Wanting Utopia: Gail Omvedt’s Journey

I

When she first came to India in 1963 to stay for a year, Gail Omvedt was 22 years old. Earlier, she had been a student at Carleton College, where that other great scholar of anti-caste movements, Eleanor Zelliot was teaching. Her journey east presaged other such crossings, notably by seekers of various kinds, including musicians and music-lovers. For her part, she returned to university and enrolled for graduate study at the University of California at Berkeley, and did not come back to India until 1971 to begin work on her dissertation on the Non-Brahman Movement in that part of the country. This would go on to become a pioneering study in English, of Mahatma Phule and his movement: Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non-Brahman Movement in Western India, 1873-1930.

Gail Omvedt : Source

But Gail did not only work at her research. The tumultuous politics of the times engrossed her attention and soon she found herself attending meetings held by trade unions, new left formations and anti-caste groups in Maharashtra. Having come of political age in the USA of the 1960s, she turned her attention to the most important contradictions that marked the social order in India: of caste and gender. And as she grappled with these divisions she realised that existing frameworks of analysis, Marxist or feminist, as she had known them, were not adequate – to unravel the conundrum of inequality exemplified in the caste order; or indeed to the bewildering and complex operations of patriarchy in the Indian context. In a note that she wrote to the Canadian feminist zine, Off Our Backs in 1985, she observed that the inadequacy of left theorizing was being increasingly felt in India, and not only in feminist circles, but also amongst those engaged in people’s science and health movements, in environmental circles and those fighting religious chauvinism and casteism. As to what feminism could offer, she conceded, was not clear either, but it was a terrain worth exploring.

And explore she did, spending time with women’s groups and movements, thinking along with others, fellow feminists, trade unionists, women labourers, domestic workers, students… and this exploration is writ large in her 1979-80 publication, We shall Smash this PrisonIndian Women in Struggle. Meanwhile she raised a plethora of questions, impelled by the feminist politics that came to be, from the late 1970s, and was focused on women’s sexual subordination, in the family and elsewhere. Women were sexually exploited and cultural oppressed, but not always in the same way. Lower caste, dalit and working class women were subject to what she termed ‘social patriarchy’, while women from the upper castes were subject to the punitive ethics of the family (see her remarkable Violence against Women: New Movements and New Theories in India, published in 1990). She looked to the writings of the historian Sharad Patil to understand the making of a social structure that was shaped by caste hierarchies on the one hand, and conjugal and familial arrangements, on the other. It was not that she agreed with him entirely, but his Dasa-Shudra Slavery opened up ways of thinking about family and caste, and as important to her, suggested how one might rework Engels’ theory of the origin of family, private property and the state.

Meanwhile, she remained a purveyor of anti-caste politics in the present, even as she wrote of its pasts, of Phule and Shahu Maharaj, and subsequently of Ambedkar: and called attention to the various ways in which it had come to permeate popular struggles, whether of the BSP, or the Bahujan Mahasangh, or of peasant organising. This latter came to absorb her attention in the late 1980s and thereafter, when, along with her husband, Bharat Patankar, she was drawn to peasant protests. Sharad Joshi’s Shetkari Sanghatna appeared to her an interesting experiment in viable agrarian populism, and she was particularly admiring of how it mobilized women to its ranks, and the manner in which the organization addressed women’s claims on land and their assertion of equality and dignity, within the home and the community.

Sharad Joshi

She was watchful too of environmental struggles, but while she was taken with their logic, could not always abide by their reasoning. In the 1980s, along with many others, including her mother-in-law, Indutai Patankar, she co-founded the Shramik Mukti Dal, a toilers’ movement, which sought to address issues to do with drought, water use and the shrinking of the commons, on account of various development projects, including dams and power projects. The practical work undertaken under the aegis of the movement, and the example set by other such efforts, supported by non-conventional left groups, such as the Lal Nishan Party, led her to theorise issues to do with development, science and progress in two ways: in the circumstances given to the populace, and how they might work with these, without conceding the justness of their demands; and also with regard to the greater common good that looked to the interests of small producers, the working poor and women, especially the most marginal amongst the latter, single, deserted and widowed individuals.

Gail Omvedt with her partner Dr. Bharat Patankar

Through the 1980s and even after, she kept up with writings on peasant struggles, concerns and resistance: the pages of the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), and the Journal of Peasant Studies bear witness to her incessant commitment to justice for agrarian India. And here, she had to confront, parley with and fight back arguments that challenged her own: from Marxist theorists, fellow sociologists and other equally keen watchers of the Indian agrarian scene, such as the late K. Balagopal.

The 1990s saw Gail look to a different sort of scholarship: while she continued to be interested in people’s movements, the lives of women and matters to do with the environment, the stubborn casteism of India’s elites, on full display during the Mandal-Masjid years, led her to focus on all matters that she had hitherto been concerned with, from the point of view of social justice. Whether economic growth and distributive justice, democracy and freedom, sexual equality and emancipation from patriarchy: these were to be realised in and through measures that brought material relief, social uplift and cultural freedom to the bahujan-Dalits of India. Her scholarship too came to be focused on these matters: Dalit Visionsthe Anti-caste movement and Indian Cultural Identity, Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr. Ambedkar and The Dalit Movement in Colonial India and AmbedkarTowards an Enlightened India were all products of these years.

An interesting transitional volume in this regard was Reinventing Revolution: New Social Movements, which signaled perhaps for the last time, her desire to retain dialogic engagement with the left and various people’s movements.  But given that such dialogues as she envisaged, especially with the left and with feminists, did not quite unfold in the manner she imagined they would, she crossed this threshold to move on to another way of political being and writing.

This period also saw her writing in the popular press – the lively column she wrote for The Hindu in the late 1990s featured many valuable and at times contentious observations about faith, caste, social habit, belief, Hindu philosophy… Meanwhile, she honed this manner of writing, creating, as she remarked, a hybrid genre that combined ‘expert scholarship’ and ‘activist journalism’ and which found its fulsome expression in two volumes, both published in the new millennium: Buddhism: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste and the fervently written, Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals. She also created a blog by the same name and kept it active until a few years ago. Subsequently she wrote a pedagogic book, on caste through history, and her last work appears to have been translations of Tukarama.

II

Gail wrote and thought in context: her writing was situated and addressed particular realities. But she ensured that the present, whatever moment it was that she was addressing, was not folded into itself. She placed it in time’s unfolding, looking beyond and after: a fine instance of this manner of expounding the moment is to be had in an essay that examines the reasons for the BSP wanting to name the University of Kolhapur after Shahu Maharaj. But rather than only focus on the politics of the hour, she uses the occasion to dwell on Shahu and his historical role (EPW, August 13, 1994). Or consider her early essay on Maratha assertion in the 1980s: she takes us through the making of Maratha identity, and pulls in developments from the 19th century into her story, differentiates between identity markers in the past and present, points to the way such assertion looked to align with or keep away Dalits… and through his remarkable sociological and historical journey she folds the present into an ongoing dialectic of caste and secularity (EPW, February 6, 1082).

Her studies of Phule and his times, the Non-brahmans in Bombay union politics, the relationship between communists, nationalists and the Non Brahman movement are very valuable for what they tell us about the emergence of a distinctive third sort of politics in late colonial India. As much as nationalism and communism, anti-caste assertion was a response to the times, and its adherents straddled several political traditions, seeking to align them along the plane of a common justice. Gail might be said to have rendered Anti-casteism a formidable political and cultural tradition of dissent, and one that had its own vision for the India to be. That meant that it could not be viewed only in terms of its relationship to colonialism: rather it had to be understood as offering a substantive critique of the internal logic of Indian society, and by that token, pushing at the boundaries of words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’. These words, Gail’s work makes clear, have to be understood in more expansive ways. Political liberty did not translate automatically into social emancipation: this latter had to be fought for, and won on the terrain of the nation-to-be. Likewise, equality could not be construed only in terms of what was being denied to subject peoples: it was to be realised by the subject peoples in their relationship to each other as well.

Perhaps Gail’s most contentious writings have to do with the land, caste, class and gender questions: and while her gender politics is less contested, her arguments on India’s agrarian worlds have elicited sharp commentary and critique, chiefly from the left. However, in order to understand her theorizing of peasant worlds, as also her Marxism, as these were expressed in the 1980s, we need to also locate her in context: she examined Indian arguments within the broader context of an evolving Asian socialism. 

The contours of this latter had been sketched in briefly in independent left circles in the US in the 1960s, and amongst the many who argued for various sorts of socialisms was the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars (CCAS). This comprised a group of academics who came together to set themselves against US policy in Asia that was clearly anti-communist and which viewed Asian Studies as a discipline that ought to aid its cold war objectives. These men and women eventually came to found in the late 1960s, the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (BCAS). Gail wrote for the Bulletin from the early 1970s, and well into the 1990s, and her views on communism were shaped by the comparative histories of the present that its pages presented. 

Developments in China, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines pointed to the need to revalue socialist arguments that had emerged in European and Russian contexts, and Gail saw her own work as doing this for India. She made it clear that the view from the field cannot be adduced from theoretical claims or indeed from tidy socialist concepts. And it was precisely on this score that she entered into lively debates with the Indian left: that the actual details of the geography that they were concerned with ought to be heeded before any large theoretical claim could be made, about class attitudes or about exploitation (See her review essay, ‘Marxism and the Analysis of South Asia’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 4:4, 1974). 

This was evident not only in her essays on Maharashtra’s agrarian worlds, but also in other terrains where left intellectuals held on to broad conceptual arguments, without quite heeding the specificity of developments on the ground. Gail took critical measure of such an oversight, when she took on Amalendu Guha’s views on the Assam agitation (EPW, March 28, 1981). And by the same token, she sought to underscore the limits of left reasoning in the Sri Lankan context, in a short but densely argued essay on the Tamil problem. The right to self-determination, she noted, cannot be reduced to class politics merely, but had to be adduced in its relation to the totality that it sought to criticize and hold accountable (EPW, October 23, 1982). 

Her writings on peasant movements have been criticized and lauded: and in view of the current farmers’ agitations, her exchanges with Balagopal in EPW acquire significance: Balagopal did not take kindly to her view of the peasant movement as capable of speaking for, and representing all those who made up the agrarian community. Agricultural labourers, he held, could not be spoken for thus. And neither did he think that the caste divisions with agrarian society could be subsumed easily with the putative notion of a ‘Bharat’ that was yet different from ‘India’. He did not also imagine that the peasantry might be viewed as such, and pointed to how it was stratified along class and caste lines (EPW, September 10, 1988). Gail’s reasoning drew on arguments which, partially, at least, have been made in the context of other peasant struggles, particularly by Swami Sahajanand and others in the 1940s. 

But she also sought to make a case for the peasant producer in himself, as deserving agency and right to mediate his world without interference from a domineering and elitist state, and enter into a social market on his own terms. And this proved a difficult argument to sustain, given the nature of the market – as Jairus Banaji (Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 17: 2, 1990) and Paresh Chattopadhyay (BCAS, Vol 27, 1995) pointed out.  Yet the questions she raised, of the elitist state, its casteist biases, and the parasitic plundering of agrarian resources, have remained with us. In addition, her clear eyed sense of what land means to women, and the value of their labour are matters that have not been sufficiently addressed by the left (See BCAS, 29:4, pp. 33-44).

Also, it must be said that her view of the peasant universe was nuanced: her reviews of the published literature on agrarian issues in Tamil Nadu and Bihar are testimony to how closely she followed developments in these regions. In this context, we need to acknowledge how her work features aspects of feminist political economic thought, and here she shared common ground with others of her time, particularly Maria Mies, and Bina Agarwal. Feminist political economy in the Indian context needs to be valued for its unique insights, and this is something that we have been made aware of, this last decade, in and through Ranjana Padhi’s work on the widowed farmers of the Punjab, Those Who did not Die and Dolly Kikon’s Living with Oil

III

Gail Omvedt’s journey in politics and thought was undertaken in and through several historical conjunctures, but she retained aspects of all her stopovers: in her view, these various sites of sojourn, whether feminist, Marxist, Phule-Ambedkarism, were united in their vision of utopia: a world that ought to be rendered real, in times to come, but for which one needs to labour in the present. While reason and analysis were central to divining the nature of this world-to-be, it yet had to be desired, longed for, and in this passionate wanting, lay the potential for political comradeship. And this is where the struggle against caste and patriarchy came together: for it was in the remaking of caste and gendered selves that the promise of utopia stood to be redeemed.

Raiot

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V Geetha Written by:

V Geetha is a Chennai-based feminist historian, writer and translator. She writes in Tamil.and English on gender, caste, labour and education.

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