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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 43, New Delhi, October 9, 2021

Gail Omvedt: The Legacy of an Activist Writer | Gabriele Dietrich

Friday 8 October 2021, by Gabriele Dietrich


The passing of Gail Omvedt on August 26, 2021 at her home in Kasegaon was received with great emotion by wide sections of women’s movements and Dalit movements. This is not surprising, because she was very well known not only as a prolific writer, but as an activist as well. The immediate circulation of pdf.s of her writings on Feminists India was a spontaneous reaction and led to a debate on copyrights and the survival problems of alternative publishing houses, which was long overdue.

Though some of Gail’s views had been rather controversial, there was an atmosphere of solidarity and comradeship in remembering her manifold contributions. The fond memories of long, often heated conversations, lasting through the night during the conferences and agitations of the women’s movement in the late seventies and through the eighties, resonated in the incoming emails. It was clear that there had been manifold differences and disagreements, but that was due to the diversity in comradeship, not due to competition or mistrust. The tone of this remembrance was one of mutual acceptance and desire to go forward in these paralysing times of Covid and lockdowns.

Such an atmosphere also prevailed in a more variegated, but dense form in the memorial meeting in Kasegaon on September 5th,2021 as well. People came from far and wide, representing farmers movements like Shetkari Sangatana, Dalits and Ambedkarites, independent Marxists like Lal Nishan , Shramik Mukti Dal representing workers, and a huge local contingent of people, who attended in solidarity and support of Bharat Patankar and Prachi Patankar like an extended family. Candles were lit in commemoration in front of pictures of Jothiba and Saraswati Phule, Dr. Ambedkar and Gail Omvedt. Throughout the day, a long line of speakers shared their memories, experiences and songs, from forenoon to evening.

It was a densely attended hall-meeting, very disciplined, many masks, little hugging, many memories and emotions, diverse political affiliations, but a spirit of forbearance and constructive imagination. At the end of the hall meeting, a closer circle moved to a plot amidst the sugar cane fields , where a building is coming up, which will house books, documents and visitors, to keep the memory alive and allow a space for study, reflection , discussion and planning the way forward. Fruit trees were planted to give shade and sustenance in the future.

I traveled in a vehicle which had been made available by the Women’s Studies Department of Pune University. I realised in discussions with Dr. S.K. Kamble of the Department and later also in discussions with Dr. Vidyut Bhagwat, the founder of the Department, how much effort had been made to translate feminist and Dalit /Ambedkarite writings into Marathi and to make them accessible. A volume of memories on Gail and her activism and writing has been put together by Bharat and Prachi Pathankar, on occasion of Gail’s eightieth birthday, which will first come out in Marathi and will later be published in English.

Of course many memories are reflecting the controversies which were going on over the years. In the women’s movement , many of us were very critical of Gail’s position on the Farmers Movement, especially Shetkari Sangatana and Sharad Joshi. She strongly advocated Green Revolution policies and big dams as necessary for “development”, while many of us were very critical of that for reasons of ecology and people’s displacement. The Coastal March “Protect Waters, Protect Life “ organised in 1989 by the National Fishworkers Forum, had raised ecological issues along East and West Coast quite extensively. Some of us supported the Narmada Bachao Andolan against the Sardar Sarovar Dam. We knew that small dams had been built with the help of experts like K.R. Datye. In December 1991 , I took a group of Dalit and OBC students to Maharashtra, to meet people doing ecological agriculture, contour bunding, watershed management. They later practiced what they had learned in the farm of the rural Institute of their college. This improved the water collection and use considerably, in a sustainable way.

We also visited Bali Raja Dam, which had been built with the help of Dr. Bharat Patankar and and were impressed by the experiences with water sharing. We were told that Medha Patkar was present when the first phase of the water sharing was inaugurated. Later, during the struggle against the rising of Sardar Sarovar Dam, we realised that Gail’s position for Green Revolution and thus for big dams was extensively quoted by the Gujarat government to defame the NBA and its leaders. Her article on Dams and Bombs in the Hindu in the first week of August 1999 had elicited many responses in defence of the NBA, by people like Ashish Kothari, L.C.Jain, Jashveen Jairath and several more. Questions were raised why no systematic response to Arundhati Roy’s stringent argument against big dams in The Greater Common Good had been attempted, instead of denigrating the anti-dam position as “anti-science”, “post-modern romanticism” and “anti-development”.

I myself was in Jalsindhi during the Rally for the Valley, during which Arundhati Roy had organised middle-class support for the NBA and against the SSP. She had made her position clear in an interview with Lyla Bhardan of The Hindu. While she felt that in this dire situation the valley “needed a writer”, it was very clear that she never aspired for any “position” in the struggle, she was simply deeply concerned. She had her hair cut short to pass the police posts at the entrances to the valley and slipped in unrecognised from the Gujarat side.

Reporters from Gujarat were eager to project a leadership conflict between her and Madha Patkar, but that was too obviously ridiculous to be entertained by anybody on the ground. Of course, the questions Gail was raising with respect to middle-class leadership in people’s movements were very genuine and were alive in the NBA itself. They could also be raised with respect to peasant movements. It is only today that the agricultural workers have joined the peasants against Modi’s Agricultural Codes at the borders of Delhi, to reject the dictate of the corporates and the women claim their rights to be recognised as peasants. It has taken long to develop a broad understanding of the detrimental effects of the “Green Revolution”, but today it has become evident that it is the companies who are benefitting, while the peasants, the workers and nature are losing.

Some aspects of this old controversy were still resonating in references to the letter of Dileep Mandal in The Print (28th August 2021), which were made by some of the speakers in the memorial meeting. It was a way of owning her deeply lived connection with Dalit Bahujan. It is now very clear that Dalit and Adivasi organisation and leadership is essential in struggles for land rights and water sharing. Gail was raising this issue, while quoting a poem of Adivasi leader Waharu, who worked in Shahada, in the plains of the Tapi river. This did not directly relate to the NBA. The Narmada struggle was right in its exposure of the harmfulness of big dams, which was documented on a world scale by the International Commission on Dams. Joy K.J. of SOPECOM in Pune, who together with Luisa Cortez recently published a book on Water Conflicts with Routledge, today has a clear position that he is against big dams, because they are not needed and would only be harmful. He stayed in Kasegaon with Bharat and Gail throughout the last days of Gail’s life.

The position of the NBA in 1999 was clearly supported by Ashish Kothari of Kalpavriksh and also the late L.C .Jain, who together with Devaki Jain was a strong supporter of the Rally for the Valley and several others. These were mostly Gandhian positions, while Marxists and Ambedkarites were leaning towards more technocratic solutions of “development”. People who worked with fishing communities like the NFF, had raaised ecological questions already during the Coastal March “Protect Water, Protect Life” in 1989. There was a letter by Nalini Nayak, working with fisherwomen in Kerala, to Gail, during the conflict with the NBA over the Rally for the Valley, very gently reminding her of the hardships in building movements and struggles and the precariousness of sustaining them.

Now, under the impact of global warming and the paralysing effects of the pandemic, the radical need for rethinking on water and on agriculture, has become evident, much beyond the entrenched eco-farming community. Trying to walk forward despite the pandemic , we are able to reaffirm our faith in people’s resilience and the need for social justice and sharing of land and water, in the spirit of Phule, Ambedkar, Marx and Gandhi, feminism and nature’s resilience.

Gail has been fortunate to find a space in Southern Maharashtra to integrate, involve, write and interact. Her enormous contribution to the understanding of social movements, especially of Dalits, Bahujan, and women and the transmission of the heritage of Phule Ambedkar, is unsurpassed. She was a rare kind of person with whom one could agree to disagree on several important points and still be in solidarity with many others and be good friends, without harbouring grudges. One also could have a good laugh together.

Her last book, Seeking Begumpura, first published in 2008 and dedicated to her life partner Bharat Patankar, has been reprinted several times and leaves us with the visions and the challenges of Kabir, Ramdas and other bhakti poets, as well as Phule, Ramabai Iyothee Thas, Periyar and Ambedkar.It transcends the modern versions of industrial socialism. It envisages an enlightened city of free citizens, an enlightened society without exploitation and caste.

Gabriele Dietrich, September 22, 2021

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