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A chat with Gail Omvedt

Gail Omvedt and Bharat Patankar are among the foremost scholars of India’s social revolution. While Omvedt has focused on India’s social structure, Patankar has combined his scholarly pursuit with activism on the ground. This couple has devoted their lives to the betterment of India’s Bahujans. An FP team met them at their home in Kasegaon, Maharashtra, during their India tour

Maharashtra has been home to many a Bahujan movement. On our India tour itinerary, Kasegaon followed Phulewada, in Pune, the “karmabhoomi” (workplace) of Mahatma Jotirao Phule, through Satara district. Kasegaon was about 200 km away from Pune. Jotirao Phule had a close link with Satara. His ancestors lived in Kaatgun village, Khatav taluk, in Satara, before settling down in Phulewada. In a small village, Kasegaon, in the neighbouring Sangli district lives Gail Omvedt, a well-known personality in Indian academia, along with her husband Bharat Patankar, who has led many people’s movements. We had met Omvedt earlier too and had heard her speak at many meetings and seminars in Delhi. However, we wanted to see ourselves what we had only heard – her humble life in an Indian village.

Pramod Ranjan (left) and Anil Varghese talk to Gail Omvedt

American-born Omvedt is one of the few scholars and philosophers who have worked extensively on the structure of Indian society. Bringing to light the pioneering work of Jotirao Phule and his wife Savitribai Phule is by far her most important contribution. Besides putting out volumes of the findings of her sociological research, she has also been involved in the movements of Dalits, farmers and women. Her book Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non-Brahman Movement in Western India is considered a milestone. This book chronicles the cultural struggle and sociopolitical changes from the time of Phule to the time of Ambedkar.

Kasegaon falls on the highway. It is a run-of-the-mill village – neither very prosperous nor very poor. At the entrance to the village stood some men. We asked them about Gail Omvedt’s house. Most of them did not seem to know her. One of them, however, said that we probably wanted to go to the house of Bharat Patankar. When we said yes, he told us that most of the villagers did not know Gail by her name. The brick-paved lane of the village was wide enough for our car to pass through. We did not have to get down from our car. A little ahead, to our left, was a narrow lane that the man we met earlier had indicated. Fearing that our vehicle might get stuck if we took it all the way, we parked it by the side of main lane, got down and asked a passer-by about Bharat Patankar’s house. “There, that green one,” he said, pointing to a structure that looked like a greenhouse. The front of the house was covered with green netting.

Since we had already talked to Patankar over the phone, we entered the house through a narrow gate. A well-built man asked us who we were. When we had introduced ourselves, he slipped into the house and reappeared shortly after. He signalled us to come inside. The living room had a low, wooden couch, which was probably used for sleeping as well as sitting cross-legged. There were two plastic chairs beside it and two across from it. The ceiling was low. This is common in old houses. Calendars and pictures hung on the walls and behind the couch stood some medals and shields.

Bharat walked into the living room. He was about 5 feet and eight inches tall and had a longish, handsome face. He sported a grey beard and a winsome smile. We asked him about the green netting and he said it was for the policeman who sat there for his security.

Patankar told us that the man we had met at the entrance to the house was the policeman. The local administration had provided him security because he had received threats following an agitation that he had led. But then they had so little space. Where would they put up the policeman? So, the tiny porch with the tin roof was turned into a room by wrapping a net around it and keeping it mosquito-free. Patankar told us that there were too many mosquitoes around.

Bharat Patankar took us through his adventures before Omvedt could get herself to sit down with us for a chat. We knew that Gail’s health was failing her and that her hearing was fading. Sociologist Braj Ranjan Mani, who is close to Gail, had warned us that interviewing her would be difficult. She was glad to meet us but was clearly disinclined to giving an interview. She was weak and walked very slowly. We presented copies of the English editions of the three books published by Forward Press – The Case for Bahujan Literature, The Common Man Speaks Out and Mahishasur: A People’s Hero. The book on Mahishasur carried a small piece taken from her blog.

The front of Bharat Patankar and Gail Omvedt’s house wrapped in green netting

Gail gave very short answers to our questions – a sentence or two or just a yes or no. When we asked her what changes she had witnessed in India after her arrival here, she said that society had become commercialized and life had become faster. She said caste was still a big factor. When asked about if anything had changed with regard to caste, she said there has been no qualitative change.

How has the Indian academia fared in terms of documenting grass-roots movements and supporting them? “Academicians should take things more seriously than they do,” she said. “Right now, it’s just a game to them … They are not effective because they aren’t try to do anything.” Is this the case only in India? “Mainly in India but elsewhere too.” How can the Indian academicians improve? “They just need to pay attention to the life around them.” She said she couldn’t think of a single Indian academician who she really looked up to.

When we broached the condition of the Dalitbahujan movement, she said that the movement is ongoing but that it had weakened considerably – in the sense that it is no longer effective in promoting much change although the Dalits and the other backward classes are more united today than before. She recalls the early phase of the Dalitbahujan movement, that is about a decade ago, as the best phase. Mahatma Phule’s contribution to social movement was monumental but, according to Omvedt, his efforts did not assume the shape of a movement, at least not in his time.

Bharat Patankar inside his house

She said “not much is satisfying” when she looks back at her work since she first set foot in India. Although that comment left us stunned, we calmed ourselves down, taking that to be the mark of a true scholar – the restlessness and the constant striving for something better. In any case, by this point, it appeared that she couldn’t take any more questions. We still asked her one question, though. What was it that she found most difficult about living in India?

It wasn’t living in an Indian village, with bare necessities, in a dilapidated house, which we later got a chance to explore. She said what she found most difficult was to “adapt to the lack of change”.

(These are excerpts from the Forward Press team’s India tour travelogue. Forward Press Consulting Editor Pramod Ranjan, sociologist Anil Kumar and Forward Press Editor (English) Anil Varghese were part of the team that went on the tour from Delhi to Kanyakumari between 5 January and 15 February 2017. The team covered nine states and one union territory (Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Daman, Maharashtra, Goa, Tamil Nadu and Kerala), traversing a total distance about 12000 km. They met Gail Omvedt and Bharat Patankar in their village Kasegaon on 26 January 2017).  

Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) society, culture, literature and politics. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +919968527911, Email: info@forwardmagazine.in)

The titles from Forward Press Books are also available on Kindle and these e-books cost less than their print versions. Browse and buy:

The Case for Bahujan Literature


The Common Man Speaks Out
Mahishasur: A people’s hero

About The Author

FP on the Road

Under the 'FP on the Road' initiative, the Forward Press editorial team travels to different parts of India and tries to unearth the little-known facets of Bahujan society. Find all our travelogues by clicking 'FP on the Road'

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