The Dalit with white, American skin – Times of India

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’)