Gail Omvedt, the truth-seeking sociologist
Gail Omvedt, 81, left us on August 25, 2021. Her mortal remains were greeted with “jai bhims and lal salaams” - salutations befitting the final journey of an anti-caste figure. Her public life — which was also her academic life — doesn’t have many parallels in mainstream Indian academy. One can compare her to Pierre Bourdieu, the French Marxist sociologist who stood with working people against the onslaught of neoliberalism in the 1990s. But even he fades in her company, considering the magnitude of Omvedt’s interventions on behalf of the oppressed majority in India.
A bilingual activist-scholar who lived and wrote within the confines (and possibilities) of a middle-caste peasant household in rural Maharashtra, Omvedt stood away from the glitters of Delhi-centric academic practice. Her writings embodied a permanent protest site outside Indian sociology — always critical and satyashodhak (truth-seeking). In that sense, she liberated sociology (and history) from the tight knots of academic capitalism.
Her life, as Bharat Patankar told Dalit Camera, was shaped by the progressive mobilisations of the 1960s United States (US) and later, the Karl Marx-Jyotirao Phule-Ambedkarite movements of Maharashtra. Omvedt was always in the midst of people’s collective actions. Her work was a yield, a possibility of such actions. It is all too easy to mystify her life by listing her personal achievements. But she wouldn’t have agreed to such heroic individualism.
Omvedt was not simply a caste studies scholar, but a sociologist of anti-caste consciousness. She saw connections between such consciousness and the total emancipation of India. She was compassionate and identified a dignified place for the non-Brahmin, oppressed castes in the struggle for human liberation. Omvedt redefined India in a way that centred anti-caste thought.
She questioned the taken-for-granted connections between religion and the masses. She underlined how a strong critique of religion (beyond Nehruvian secularism and Gandhian reform) always thrived in the Phule-Ambedkar-Periyar traditions of India.
Through a detailed study of this tradition, she mobilised an anti-caste India, a begumpura. While professional sociologists approached the working masses as imposters, imitators or vote banks who are “easy” objects of academic gossip in urban institutional spaces, Omvedt explored their counter-hegemonic moves — always staying accountable to their questions. This was easy for her as she lived in their neighbourhood.
While the doyens of Indian sociology, converted en masse into anti-reservation polemicists in the early 1990s, Omvedt saw them as actors in the “twice-born” revolt against the Mandal Commission. She argued that (Other Backward Classes) OBC reservation should be judged against its stated goal, ie, to end the caste monopoly of the twice-born in the public sector, and not anything else. She highlighted the need for a detailed caste census, an issue which remains unanswered, but is again in public discourse today.
In her analysis of the land question in the context of caste, Omvedt questioned the theories which assign caste an “integrative and democratic” role. She always problematised the neat separation between caste and class, and argued that relations of production in the sub-continent cannot be understood without caste. Caste, according to her, was always a “material reality, with material base and economic results”. She emphasised that an anti-caste struggle is essentially a struggle against exploitative relations of productions.
Omvedt approached Jotiba Phule as a radical intellectual who skillfully connected the questions of caste-gender exploitation with ecology and economy. Similarly, she made it a point to highlight the materialist thrust of Babasaheb’s (Ambedkar’s) social programme, including his decision to embrace Buddhism. In her interactions with the women’s movements, Omvedt tenaciously placed the poor working woman and her socio-economic struggles at the centre. Her writings serve as a socialist reminder. With increasing precarity and economic insecurity, her interventions are more relevant than ever.
Though a neighbourhood sociologist of the rural masses, she never valorised rurality or glorified obscurantism. She was one with them yet maintained a rigorous, scientific distance in her writings. She pursued a “science which disturbed” and proved that seeking sanctuary in urban academe is not scientific detachment but more of arrogant elitism. From her room in Kasegoan, with her comrades by her side, she connected the struggles of the working poor across the globe. Her comparative studies on South Asia and beyond testify this succinctly.
This universal focus, bring us to a question — what would it take to produce women academics in rural backgrounds? What kind of a world would allow peasant women to read and write not only about their own worlds, but about people everywhere, the way Omvedt could? We don’t have the answers.
Yet, going back to Omvedt’s writings could serve as a starting point. She empathetically captured the drudgery of daily toil in the lives of the working people. Freeing oneself from this grind cannot be achieved without a total view of social and economic relations. This is a scientific pursuit par excellence. It requires irreverence and clarity of mind — facets so clearly visible in Gail Omvedt’s life.
Asha Singh is an assistant professor of Gender Studies at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Nidhin Donald is a doctoral scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal