Gail Omvedt, who died at the age of 81 on 25 August, was an extraordinary figure in the field of Ambedkarite scholarship. An American-born sociologist, she first came to India in the 1960s on a Fulbright Scholarship. On a later visit, she met her husband, the activist Bharat Patankar, with whom she settled in a small town in Maharashtra called Kasegaon.
Somnath Waghmare, a documentary filmmaker, film researcher and PhD scholar at TISS Mumbai, had been documenting Omvedt’s life for several years. Lounge spoke to him about the significance of her life and work, his interactions with her and her family, and the future of her legacy. Edited excerpts:
When did you first meet Gail Omvedt? How was her work introduced to you?
I grew up near Islampur in Sangli district of Maharashtra, which was quite close to the village where Gail and Bharat lived. So, I knew about their activism from a young age. We always heard about her as a scholar and activist, who had come from the US and settled here and done exemplary work. I completed my graduation in Islampur but at that time there wasn’t so much focus on her writing. I knew her because of being near her home, though she was traveling a lot for the movement. One cannot fully understand the issues of caste struggles without reading her, so later on, I started reading her writings.
How has her work influenced you? Why did you decide to document her work?
After I did media studies, I worked with community radio and as an apprentice for Amnesty International in Bengaluru. I was already involved in the stories of Bahujan communities (in Maharashtra). I have always thought about how they have been ignored in the cinematic space. There is no digitization of works of any scholar or activist who has been deeply connected to the movement. Not even Babasaheb Ambedkar. You don’t get any document in digital form. Other than Eleanor Zelliot’s works, who also had come from the US to India, no other writer or activist’s work has been digitised, be it Namdeo Dhasal or Kanshi Ram. Not even contemporary writers.
I thought of documenting the lives and works of these people. I was already aware of the work of Gail and Bharat. I have some very interesting footage of about 2-3 years (of their lives). She might be the only one whose work might have been documented properly by now. Death is natural, but one lives on through one's work. So, it is important to preserve it and digitise it as well.
Tell us about your memories of interacting with Gail and her family.
I had to read a lot before I began documenting (their lives). These are really senior people, very busy, and engaged in the movement. Gail and Bharat are both friendly and simple. They treat everyone equally. I was always in awe of her tremendous dedication. I remember watching her, even before I started to make the film, she would always be reading wherever she was. As a student, I always found it fascinating to always see her immersed in books.
I had traveled with them earlier, maybe 7 to 8 years ago, for a demonstration or a conference, but largely I spent time with Gail in her last years. I could actually witness how a person can work so much in her life and yet remain so simple and live in a small house in a village. Her work is huge and yet her simplicity, political honesty and, most importantly, dedication to the Ambedkarite movement, always came through. I was fortunate to experience this closely.
Even her family is deeply connected and dedicated to the movement. Her funeral was conducted with Buddha Vandana and her daughter Prachi, who lit the pyre, said ‘Jai Bhim’ in the end. It is exceptional to see this kind of solidarity and dedication for an ideology.
Could you tell us about the significance of her work for the Ambedkarite movement?
Why is Gail respected so much by the Ambedkarite movement? Because of her political morality and honesty in her writing, as well as her actions. She had a tremendous and deep engagement with the movement. Her work, especially post-Ambedkar, is very interesting and she continued to engage with the movement throughout. No savarna academician could gain that kind of trust from the community and the movement, the way Gail did. It was only because of her political honesty. Rarely will you find a non-Dalit person in leadership role in the Ambedkarite movement. Why is that? Contradictions in Indian society have also played a role in this phenomenon, while American and European scholars have committed themselves. There is no denying that caste still exists in India.
It is important to remember that Gail was equally accepted by various Ambedkarite political parties, even if they had differences among themselves, from the Bahujan Samaj Party to the All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF). Also, her work was recognized by socialist, progressive groups. Her book, Building Ambedkarite Movement, has a foreword by Prakash Ambedkar and she shared dais with Kanshi Ram as well.
You have spoken of her work not being recognized by governments.
Gail was loved, respected and accepted by the Bahujan community. She is a respected academic as well, but why didn’t the government or the media recognize her work? We need to ask this. She has written about (Jyotiba) Phule and Ambedkar and it is not convenient to bring all of them into public domain. The media had to recognise her after her death.
I don’t think that the years under the Congress rule was exceptionally good or anything. Gail and Bharat’s work has not been recognized with any national award—neither by the Congress nor the Bharatiya Janata Party government. Not even a Maharashtra Bhushan, which has been given to so many people. I don’t think there is much difference between the two. Had she worked on Gandhi or Nehru, her work would have been recognized, but she worked on Ambedkar and worked tirelessly against caste supremacy. It is inconvenient to give it the importance it deserves because then one has to discuss everything.
How would you like her work to be taken forward?
I don’t know if the Central government would, but the state government should make her work available for those who want to study, research. Perhaps start a research institution or a department in Pune university or TISS in her name, where anyone who is working on caste can come, read, research and understand (Gail's work).
It is very expensive to document these works and even I couldn’t work on her project full-time. We don’t have the resources to do it. I remember Forward Press had done a short video story on her. I might be the first one to record her in such detail. It is important to read her work, books, PhD thesis, her work on Ambedkar, and so much more.
However, it is important to record the others in the movement as well, for future generations. The discourse in the mainstream will change only when more people from the Bahujan community are part of it—making cinema, writing in mainstream media, practicing journalism. Very few academicians have the kind of simplicity and honesty that Gail, Bharat and their daughter Prachi have. Especially those who are privileged, sometimes they live a double life. You have to practice what you preach. Not many can do that and Gail always lived by it.