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India: ’My Mother, Gail Omvedt, Was a Romantic and Humanist’

Saturday 19 February 2022, by siawi3


’My Mother, Gail Omvedt, Was a Romantic and Humanist’

Her writings and her social movement work were grounded in her understanding of the double oppression of caste and patriarchy faced by Dalit women. She was a sharp analyst of society; of its oppressors and its rebels.

Gail Omvedt. Photo: Shramik Mukti Dal

by Prachi Patankar Omvedt

19.02.22 10 hours ago

जाने वो कैसे लोग थे जिनके, प्यार को प्यार मिला (Wonder who those people were, who found love in response to love)

बिछड़ गया हर साथी देकर, पल दो पल का साथ (I have lost every companion, after spending some moments together)

किसको फ़ुरसत है जो थामे, दीवानों का हाथ (Who has the time, to hold the hands of crazed lovers)

Gail Omvedt is my cherished mother. She has recently passed on. Pyaasa was one of her favourite films. When I was a kid, she used to play “Jaane Woh Kaise” on her guitar, singing in her broken Hindi. This was in the rotation of songs she played, along with those of Joni Mitchell, as well as her contemporary and fellow Minnesotan, Bob Dylan:

“How many years can some people exist, before they’re allowed to be free? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.”

She loved militant and spiritual poetry and music – because it engaged with both the questions and challenges of the present time, but also brought forward eternal questions. Questions about rising up against exploitation and systemic oppression, with love and with dreams of a liberatory future. To the wider public, she was a leading scholar and activist in linking anti-caste and feminist commitments, towards a better world for all human beings.

My brilliant mother, Gail Omvedt, was a militant lover, a dreamer, a romantic.

She was romantic about the militancy of youth resistance to the status quo. Romantic about women rising up to break patriarchal chains. Romantic about masses rising up against tyranny and oppression. Romantic about the rebellion of inter-caste lovers. Romantic about the militant spirituality of anti-caste poets.

She dreamt about creating a better world here and now, what the great bhakti poet Ravidas had conceived as Begumpura, a land without sorrow. For my mom, this should not be just some imaginary utopia, far beyond reach – but a real Begumpura, borne out of today’s world. With these dreams, she forever practiced hope as an eternal discipline.

I consider myself an extremely lucky person to have been raised by three fierce, feminist fighters — Gail Omvedt, Bharat Patankar and my grandmother Indutai Patankar. From a very young age, the living traditions of Tukaram, Savitribhai Phule, B.R. Ambedkar along with Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman, and Karl Marx was our everyday culture.

Also read: India Will Remember Gail Omvedt Forever

Mom always made sure that I heard and read stories of people from all walks of life and different corners of the world, who fought for a different world free from sorrow and exploitation. From when I was a little kid growing up in the village of Kasegaon, I witnessed her deep dedication to building bottom-up mass social movements among ordinary people for anti-caste, feminist and left-wing transformation. My earliest memories are of sitting on her shoulders during marches through rural and Adivasi areas across western India. We sang movement songs and helped sell pamphlets with other kids during these mass gatherings.

Formative years

Gail herself came from a legacy of Leftist and social justice change-makers. Her grandfather was August Omtvedt. From the 1910s to the 1950s, he was involved in local government, and also served many years as a State Senator in the Minnesota state legislatures. This was a time of socialist and farmer-labour politics in the state, striking examples of successful third-party movement formations in the US. August was known as a “champion of the little people,” with a “burning ambition to make his community what he hoped it could be.” This history and the progressive upbringing by her parents, inculcated in Gail a strong ambition to contribute to the betterment of society from the bottom up.

During her college days in the 1960s, Gail found herself swept up in the mass-based anti-war and Black civil rights movements. She threw herself into the struggle, participating in militant protests as a feminist, anti-racist and anti-imperialist in California. For my mom, women’s liberation and Black liberation were connected and were also universal concerns. She knew that militarism and racism were at the core of what structured the United States.

A young Gail Omvedt. Photo: Special arrangement.

As a true Left-wing internationalist, she also knew that these structures had their parallels in other parts of the world. Elite-led nationalism, Brahmanical patriarchy and caste-based gender violence were at the structural core of Indian society. Gail’s activism as a young person was grounded in standing shoulder to shoulder with Black communities and in solidarity with the Vietnamese people, bearing the brunt of the deadly US war machine.

Pioneering work

So, after coming to live in India, Gail knew that she must join the struggle – led by women, Dalit and the most historically marginalised communities – to eradicate patriarchal, capitalist and Brahmanical structures.

Gail believed that to achieve true liberation for women in India, both caste and patriarchy must be abolished. In one interview, she noted, “Caste can only survive if women’s sexuality is controlled! To keep the jati identity, you have to keep marriages within the jati… For that to happen, girls have to be guarded and married off when they’re pre-puberty, so there’s no danger to the caste.”

Gail’s writings and her social movement work were grounded in her understanding of the double oppression of caste and patriarchy faced by Dalit women – an analysis often overlooked by many dominant-caste, urban feminists. Her razor-sharp analyses also consistently pointed out that as the most historically marginalised people, Dalit and Bahujan women’s leadership in these struggles must be at the heart of achieving true liberation for all.

Gail Omvedt and Bharat Patankar. Photo: Special arrangement

From We Will Smash this Prison to Seeking Begumpura, Gail’s writing and work explored the realities of anti-caste resistance, rooted both in material realities and also the spiritual necessities of people from oppressed castes and genders. She brought forward the stories of everyday struggles of Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi communities as workers, as peasants, as women in rural and urban localities — as they fought against violence and for access to land, livelihood, water and natural resources. She foregrounded the cultural, spiritual and collective resistance of anti-caste men and women both historically and in the present, to show a path forward for achieving women’s liberation and caste annihilation.

Also read: In Merging Scholarship and Activism, Gail Omvedt Made Academic Research Accessible for All

In today’s India, Hindutva nationalism has spread deep into Indian society and is the main agenda of the ruling government. From her earliest writings, Gail questioned the constructions and connections of elite-led nationalism and Brahmanist-led Hinduism. For her, chauvinist nationalism, which violently excluded Muslims as “others” and “outsiders”, stems from the Brahmanist agenda which consolidated the false identification of India with Hinduism. The same Brahmanism has excluded, exploited and violently suppressed Dalit-Bahujan majority communities for centuries.

In the 2010 preface to her book Dalit Visions, Gail states: “In destroying the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, the forces of Hindutva issued a declaration of caste war, not simply an assault against the Muslim community… The “Dharma Sansad” was being posed as higher than the people’s parliament. This was a declaration of war against Dalits, Adivasis, women, the Bahujan samaj, the toiling and productive castes and classes who have always been held inferior by varnashrama dharma. That war has to be fought, at the level of culture and symbolism and not simply that of politics and economics; and not simply with the weapons of ‘secularism’ but over every inch of the terrain of Indian history and identity that the Hindu-nationalists have staked claim to.”

This call to building resistance and broad-based alternatives is as relevant today as ever before – as a Brahmanist Hindutva agenda engulfs every institution and the social fabric itself. This call to reclaim every inch of the political, economic, historical, cultural, and identity terrain in India, is a call to all of us— to create an India where the dream of the annihilation of caste, capitalist exploitation and patriarchy can become a living reality for all people.

My mom, Gail Omvedt, the scholar, the mass-movement activist, the great anti-caste intellectual, was a romantic and humanist. She was a sharp analyst of society; of its oppressors and its rebels. She instilled in me the commitment to carry forward the legacy of this work – linking class and gender justice, caste and racial justice, all – to carry this forward, wherever I am, throughout my own lifetime, towards the shared dream of ‘Begumpura’.

Prachi Patankar Omvedt is an activist, grantmaker and writer involved in social movements which link the local and the global, police brutality and war, migration and militarisation, race and caste, women of colour feminism and global gender justice.