Gail Omvedt’s anti-caste vision

Her work clearly outlines the vision of a casteless, classless, and democratic just society

Written by Sangharsh Telang

Gail Omvedt’s anticaste writings have a unique influence on the Dalit-Bahujan movement in Post-Independent India. Her intellectual activism was organised around a critique of inequality and the struggle for social justice in India. We know that Omvedt was influenced by Buddha, Kabir, Phule, and Ambedkar. Her work clearly outlines the vision of a casteless, classless, and democratic just society, and reflects the important ways in which the non-brahmin movement and the “dissenting religious imagination” produce the anti-caste intellectual thought in India. Indeed, Omvedt’s literature reminds us of the radical bhakti movements in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries as a society of “equalitarianism” and the rejection of the traditional brahminic hegemony.

In 2012, when I was in the first year of my Bachelor’s degree, back in Nagpur I came across her writings. I read her first seminal book The Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non-Brahman Movement in Western India. It took me one whole day to finished her book. After finishing it, my interest in Omvedt’s work increases in great detail. The second book which caught my attention was We Will Smash This Prison: Indian Women in Struggle. Her scholarly writings shown the concrete problem of organising autonomous women’s movement in India. For her, women’s liberation from daily caste experience and patriarchy was important for social emancipation.

Omvedt’s commitment to democracy as well as her superb writings provide a rich account of the socio-cultural meaning of the Dalit movement. In many ways, her contribution to Dalit literature emerged as a strong voice of the oppressed caste in the state of Maharashtra and later in other states. Interestingly, Omvedt suggested that Dalit protest was a key factor in shaping the discourse of rights and constitutional safeguard. It is worth noting that her intellectual activism focused on the agency of the Dalits and challenged the limits of the politics of the left and Hindutva impulses to rediscover India.

My friend had gifted me Omvedt’s book Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectual. The book acquires significance because it traces the cultural movement of depressed classes and their social experiences. She offers a critical understanding of Indian history. In contrast to Gandhi’s village utopia of Ram Rajya, she emphasises the relevance of Dalit-Bahujan anti-caste intellectuals in the era of globalisation.

Omvedt grasped the importance of morality as a movement from a Phule-Ambedkarite perspective. She charted the utopian vision and underlined the new social and political project against communalism. She deeply engaged with the unequal and culturally diverse society through her numerous writings and activism. While rejecting orientalist, nationalist, and Hindutva imaginations of India, she undoubtedly gave a distinct development turn to it by avowing egalitarianism, Buddhism to reconstruct the world.

Although I did not Omvedt personally, but her rare blend of work brings together the Dalit-Bahujan history, politics, culture, a religious movement, and of lives that had been buried under long Brahmanic tradition in India. Being a social thinker, she provided deep insights into the grassroots level of Dalit leadership like Dadasaheb Sambhaji Tukaram Gaikwad who played a revolutionary role in organising the Mahad Satyagraha in 1927. Omvedt’s scholarship is valuable for researchers, activists, farmers and all those who are engaged in progressive social movements in India.

Besides being active in the social and cultural movement, Omvedt was significantly involved in the social transformation of Dalit women. She presents a social world where caste humiliation and class exploitation and gendered violence exist as a fact of the everyday life of the marginalised section. In fact, Omvedt’s valuable work asks for forging democratic solidarity among all the marginalised sections to reinvent India. In today’s higher learning education, Dalits-Bahujan students actively face caste discrimination, and anti-caste literatures have been withdrawn from the university syllabus. This needs to be challenged.

The writer is a PhD Scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

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