The Dalit with White, American Skin
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd Aug 25, 2021
As a Marxist academic-activist, I was surprised how a white woman could be so knowledgeable, so concerned about every aspect of caste and women’s liberation Gail Omvedt, 81, one of the greatest scholars on caste and gender studies, passed away on Wednesday, August 25, in the early hours in Kasegaon in Maharashtra.
For more than five decades, this American-born Indian scholar, sociologist and human rights activist, educated the world with her writings on Dalits, OBCs and Adivasis and changed the landscape of scholarship in India with her rigour.
Gail Omvedt was so rooted in her work that she morphed into a Dalit in white, American skin. She taught many of us in the writing and fighting field how to do it without compromising principles and without diluting standards. She turned Indian universities into positive learning fields.
When she was attending seminars in far off places, she worried more about her mother-in-law than her daughter. She taught India how to fight patriarchy while being a concerned wife, mother and daughter-in-law. Though Gail leaves this land today, she will be with us in all our fights against inequality forever in the form of her books, articles and speeches.
I first met Gail at a seminar in Pune as a young academic-activist in the early 1980s and was surprised by her command over Maharashtra caste compositions, social movements and history of politics. Until then, I never knew a foreigner who was so concerned about the lower castes of India. Everyone in that gathering was looking up to her to shed more light on the Satyashodhak Movement and Ambedkar’s agitations and writings.
As a Marxist academic-activist, I was surprised how a white woman could be so knowledgeable, so concerned about every aspect of caste and women’s liberation. At that time, the feminist movement was more in the discourse than inDalit, OBC ground movements.
I later learnt that she was married to Dr Bharat Patankar, an activist-scholar who has devoted his life to serving the oppressed and the poorest of the poor.
Two decades ago, the couple adopted Buddhism. That itself said a lot about who she was, going beyond what was apparent — a woman who came all the way from America to educate, organise and agitate for the liberation of the untouchables and Adivasis in India, following in the footsteps of Phule andAmbedkar.
It was then that I started reading her works. It was like a new light emerging out of a dark house. She inspired thousands of students in India and abroad through her writings and lectures. She was not a great speaker. She was a patient educator, who spoke in a difficult-to-follow accent. Yet, people came and waited to listen to her.
Born in Minneapolis, USA, Gail studied at UC Berkeley University and got her PhD in 1973. An anti-imperialist, shechose India to prove that nationalism cannot be defined only by birth. That it can be adopted and nurtured. In doing so, she proved the Hindutva school of thought is totally wrong in understanding what nationalism is.
She was a prolific writer and published numerous books. Her PhD thesis introduced Mahatma—
Phule’sSatyashodhak Movement to the world and her magnum opus ‘Dalits and Democratic Revolution’ became a handbook for every young student in colleges and universities across India and also in the South Asian study centres around the world. Until her arrival, the great Mahatma and his wife Savitribai Phule’s lives had not been studied enough.Most of the scholars were preoccupied with the other Mahatma – either adoring or abusing him.
In the known history of India, four women from Europe and America left an indelible mark on the lives of people in this country— Annie Besant, Mother Teresa, Gail Omvedt and Sonia Gandhi. Of the four, the first three fought for the oppressed. Annie Besant (1847- 1933) was a British socialist, theosophist, women’s rights activist, writer, orator, and educationist. Mother Teresa (1910-1997), was an Albanian-Indian Roman Catholic nun and missionary. Sonia Gandhi ( 1946), an Italian-born Indian politician, is too well known to comment upon.
Gail and her husband started two organisations — Shramik Mukti Dal and Stri Mukti Sangharsh Chalval — and worked very actively in the villages of Maharashtra.
All of us who worked with her in a long journey of Dalit/OBC/Adivasi/women’s liberation for the past forty years will celebrate her life and work as proud Indians.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author. His most known books are ‘Why I am Not a Hindu’; ‘PostHindu India’; and ‘God As Political Philosopher—Buddha’s Challenge to Brahminism’)