Dr Gail Omvedt, a scholar extraordinaire passed away last evening (24 August) in her village, Kasegaon, Maharashtra. She was one of the greatest scholars on caste studies and an embodiment of unshakable resolve for the realisation of vision of Phule and Ambedkar. Here is a tribute to this American born Indian scholar, sociologist.
In the social movement and revolution, the example of people sacrificing everything is rare and those who sacrifice everything for the community in which they are not born are the rarest. Gail Omvedt was not only the rarest one, but very special human being. Just a couple of days back when I was in Pune, Advocate Priyadarshi Vaishali suggested that we should go to Kasegaon to meet Gail Madam. We used to call her madam in a sense of a teacher and teacher indeed she was for many in the Dalit/OBCs/Adivasi movement. We just could not address her as Gail as she wanted us to. How can we? She was a teacher par excellence.
Born in the United States with a passion for social change initially inspired by Marx, her life completely changed after she pursued her research work on Jotiba Phule. What a vision of “Democratic Revolution” she inspired through her research work! She was not satiated in exposing the vision but gave herself totally to that great vision with her life time commitment. She fearlessly talked in Marathi with the rural women. She addressed academia with sharp intellect. She moved mountain of masses with her writings committed to social transformation. There is so much one can write about her intellectual contribution, just the title of the books she wrote will give us the idea of her towering contribution.
But for me, Gail Omvedt will remain in my heart as the motherly compassionate embodiment of the commitment to the cause of Dalits, OBCs, and the most marginalised communities. She was committed to freedom of women and she would sometimes break into spontaneous slogan of the women’s movement of which she was a leading member: तुरुंग फोडा (break the prisons of patriarchy).
I met her in Delhi in 2002 when she was based in ISI and working on a few very important project. I cannot forget my first meeting. She was writing on the computer and when she got bored she would play Solitaire (an online card game) for a few minutes and would again go back to her writing. Some of us are really lucky that she stayed with us in a very tiny house in Vasant Kunj in New Delhi and we are very fortunate to be blessed by her loving presence and learn at her auspicious feet whatever we could.
She brought Kabir in our lives by gifting as Abida’s rendering of Dohas. She used to love listening to Abida’s Kabir. She introduced forgotten Indologists to us like Gustav Oppert. She gave so much in the form of love, knowledge, and awakening. Her eyes shone whenever she uttered the words: Jai Joti; Jai Bhim. She used to sing Tukoba’s Abhang so effortlessly. She never liked to call Tukoba as Tukaram. Along with her and Bharat sir, we used to listen to music, sometimes even watched movies. And some movies like A boy in Stripped Pyjama moved both of them to tears. They were a special couple like Jotiba and Savitrimai.
I often took her on my bike to meet people in New Delhi whenever I could. And this one episode will remain forever with me. Manyavar Kanshi Ram had a brain stroke and he was admitted in Batra Hospital in New Delhi. Gail madam was restless hearing this tragic news and she was emotionally moved and shattered. Her research work was one of the guiding lights for the BSP and BAMCEF. Kanshi Ram used to meet Gail Omvedt whenever he got the opportunity.
She took me to see Kanshi Ram to Batra Hospital. He was bedridden and despite of repeated requests she was not allowed to meet or see Manyavar. She sat near the room for half an hour and we left without seeing ailing Manyavar.
Gail Omvedt was such a kind personality. She loved and cherished people. She was prompt in introducing people and connect the dots. While she was working on Korean Translation of her Ambedkar biography, she introduced me to Korean publisher for Babasahab’s photographs and thus opened a window to link up with South Korean Human Rights groups.
Her quest in life was Raidas’s Begumpura, Buddha’s Sukhavati, Tukoba’s Vaikunth, Jotiba’s Satyashodhak Samaj and Balirajya, and Babasaheb’s Prabuddha Bharat.
She contributed to this vision by utmost dedication and supreme sacrifice. If anyone deserved to be a Bharat Ratna, that was Gail Omvedt. In reality, she was more than any recognition which she never cared for. She was happy writing her books in a remote village of Maharashtra in a tin shade sometimes without fan in the scorching heat. That was Gail, the sublime life, well lived life, and enlightened life dedicated to others without asking anything in return and without making any complaints.