Gail Omvedt is an academic and sociologist who has written extensively on issues of caste and gender discrimination. Her books include Dalits and the Democratic Revolution, Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India, and Buddhism in India: Defying Brahmanism.
The chants of “Long live Comrade Gail” and “Red salute to Gail Omvedt” (a popular left-wing slogan in India) filled the air as her funeral procession made its way slowly from the modest one-story house she shared with her husband, activist and human rights defender Bharat Patankar, to the open field where her last rites were performed. The ceremony was conducted in accordance with Buddhist rites and rituals, the practice that Ella Omvedt had adopted in the 1970s shortly after moving to India from the University of California, Berkeley.
About 700 men and women, most of them Dalits, who occupy the lowest level of India’s caste system, attended the ceremony. To unsuspecting viewers, a crowd of formerly “untouchable,” “lower caste” Indian men and women singing, chanting, and mourning an octogenarian white American woman may seem strange. But for those in the know, it was only a fraction of the love, gratitude, and respect that the Dalit community in India and the United States felt for their beloved “Gail.”
Omvedt authored over 25 books, including In Colonial Society – Non-Brahmin Movement in Western India, Seeking Begampura, Buddhism in India, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Mahatma Phule, Dalit and the Democratic Revolution, Understanding Caste, We Will Smash the Prison and New Social Movement in India.
Who was Gail Omvedt?
Gail Marie Omvedt was born on August 2, 1941, into a family of Scandinavian immigrants in Minneapolis. Her father, Jack, worked for years as a lawyer for Native Americans in Minnesota. Her mother, Dorothy, was a housewife.
After graduating from Carleton College in Minnesota, Omvedt received a Fulbright scholarship in 1963 to study rural communities in India. She then went to the University of California, Berkeley, where she was active in political protest and earned a master’s degree and then a doctorate in sociology. She returned to India in 1970 to continue her research for her dissertation on the caste system.
While she was there, she became involved in movements to mobilize thousands of underpaid garment factory workers and displaced farmers devastated by the drought. During a protest march, she met Bharat Patankar, a long-time activist. They married in 1976.
Over the years, the couple has played a significant role in drawing attention to the working-class struggles of the Maharashtra region, including women’s issues and agricultural and environmental challenges, as well as the limitations of the castes.
Omvedt renounced her US citizenship and became an Indian citizen in 1983. She began working with her husband to establish Shramik Mukti Dal (Workers’ Liberation League), an organization credited with launching some of the movements. largest organized mass protests against the injustices experienced by workers in rural India.
Dr. Gail Omvedt has lived in India since 1978, became an Indian citizen in 1983, and works as a freelance writer and development consultant. She has also been active with various social movements, including Dalit and anti-caste movements, farmers’ movements, the environmental movement, and especially with rural women.
In addition to undertaking many research projects, Dr. Omvedt has been a consultant to FAO, UNDP and NOVIB and has served as Dr. Ambedkar Chair Professor at NISWASS in Orissa, Professor of Sociology at the University of Pune and Asian Visiting Professor at the Nordic Institute for Asian Studies, Copenhagen.
She is currently a Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Library and Museum and Director of Research for the Krantivir Trust. A prolific writer, Gail Omvedt has published a large number of books, including Dalit Visions (1975), Violence Against Women: New Theories and New Movements in India (1991), and Dalits and the Democratic Revolution (1994), as well as having translated Growing up Untouchable in India. : A Dalit autobiography. She currently dedicates herself to the translation of Tukaram, considered the best Marathi writer of all time.
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