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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 52, New Delhi, December 11, 2021

Remembering Anti-caste scholar-activist Gail Omvedt | K Srinivasulu

Saturday 11 December 2021, by Karli Srinivasulu


With the passing away of Gail Omvedt at the age of eighty we have lost one of our leading anti-caste scholar-activists. Born in the USA, Omvedt came to India in the early 1970s to research on Mahatma Jotibha Phule-led Nineteenth century Satyashodhak movement in Maharastra which resulted in a Ph. D. thesis submitted to the University of California, Berkeley and later published as a book entitled Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non-Brahman Movement in Western India.

Omvedt’s subsequent work has been a continuation and also extension of her interest in caste question as the historical specificity of Indian society and its centrality expounded through its interconnections with other dimensions of social reality. Her scholarly work that began with Phule as a central figure in the Nineteenth century anti-caste tradition the scope of which was to be expanded in her later writings on Ambedkar’s thought then back to the history of Buddhism and Bhakti movement seen as a continuous advancement of critical thought and praxis challenging caste system and contesting Brahminism that is seen as the philosophical and ideological foundation of caste. Her work on the Dalit, Bahujan, women’s, agrarian, nationality movements add to the complexity of issues that preoccupied her scholarly attention not merely as intellectual interests but substantially as central political questions.

It is a vindication of the all-India relevance and appeal of Omvedt’s work that her writings especially on Phule and Ambedkar are being translated by various activist groups into regional languages so that they could be made accessible to activists and larger public. The fact that a series of online discussions have been organised in her memory across the country and especially in south India by Dalit and Bahujan groups with a keen interest in anti-caste is a demonstration of the wider familiarity with and keen interest in her life and work as a key thinker worth (re)examining in the present context of the ascendancy of the Hindutva into a hegemonic position. The enhanced interest in her oeuvre is conspicuous in the recognition and reference to its intellectual and ideological resourcefulness to face the challenges of our time.

Unlike most of the scholars who came to India and were sympathetic to the cause of the subaltern assertion and autonomy movements she distinguished herself as a unique person who took a decisive step to settle down in India, take Indian citizenship and be part of the people’s struggles in India. As part of this she along with her husband Bahujan scholar-activist Bharat Patankar became an active part of the Shramik Mukti Dal (SMD) that sought to combine caste, class, gender and environmental issues seen as interconnected concerns. This grassroots work and field experience became foundational to her exposition of a vision of a society free of oppression and exploitation based on caste, class and patriarchy. This praxis could be seen expanded and extended to the intellectual sphere almost seamlessly.

I had an opportunity to interact with Omvedt and Bharat Patankar during the last decade or so. I have found Omvedt interacting with the Dalit activists and scholars that was free of formality and full of familiarity as if they were interacting with an elder in their own family. It was amazing to see young and aspiring scholars address her by her first name - a clear demonstration of their affection that could make them break the barriers of age, scholarship and fame. It was a clear evidence of her being integral part of the subaltern fraternity and camaraderie.

If the institutional social sciences and academic sociology have not paid the attention to Omvedt’s work commensurate with its scholarly achievement then the subaltern activists in their enthusiasm for the activist side of her could lose sight of the historical focus and theoretical depth of her scholarly contribution This intervention is an attempt to capture the unity and balance between these two dimensions in her personality.

Radical turn in American Student/ Youth Politics 

Gail Omvedt was a product of the radical turn in the student and youth politics in theUSAin the 1970s. The Black civil rights movement for equal rights and treatment, the anti-Vietnam and peace movement and radical feminist assertions in fact transformed the US campuses including the elite ones like University of California into sites of anti-racist, feminist and anti-imperialist politics and intellectual challenge. Omvedt was a part of this upsurge of youth radicalism.

This radicalism could also be seen expanding into a critique of US global hegemony and domination of the newly liberated post-colonial world. As part of the ambition of forging American hegemony in the post-War period the US sought to organize production of knowledge of the post-colonial societies by establishing new academic discipline called ‘Areas Studies’ in the leading American universities. Under this programme scholars were encouraged and supported with scholarships to specialize on the new nations of Asia and Africa. Unlike their predecessors who researched on these societies in the earlier decades, the students in the 1970s were to become compassionate and sympathetic towards them which was undoubtedly a result of their radical anti-race, anti-war and feminist politics and sensibility. The domestic radicalism could be seen easily transformed into the global trend.

With this background Gail Omvedt came to India to study the anti-caste movement in the 19th century Maharashtra. Her engagement with the anti-caste discourse and practice in a significant sense was an extension of this critical questioning in the metropolis. She could be seen attempting to bring the insights from the critique of race onto the caste question and thereby giving the latter historical depth and social expanse within Indian specificity.

Thus two strategic positions in Omvedt’s life and work are unique and important and made a significant difference to her understanding of Indian society in general and caste question in particular:

  • She represented an interesting radical intellectual-ideological-cultural shift in terms of internal challenge to the US led international hegemonic power politics.
  • She brought into her work and through her work — both discursive and practical — in India theoretical insights and perspectives from the intellectual and political positions that are embedded in and brought forth by the anti-imperialist, anti-racial and feminist positions in the US.
  • Her thinking truly represented the dialectical relationship/ intersection between the global, national and local and the shifts therein.

This was not a mere individual effort but could be seen to be part of a collective network of radical scholars in the US with an intellectual interest in Asia who later formed themselves into a solidarity around the journal Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars which Gail Omvedt was an active member of.

Centrality of Caste

Omvedt is one of the key theorists of the centrality of caste in the Indian society both historically and in its transformatory trajectory. Her theoretical analysis of caste could be seen evolving steadily since her early work on Phule and Satyashodak movement (1976). She has displayed greater sensibility to the limitations in her initial work in terms of the materialist theory of caste.

Her openness to criticism comes out clearly in her response to B T Ranadive’s (1978) critical review of the book. Accepting the validity of Ranadive’s critique of her work as "dominated by anti-Marxist concepts like plural society and elite competition" under the influence of the mainstream sociology then practiced in the US academia she admits that “a revolt against caste is never simply a "cultural revolt", can never be an attack purely at the cultural level, and requires the transformation of the relations of production. Thus the Satyashodhak movement and similar movements were essentially democratic anti-feudal movements, in their radical form crucially linked to peasant agrarian revolution and requiring a full destruction of imperialist domination” (Omvedt: 1978, P. 70.)

Her effort to develop a theory of caste that transcends its treatment as a cultural/ superstructural issue distant from the base is evident in her later work Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India (1994)whereshe tried to work out a fuller exposition of the Marxist materialist theory of caste as the basis of Indian social formation [1].

The study of agrarian economy, history and politics in India has been a strong forte of Marxist scholarship. But this could be seen in its preoccupation with class displaying a peculiar blindness towards caste. Omvedt is one of the few scholars who tried to bring focus onto the centrality of caste to Indian society and its transitional trajectory through her intervention in the ‘mode of production’ debate. The basic question for her was: how can we understand Indian society and especially the rural society without grounding it on the caste system. When most of the participants in the agrarian debate were focusing on class, only conceding caste a place as one of the variables, Omvedt (1980 and 1981) [2] was one of the few scholars who tried to provide a historical and analytical perspective that sought to capture the specificity of caste, without losing sight of its internal class differentiation, in the transformation of agrarian relations in India.

Omvedt highlighted caste of course along with the gender and nationality questions without which the understanding of agrarian question, agrarian transition to capitalism would be incomplete and in fact lopsided.

An influential intervention into the historiography of colonial India was the initiative of the Subaltern Studies collective. Promising to course correct the elite or ‘history from above’ perspective dominating the historiography of colonial India and Indian nationalism — the three influential schools dominating the field being a) Colonialist and neo-colonialist (ie., Cambridge School) b) Nationalist c) Marxist School — the Subaltern Studies school sought to restore the subalterns of ‘their own’ history. [3]

The series of volumes entitled Subaltern Studies edited by Ranajit Guha brought central focus through their research on the modes of ‘grassroots’ initiative and self-mobilisation located outside the realm of elite politics by retrieving the subalterns of ‘their’ history which is absorbed and integrated and told as a part of the history of the dominant classes.

Given the rural/ agrarian character of colonial India caste ought to have been accorded centrality in any understanding of the structure of domination and subordination in it. The devastation caused by colonial state and its policy intervention in the rural peasant society as evident in caste and adivasi revolts and the caste basis of peasant movements should have alerted these historians to the foundational character of caste. Instead surprisingly subalternity has largely been conceptualized in terms class and power relations. Caste unfortunately does not find the place that is commensurate with its structural and experiential presence. This is largely because of absence of theoretical historiographical centrality to caste any authentic history of India must accord. Instead dominance and subalternity has predominantly been seen in terms of class and elite-subaltern terms. Further any far-fetched distinction or separation between the subaltern and elite and spontaneity and organization and the conceptual positing of autonomy of the subaltern to the negligence and detriment of their interrelationship would result in an idealistic interpretation that is oblivious of or ignores the role of consciousness as a rational influence and the external-internal dialectic in the commonsense, thought and actions of the suppressed castes, communities or classes.

Gail Omvedt’s work on Phule and Ambedkar and their role as organic intellectuals educating, influencing, organizing the subaltern Dalit and Bahujan masses in colonial India and as a critical stream within the anti-colonial politics and parallel/ alternative to official nationalism could have been a critical pointer to a proper understanding of the elite-subaltern, insider-outsider and external-internal dialectic. Since the Subaltern Studies project aims at constructing the narrative of Indian nationalism ‘from below’, it would have been imperative on such a task to address and explore the foundational issues of caste as a fundamental obstruction in the process of the nation-making in India.

What is interesting and in fact important to note is that when the Indian academia and the social science research is enchanted with the theoretical and perspectival imports inspired by the post-structuralist and post-modern fashions especially from the American academia as vindication of its intellectual hegemony in an overwhelming manner, Omvedt was one of the few leading scholars to consciously shun the jargon and analysis and be grounded in the Indian intellectual tradition rooted in anti-caste foundations.

Omvedt was never part of formal institutional structures on a regular or continuous basis though she had intermittent affiliations for specific scholarly projects especially with the ICSSR and institutions supported by it. Strategically she had her location in Kasegaon village. This was the location what facilitated her engagement with the grassroots movements. Perhaps this institutional distance ensured her freedom from the peer influences, pressures and intellectual fashions of formal institutional structures of higher academia.

Further it is necessary to note that Omvedt could be seen complicating the process of articulation of caste by exploring its inter-sectionality with class, religion, state, policy, gender and nationality questions. Her interventions in the debates on agrarian question, on the women’s struggles, anti-Mandal, and regional struggles like the Assam movement have sought to capture the dynamic interrelationship between different aspects of social processes and present an integrated view of the society in motion.

Alternative vision

Omvedt’s study of caste which began with the study of the anti-caste tradition of Phule and Satyashodak movement and expanded to the study of Dr BR Ambedkar and later included in a deeper historical grounding of caste phenomenon tracing it back to Buddha through Bhakti to the present period.

Thus we see a deep and expansive historical mapping of anti-Brahminical, anti-caste intellectual and ideological traditions and challenges and conflicts throughout Indian history. In this long historical trajectory centred on caste as the site of conflict has seen processes of grouping, regrouping, realignment, cooption and refurbishing the savarna ideological domination. This conflict and cooption continues to inform the evolution, adjustment and modifications in the caste system and relations of caste dominance and subjugation.

It is quite often that caste is sought to be presented in simple oppositional terms — Brahmin vs Bahujan, upper caste vs. lower castes. In contrast, in reality caste has never been simple and straight but rather been quite complex, multi-dimensional and intersectional. The dialectical nature of caste and anti-caste comes out clearly in Omvedt’s analyses of the Dalit movement (1979), of Hindutva (1990a), anti-reservation movement (1990b) and creation of new consolidation of savarna ideological and political regroupings.

The Dalit and caste movements have long been seen as political ones and sought to be sustained on the promise of political power seen as master key for their fruition. The predominant and even singular engagement with the state and politics is clearly a sign of modernity and its grip over caste politics. Omvedt in her work had sought to capture the spiritual and ideal dimension of the pre-modern and medieval anti-caste movements as an indispensable and essential dimension of emancipation of the lower castes.

Drawing on the Gramscian distinction between the popular and elite religions we can differentiate within the broad rubric of Hinduism between high literate Brahminism and the subaltern religious practices. The differences between them are not merely of social caste-class in character but in fact substantially those of rituals, practices, idols and imaginaries.

What is interesting is that vision(s) of an alternative social system, the imagination of a better society that is egalitarian and just is available in the subaltern religious practices. For instance, if the elite Brahminical imagination idealises the imagery of Ram Rajya then we can map alternative subaltern ideal social vision in medieval sant-kavis (saint-poets). Sant Ravidas’s Begumpura, Kabir’s Amrapura, Tukaram’s Pandaripura and Phule’s Balistan are the abodes of equality, freedom and just society.

Omvedt sought to recover this alternative vision and imagination in her book Seeking Begumpura: Social Vision of Anti-caste Saints and Intellectuals. She explored the counter-hegemonic imagination of a casteless, classless and egalitarian pura (city) where everybody could lead a meaningful and dignified life in the non-Brahminical thinkers of the Bhakti tradition to draw upon for the contemporary challenges.

Such a vision of an alternative society becomes all the more necessary in the kind of culture of aggressive consumerism and violent polarities that the world is pushed into in the context of neo-liberal globalization. The work of Omvedt shows such a superior ideal and higher ethical vision of a world of harmony between nature and man, man and man and society is historically available in the cultural history of the subaltern castes and we need to retrieve it and breathe it with contemporary spirit and strive to pave the way for a better world.

Gail Omvedt’s work on Buddhist - Bhakti - Bahujan - Ambedkarite thought as an intellectual ideological movement, as anti-Brahminical anti-Savarna revolt and as spiritual-cultural-ideological counter-hegemonic resource assumes significance in the light of the reconfiguration of Indian electoral-power and cultural politics resulting from the decline of the liberal hegemony drawing its support and legitimacy from the legacy of nationalist movement and the rise of Hindutva as a major politico-ideological hegemonic force and the inability and stagnation of the Left (socialist and communist) traditions to face the challenges posed by the neo-liberal Hindutva hegemony [4].

The best way to remember Gail Omvedt’s life of utmost commitment, dedication and courage is to examine, analyse, critique and learn from her lifetime work and to appreciate the unique theoretical and political position she (re-)presented on caste in its interrelationship with class, gender, religion with variations across regions in the country.

(This was delivered as a lecture in the zoom meeting organized in the memory of Gail Omvedt by the Voice of Dalit Collective, Hyderabad)

* (Author: K Srinivasulu, Senior Fellow, ICSSR; Professor (Retd) Department of Political Science, Osmania University, Hyderabad, Telangana)


Guha, Ranajit (1982), Subaltern Studies, Vol. I, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
Omvedt, Gail (1976), Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non-Brahman Movement in Western India, 1873-1930, Scientific Socialist Education Trust, Bombay.
Omvedt, Gail (1978), ‘Towards a Marxist Analysis of Caste: A Response to B T Ranadive’, in Social Scientist, Vol. 6, No. 11, June, pp. 70-76.
— - and Bharat Patankar (1979), ‘The Dalit Liberation Movement in Colonial Period’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 14, Issue No. 7-8, February.
— - (1980) ’Caste, Agrarian Relations and Agrarian Conflicts’ in Sociological Bulletin, Vol. 29, No. 2, September, pp. 142-170.
--- (1981)‘Capitalist Agriculture and Rural Classes in India’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 16, Issue No. 52, December 26.
— -(1990a), ‘Hinduism and Politics’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 25, No. 14, April 7.
— - (1990b), ’Twice-Born’ Riot against Democracy, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 25, No. 39, September 29.
— - (1994), Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India, Sage, New Delhi.
— - (2003), Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste, Sage, New Delhi.
— - (2008), Seeking Begumpura : The Social Vision of Anti-caste Intellectuals, Navayana, New Delhi.
— - (2012), Understanding Caste: From Buddha to Ambedkar and Beyond, Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan.
Ranadive, B T (1978), ‘Towards an Understanding of the Non-Brahman Movement’, Review of Omvedt’s book (1976) in Social Scientist , Vol. 6, No. 8, March , pp. 77-94.
Srinivasulu, K (2019), ‘Political Society, Caste Dominance and Subaltern Society: Reflecting on the Modes of Engagement with the Dalit Subalternity’ in Ashok Pankaj and Ajit Pandey in (Eds), Dalits, Subalternity and Social Change in India, Routledge, London.

[1See, Chapter one entitled ‘Towards a Historical Materialist Analysis of the Origins and Development of Caste.’ in this work (Omvedt, 1994).

[2For an analysis of caste as integral to agrarian relations in India, see, Omvedt (1980 and 1981).

[3Guha (1982), ‘On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India’ in Subaltern Studies, Vol I, pp. 1-8.

[4For an analysis of the evolving relations between Dalits, political society and state in the context of neo-liberal shift in India, see Srinivasulu (2019).

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