Writing of her life in India, Gail Omvedt noted: “The social movements I’ve been involved with included the dalit and anti-caste movements, environmental movements, farmers’ and women’s movements, but at present I’m most active in the anti-caste movement”. This last was her political and spiritual home, the space into which she sought to bring together and integrate her diverse justice concerns.
For she had spent a better part of her lifetime addressing issues to do with the inequality of the caste order, and the hegemony exercised by the Brahmins over all else. She had also worked at identifying the historical markers of Non-brahman and dalit dissent, beginning with Buddhism. Her writings, on Mahatma Phule and the Satyashodhak Samaj (Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non-Brahman Movement in Western India, 1873-1930), on Babasaheb Ambedkar’s thought world, and on dalit resistance sketched in the contours of a rich world of protest and world-making (Dalit Visions: the Anti-caste movement and Indian Cultural Identity, Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr. Ambedkar and The Dalit Movement in Colonial India and Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India). Seeking Begumpura brought these histories together, and in doing so, invoked the utopian impulse that is central to movements and philosophies that challenged Brahmanical thought.
As significant, she took a caste lens to class issues: arguing that the relationship between the two cannot be taken for granted, and has to be theorised afresh, depending on the situation at hand. In this, she followed a lineage of thought that went back to Mahatma Phule’s writings on the peasant question, in the two classic texts, Gulamgiri (Slavery) and Shetkacharya Asud (The Cultivator’s Whipcord). While one pointed to the cultural thralldom that the peasant world had been subject to, the other indicated how culture and production systems were yoked together. For her own historical context, Gail attempted to unravel just such a configuration: how caste cultures that devalued labour and production kept ‘rural’ Bharat in thrall to the never ending needs of urban industrial ‘India’, which viewed itself as always already secular and above caste. This led to fascinating debates in Indian as well as international contexts, with a range of thinkers, including Marxist theorists and activists, peasant organisers and scholars of peasant studies entering the fray.
Gail’s complex, fraught and yet ongoing relationship to Marxism and particularly the Indian left was always dialogic. She parleyed with B T Ranadive in the pages of Social Scientist, on the question of Non Brahmanism and the Left. She argued with such theory making as existed in the Indian context, on the Asiatic mode of production, by pointing to the centrality of caste and untouchability, in the interlinked spheres of production and reproduction (“Caste, class, and women’s liberation in India”, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 7:1, 43-48). And in focusing on the latter, she made it clear that the caste family, with its endogamic logic, and the subordination of women, held an iniquitous social order together, and hence women’s emancipation from the bind of the family, on the one hand, and the caste order on the other was central to social transformation.
In perhaps one of her last essays, Gail also pointed out that in a fast liberalizing world, women needed to be assured of basic living rights, including the right to water and environmental wellness, for otherwise their lives were bound to get worse. And in this context, it was important to evolve alternative ways of living, including existence anchored in communes and here she suggested women could take the lead.
Ever the utopian, Gail’s imagination sought to tether feminism to anti-caste cultures, and both to a vision of sustainable living, and in this she was a pioneer.