts of the faith, and theorised by scholars mostly guided by Orientalism, such as Louis Dumont. Even the historians of modern India began to explore the dynamics of caste and its intersection with colonial rule much later, mostly after the 1990s.
The Marxist scholarship too had generally accepted the Orientalist view on caste and shied away from studying its materiality or the political economy. Quite like the mainstream nationalist historians, they too had, until then, approached the contributions of Phule and Ambedkar as “reformist” efforts. It was perhaps for her use of historical method and a grounded perspective that enabled her to easily see the intersections of caste with class and gender, without seeing them as distinct “ideal types.”
The Scholar Activist
As is evident from the long list of her publications, including more than 25 books, Omvedt took her scholarship and her audience very seriously. Besides writing books, she also continued to publish in academic journals and frequently wrote columns in many English dailies of India. In order to make her writings accessible, she also wrote shorter booklets.
Many of her books and booklets were also translated into a wide range of Indian languages and sold even on the roadsides. Her readership, thus, was very wide and diverse. Anyone keen to learn about Ambedkar’s vision or Dalit politics could read Omvedt’s writings without worrying about any political twist that the author might have provided to the “original” Ambedkar or Phule writing.
Omvedt also occasionally held academic positions, like the one at the CSS. She was a chair professor in the sociology department of Pune University for a while, and later at the IGNOU in New Delhi. She was also a fellow at the Teen Murti for a while and visited several academic centres abroad. However, as mentioned above, she did not pursue a formal academic career and perhaps liked being an activist more than being an academic.
Her activism too had an academic flavour. She often took up issues with leading Indian scholars, always speaking for those on the margins and those mobilising for change. For example, she took on some of the leading Indian social scientists who questioned caste being invoked as a parallel concept with “race.” She not only sup- ported the move of the Dalit activists who wanted to press for it at the United Nations conference in Durban in 2001, but also re- minded scholars opposing the move that the latter too was only a “cultural and political construct.” After all, there was nothing inherently “real” or sui generis about “race.”
She similarly took on the mighty human rights activist of Hyderabad, K Balagopal, during 1986–87 in an extremely interesting debate on agrarian politics, defending the populist framing of it by the Shetkari Sangathana in the pages of EPW.
Sharad Joshi had famously argued for the surplus producing farmers of the post-green revolution rural India by invoking the binary idea of “Bharat versus India,” implying that the latter exploited the former through a structure of unequal exchange between the economies of the rural and those of the ur- ban. Most of the left-wing scholars saw this as a populist rendering of the agrarian question. Omvedt was one of the few scholars who unhesitatingly sided with the farmers. It would perhaps be worthwhile to revisit the debate more than three decades later in the context of the ongoing farmers pro- test at the borders of the national capital since November 2020 over the newly en- acted farm laws by the union government.
In the week after her passing away, al- most all English dailies and online news sites have published tributes by a wide range of people, including Dalits and feminist activists. Besides remembering her work and acknowledging her academic contributions, many of them have also highlighted how they see her as be- ing a part of their community life, their politics and their aspirations. This in- deed is proof of her success.
Omvedt’s ability to meaningfully combine her academic work with her political or activist work is what distinguished her the most. While she continued to carry out valuable research writings all her life, she also managed to very closely identify herself with those sections who she thought needed justice in an unequal world. De- spite her White American origin, she be- gan to be seen as an “organic intellectual” of the marginalised and politically mobilised Dalits and the backwards of Maharashtra, her home state. This is perhaps best articulated by Suraj Yengde who writes in his piece remembering her:
“ She is immortalised in our memories. The community will not forget the grateful contribution of an unrelated, distant foreigner becoming “our Gail.” (Yengde 2021)
My encounters with her were only occasional and I continued to meet her through her writings mostly. Even in Surat, our association had been rather brief. A few months after I joined, she had completed her assignment at the CSS and gone back home to Maharashtra. However, even 30 years later, there is something I still remember of her from our evenings spent over tea at Surat, her rendering of Peter Seeger’s famous song, “Little Boxes.”1 As mentioned earlier, Omvedt belonged to the anti-war generation of American students who had mobilised against the mighty power of their state and its ongoing war in Vietnam.
These protests were not merely for global peace, they had also developed a profound critique of the emerging consumerist lifestyle. It was the “radical” politics of her times that had inspired her to come to India, looking for questions that would help her engage with the world beyond the US, an engagement that she imagined would transform her, help her escape the “Little Box.”
Gail was obviously far too big, brave and different to fit into one of those boxes. She had to spread her energy and spirit for change in far-off lands. Even when she chose to live with her husband in a village of Maharashtra, her presence was felt very far and wide. She will continue to live on, not only on the library shelves and personal book collections across the world, but also in the hearts and minds of a wide range of people who feel the need for a different
kind of world, which is structured around love, trust and care, and also the theme of a later book of hers, based on the 15th century Saint-Poet, Guru Ravidas, Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of an Anti- Caste Intellectual. Looking back over her life and work of over half a century, it is reassuring to know that Gail succeeded. She would have liked it no other way. Rest in peace and glory, Gail.
1 Looking back over the past, roughly 50 years, it seems that the more things have changed, the more they have remained the same! The Little Boxes, “unfortunately,” continue to be as relevant today, as they were during the 1970s and is worth listening even today. I have given its text below. The video recording of the song is available at: https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=XUwUp-D_VV0. Little boxes on the hillside.
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky
Little boxes, Little boxes
Little boxes all the same
There’s a green on and a pink one
And a blue on and yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky And they all look just the same
And the people in the houses all went to the university
And they all get put in boxes, little boxes all the same
And there’s doctors and there’s lawyers And business executives
And they all get put in boxes, and they all come out the same
And they all play on the golf course and drink their martini dry
And they all have pretty children and the children go to school
And the children go to summer camp And then to the university
And they all get put in boxes, and they all come out the same
And the boys go into business and marry and raise a family
And they all get put in boxes, little boxes all the same
Geetha, V (2021): “Gail Omvedt: 2 August 1941–25— August 2021 in Raiot: Challenging the Consen- sus,” 26 August, https://raiot.in/wanting-uto- pia-gail-omvedts-journey/?fbclid=IwAR2a Gq V7YVIPb3ga0UdBbMRKX960iaTOp3cJC- R2yztJGww1j-ToUoCvYhuU.
Lewandowski, Susan (1979): “Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non-Brahmin Movement in Western India, 1873–1930,” Bulletin of Con- cerned Asian Scholars, Vol 11, No 2, pp 71–72.
Omvedt, Gail (1971): “Jotirao Phule and the Ideolo- gy of Social Revolution in India,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 6, No 37, pp 1969–80.
— (1976/2011): Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non-Brahman Movement in Western India, 1873–1930, Delhi: Manohar Publishers.
— (2011): Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of an Anti-caste Intellectual, New Delhi: Navayana. Yengde, Suraj (2021): “Gail Omvedt Took Caste to
Global Audience that Was Fed Only a Brahmani- cal Point of View,” Print, 26 August, viewed on 29 August, https://theprint.in/opinion/gail-om- vedt-took-caste-to-global-audience-that-was-fed- only-a-brahminical-point-of-view/722072/.
First Published in Economic and Political Weekly as A Scholar Activist, an Activist Scholar on September 4, 2021.
About the Author
Surinder S Jodhka, Professor Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.